Monday, July 28, 2008

Batman and the Conservative Movie List

In his much ridiculed editorial in which he gushingly compares G.W. to Batman, Andrew Klavan endorses a set of movies as representing "conservative values".
"The Dark Knight," then, is a conservative movie about the war on terror. And like another such film, last year's "300," "The Dark Knight" is making a fortune depicting the values and necessities that the Bush administration cannot seem to articulate for beans.

Conversely, time after time, left-wing films about the war on terror -- films like "In The Valley of Elah," "Rendition" and "Redacted" -- which preach moral equivalence and advocate surrender, that disrespect the military and their mission, that seem unable to distinguish the difference between America and Islamo-fascism, have bombed more spectacularly than Operation Shock and Awe.

Why is it then that left-wingers feel free to make their films direct and realistic, whereas Hollywood conservatives have to put on a mask in order to speak what they know to be the truth? Why is it, indeed, that the conservative values that power our defense -- values like morality, faith, self-sacrifice and the nobility of fighting for the right -- only appear in fantasy or comic-inspired films like "300," "Lord of the Rings," "Narnia," "Spiderman 3" and now "The Dark Knight"?
Now if he spent some time actually thinking about things, he might realize that movies that come across as preachy and condescending frequently stumble at the box office. Politics are beside the point. He might also recall the adulatory reviews given by the likes of Charles Krauthammer and William F. Buckley Jr. to "Master and Commander", a movie surprisingly void of such conservative film icons as scantily clad Spartans or men wearing masks and tights. And it might occur to him that Hollywood films with huge special effects budgets often succeed despite a lack of overall merit. His inability to find any conservative themes in successful live action films suggests either that he has a poor overall concept of conservatism, or that he doesn't get out of the house much. He's apparently also missed the wild success of Wall-E, despite the contention of various self-described conservatives that it's left-wing propaganda.

(A small caution - I'm going to reveal some plot elements for the listed films so, if you haven't yet seen them and intend to do so, proceed with caution.)

The bigger problem with Klavan's analysis is not just that he's wrong about conservatism only being depicted in adaptations of children's stories and comic books. It's his vision of conservatism as exemplified by Batman engaged in a Manichean battle against absolute evil, and projecting that comic book universe onto the real world. If that's not silly enough, even within Batman's simplified universe, Klavan sees no nuance nor does he have any sense of Batman's internal struggle. This is perhaps exemplified by Klavan's similarly child-like take on the other films he lists as emblematic of conservatism.

Let's start with Narnia and Lord of the Rings, films set in a mystical, magical world. Why, to someone like Klavan, are these films "conservative"? Is it because they're materially different from the story lines of, say, the Harry Potter films? Or is it because the authors wove Christian theology into their texts? Obviously, the latter. So is Klavan arguing that any movie that attempts to teach religion is "conservative" in nature, or is he instead arguing that any film that arguably advances Christianity, preferably Christianity locked in a literal battle against the forces of absolute evil, is "conservative"? By all appearances it's the latter.

Klavan also seems to believe that this is the first time that Narnia or Lord of the Rings have been adapted to the screen. Hardly. The films he adores represent the first time they were adapted as big budget films using cutting edge special effects. Just as Klavan doesn't mind if messages he deems "conservative" are lost in all that high tech eye candy, a lot of audience members don't mind if those same themes (or themes that Klavan might describe as liberal, even within those same films) appear somewhere alongside or behind all that eye candy. If Klavan truly cared about the themes, for example, he would be advocating one of the earlier, more literal and less splashy adaptations of Narnia. Or, if you can imagine, even telling people to "read the books".

Given his conflation of conservatism with Christianity, it is interesting to see Klavan include 300 in his list of "conservative" films. Of course, 300 plays it safe - Leonidas is depicted as being in contempt of the priests, and the uncomfortable details of Spartan life are carefully elided from the depiction. That gives Klavan a sufficiently sanitized Sparta, in which he again perceives a battle of absolute good against absolute evil. If he were even slightly predisposed to do so, this enables him to avoid having to stop and think, "Other than it's extraordinary militarism, what is it about Sparta that I see as representing 'conservative' values?"

In his comic book universe, Klavan also doesn't need to consider the other side of the coin. He sees Leonidas as the representation of all that is good in the world, fighting to the death against a much stronger enemy in order to protect his way of life. But the film can be viewed another way - with the preening Xerxes, taking up a military campaign left unfinished by his father and confusing his own will with the will of God, leads his forces on a mission to defeat an enemy that it overwhelms in terms of power, money, and resources, but due to bad planning and bad strategy suffers significant embarrassment and unnecessary casualties before correcting his initial bad strategy. Meanwhile, Leonidas fights to preserve a religion and way of life that Klavan would, to put it mildly, find distasteful in practice - although given his apparent propensities, Klavan might not mind the monarchal power structure. What's the conservative message, again?

But Klavan's superhero comic book brand of "conservatism" isn't sufficiently reflective to see the other interpretation. He sees the world in comic book terms of good against evil, and when you're "good" there's nothing you can do that isn't justified in the fight against "evil". Truly, Klavan sees the enemies of America is Orc-like beings who don't know that "that freedom is better than slavery, that love is better than hate, kindness better than cruelty, tolerance better than bigotry". If you're "evil" there's no need to worry about collateral damage - when you're battling Mordor, everybody on the other side is fair game. Obliterating the entire enemy civilization is not only justified, it's the right thing to do.

In describing conservatism, Klavan writes,
Leftists frequently complain that right-wing morality is simplistic. Morality is relative, they say; nuanced, complex. They're wrong, of course, even on their own terms.
This, of course, is a classic dodge - a caricatured view, attributed to an amorphous "they". Does it matter that no actual "leftist" can be produced who has ever said such a thing? What Klavan mischaracterizes is the position taken by people who, unlike him, don't see the real world through the paradigm of a comic book. People who recognize that the real world doesn't break down, as Klavan and other simple minds want to believe, into absolute good and absolute evil. There lies the nuance. And of course, there lies one of Klavan's other "conservative" films, "Spiderman 3".

In Spiderman 3, Peter Parker encounters, oh, let's call it "space goo". The "space goo" is transformative - with it, Peter Parker is faster, stronger, more confident, more capable, and happier, but also angrier, increasingly ruthless and at risk of losing himself. He has a climactic battle with the space goo, but it's a visual manifestation of an internal struggle - what is the price of power, and who does he want to be? This struggle is depicted alongside the culmination of another story line - Parker's lust for revenge against the man who killed his uncle. In the first film, Parker's nascent powers led to his setting off a series of events that led to his uncle's death, and in turn engaging in a confrontation with the man he believed to have killed his uncle, leading to that man's death. But in this film he realizes that a different man, who along the way has been transformed into the Sandman, is the actual killer.

When under the influence of the "space goo", Parker confronts Sandman and, after a dramatic battle, appears to drown him. But the Sandman is able to reconstitute himself for the final battle sequence. Parker, freed of the influence of the space goo, learns the details of the death of his uncle - that the killing was not a remorseless act of cruelty, but was an accidental act by a tormented man. Parker forgives him.

So you'll have to excuse me, but I'm at something of a loss as to how Klavan saw that film and missed all of the internal struggle and nuance. How he missed Parker's recognition that something he had seen for years as an act of absolute evil was, in fact, something that could be understood and forgiven. He didn't hear the filmmaker's frequent voiceover of the word's of Parker's uncle, "With great power comes great responsibility." But then, Klavan is exceptionally confused as to what it means to hold a moral view in which there is no nuance:
And when our artistic community is ready to show that sometimes men must kill in order to preserve life; that sometimes they must violate their values in order to maintain those values;1 and that while movie stars may strut in the bright light of our adulation for pretending to be heroes, true heroes often must slink in the shadows, slump-shouldered and despised -- then and only then will we be able to pay President Bush his due and make good and true films about the war on terror.
I am left wondering, does Klavan see Cruel to be Kind as a conservative anthem? He truly sees no nuance in the idea that you must at times violate your own moral code in order to preserve your values, or fight wars in order to preserve peace? Or, is it more accurate to say, he isn't being honest about it, probably not with himself and certainly not with his readers. Klavan's simplicity only serves to highlight something else he has overlooked in his "conservative" films - at least the better of them - they ask that members of their audience consider not only the circumstances under which you might be tempted to violate your moral code, but also the price of violating that code.

That, of course, brings us to the final of Klavan's examples, "The Dark Knight". In films that don't meet his measure of "conservatism", Klavan tells us,
The moment filmmakers take on the problem of Islamic terrorism in realistic films, suddenly [morality, faith, self-sacrifice and the nobility of fighting for the right] vanish. The good guys become indistinguishable from the bad guys, and we end up denigrating the very heroes who defend us.
Perhaps that's why "Batman Begins" didn't make his list - with Bruce Wayne joining the League of Shadows under the tutelage of Ra's Al Ghul, until he learns that Al Ghul plans to end Gotham City's decadence and corruption by destroying it, whereas Wayne still sees the city as being valuable and full of good people who are worth saving. In a flash, Wayne's mentor and ally becomes a villain. Their common cause, to rid the world of decadence and crime, gets tangled up in Wayne's beliefs that the ends don't always justify the means. Transposing this into the real world, the implication is that Al Ghul would have happily razed Falluajah, while Batman would have sought to root out the bad guys while saving the city and protecting innocents.

Similarly, where Klavan apparently sees the latest Batman film as vindicating torture and mistreatment of prisoners, he has apparently disregarded the substance of the three scenes where prisoners are confronted with violence. First, the noble Harvey Dent is pushed to the point that he's going to try to beat information out of a suspect. Batman stops him and lectures him, not only because the suspect is mentally ill and is unlikely to have any useful information, but also because of what it would mean for Dent if his actions became known - he would lose his moral high ground, his prosecutions would collapse, criminals would go free. This, of course, creates a context and a contrast for the second sequence - Batman in control versus Batman out of control.

That second sequence involves a literal ticking time bomb scenario, where The Joker taunts and provokes Batman. Batman takes the bait and pays a price - The Joker is manipulating him into running down the clock to the point where he must choose which of two friends to save. The third again involves The Joker, this time manipulating the police officer who is guarding him into a physical attack. That ends with The Joker taking the officer hostage, resulting both in immediate catastrophe and his escape to wreak even more havoc on the city.

Looking at these three sequences, the first could be compared to the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, often for little to no intelligence gain, at the expense of the U.S. moral high ground. The second impeaches conservative's favorite "what if" torture scenario - the "ticking time bomb". The third illustrates how giving in to your baser instincts, no matter how badly your target deserves it, may not only backfire - it may be exactly what your target wants you to do. Which of those three scenes is the endorsement of President Bush that Klavan imagines? And at the end of the film, when Batman takes the fall for somebody else's bad acts in order to preserve the integrity of the government, what's the parallel in the Bush Administration? Whenever scandal has stricken, the Bush Administration's spine degenerates into Jello, and every effort is made to place the blame on the smallest, least significant of actors.

Let's not fail to address the portion of the film that Klavan-style "conservatives" most see as vindication - Batman's transformation of the city's cellular phones into sonar devices that allow him to see and hear pretty much everything that is happening anywhere in the city. This is compared to the Bush Administration's illegal surveillance practices.
Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.
That assumes something not in evidence - that Bush has or ever had any wish to "re-establish" the former boundaries of the law, rather than establishing a permanent surveillance society. It also assumes that, despite his open contempt for the constitutional limits on his office, we owe Bush that type of benefit of the doubt. But what makes this example more interesting is that, contrary to the prisoner abuse sequences, this high tech surveillance tool works. Batman is able to locate The Joker and save the lives of some hostages. But unlike G.W. or defenders like Klavan, Batman doesn't attempt to reinvent his means - he recognizes that he is acting outside the law, a vigilante.2 He doesn't trust himself with his surveillance tools, placing them into the hands of the morally upright Lucius Fox and ensuring their destruction upon the capture of The Joker. Is it that this intense surveillance would have no further utility in fighting crime, or defeating more conventional crime bosses or lesser "super villains"? Hardly.

Instead we are brought back to "Batman Begins", with a narrative from Alfred about a criminal in Burma who cared nothing about profit, but simply wanted to sow chaos and watch the world burn. How did they stop him? They burned the forest. The Ra's Al Ghul solution. Given the choice between the unacceptable, "burning" Gotham City, and a massive invasion of its citizens' privacy, Batman chose the latter. Within this framework, Lucius Fox and pretty much everybody in the audience was on board - between the urgency of the situation and the checks and balances Batman imposed upon himself, and its depiction as being used solely for a narrow, focused search for The Joker, I doubt that anybody in the audience was thinking, "No, turn that horrible machine off and preserve the people's privacy." But at the end of the day, Batman did not embrace the Bush Administration's desire for unlimited, unchecked surveillance of innocent civilians, and he again rejected the concept of "burning the forest". Batman's world view is vindicated - in Batman's world, given the opportunity, even a literal boat load of hardened criminals will "do the right thing".

What's really going on in Batman? The creator of the film is taking some questions raised by the real world and presenting them in a manner that appears intended to challenge the audience. When is the unjustifiable justified? What is the line that should never be crossed? When Batman saves The Joker, the filmmaker is playing to that part of each audience member that would rather see him plummet to his death. But that's one of the lines Batman won't cross, and it's a line the Joker sees (and exploits) as a weakness.

Whatever your political alignment, if you recognize the questions posed by the film and fail to see their ambiguity, you've missed the point. Can you listen to Bruce Wayne's opinions on government and the type of men it needs, yet retain the delusion that he would vote for Bush? Klavan mocks movie stars who "strut in the bright light of our adulation for pretending to be heroes", but apparently has forgotten Bush's infamous "mission accomplished" dress-up day.

But then, even at the comic book level, if you have more than a passing familiarity with characters like Spiderman and Batman and fail to see their inherent duality - the internal struggles that goes along with their external battles - you never really had a chance of picking up on the larger themes.3
1. This is a philosophy Klavan apparently views as consistent with Christian values.

2. There's an earlier sequence that works largely in parallel with the surveillance theme, in which Batman bypasses law, diplomacy and extradition treaties in order to pluck a criminal out of China and deposit him in Gotham City for the police to prosecute. That's perhaps the least nuanced depiction of Batman's vigilantism, being presented primarily to foreshadow the later surveillance sequences and to give us some action and splashy special effects.

3. You might also argue that it should be impossible to miss themes of duality in a film that depicts the transformation of the city's brightest light into the villain, Two-Face. But in fairness, Klavan may know he's spouting nonsense, but may be simply trying to draw attention to himself in order to promote his next book.

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