The Dark Knight of the Soul

The Dark Knight Rises PosterThe weekend was a Batman buzz, torn between celebrating the release of The Dark Knight Rises and mourning the events of the Aurora, CO movie theater shooting. Throughout the discussion included comments about the killer’s mental health and questions about whether it’s time for the country to revisit gun control. One Facebook friend made the following post:

Waking this morning to a sick feeling when I see what happened in another theater in Colorado. While we were mesmerized, watching a film about the heroic strength of the human spirit and how it cannot be dominated by brutality, someone else took the opposite message and chose the comic-book villains as their inspiration. I hate to say it, but someone took their cue from this series a little too completely. – Katie G.

And here’s a link to a wonderful op-ed written by Roger Ebert: We’ve Seen this Movie Before.

This trilogy revisits the Batman mythos in a fascinating way, and the title of this third film makes a clear statement about its overall message. But there is something about the Batman mythos that invited the events of Colorado (not to suggest that I condone the events).

But first, my relationship to Batman. I have never read a Bat-comic, but I did watch the old Adam West reruns growing up. Beyond that, Batman was just another superhero until I stumbled upon the Lego: Batman videogame a few years ago. The ability to play a story as either a hero or a villain drew me in with Joker and Harley Quinn becoming my favorite characters to play. This is the only Lego videogame I’ve played through not once, not twice, but four times. My fascination for the game encouraged me to watch Batman Begins and later The Dark Knight, and my love of Batman was cemented. Last year, I celebrated my birthday with a Batman themed cake and a marathon of the Tim Burton Batmans. I’m waiting patiently for my chance to play Lego: Batman 2. And I keep looking for a Batman omnibus at my local used bookstore hoping for an easy foray into the comics.

lego_batman-2

Of all the super heroes, Batman is a shadow hero (and this is the main reason why I prefer DC to Marvel). He is deep, tormented, and is motivated by an unhealthy desire for revenge. As such, the villains that he combats are either shallow and stupid or are as equally deep, tormented, and mad as Batman (Joker, Scarecrow, Riddler, or the new Bane, for instance). This latter category of villain leads me to my point. Joker et al sees Batman as a nemesis and toy with him whenever possible. By doing this, they test the limits of his desire for revenge and his inherent goodness to save people. See for instance the climax of The Dark Knight, when Joker gave Batman an impossible choice. And Batman took the bait.

(As an aside, we watched the blu-ray over the weekend and this was our first time watching the film since the theater. The final scene with Joker was vastly different than we remembered it. Our cousin confirmed our suspicions. So I have to ask: was the film reedited for home release and why?)

Last week, the people of Aurora bore witness to someone acting out the Batman villain, but it seems as though the villain attacked a crowded movie theater to see if the Masked Crusader would come to the rescue. It’s no accident that the villain chose a Batman film, rather than say The Avengers or Spider-Man or Brave. The Batman mythos invites madness and it invites us to play into our place of personal wounding.

We have a chronic problem in this country of denying the shadow, and the more we deny it, the more it is going to affect more people. We are living in an era full of disease (dis-ease), medication/self-medication, and explosive tempers. For most of us, whatever ails us doesn’t affect a larger radius of people. We may not even realize that we are ailing at all until we lash out at our loved ones and ruin a relationship over something seemingly petty. Others take their ailment to a larger level, such as the young man who attacked Aurora. He didn’t need to affect the lives and families of so many people, or even the trust of an entire country’s movie-going public. But, yet, somehow he did, which is why the events transpired.

Identifying with the villains seems to be a recent phenomenon, but a necessary practice since we try as a society to ignore the shadow. I was first struck by the idea of Vampire: the Masquerade and reports in the 90s of kids actually sucking the blood out of people resulting in some deaths). Then there was the whole Columbine thing. And then at Harry Potter conferences, the number of people who dress up as Snape or a Malfoy or Voldemort. By playing the villain, we can confront our innermost negative energies. They’re there, even if we’d like to believe they’re not. Once upon a time, kids just played Cowboys and Indians, but today, we need a little more than that to satisfy our shadow. Our shadow is burdened with the shadow of America, which we have been carrying on our shoulders since the end of WWII. Events like Columbine or Aurora, when one person snaps and takes the game into the real world, reflect this.

The rules have changed, and this is what Batman reminds us at the end of The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight Rises sees Batman trying to restore the rules in a way that adapts them to a new Gotham. Not enough attention is being given to this same practice in the real world, but if enough media outlets (Hollywood, YA literature) keep challenging the status quo, perhaps we can excite some real change. As Batman shows us, it’s not enough to occupy. One has to take up the cause. Meanwhile, as Batman further shows us in The Dark Knight Rises, it’s okay to struggle with your own stuff, as long as you remember the cause.

A new type of hero?

To begin, we saw Brave a couple of weekends ago.

While having a discussion about boy heroes versus girl heroes and gender appropriateness, I made the comment, “Up is the boy version of Brave…. Only that it’s about an old man and a boy scout instead of a mother and daughter.”

The Hubs stared at me blankly.

So I continued: “both films are about a generational relationship. They both have to understand each other.”

The lightbulb went off and he asked, “Have there been other stories with accidental heroes?”

To which I replied, “Of course. There are the accidental heroes and there are those that are called. What makes these heroes different is that they function as a unit.”

What followed was a list of recent heroes that don’t just work in tandem with a few supporting friends as we see with the traditional hero (i.e. Harry Potter and most other traditional heroes). The traditional hero gets to the end with supporting friends, but still has to face the final confrontation alone. These new heroes must do it together. The Hubs noticed this as a new take on the sidekick motif. The sidekick is now being elevated to a level of equality to the hero. While there are some heroes that come to mind, what is really interesting to note is that almost every single Pixar hero is this unit hero:

Toy Story: Buzz and Woody have to face the nemesis together as equals. The first TS film is about them coming to that realization.
Monsters, Inc.: Mike and Sully aren’t sidekicks. This is must be part of Randy Newman’s formula for friend songs.
Finding Nemo: Surprise! This film is NOT about Nemo. It’s about Dory and Nemo’s dad working together to find Nemo. They have to work together for Marlon to succeed. The generational bit is a MacGuffin.
Wall-E: Wall-E and Eve are constantly working together to save that plant.
Up: Gramps and the kid both have to figure out how to get home and defeat the bad guy.
Meet the Robinsons: current self vs. future self working together.
The Incredibles: it’s a family affair.
Ratatouille: Remy and Linguini work together to make the perfect batch of ratatouille and keep Gusteau’s restaurant alive.
Brave: Merida and her mom have to work together to mend the tapestry.
(I honestly don’t remember A Bug’s Life well enough to comment on it.)

And then there’s Cars. I haven’t seen Cars 2 yet, but in the first Cars, Lightning McQueen seems to be on his own. But, in the end, he needed all of Radiator Springs, especially Doc Hudson, to win the race.

It’s a slow transition, but it seems as though more stories are beginning to drift toward this new hero model, which also suggests that some part of the American psyche is also drifting toward this new hero model. Could this be connected to a slight decrease in individual heroes we idolize in our culture (ex: Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King) and a slight increase in collective heroes (ex: our soldiers)? Or perhaps this is a response to the idea that things are easier when we “get by with a little help from our friends.” It’s no accident that these stories are appearing at the same time as a push for community gardens, farmer’s co-ops, alternative transportation ideas, and even *gasp* government healthcare.

The pro-individualism model can only be sustained so long, and it seems as though we’re nearing the end of it. Speaking generally, of course. But if enough of us get behind this mythic movement, perhaps we can make the paradigm change happen.

Images of USPS Pixar-themed Postage Stamps. These won’t work as real stamps.