Friday, August 8, 2008

Batman, an Antihero

Before we were interrupted by RWA Nationals, we were having a nice chat about antiheroes. Remember that? The topic of Batman came up, and Alicia and I agreed that Ian Healy seemed to have a much better handle on this than we did. So we asked him to share his thoughts about Batman as antihero, and here is what he had to say:

Say there’s this guy. He has a strong conviction about what is right and what is wrong, and his convictions don’t necessarily match up with those of his society. He decides to act on those convictions and operate as a vigilante – performing the task of judge and jury with his own cognizance and punishing those he deems are wrong in his eyes. To protect his identity, he wears a mask. And in this guise, he metes out his own form of justice, regardless of the actual law.

Sound familiar? Are you thinking of Batman by any chance? It certainly describes him and his crusade against crime well enough. But let’s say he’s not our friend Bruce Wayne, and he’s not targeting criminals, but African Americans. Whoa! He’s a KKK guy!

Think about that for a minute. We think of Batman as a hero because of his quest for justice, but is he really? Or is he an anti-hero?

An anti-hero is defined as “a persona characterized by a lack of ‘traditional’ heroic qualities.” What exactly are those qualities? Webster’s says a hero is “A being of great strength and courage celebrated for bold exploits; often the offspring of a mortal and a god.” Well, Batman certainly has great strength and courage and has bold exploits, so why do I postulate that he is in fact an anti-hero?

First and foremost, Batman is driven not by a quest for justice, but by a desire for revenge. His entire life and persona is devoted toward punishing the criminal community for his parents’ deaths at the hands of a common mugger. Revenge isn’t a particularly noble cause, and many of Batman’s actions in pursuit of it are not only anti-heroic, but downright criminal. By choosing to act as a vigilante, ignoring the law in favor of his own sensibilities, he has become the very thing he seeks to eradicate: a criminal. How many laws does Batman break? Let’s start with his habit of ignoring peoples’ civil rights to administer brutal beatings. Yanking someone several stories into the air and then nearly dropping them back to the ground just to obtain information is torture, plain and simple. Batman has always claimed he will not kill in pursuit of his so-called justice, but time and time again he has allowed people to die, either as a direct result of his actions or his inaction at a crucial moment. Think of the moment at the climax of Batman Begins, when Ra’s Al-Ghul tells him “You’ll have to kill me,” and Batman replied “I don’t have to kill you, but I don’t have to save you either.”

He assaults, he kills, he breaks-and-enters, trespasses, and blows things up. He tears through the city causing great damage and putting countless lives at risk. He doesn’t follow the established system of justice, put in place just to prevent the kind of knee-jerk reactionary vigilantism that he espouses. Are these really the qualities of a heroic character? I submit to you they are not.


This makes a lot of sense. But it brings up another question. Is a protagonist antiheroic because of his actions, his motivations, or some combination of both?



Becky Burkheart said...

Wonderful thoughts about Batman and anti-heroes.

I guess the main reason that Batman works for me is that he seems to *want* to be noble and a hero, and he fails, but he keeps trying.

Like when he had the Joker in the interragation room, he tried asking 'nicely' (sorta) before he barred the door.

Harvey tried to be a hero and the pressure was applied, he folded.

We're *pretty sure* Batman isn't going to fold.

Dara Edmondson said...

I think it could be either motivation, actions or more likely, the combination of both. If it's only by his actions, the scale tips toward hero, rather than anti-hero.

Ian said...

Thanks for the opportunity to blather on to a different audience, ladies! Anytime you need a guest post, let me know.


taylorf21 said...

I disagree with the anti hero thing. If batman isn't a hero because of the damage he does, then none of the superheroes are heroes. Superman does damage to buildings roads people, even he could be considered an anti hero by these terms. Batmans motivation is revenge but the fact is he isn't going after black people or something. He saw what happened to him and he was motivated to stop it from happening again. The reason he does torture people is because sometimes its the only way to get the answer. Someone has to do it. And since it can't be the police it has to be an outside party. It batman begins he "killed" (I don't think he is really dead) some one to stop the deaths of a whole city of innocent people. I think that batman is a hero. Maybe not as good of a hero as firemen or policemen, but still necessary in the world that he lives in.

Edittorrent said...

Thanks, Ian! I just saw Dark Knight tonight, so it's fresh in my mind.

What do you think of Harvey's journey?

I did think that the filmmakers didn't make Batman BAD enough. Just being a vigilante doesn't seem enough to make him "bad"-- I mean, we live in a time where authorities break the law for bad reasons and no one cares much. Seems like the populace would be happy with someone who broke the law for good reasons. But I wonder if that was set up in the first movie?

I do go with B as an antihero, because he is far more concerned with ends than means, and I get the idea it's not any higher morality but almost a matter of personal preference that keeps him on this side of the divide. That is, he is actually getting vengeance on "bad guys" for his parents' murder-- it's not any kind of abstract good to him.

Ian said...

If you want to read a couple of excellent stories that feature or involve Batman, take a look at The Dark Knight Returns and Kingdom Come graphic novels from DC. The first is the tale of him coming out of retirement in his 50s to deal with the Joker and Two-Face once more. The second deals with another possible future DC Universe where Batman's inability to kill the Joker resulted in the death of Lois Lane (Superman's main squeeze) and many others. The first is an outstanding tale by Frank Miller (of 300 and Sin City fame), the latter by Kurt Busiek with outstanding painted artwork by Alex Ross. You don't really have to be familiar with the DC Universe to enjoy either story. But it's great storytelling and gives you some fascinating insights into Batman and his relationships with other heroes, villains, and civilians.

Another character you might want to look at is Rorschach from the Watchmen graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (yes, and the movie coming out next March). If Batman went across that line and started leaving criminals dead in back alleys instead of alive and hanging artfully from light posts, you'd have Rorshach. Watchmen is widely considered the greatest story every told in the format and was listed in Time Magazine's 100 most important novels of the 20th Century. Pretty prestigious for a glorified comic book!

Sorry, I'll stop geeking out now.

Edittorrent said...

The trailer for The Watchman was on before the Dark Knight film-- looks good!

Edittorrent said...

Ian, wanted to point out what I think is a truly heroic (not anti) action-- without "spoiling" for those who haven't seen the film. So this will be oblique. You know the guy in the orange jumpsuit on the ferry boat? The big guy who demands the thingy that I can't mention because it's a spoiler? And says, "I'm going to do what you should have done 10 minutes ago?" And does it, against type and against his own interests, but it's the RIGHT thing?

Now I thought HE was a hero, while Batman was an antihero as you said. What do you think? And why?

Ian said...

I completely agree with you, (Theresa or Alicia - I think Alicia). His act was indeed heroic. It was selfless, it was the right thing to do, and he did so at the risk of his own life. And in doing so, he made everyone else realize it WAS the right thing to do. It was, in my mind, the one teeny tiny ray of hope for humanity in an otherwise exceedingly grim and bleak piece. Honestly, I'd have moved away from THAT Gotham City years ago and headed somewhere more fun and cheerful - like Central City (The Flash's stomping grounds).

Edittorrent said...

But it was filmed in Theresa's and my town (Chicago), and the city looked great, especially Lower Wacker (where the car chase takes place under the city). I got lost once under downtown, and thought I'd be trapped and become the Phantom of Lower Wacker.
Did you see the great pre-release series (it was on On Demand) which had an Inside Edition type show interviewing the characters (NOT the actors)? Great stuff.

Anonymous said...

Wow this article is so helpful for my tenth grade Honors English Class. We have a debate project and my friend and I are debating with two other people about whether or not Batman is a hero. I'm on the "not a hero" side. Could get your last names so that I can cite you in my speech?

If you could get back to me by Monday or Tuesday it would be greatly appreciated because we are having our debate on Wednesday.


Anonymous said...

Just a passing random, but this post caught my eye -- because I recently watched a couple of movies based on a Japanese anime/manga series, and ended up not knowing if I was supposed to be rooting for the protagonist or not! Light is, like Batman, acting as a vigilante because he perceives society around him as being unfit -- both the innocent and the guilty. The guilty are unfit because of their guilt, the innocent are unfit to judge the guilty because of their weakness in dealing justice to the guilty. So, Light destroys the guilty. He justifies his actions by saying that if the criminal subset of humanity is eradicated, then no-one will have anything to fear. Well, all except Light himself, who ends up gunning to be a "god" of fairly merciless justice.

And I think that's where you draw the line. Light is operating more or less under his own power and judgement; he has a couple of people around him throughout the series/movies, but he uses them mercilessly. There is no outside force to temper him, to tell him when he is wrong. This is where I also look askew at Batman, although he is slightly better off than Light because he has a moral compass in the form of Alfred. There is someone who can tell him to stop. He may not, but there is someone who can.

With that said, in relation to the movies I was watching -- "Death Note" -- the main antagonist is a character named L who is a detective who sets out to stop the killings perpetrated by "Kira" (who is Light). And the interesting thing is that L is the more classic "heroic" type in that he's the embodiment of systemic justice. He operates largely within the law and the system. Yet, by the end of it all, I couldn't side with either character because they were both extremes and yet somehow incredibly similar. Each was an anti-hero in his own way, and it made for fascinating interactions and characters whose development bugs me even now. And I suppose that's a big win for the writers right there. ;)