Tag Archives: Christopher Nolan

Batman #44 and Why White Allies Aren’t Heroes

Rick Quinn lives in Nashville, TN where he writes and is part of the core team for The Encounter@Edgehill, a multi-racial movement of authentic community in the city fostering vital conversations, compassionate community, and life-giving action. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School where he earned his Masters in Divinity and pursued graduate studies in theology at Vanderbilt University School of Religion. Rick has served as a director of Christian Education at the local church level, in the non-profit social service realm, and has taught in adjunct and visiting professor roles at Perkins School of Theology at SMU, Trevecca Nazarene University, and Fisk University. He blogs at RickTQuinn and can be found on Twitter @apophatic1

Even before seeing it, I think I have always resonated with the self-affirmation meme “Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.” Batman is my favorite comic book hero. He is the pulpy, ink and pencil incarnation of a dominant American mythology. Bereft of super powers, Batman is nonetheless exceptional. The exemplary solitary individual, he transfigures his trauma into rigorous discipline, an unwavering passion for justice, and honor. Guided by his code, Batman confronts a violent world with measured violence; he will not under any circumstance take a life. He relies on his keen mind, his disciplined physical prowess, and always true moral compass in the service of redeeming Gotham City from the evil that plagues its streets. Never a victim, he is the noble hero who rises phoenix like from the ashes of tragedy to restore order to a disorderly world. Beaten back at times, he is never bowed.

He is America.

He is also white.

And he is enormously wealthy.

What I am proposing is that the Batman mythology coincides neatly with aspects of a certain American mythology. Mythology is the story we tell about ourselves to situate our lives and experiences within the wider world and to provide sense and meaning. It is an interpretive act and a fictive act. In his 75 year history as a pop culture character, Batman has embodied several traits endemic to the story we tell about ourselves. He is a self-made man. His enormous wealth is used only in the service of good. While prone to injury, he is, for all practical purposes, invulnerable. He doles out fierce, brutal punishment (always deserved) but never takes a life. What might look like torture or excessive force is really necessary enhanced interrogation. He is a vigilante but a real threat only to the criminal element. His extrajudicial activities have the tacit approval of the police powers. His interventions and preemptive strikes are seen as necessary excursions around red tape in the service of justice. His wealth affords him technological powers of surveillance, an electronic incarnational symbol of towering gaze from a perch on one of Gotham’s skyscrapers. He embodies our faith in the raw power of the solitary hero (or nation state).

Of course this is a sweeping overview. In recent decades pieces of this general mythology have been d troubled within the Dark Knight’s corpus. Various stories have toyed with the question of whether the appearance of Batman is a deterrent to crime or if his unilateral interventions unintentionally create more extreme villainous responses. Scott Snyder’s recent run as writer for the Batman title has sought to present a more human, conflicted origin myth where we see a hero in process and the process is often messy and gray. Co-written with Brian Azzarello, the most recent issue, while not breaking continuity, is a stand alone story. But packed within this stand alone piece is a powerful primer on the deeply interconnected causal threads of most social situations and a warning that many situations do not need the usual intervention of outside “heroes.”

Titled “A Simple Case,” it is anything but. It begins with the Dark Knight alone, investigating a dead body in the marshes on the outskirts of Gotham. The young victim has been shot multiple times but the puzzling cause of his death is injuries sustained after a catastrophic fall from enormous heights. The unnamed narrator delivers the comforting promise that faith in this powerful hero and his self-assured sense of justice will reward: “He will catch someone for this. He will punish the one who did it, and stop it from happening again.” This is comic book mythology 101. It is the driving narrative of our most precious myths and the common theme of most hero stories. Yet, it is this promissory note that Azzarello’s and Snyder’s story will deconstruct throughout this incredible book for the purpose of encouraging more substantive and sustained action rather than promoting cynicism.

This deconstruction is performed by a narrative mirroring as Batman learns bit by bit the story behind the death of Peter Duggio, the young black male shot multiple times who mysteriously fell from the sky. He is a kid from “The Narrows,” a neighborhood in Gotham blighted by urban decay. Like Bruce Wayne’s, Peter’s actions are spurred by a family crisis and impending loss. He takes the situation into his own hands and seeks to carve a solution through ingenuity, power plays and bargains. His tragic end could be written off as another unfortunate but expected occasion in a neighborhood gone to seed. Or, mirroring the narrative character shading that too often occurs in establishment media to young, black victims of violence, Peter’s story could have been “explained” by his poor choices and associations (he does reach out to the Penguin, after all) even though he is shot unjustifiably by a reactionary police officer. Instead, Snyder and Azzarello use Peter’s story to tell the story of “The Narrows” which is a story of Gotham, its white power structure and the deep interweaving of the narratives of systemic racism, redlining, urban decay and exploitation. It is unfortunately an all too American story.

The graphic medium utilizes its intertextual power to the fullest. Artist Jock along with color artist Lee Loughridge and Letterer Deron Bennett give life to Snyder’s and Azzarello’s complex story and social criticism in a way which only the medium of comics could allow. The color scheme is mostly gray, metaphorically critiquing Batman’s pursuit of the simple answer and solitary culprit to be brought to justice. Primary colors are shaded in certain panels with powerful effect like yellow, red, or blue filtering on black and white film. The narrative dialogue boxes and illustrations are overlaid at certain points by the inclusion of pieces of news clippings from Gotham’s history. These fragments, out of context with words obscured, serve as archaeological fragments that trouble any simple narrative rendering of this story. They are echos of the Penguin’s mocking observation to Batman’s black and white approach, “You..really don’t know anything about this city, do you?”

Through these snippets we piece together a powerful counter narrative of redlining, systemic denial of access to public goods and services, civil rights movements and the fierce response from the powers that be, police brutality combined with lack of training and disconnect between the police force and the neighborhood, and the not so benign effects of the paternalistic “benevolence” of gentrification.

Piece by piece as the story of Peter Duggio is put together, Batman’s mythology is called into question. Like white Americans (myself included) who rush into the battle against racism with a burning sense of justice and, if we are honest, a paternalistic messiah fantasy, we quickly find ourselves implicated in that which we seek to fight. Along with Batman we discover that our crystal clear sense of what counts for justice and ethical behavior is wrapped in privilege. Our judgments of others is blind to the complexities of their condition and our implication in these conditions through passive acquiescence. As the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates observed in a recent television interview, much of the pathology we identify with oppressed communities is a direct result of the “boot upon their neck.” To address the pathology is impossible without removing the boot on the neck. In this comic, Batman/Bruce experiences the painfully necessary discovery of the outline of his foot within that collective boot.

Like any truly honest narrative, there is no neat resolution to the story. There is no single villain whose tracking, pummeling, and capture can serve as the ceremonial scapegoat for our complicity. In a last brilliant ironic gesture, the writers and artists place the title of the comic, “A Simple Case,” on the last panel as an ironic critique of the tendency to ignore complex social situations. Batman though, decides to stay in the midst of The Narrows, but not as the hero. “Because he got it all wrong.” He stays to listen. Even if in that listening he is implicated and his mythology is decentered. In that sense, perhaps he demonstrates that white allies are not nor should not aspire to be heroes. In embodying that very lesson perhaps he is, to paraphrase Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, not the hero white America wants, but the example that it needs.

Man Of Steel #MOS: What I Loved About It (Spoilers Ahead)

(52) Henry Cavill and the Cavillry13

(52) Henry Cavill and the Cavillry13 (Photo credit: HenryCavillandtheCavillry)

LOIS LANE BEGINS

*This is the second part of my 4 part review of Man Of Steel. It’s mostly a discussion of what I enjoyed about this film, in other words, I am going to wax both fanboy and academic!*

For starters, on the comparison of Marvel’s/Disney’s The Avengers and DC Comics/Warner Brothers’ Man Of Steel, in some cases is unfair. Avengers is the culmination of years of hype and build up with five movies preceding before it to make it happen. The first of which was Iron Man, which was impressive, but I would compare Man Of Steel to Thor than anything else, for the building of the mythology (Thor did it better because it was supposed to be fantastic and unbelieveable in story, and I admit, Thor is probably in the top 3 comic movies of all time).

MYTHOS/KRYPTON: The truth about Krypton, Clark Kent’s home planet in this movie was a pleasant surprise. The story takes a magnificent, and interesting twist towards the middle of the film. When we are introduced to Krypton, we get to see flying dragons, alien life-forms, the harsh atmosphere, the advanced technology, as well as the science behind artificial life creation. Like Vahalla in Thor, there is a sense of majesty and awe that should have ideally swept the average movie goer away (and for me it did). Compared to Thor, there is also a darkside to this universe, a planet in danger because Krypton’ government officials have used up the planet’s core as an energy resource to travel all around many galaxies, exploring, sharing its greatness with other planets. Enter Michael Shannon as General Zod (a well executed performance I may add) who shares Jor El (Kal El’s/Clark Kent’s) concerns for Krypton, but his solution is a military coup rather than natural reproduction or the stoppage of digging the core (since its already too late). Jor El escapes Zod’s wrath just in time to launch a shuttle that contains his son. Lara Lor-Van, Kal’s mother/Jor El’s wife, has to make the key decision: she must choose to mourn with her son or mourn without him. She choose the latter. Although she has very little dialogue, because she is given ethical choices, and because we see Krypton’s destruction from her perspective, Lara can be considered a strong character. Lara’s(played by Israeli actor Ayelet Zurer) eerie words haunt us the rest of the movie: “Make a better world than ours, Kal El.”

ETHOS/SMALLVILLE It’s at this point of the review that I take a different direction than most praises from the film. We first meet a more physically mature Clark Kent as he is working on a fishing boat. An accident happens, the coast guard is called in, but Clark rescues the a crew that been caught in a fire on an oil rig. The parallels between corporations digging for oil on Earth and Krypton wasting its core to expand its power can be immediately held into comparison. Our protagonist is a reject, made fun of for being a rookie by his captain, and even had a beer thrown on him by an angry guy in a bar. Clark is relateable in that he is bullied, he is an outcast. The scenes featuring him in Smallville, in middle and high school, being picked on by Pete Ross, and then members of the varsity football team, are to show us that this is a Clark Kent who is struggling in his identity, who will be unsure of himself even though he has principles. Jonathan Kent (played by Kevin Costner) is overprotective of Clark, unaware of Clark’s full range of powers, but Pa Kent knows people will react in fear. Pa Kent’s role in this movie further stress Clark’s status as Other. Pa Kent represents one possible response to people who are different than us. The other, superior response is shown by the grace and openness given to Clark by Ma Kent, Martha, played by Diane Lane. Martha shows up to Clark’s elementary class when Clark is hiding in the janitor’s closet. While Clark’s classmates are calling him a freak and weirdo, Martha’s love and embrace are gives Clark’s the strength he needs to get through the day. Her affirmation of him become the key ingredient in his Superheroism. Superman is not one of the favorites, he is to become a hero from the margins. I prefer this version of Superman, the one made to be a foreigner and outcast.

As an outsider, Kal El blends in with humanity, hiding, traveling from farming land in Kansas to the seas to the icy Artic searching for himself. It is on the Kryptonian spaceship covered with ice that we get to meet Lois Lane who is investigating what appears to be a Russian submarine hidden by the U.S. military. We learn this isn’t the case. Instead, Clark unlocks the spaceship with his key, and flies off with it. He meets and talks to the conciousness of Jor El. It’s both reminiscent of Batman Begins when Bruce finds a mentor in Henri Ducard and in The Dark Knight Rises when Bruce dreams and sees Henri/Ra’s Al Ghul in his dream. Clark learns of his real name (Kal El), and thus his true identity, and he learns that he can fly, that he can rise above his fear of his own Otherness and use his powers to save others.

The ship tipped off General Zod’s crew, and Zod interrupts all broadcasts and cell receptions to inform the people of Earth that they are not alone. This is a significant moment because now the worlds’ citizens are overwhelmed and filled with uncertainty and fear. I could feel this from this point of the movie forward, and I think this is what Snyder wanted show us, just how world-changing the existence of other lifeforms and planets could be. Zod requests that Kal El be surrendered over to him, but on Earth, the only person who knows Clark’s whereabouts and identity besides Martha Kent is the other person who chooses to believe in Kal El, Lois Lane. Lois Lane the Pulitzer prize-winning reporter, like the accountant for Wayne Enterprises in The Dark Knight, finds herself on the run from the law. The FBI and military immediately catch up to her. The moment of decision, in a church building of all places with pictures of white Jesus in the stained glass windows, for Clark Kent reveals he does not trust humanity, but he will surrender himself over to them anyhow. The “S” on his chest, the symbol for the House of El, is a sign of hope, that anyone can choose to be a force for good.

Superman and Lois Lane are both handed over to General Zod and the last of the Kryptonians. They are greeted by Faora, Zod’s second in command, and a believer in the genetic superiority of some bloodlines of Krypton over others. Faora’s imposing presence caused Lois Lane to be scared speechless, helpless. Zod breaches the recesses of Kal El’s mind, and tells him why Kal should join Zod’s crew, working together to create a New Krypton. And I believe it is in this interaction, that we get the truth about Krypton’s Golden Age. Zod informs Kal that Krypton was a great society that would send space ships with world engines to change the environment and atmosphere of differing planets to fit Kryptonians needs. In short, these planents were COLONIES to be settled upon. Krypton died because of its overreaching greed as an intergalactic imperial power. The leadership died, acting out of fear that their empire would crumble it they did not use more and more energy. Zod existed to protect Kryptonian imperial interests as its military leader. As Lois Lane is trying to escape the ship, she meets Kal’s father, Jor El, who teaches her how to defeat Zod and his invaders. Lois escapes in a pod, but is crashing to Earth after a struggle. Kal El gains his strength, happens to run into Jor-El, and asks if what Zod says is true. Notice, Jor El does not deny what Zod said, only that Jor El had hoped Clark would be a “bridge” between humanity and Kryptonians.

One more optimistic than I can read this as Jor El hoping for a friendly Kryptonian settlement on Earth, but really? Who was going to lead this colony? And why should, as Zod pointed out, the Kryptonians wait thirty something odd years for Kryptonians to adjust to Earth’s atmosphere? No, I don’t think this was the case, the critical thinker in me says. Rather, from the beginning, Lara Lor-Van is right, that she and her husband were very much a part of Krypton’s doom as the Council was.

At this point, Clark can’t ask anymore questions, he has to hurry, fly down to Earth to save Lois, as well as do battle with Zod and Faora in Smallville. Contrary to the popular rendition of this movie, Man Of Steel WAS NOT a dude-bro showdown, all about “Superman and His Two Fathers.” Rather, the movie, if you pay close attention, is about Clark’s two mothers, and his best friend Lois Lane affirming him when he could not believe in himself. Furthermore, Superman rejects the approaches preferred by his fathers, Jor El’s empire-building approach, as well as Jonathan Kent’s fearmongering, to make choices instead out of love and justice. Like Lois said, Clark could not help but help others and save them. There is probably one major instance where my argument falls short but I would like to save that for my criticism.

Pathos/Metropolis: In the penultimate battle between Superman and Zod, as the last of the Kryptonians are disrupting and destroying Earth’s own core and atmosphere to suit their needs (hint hint: colonizing), Lois and the military work on their plan to send the invaders back to the Phantom Zone. Zod embodies the truth about Krypton; he is not a maniac, genocidal, yes, but his is the natural logic that flows from the ideas racial superiority and imperial expansion, those ideas held dear by the late, great planet Krypton. The emotions that I as the audience member felt was that of being overwhelmed, with disaster taking place in South Asia and in Metropolis. There was an apocalyptic feeling, as in a destructive judgement brand from an outsider, and at the end, the world as we know it would not be the same. I would like to save the details of this struggle between good and evil for my next posts, but the end results is what I want to discuss in conclusion.

A triumphant Superman appears before General Swanwick, in front of a satellite worth millions of dollars, just totally dismantled. This use of Superman’s strength is humorous. Superman indicates that the military should trust him, that he is American as the Kansas territory he was raised in. This should give the viewer some pause, in light of what was shown to be Kal El’s Kryptonian roots. Like Batman Begins, Superman has rejected living in terror and making decisions based on fear as a way of life (Jonathan Kent, General Zod). This is always going to be an American struggle after September 11th, 2001. Superman has also refuses to identify himself with the powerful, imperial hierarchies (the Council on Krypton, Lara and Jor-El, Faora, and again, Zod). The American way is not with LexCorp or Haliburton; the better American way comes from the underside of its history, in the bodies of the refugees and exiles who bring with them hope and reconciliation.

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Ambiguously Bad Things Happen to Superman: My Take on Both #MOS trailers

Superman: The Animated Series

Superman: The Animated Series (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”

As much as I love DC Comics, there is probably one character I have learned I have a problem with. Superman/Clark Kent. This is coming from a guy (me) growing up, (without any knowledge of what a good movie was) who liked the Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve, whose family watched Superman: The New Adventures of Lois And Clark every Sunday in the 90s, watched the ugly little brother of Batman: The Animated SeriesSuperman: The Animated Series,  had an on-again, off-again, on-again relationship  with the CW’s Smallville, and somehow, I just have lost my taste for him for now. I think the problem lies in the underlying science fiction trope behind the Superman mythology.   In the old days of science fiction, when there was actually good writing and theory behind it 😉 , one myth set forth was the Enlightenment story of human progress, that humanity would progress through the sciences, for example. Ignored in this narrative is the story of struggles and conflict, as well as a critical take on technological advancements.  In short, I think Superman has too cheery of a view of the future, almost utopian in its ideals embodied in the stories of the Legion Of Superheroes.

It seems to me, ever since the greatness of Batman Begins, every comic book hero who has had a movie the past decade gets the “Batman Begins” treatment: The X-Men, Spiderman, and with the failure of Superman Returns and both Fantastic Four movies, the reboots will probably be the same. I could care less about the latter, but Superman’s reboot/Batman Begins treatment is the Man Of Steel, an introduction of sorts into the Justice League movie universe for 2015. I don’t know how I am supposed to take MOS seriously with Zak Snyder, director of SuckerPunch as well as the watered-down movie version of The Watchmen, oh, and that whole problematic orientalist 300 movie. I am not as excited about MOS as I am Iron Man 3 for some reason; I admit it, I’m a sadist, and I want Tony Stark to be brought down to earth.

From the teaser trailer and the movie trailer, Man Of Steel reads like a Christopher Nolan production (The Dark Knight/Inception/The Prestige). I’m rather surprised Michael Caine wasn’t cast in a starring role. The teaser has the message of progress I have that small disagreement with. At the same time, it feels sorta Batman-Begins gloomly, instead of climbing the cold mountains in a Pacific Asian country as Bruce Wayne does, it seems like Clark Kent is off shore somewhere fishing, depressed white males seeking their life’s mission through moments of solitude. I always saw Spider-man of Marvel, and Batman of DC as the tortured souls for those who love realism in the comic book world, while Superman was more of a source for escapism and science fiction loving types.

 

The latest trailer gave me much more to hope for this film, particularly the last 50 seconds which feature the antagonists (Zod and friends), Lois Lane, as well as confrontations with the military.

It’s just going to be difficult for me to see Supes as a suffering servant/scapegoat character, maybe Nolan/Snyder’s interpretation can change my mind?

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