Another Dark Knight

Batman was dreamed up in the late 1930s as an ambiguous character that fought crime and protected innocent civilians. The backstory emerged that he had witnessed his parents being shot down as a child, and eventually adopted the identity of a bat to frighten the perps. Batman never, in principle, used guns. Of course, the DC Comics character eventually scored a wonderfully campy television series that entertained many of us as children. It even spawned a movie. Then, fifty years after the original, Tim Burton gave us a darker, more serious Batman. The series of promising movies degenerated into the unforgivable Batman and Robin, and many assumed the flash in the pan was over. We didn’t need any super heroes. Christopher Nolan resurrected this bat in Batman Begins, and when I first saw The Dark Knight I was stunned. Good and evil danced a waltz so delicate that you were never sure who was leading. The frisson was palpable.

Thursday night the Nolan series’ final episode was released. I’ve not seen it yet, but from the moment I step out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Times Square until I arrive at work, I will have seen several multi-story Batmen looking down on the real life Gotham, explosions erupting and everyone wondering if Batman will survive this film. Yesterday morning the news opened with a horrifying story from real life in Aurora, Colorado. A gunman opened fire on a crowd of opening night movie viewers, killing at least twelve. Several children were shot. The gunman, like a real-life character from Arkham, was apprehended and claimed to have explosives in his house. I stared at the story and wondered what has become of humanity.

Facebook has turned into a venue for flying political banners. I’m always surprised to see how conservative people I knew in school have become—in those days no one had me beat for non-progressive thought. I’m truly amazed, at times, by the glorification of America’s gun culture that accompanies conservative causes. People want to shoot and want to glorify their right to shoot. I have, on rare occasions, shot rifles for sport—only at targets and only when others have asked me to. There is no denying the rush of power one feels, knowing that, like God, you can destroy the thing far distant from you with just a squeeze of the finger. I’m not sure I’m happy in a universe populated by such gods. I grew up a conservative, but also a pacifist. I grew up watching Batman defeat evil so clearly defined that no room remained for ambiguity. Yes, I grew up a conservative, but then I just grew up. I will watch The Dark Knight Rises and will not know what to expect.

Neither good nor bad.

Watchmen Tell Us

When the local Blockbuster went belly-up a few months back, I was one of the vultures picking the bones. With new DVDs continually creeping up in cost, I look for bargains wherever they might exist. Occasionally I find something for just a couple of dollars that really makes me think. Although I don’t go to theaters often, a couple of years back the previews all featured The Watchmen. I’m not a graphic novel reader either, so it was doubly doubtful that I would ever gravitate to this film. But here it was on sale. Very cheap. The previews had shown Dark Knight-like action and despite my own declarations, I had to admit that I was curious. So I’ve watched it a couple of times and have been intrigued by what an (absentee) role God plays in the movie.

I won’t go into much detail since the story is complex and, to my surprise, sophisticated. Nevertheless, the Watchmen – retired crime-fighters both good and bad – forced out of practice by the government, fear the approach of nuclear war and try to fight back. At several junctures characters declare that there is no God or that they believe there is no God. The setting is an alternate reality in the 1980s, but the crossover between that world and this is evident. Godless heroes may save the day, but with a tremendous human sacrifice required. At first viewing, I was stunned. The message was so bleak and hopeful. The movie could have been made with no mention of God, yet, briefly, his absence was underscored. Strangely, the Bible features in a bedroom scene where a future hero is spending the night with his girlfriend. Why the Bible? Why here?

I would be the first to admit that I do not have the proper background to comprehend the plot. Generally I like to read the book before I see the movie. One of the recurring motifs in the movie version is the doomsday clock that moves dangerously close to atomic war. On top of the Bible is the hero’s watch, ticking inexorably down to midnight. Even I can figure out that the countdown to doomsday is based on the Bible. What the import of this is, however, I can only guess. What kind of world has no God but still has Bibles? A world where Watchmen aren’t wanted and yet are sorely needed. Who will save us now?

The Dark Light

Like many Americans, last year I was fascinated by Christopher Nolan’s gripping and gritty Batman film, The Dark Knight. Admittedly, the untimely death of Heath Ledger added to the poignancy of the film, but his unfaltering performance as the Joker was no laughing matter. I was transfixed. Not only was this vision of the character previously immortalized by Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson a sea-change, it was also an epiphany.

In attempting to understand ancient religion, you can’t get far without having to address priests and prophets. Priests appear at the dawn of civilization, the establishment’s religious functionaries. They had (have) a vested interest in the continuation of the reigning power structures. Priests make their living from a population settled enough to tax. Prophets, however, have a far older pedigree. Israel recognized prophets as we all know from the Hebrew Bible, but other ancient religions also had their prophets too. Prophets were religious functionaries from outside the established power structures — they challenged conventions, demanded radical changes, and caused migraines for more than one priest. The prophet seems to have evolved from the shaman.

Not a Joker! An Amazonian shaman

Not a Joker! An Amazonian shaman

The shaman was what anthropologist call a “liminal character,” an outsider. They simply do not play by society’s rules, but they are feared and respected by society. The shaman may see or hear things that are beyond the perception of your average citizen. The shaman may be dangerous. This is what I saw in Heath Ledger’s Joker. A disturbing character who challenges and yet at the same time brings focus and resolution to a fractured society. A wounded healer. He represents a fossil, a shaman in twenty-first century Gotham. The other Jokers, Romero and Nicholson, didn’t quite attain this level of spiritual catharsis. Although I knew Batman was the good-guy, the Joker, laughing when he should have been crying, the agent of chaos, was the most religious character in the movie. He was the Dark Light to Batman’s Dark Knight.