The Caped Crusade – Glen Weldon

So there you have Batman: a crude, four-color slumgullion of borrowed ideas and stolen art.

It was as if Winnie the Pooh had escaped the Hundred-Acre Wood and run amok on the mean streaks of New York. Where he brutally mauled Piglet. And ate Christopher Robin’s face off.

Because that would be real. That would be badass.

Surprisingly for someone whose early life was largely sheltered from T.V. my Batman is the one from Batman the Animated Series that debuted in 1992. It probably only happened in reruns on a couple of occasions, but I have distinct memories of watching it in a car dealership on the Barre-Montpelier road in Berlin, Vermont. I mostly remember being enthralled, but, then, memory can be a tricky thing.

The reason I started with my Batman is that the concept of an affinity for a particular type of Batman, whether light or dark, is one of the core conceits of Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade. Weldon traces the cultural history of Batman through its various iterations from 1939 roughly through the current version, laying out three principal claims along the way.

First, Weldon situates the evolution of the Batman character within the cultural zeitgeist. In addition to Batman mirroring cultural developments such as 1980s macho culture, Weldon argues that he goes through a three-phrase cycle from lone avenger, to father-cum-partner of Robin, to pater familias to an extended Bat-family and then back again. Within this cycle, there is also the revolving dimmer-switch on Batman’s morality, between the campy, civic-minded Batman, sometimes embracing his billionaire alter-ego, sometimes not, and a grimmer, brutal dark knight.

These two cycles feed into Weldon’s second hypothesis, that everyone has their own personal Batman. Often the personal batman is the one experienced when young, with some allowance for variation in cases of backlash. Weldon makes a compelling case for these wild swings in Batman fandom, even though it ultimately can’t be substantiated and although he does not not totally follow through with the ramifications of this idea given gradual confluence of interested in Batman between nerd culture and “normals.”

Third, much of The Caped Crusade is dedicated to trying to understand the enduring popularity of Batman, which has resulted in his appearance in ten live-action feature films since 1989. Weldon debunks the putative notion of Batman’s “relateability”—the irrepressible idea that ordinary people are more able to identify with Batman because he lacks superpowers. As Weldon points out, though, Batman is supposed to be the world’s wealthiest person, with almost no responsibilities with his company, is a peak athlete who spent years honing his martial arts skills, and, in recent iterations, is a brilliant tactician who is (almost) never wrong. But, beyond that, Batman is totally just like you and me.

Weldon makes the case that the ability for many people to relate to Batman, particularly among people who were for years not in the mainstream, stems from the oath he swears after the death of his parents that he will wage a crusade against all criminals so that no one suffers the way he suffered. This oath, and the single-minded obsession that follows from it, Weldon says, makes Batman the original nerd.

The main difference now is that, somewhere along the way, nerd culture went mainstream.

I have never been much of a comic book person, truth be told. It isn’t so much antipathy as I never made the investment of time or money to get into the stories and I was somewhat turned off by never really knowing where to start reading. As such, some of Weldon’s detailing the ins and outs of the writers and inkers did not mean much to me, but the broad sweeps of the Batman tradition in Weldon’s hands (and lively prose) aptly reflect many of the fissures in American culture for the past seventy five years. The same may well be true of other superheroes (Weldon intimates as much when he talks about larger trends in comic book publishing), but Batman’s stature as among the oldest, most popular, and, importantly, most relate-able (such that he is) heroes makes Batman an apt study for American culture writ-large.


Next up, I am currently reading Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in Mind. It is too soon to tell if I will like the story, but so far I am quite taken with both the structure and the characters.

Superheroes for the Modern Day: Some thoughts on Ironman 3 (Spoilers)

Last week I took the written portion of my comprehensive exams, so I took Saturday off and went to a morning show of Iron Man Three. What follows will likely include spoilers for that and the other two Iron Man movies, as well as the latest Batman franchise and perhaps other superhero movies. It should be noted that while I am aware of some of the comic book arcs, I never got to know any of the comic books well. Moreover, I am here primarily discussing the comic book movies put out by Marvel and DC.

Other reviews have focused on, for instance, Tony Stark’s interior struggle and the weakness of the plot and what the movie does to the Mandarin/, but I am going to talk about something slightly different.

Iron Man is a typically American hero. Tony Stark epitomizes much of what it means to be an American: a wealthy, brilliant engineer, arch-consumer who is equal parts attention-deficit and focused. He made his money through the family business and declares in the second movie that he has privatized world peace. The Atlantic review aptly puts it, the third movie explores the root of his super-ness, namely is it that he has really powerful and expensive toys or is it that he is a brilliant engineer? The movie leaves the audience with one impression, but, ultimately, the answer is a bit of both.

But what is the threat that Ironman exists to combat? In The Avengers, the answer is alien invaders. But the villains of the Ironman movies are more mundane…and rooted in the same set of circumstances that produced Ironman. The third movie particularly includes unsubtle criticism of the problems with the war on terror, including one scene where the Iron Patriot (the suit worn by Don Cheadle’s character) breaks into a sweat shot in Pakistan filled with burkha-clad women. But the third movie also continues a trend with the Ironman movies where the real villain is someone taking advantage of the US military-industrial complex–sometimes doing nothing more than trying to make sure that it continues functioning.

In the first movie, the villain is Obadiah Stone (Jeff Bridges), the number two man at Stark Enterprises who wants to use the company to sell weapons to any buyer. In the second movie Justin Hammar (Sam Rockwell), the CEO of another defense contractor employs Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian with a family grudge against Stark, to build weapons in order to compete with Stark. Iron Man Three, starring the Mandarin, does the same thing. Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) is a brilliant scientist who intends to use bio-tech to manipulate maimed veterans and politicians in order to keep the war on terror going. Thus, this iteration of the Ironman story provides continuity in the villains by making all of them as industrialists seeking to maximize their profits.

Power, to these villains is nice, but it is not usually their primary objective. Money, in this case, is more important than power or knowledge or any other motivation. What could be more American than that?

The Mandarin as a villain in the comic books is a genius martial artist from China who is set on dominating the world and returning it to a feudal system. The character might be loaded with prejudices and stereotypes, but he is nevertheless a foreign villain. But there is none of that here. In fact, most of the villains in the latest crop of super hero movies are all domestic or extraterrestrial, with the notable of exceptions of the Red Skull in Captain America (set during World War 2) and Ra’s Al Ghul and his scion in the Batman franchise (played by Liam Neeson). Thus, the villains in these comic book movies are criminals and psychopaths of various sorts, but they are almost almost exclusively domestic.

It could be that the screenwriters are presenting on an insightful commentary about America and the world in an age of globalism. In this line of reasoning, the only enemies, whether foreign or domestic, who will threaten the America are those created by America. There is only a minimal possibility that a foreign group can threaten the United States and, so long as the United States does not cause any sort of foreign resentment there isn’t any particular conflict. At the same time, though, the focus on domestic villains is the product of an American solipsism that confronts globalism by turning in on itself. Rather than compile and confront stereotypes for what they are, the movies address these concerns by making America star both as the cause of and the solution to all its problems. The resolution of globalism, therefore, is to largely ignore it.

Why I Hate Hollywood III, are you not entertained?

My third installment of thoughts on why I dislike most movies.

Over the last few days there has been some news about The Hobbit film(s) directed by Peter Jackson. The plan had been to make two films out of the book, but now there will be three. I have seen some speculation about what, exactly, the films will portray and how the narrative will work (see, for example, Tim Burke’s thoughts), and at least one person has mentioned his concern with Peter Jackson getting too epic-y (particularly after the adventure with Godzilla), quipping that Jackson needs to learn how to edit. These are valid questions and concerns (as is his development of a female lead for the Hobbit, but I am a stickler for detail), but I do not care that much about the films. I will see the films, but had considered not doing so on the grounds that I have been disappointed by every film or movie created about a book series I like–including Lord of the Rings.1 My resignation and disgust about splitting the film further has little to do with Peter Jackson, though, since it feels to me like a move designed by the studio in order to get people to go see the story in three parts, rather than two. This, then, is another reminder that filmmakers are only beholden to the audience so much. The higher up the corporate ladder the calculation goes, the more this is true.

I am reminded of a blog post that John Scalzi wrote wrote on Whatever in 2006, wherein he annoyed a number of people by saying that Star Wars is not so much entertainment as “George Lucas masturbating to a picture of Joseph Campbell and conning millions of people into watching the money shot.” Lucas created a mythology and then put it on film and licensed it out so that a whole bunch of other people had an opportunity to play in that mythology. I enjoy Star Wars tremendously, and somewhat disagree with Scalzi about its entertainment value,2 but I agree with him in the sense that a lot of people mistake what Star Wars is. It is George Lucas’ playground that he merely licenses out to the rest of us. The entertainment value of Star Wars is an unintentional byproduct of the creation process.

Then there is the issue of rebooting series. A blog post on the economist suggested that the rumors about a new Batman series already in the works is a response to Christopher Nolan’s infidelity to the Batman comic books in his own reboot of the earlier movies. While there may be some truth to that underlying rationale with the people pitching scripts and plotlines, and in how the studio will publicly justify the reboot, and there may evern be some truth to that rationale as to why people would go see another Batman film, I suspect that the studio is planning another reboot of the Batman film because the last one was spectacularly successful and there is money to be made from such a venture. It is the same reason that a studio purchased the rights to 50 Shades of Grey and there is a plan in the works to re-do the Twilight films.

Yes, some films are excellent for their plotting, their acting, and the overall appearance, but far more make (or try to make) money based on other charms, sexual or otherwise. The basic fact is that most of the movies that come out are bad, but for one reason or another they appeal to an audience and people go fill the seats. Certainly, not everyone is as mercenary as I am describing, but more often than not I feel that what is put on the screen is a noxious attempt to make money rather than to create any legitimate artistic entertainment. This does not mean that I require every film produced to be high-brow entertainment, but there does need to be some sort of readjustment as to what we consider entertainment.

To start, I would prefer that people just stop attempting to recreate written stories when those stories are already available for people to read, but I understand that that is not likely to happen any time soon. Surely there are other stories to tell, and stories that are better suited to a visual medium. After that, there is a difference between providing a smart product and a high-brow product. For example, I would not consider the sitcom How I Met Your Mother particularly highbrow, but it does attempt to give actual story lines between the jokes. A comparable example in film might actually be the new Batman films, which I believe bring in a lot of different thematic and narrative elements and are well acted, but still having a lot of violence, explosions, and, at the end of the day, a guy who runs around in a cape beating people up. Part of the problem here is that there is often no attempt for movies to appeal to anything but the lowest common denominator, which is basically a pair of tits and some explosions, or some fast cars and a sex scene or three. I like action and adventure films, but, most of the time, those, films aren’t entertaining. Distracting, perhaps, but not entertaining.

The idea that movies are inherently meant as entertainment bothers me because I don’t believe it to be true, at least not now that they are ubiquitous almost to the point of being obsolete. Once upon a time, perhaps, movies had an inherent novelty and therefore were entertaining in and of themselves, but no longer. No, the job of the filmmakers is to get people to pay to watch whatever they put on the screen. I won’t go so far as to say that the entertainment and artistry of film is an accidental effect of this process, but it is close. Screenwriters, directors, actors, and producers probably do care about their product, but, ultimately, the film itself is a commodity that the industry wants people to purchase and nothing more. As it so often seems (particularly with books, and not that this is anything new), there is more profit to be had by catering exclusively to ratings and rankings rather than the quality of the product in question. These are not always mutually exclusive, but there does seem to be a growing gulf between them. My frustration is that more and more I get the impression that films serve no purpose but to scam me and everyone else out of our money rather than showing us a story we can actually enjoy.

1The films were pretty good, but I had significant problems with them. I believe that it is impossible to get the level of accuracy in film that I desire and it makes more sense for me to avoid seeing the movies. I will be happier as a result, my imagination works plenty well, thank you very much.
2Then again, when I am reading a book set anywhere other than earth, I look first and foremost to the world created by the author and have been known to overlook other literary flaws if the world pulls me in. Star Wars is a perfect trap for me.

Assorted Links

  1. Mitt Romney would restore “Angle-Saxon relations between Britain and America-Speaking about the relationship between Britain and the United states, an adviser of Mitt Romney said: “We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special…the White house didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have.” The immediate response is the charge of racism and, I can’t help but agree. But beyond that, I want to know who authorized this person to speak who uses the phrase “the special relationship is special”
  2. The Ruins of Empire: Asia’s Emergence from Western Imperialism– A story in the Guardian that traces some of the recent history of imperialism and the attempts to escape it. The author has a particular stance (that, ultimately, Western Imperialism impeded and destroyed cultures and societies by attempting to impose its own values) and is, for the most part, correct. He is not as directly critical as Said, but does call for a paradigm shift away from “narcissistic history,” that is history obsessed with western ideals, which causes a one-sided history that helps define the world as between “masters and slaves.” That said, the author does play down the impact of most Asian imperialism (yes for Japan, no for China), religious conflict, and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Rather than address these tricky issues, the author just wants to persuade you of the problems of viewing the world from a western perspective.
  3. Too much to bare– A reporter at the Guardian got permission to get a behind the scenes look at one of the older strip clubs in England. The story feels half-formed since she got expelled from the club for talking to the girls without first getting authorization. The club owner and the company line is that the work is well paying, respectful, and rather benign, while there were actually some darker sides. Besides the usual problems, the women actually need to pay for the permission to work–whether or not they actually get hired for the night. Unfortunately, the author makes a point of sticking to the quotes and to the narrative of what happened rather than providing analysis.
  4. But is it a Book?– A report in the Chronicle about one book historian who argues that an electronic “book” is not actually a book, which is the artifact of recorded text. The suggestion is that for all the benefits of the digital book, we are losing something by losing the artifact.
  5. James Bond with a Mask-An article that suggests that Batman on film is reduced to a supporting character in his own franchise, and basically begs Hollywood to keep rebooting the series until they actually capture the Batman of the comics–the qualification for “getting it right.” The author brings up some good points, but I am not sure it is possible. For one thing, comics and cartoons are not limited by the human body and technology for filming. For another, perhaps the larger concern, the author seems to be under a delusion about what the directors (some, at least) are trying to accomplish and why the studios continually reboot these franchises. I would expect that the rumored reboot of Batman (already) has little to do with Christopher Nolan’s infidelity toward the comic.
  6. Is Mythology Like Facebook-Well, no. But scientists are using statistical analysis of social networks to look into the whether or not, or at least plausibility that, myths reflect actual worlds or social networks.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?