Behind The Mask: Jonathan Lethem on Batman

  • I felt brutalized as I watched, but after the tide of contradictions had receded behind me I wasn’t stirred to any feeling richer than an exhausted shrug, as when confronted by headlines reminding me that we no longer have a crane collapse or a bank failure, we have the latest crane collapse, the latest bank failure.In its narrative gaps, its false depths leading nowhere in particular, its bogus grief over stakeless destruction and faked death, “The Dark Knight” echoes a civil discourse strained to helplessness by panic, overreaction and cultivated grievance. I began to feel this Batman wears his mask because he fears he’s a fake — and the story of his inauthenticity, the possibility of his unmasking, counts for more than any hope he offers of deliverance from evil. The Joker, on the other hand, exhibits his real face, his only face, and his origins are irrelevant, his presence as much a given as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or Fear Itself.

    The Joker’s paradox, of course, is the same as that of 9/11 and its long aftermath: audacious transgression ought to call out of us an equal and adamant passion for love of truth and freedom, yet the fear he inspires instead drives us deep into passivity and silence.

    If, like me, you’d hoped, distantly, vaguely, probably idiotically, that the 2008 presidential contest might be a referendum on truths documented since the previous presidential election, guess again. That our Iraqi invasion was founded on opportunistic lies, that it was hungered for by its planners in advance of the enabling excuse of 9/11, is a well-delineated blot on American history. But for those of us interested in a conversation about accountability it was always declared to be too soon — we remained unsure of the evidence, or too traumatized to risk fraying the national morale — until the moment when it was abruptly too late, when it became old news.

    Yet I suspect it is still the news. While both candidates run on the premise that Washington Is Broken, I’m disinclined to disagree, only to add: our good faith with ourselves is broken, too, a cost of silencing or at best mumbling the most crucial truths. Among these, pre-eminently, is the fact that torture evaporates our every rational claim to justice, and will likely be the signature national crime of our generation — a matter in which we are, by the very definition of democracy, complicit.

From the Sunday New York Times, Sept. 21, 2008

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2 comments

  1. Chris

    While I liked the movie alot (even as I did feel depressed after it too), I can agree with some echoes of our real life political events in Dark Knight-Nolan’s set up that he wanted to do a comic book movie if it was in our real world, so it’s hard not to come away with the idea that he’s been influenced by specific events (as in Batman Begins there was the underlying fear of terrorism as an other-worldly menace.) Maybe they got too caught up in trying to portray the Joker’s theme of everyone can be pushed over the edge, ie. Bruce Wayne with his ‘wiretapping’ as the way to find Joker was obviously his crossing the line-the ends justify the means to him to catch the terrorist that he doesn’t understand.
    “I began to feel this Batman wears his mask because he fears he’s a fake — and the story of his inauthenticity, the possibility of his unmasking, counts for more than any hope he offers of deliverance from evil.”- Batman has always struck me as one of the more conservative superheroes, purely on Bruce Wayne’s identity-the common kid can identify with an angry vigilante lashing out for his parent’s death, not with the rich billionaire playboy-one wonders if Batman could have been a middle class/poor kid seeking vengeance on crime dressed as a bat without billion dollar tech support. Although for that more base idea of the Democratic everyhero, there’s always been Superman, the farm boy championing the cherished hopeful truth and justice, American Way.
    “The Joker, on the other hand, exhibits his real face, his only face, and his origins are irrelevant, his presence as much a given as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or Fear Itself.
    The Joker’s paradox, of course, is the same as that of 9/11 and its long aftermath: audacious transgression ought to call out of us an equal and adamant passion for love of truth and freedom, yet the fear he inspires instead drives us deep into passivity and silence.” -it is his only face but it’s still to me a constructed identity-more of a testament to Ledger’s amazing performance (I’m still awestruck that he played both this and Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback.) While the makeup never comes off, he evokes base fear (and instances of the traditional always laughing Joker) in the videos he broadcasts to the public; when he engages Batman, Gordon, other criminals, he instills the same reaction with words, intellectual instead of emotionally. He gives different origins of himself to different people, with a different emotional reaction about his scarring towards each, and employs stark tic-licking his lips, sucking in his mouth to flat mumble-all tools of Ledger’s trade in creating the character but also tools of the character of Joker himself to create an unbalanced, ever altering persona to each person he encounters, appealing to whatever he perceives within them he can connect to and exploit-tricks you could say many of our politician employ, exploiting our mass fears with never-ending videos of Al-Qadi, to language of rhetoric fear mongering and patriotism-Joker tells us the world’s a chaotic, uncontrollable place, Bush tells us terrorists everywhere.
    Even Harvey Dent is the Kennedy-esque figure fallen from grace-Gordon, as the common man is the one who comes away with the most of his moral values intact, although not unaltered.
    I liked Lethem’s acknowledgment at the beginning, “…familiar from the ’60s “Batman” television show starring Adam West, my ur-Batman, cheesy and harmless though he may be.” The ’60’s Batman as the herald of his nations optimism of the time? If so, the ’08 Dark Knight Batman is the product, yes, of post-9/11 superheroes (where Marvel’s Ultimate-verse is a huge whammy of everything in the Bush world and DC’s Identity Crisis posits some of our most stalwart superheroes were guilty of mind manipulation), but also of the pessimism of Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. To me though, Batman’s always been the ’91 Animated Series dark knight-a perfect balance of the light and dark elements of Batman and his villains from over the years: where Joker could flip on a razor edge from hilarious to terrifying without invoking political views on terrorism (that had obviously yet to happen) and Batman as Bruce Wayne gives a job to a reformed psychotic criminal (Ventriloquist in the episode ‘Double Talk’)and sincerely wants to help the man overcome his darker split personality.

  2. James Black

    Lethem’s right: the demand for accountability about invading Iraq was supposedly premature until it was suddenly too late. It’s painful to read that. I don’t remember when that moment happened, but it feels long gone.

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