Beyond Good and Evil: The Postmodern Batman

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Czech author Misha Glenny recently wrote a book concerning the globalization of organized crime entitled McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld. She maintains that, “criminal corporations aspire to penetrate markets the world over, mirroring the global goals of legal entities such as McDonald’s.” Just how would they do that?

When the Kremlin fell Russia became, in Glenny’s words, “a chaotic scramble for riches and survival that saw virtually every citizen sucked into a vortex of violence.” Apparently crime became a very profitable enterprise for a new class of capitalists just coming into their own. The shadow market, in everything from narcotics and weapons to cigarettes and sex workers, saw tremendous growth. The resulting explosion of capital, “traveled well beyond the Soviet Union’s borders into all continents of the world as money poured out of the country, looking for safe havens, some legal but most decidedly dodgy. Throbbing at the heart of these extraordinary events was Moscow.”

Because of continuing financial liberalization, it was fairly easy for the international mafia to mix its profits with legitimate capital. Indeed, “according to figures culled from the IMF, the World Bank, and research institutes in Europe and North America,” Glenny says, the worldwide shadow economy — including tax dodges, black market trading and other criminal activity — “now accounts for between 15 and 20 percent of global turnover.”

Glenny admonishes: “If we fail to construct an adequate regulatory mechanism — that is, some form of global governance — then organized crime and corruption will combine with protectionism and chauvinism to engender a very unstable and very dangerous world.”

Ah ha! This is an excellent example of the dark side of globalization — an undesirable global phenomenon which eludes regulation under current law.  Glenny suggests that to combat this, we need some kind of global governance which represents the interests and cooperation of every country.  We all know this is a pipe dream.

But what if there was some kind of mysterious, totally independent actor with practically unlimited resources, not sponsored by or accountable to any organization? What if it acted only according to its own version of vigilante justice, unrestrained by “slave morality” or state-sponsored doctrine? Wouldn’t we all be better off?

I’m speaking, of course, about Batman.

If you haven’t seen The Dark Knight yet, I’m loathe to point out that there are spoilers ahead — I’d argue that at this late date, you should be expecting them. So this is what I mean: the mob in The Dark Knight can transfer capital across state borders effortlessly. Meanwhile, local law enforcement, restricted by the geographical limitations of state power, can do nothing. Bruce Wayne, the ultimate ad-venture capitalist, must sweep in to the rescue!

Batman Begins has Bruce Wayne return to Gotham City to discover his company in the hands of petty bureaucrats who, no doubt adapting to changes in global demand, are now using Wayne capital to manufacture and sell heavy weapons. (Iron Man Tony Stark’s revelation, that his company’s weapons have fallen into the hands of terrorists, is an interesting parallel here.) At the end of the movie, Wayne uses financial trickery to buy the company back on the open market and puts in his friend Fox as CEO — thus he has won back his control from the suits, who remained for the most part nameless and spineless throughout the film.

In Dark Knight, which picks up more or less where BB left off, we see Wayne using his new found corporate clout to case a corrupt Chinese company, in a way that government agencies would never be able to do. (Indeed, unless there was some kind of strategic or profitable reason to probe into the machinations of Chinese companies, the state wouldn’t *want* to do so) But Bruce Wayne and Batman both operate well outside of the traditional justice system — as well as the predictable motives of the self-interested corporate/state apparatus.

Unable to predict (and hence control) Batman, the mob establishment hires The Joker to murder him — unaware that Joker is also a totally independent actor and will not respect the unwritten code of mob activity.  What is this code? Enthusiasts will remember that Hermine Falcone, the mob boss from the first installment, reveals its essence: Power.  In his off-the-cuff retort to the naive Bruce Wayne, Falcone insists that the criminal underbelly thrives on “power that you can’t buy” i.e. the power of fear.

It’s worth noting that this sort of power is the estranged cousin of that which the state relies upon — the power of “moral legitimacy.” The Joker is immune to fear, hence he cannot be controlled by his mob cohorts. Batman does not accord moral legitimacy to anyone except himself, hence he cannot be controlled by his police cohorts.  Batman’s goal is justice; the Joker’s is anarchy — yet neither one of these goals can be fit completely within a prescribed category of “good” or “evil”.  The comparison to Neitszche’s ubermench is irresistible.

Actually, if I *really* want to indulge in quasi-academic metaphors, which appears to be one of the primary purposes of this blog anyway, then I’ll go ahead and say thatThe Dark Knight is the first superhero film that uses realpolitik to tell the story. That’s what cool about it.
The Batman Begins screenplay foresees this approach because the Nolan brothers successfully created an atmosphere of paranoia in that film — no one can be trusted. But there remained the implication that Batman, with his “good” violence, Bruce Wayne with his “good” capitalism, Rachel with her “good” maneuvering the justice system, and Gordon with his “good” law enforcement, could triumph over rampant crime and corruption. The Dark Knight poses a strong challenge to this idea (epitomized by the brutal transformation of Harvey Dent.)

My general point about the Batman Begins/The Dark Knight movies is that, going way beyond what any previous super hero franchise has done, it portrays a Good vs. Evil, Cold War-esque system that then becomes totally unstable with disastrous consequences. This situation makes one question what morality is in the first place — I think Alfred’s comment about burning down the jungle to catch a thief, certainly a veiled Vietnam reference, is very telling in this regard. Now in the first part of this post, I wanted to relate the movie to the apparent “globalization” of mob activity for several reasons: it’s a phenomenon which sprang up after the Cold War, it doesn’t get a lot of publicity, and it goes along with the film’s re-imagining of Batman’s traditional crime fighting purview. It appears also to require Bruce Wayne’s newer tools, drawn from the playbook of global capitalism, i.e. corporate espionage. Evidently Batman, and the role that he plays in the Gotham universe, has changed a lot.

Consider the fact, which Bill first pointed out to me, that The Dark Knight is the first truly “post 9/11” superhero movie. Not only does it deal with radical terrorism, forcing Batman to create an ingenious and very intrusive surveillance system in order to catch The Joker, but also it forces Batman to face the grim consequences of the “escalation” process that Gordon outlines at the end of BB. (“We buy kevlar, they buy armor piercing rounds…etc.”) The assumption on the part of the United States that they enjoyed unquestioned dominance of world affairs — hence could ignore the consequences of arming the mujahideen in Afghanistan, among other inflammatory and originally anti-Soviet measures in the Middle East, was smashed on 9/11. (Thus began what Benazir Bhutto calls “World War IV”.)

Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks so I’m not saying anything lighthearted here. What I am saying is that The Dark Knight, in all of its extreme darkness, approximates the way the world is today. This is why, even beset as it is with clunky dialogue from time to time and the tragic lack of Katie Holmes throughout, it is a *great movie*.



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