Batman’s Greek tragedy

Published: July 20, 2012

The enduring question throughout the trilogy is ofcourse not about Batman (as many may presume) but really about the fate of Gotham– the city itself. PHOTO: PUBLICITY

Christopher Nolan has directed films that have come to define Hollywood’s cinematic culture – the cool, chic and cerebral thriller, Inception, was brilliant. But his brooding and dark Batman series, which draws to an end with The Dark Knight Rises, are all films that pose big questions (though if you ask Batman purists who’ve read the comics, Nolan was really just translating the mood on the big screen). 

Inception was all about the metaphysical; philosophy posing questions about ‘’dream-worlds’’ and our consciousness whilst Batman to many pundits is really a commentary on the American culture.

That’s just the problem. Where Inception and Nolan’s earlier projects escaped the clutches of political partisanship, his beloved Batman series hasn’t been so lucky. In America, conservatives and liberals have taken their culture wars on to the terrain of Nolan’s film-making.

We have some truly ridiculous statements making some truly ridiculous comparisons such as “Batman as George W Bush” (only in American I suppose) or labelling the Dark Knight as the ‘’ultimate capitalist hero’’ ’(it seems this neo-conservative fantasy has made its way across the Atlantic as well).

There have been even more loonier claims that argue to the contrary that somehow the new Batman film is an all out attack against Mitt Romney who will running for president this year.

The fact is that Nolan’s Batman films have never been about political affiliation or political ideology; it’s because they have transcended the petty, partisan and pathetic debates, that take place in the power isolated corridors, from the world as politicians battle it out in their own ivory towers of dogmatism.

Nolan’s films are an exploration about what it means to be a hero today in the real world – what marks his trilogy separate from other comic book hero flicks is that he opts for gritty realism.

Nolan’s all about creating an environment for Batman that resembles New York city, Chicago or any other big spiraling city brought to the brink of collapse because of its intrinsic corruption. Unlike other superhero movies, Nolan provides ample context for the actions of his protagonist character.

If one closely observes the context of the movie and its sentiment then Gotham, at times during the film, resembles Pakistan to a great extent.

Think about it; its political system is ineffective, its police force is corrupt, its judiciary is under pressure and the ordinary people cower and are terrorised by the local mafias, crimelords and opportunists. Gotham is the quintessential embodiment of everything that is dysfunctional about a modern city accompanied with its broken system of law, democratic politics and ethics.

The enduring question throughout the trilogy is ofcourse not about Batman (as many may presume) but really about the fate of Gotham– the city itself. Can Gotham be saved? Is it worth saving? Can good people succeed in a system that is so bent and crooked? Can we choose to be idealists in a world that is everything but? Or will the good become corrupt for the sake of compromise and pragmatism?

Certainly the individual destiny of Bruce Wayne (Batman) is a focal point but Batman always seems to be part of a wider story either with Commissioner Gordan’s weary determinism or Harvey Dent’s judicial courage (which later turned awry as witnessed in the last installment).

I have noticed that in the first two films, Nolan’s villains (and for the record I have not seen the third film yet) are seen posing some mind jolting and interesting questions. For instance, Ra’s al Ghul asked questions about what constitutes true justice and human nature; he frequently assumes that criminals deserve no understanding, no forgiveness and thus deserve no chance at rehabilitation or reform. The Joker was all about anarchy; his unrelenting moral nihilism about the world brought forth existential questions for Nolan’s hero about whether what he was doing was of any worth at all.

Both, al Ghul and Joker, were villains that ferociously attacked and successfully undermined Gotham City’s political, social and judicial infrastructure.

Given this context, Nolan’s films ask some very broad and sweeping questions. To draw parallels with George Bush is a case of unforgivable stupidity particularly when Nolan works so hard to lavish details in shaping the dynamic theatre in which Batman operates by depicting a sense of festering hopelessness- that is Gotham City.

But neo-cons who try and portray Nolan’s Caped Crusader as a poster boy for the ‘’American Century’’ have got it all wrong! In The Dark Knight, frequent parallels were drawn between the Joker and Osama Bin Laden. But this proved to be a preposterous comparison, since we have it from one of the writers of the films, David Goyer himself,  that it was in fact Ra’s al Ghul, who was explicitly based on Osama Bin Laden.

Here is Goyer’s description:

‘’David S. Goyer, who co-wrote Batman Begins with director Christopher Nolan, says they wanted to broaden the parameters of the Batman mythology. “I think, of the Batman villains, Ra’s Al Ghul is the most complex,” he told Creative Screenwriting magazine. “We modelled him after Osama bin Laden. He’s not crazy in the way that all the other Batman villains are. He’s not bent on revenge; he’s actually trying to heal the world. He’s just doing it by very draconian means’’.

This alone undermines the whole childish theory of Batman as George Bush and the Joker as Bin Laden that was hyperbolised by the right-wing media in the States.

Certainly, Nolan does pick out interesting details to probably develop his characters from the contemporary world affairs– but to mistake his whole project as one for ideological advocacy is ludicrous. Nolan uses contemporary events as mere threads to weave a richer tapestry that raises perennial questions.

There is no ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ theme that runs through Nolan’s project– instead only by selective viewing can we see the Batman trilogy as a definitive political statement and that’s just it. There is no stone craved statement to be made at all; Nolan’s Batman is a modern day Greek tragedy. There is no definitive triumphalism in Nolan’s Bat-universe. This hero has none of the adolescent wonder of Spider-Man nor the messianic dominance of Superman.

Tragedy is to be the big theme of the final movie as well as notions of pain and in Nolan’s words, living with the consequences of your own choices. Fear was the main theme in the first movie and anarchy was the grand premise of the second film. What’s amazing is Nolan’s ability to create and spin a story around a single idea and this is becoming a trademark for most his work.

Nolan’s films work because they transcend the hopeless political partisanship that have plagued American comics for decades (and still does in many cases even today). They illustrate and explore the tragedy of a modern day metropolis and the fate of an individual who sets out to reverse this urban decay– the fate of whom we will find out in Nolan’s final ode to the Greek tragedies that were once written so long ago.

Read more by Ahmad here or follow him on Twitter @AhmadAliKhalid

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Ahmad Ali

A medical student and freelance writer who tweets @AhmadAliKhalid

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Ali

    haha if you’re comparing Gotham City to Pakistan then our Batman is Imran Khan :D
    seriously speaking though pretty neat analysis, Ahmad!Recommend

  • JB

    Good analysis…never thought it that way…Gotham IS pakistan….we are just short a multi millionaire and a caped crusader!Recommend

  • http://peddarowdy.wordpress.com Anoop

    Nice analysis. I enjoy pieces about Nolan’s Batman, because each has its own interpretation. Its fabulous!

    Some say its really about plain old good and evil, others say its good using evil’s method or good using evil’s.

    Nolan is a genius and what used to be a Super Hero is now much more.

    Batman is the personification of each individual’s desire. Only in this case Batman acts on his. Batman justifies the use of violence, over say Harvey Dent’s by the law approach, saying its for the greater good. That is why Batman runs away taking with him the guy Havey Dent eventually becomes. That was a sacrifice NONE of us will endure, but Batman did. That amazed us!

    Lot of people say the movie was a hit because of Joker. Yes, he played a huge part, but for me along with Joker it was Batman’s sacrifice, to carry the burden of a crime he did not commit. That was the clincher. Batman did what was right, which none of us would have ever done- Sacrifice.

    I find solace in the fact that Batman’s sacrifice is easier considering nobody knows who he really is. But, hypothetically speaking would we have sacrificed glory, adulation and love of millions just because your city doesn’t lose one of its heroes?

    I have no idea what I’d have done.

    LOVE THE MOVIE, can’t wait to watch Dark Knight rising again. Recommend

  • BlackJack

    Very well written, and the parallel to Pakistan is intriguing. Chris Nolan’s Batman is very close to the Frank Miller version of Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns – and symbolizes both obsession and sacrifice in a never-ending vicious circle. (Frank Miller puts it very well when he says that he sees Batman as, “”a dionysian figure, a force for anarchy that imposes an individual order”. I think bringing in narrow political interpretations stands sharply in contrast with what Batman intended to be (as described in Batman Begins as more than a man, a symbol) – and so a for George Bush/ against Mitt Romney theory just does not cut ice. Further, Forbes had estimated Bruce Wayne as the 9th richest fictional character, well behind, say Tony Stark (who came 6th), so the ‘ultimate capitalist hero’ doesn’t stand either – especially since we never really get to know whether Wayne Enterprises is really delivering shareholder value. The main difference between Batman and may other DC/ Marvel creations is that Bruce Wayne is the facade/ mask and Batman is the real person – and that is where the elements of the Greek tragedy originate.Recommend

  • https://twitter.com/pugnate Noman Ansari

    Bruce Wayne is Batman.

    (Spoilers!)Recommend

  • Qasim Ahsan

    The opposite is true, the Nolan Trilogy IS a metaphor for the War on Terror, what with the spying on individual’s cell phones (for the greater good), the extradition of the Asian banker from Hong Kong in TDK, amongst others. Recommend

  • Umer Rasheed

    Wow!!! You indirectly equated Batman with Imran Khan.Recommend

  • Random

    I don’t want to start a debate here when I say Tim Burton’s take on Batman was more realistic in the sense that it heavily depicted the dark side of Batman (A Comics Series). Characters like Penguin Man, Cat woman, Jack Nicholson as the Joker had so much more to add to the dark ambiance of Gotham. In my opinion, superhero/character driven movies should not be tangled up with political issues. When a man wearing a bat suit is driving around the city in bat mobile, it becomes hard to buy the ‘good guy-bad guy sacrificial battles’. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the last two installments but I think media hype and Nolan’s over-dramatic take on intellectual-ism killed the idea of Batman for me. Maybe remakes shouldn’t be made at all. Maybe, some matters are better left untouched. For once, I would really like to see Batman playing the bad-guy and the villain a pure hero. Seems illogical but why not?

    But I really enjoyed this article. Its very well-written. Good Job Ahmad!Recommend