Monday, December 31, 2012

The Ophiuchus Code: Addendum - The Batman Enigma, Pt1

Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and other mythologies
I never considered myself a lucky person. I'm the most extraordinary pessimist. I truly am. – Christopher Nolan

When I started writing the Ophiuchus Code series, the basis of my interest was to argue a simple idea, that all mythology and religious parables are merely tools for enlightenment, and that individual choice, the choice between right and wrong, the choice between action and inaction on one’s life is the ultimate aim, you can spending your whole life interpreting symbols and parables, but if the messages aren’t applied in your daily life, then it’s an empty exercise.

The previous entry dealt with one aspect of pop culture, and a series of random connections I was pondering, or synchs. Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy seems to have had a profound and unexpected impact, as well as touched on seismic issues that address the state of America. It seems the films trigger strong reactions and I have concluded that Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises are a kind of Rorschach test; people read what ever they want to read into them. The very problem is that people might not be really seeing Nolan’s real intent. Regarding America, we live in a country that many people see as in decline, with systems that are no longer working, including a justice system that by all accounts seems too skewed to protect those with wealth, a callous indifference to the disadvantaged and lower middle class, and a push for mindless militarism and nationalism. Due to all of these factors and more, we live in cynical and jaded times, and I can’t really say I blame the sentiment that drives the cynicism. As a result, there’s a vigilance that many call for when a segment of pop culture pushes a militant, and fascist leaning agenda.

Some of the origin of this vigilance might have been triggered during the height of the popularity of Joel Surnow’s 24, a pro militant, pro torture, pro jingoism program that seemed to be feeding the propaganda Fox News messaging of the Bush Administration era. Perhaps Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa had sensed something was amiss with the jingoism when they developed their own show Homeland, Perhaps. Surnow’s 24 stood in stark contrast to Chris Carter’s sensibility, a healthy mis-trust of government, and corporate power, and an unease with American supremacy through The X-Files, Millennium, Harsh Realm, and The Lone Gunmen.

Therefore, I can’t say I can blame people's leeriness over Nolan’s Batman films. But I also suspect the films were addressing questions about the role of the super-hero archetype in relation to the ‘real world’ vs. the ‘reel world’. Each film is a critique on Vigilantism, Anarchy, and Nihilism, which each illustrating the cause and effect of such philosophies.

In Batman Begins, Rachel makes a key point to Bruce when his parents murderer is gunned down just out of court, justice is about harmony, balance, Pointing out that while the cities depression may have ended, people are hurting and criminals like Falcone exploit that desperation. Pointing out: "What chance does Gotham have when the good people do nothing?" Bruce confronts Falcone who points out how he owns the city officials, and how Bruce has never faced desperation. Bruce leaves, vanishes, becomes a petty thief until he is discovered by Ducard who represents Ra’s al Ghul and the league of shadows. Bruce becomes Ducards best student until he is made to see that he must kill a murder without a trial, and learns the league plans to destroy a hopelessly corrupt Gotham, Bruce fights, destroys the organization, yet spares an injured Ducard, but Bruce learns the key lesson: to make himself more than just a man, more than an ideal, to become a legend and a symbol. Wayne returns, consolidates his power, set’s up his infrastructure, meets Lucius Fox, and get’s the assistance of Alfred, donning the Batman persona, he tackles Falcone, and Dr. Craine a.k.a. Scarecrow. When he is introduced to Lt Gordon, the Lt observes "You’re just one man." to which the reply, "Now we are two." This is the idea the drives the super-hero archetype, symbols to drive people to their better natures. Fairly straight forward until the ending of the film and Gordon’s warning that fight the crime lords will trigger further escalation.

Scarecrow has been a pawn of Ducard / Ra’s al Ghul all along, and the fear toxin that has been created is a tool staged to drive the citizen’s of Gotham to self destruction. Wayne had rejected Ducard because he had realized that the league of Shadows mission, to balance out corruption, would victimize the innocent and assume the guilt of all, their vision of justice was deluded in it’s utopian ideal. The very problem of utopian ideals is the fact that someone is always victimized that is never taken into account, expecting perfection in a imperfect world isn’t grounded in reality; compromise is needed, even in a flawed social system. Wayne prevails, but at the expense of Wayne manor, which is burned down during the skirmish, thus illustrating that Wayne’s mission, his self sacrifice will come at a price.

We see the next part of these issues played out in The Dark Knight, where Batman, through Capt Gordon’s secret crime squad department, makes gains in stamping out what is left of Gotham’s organized crime, to such a degree that a petty thief who is highly clever, and sociopathic, The Joker offers a deal to the crime lords to destroy Batman, after interrupting a video conference between Sal Maroni, Gambol, Chechen and an accountant named Lau, who has hidden their funds and fled to Hong Kong. The city hedges the hopes on a new district attorney, Harvey Dent, whom becomes involved with Jim Gordon and Batman’s plans to starve out the mod by stopping the flow of their wealth. The Joker kills Gambol and takes control of the crime lords – revealing his anarchy philosophy.

To complicate matters, dent is dating Rachel Dawes, Bruce’s long time love interest. The Joker issues a series of ultimatums, and plays cat and mouse, killing Commissioner Lobe, and a Court Judge who is an effective tool for Dent, attempts to reach Dent, and attempts the assassination of Mayor Garcia. To save lives, Wayne plans to turn himself in to the police, but is foiled by Dent who claims to be Batman. Gordon appears to sacrifice himself to protect the Mayor, all of which is an elaborate ruse to ensnare The Joker when he tries to get Dent during a secure police escort. The ruse allows Gordon to be promoted to Commissioner, but due to the betrayal of female officer, The Joker has captured Dent and Dawes, who are being held in two separate buildings filled with explosives. A no-win scenario that forces Batman to rescue Dent, while Rachel dies in a timed explosion when Gordon can’t make it there in enough time, yet even Dent’s rescue is a failure when he is horribly disfigured in the adjacent explosion, half of his face burned to ash, thus turning Dent away from his idealism, and into Two-Face, blinded by rage over his losses. The Joker had allowed himself to be captured to get to the secure level of the police station, which he detonates with explosives, kills Lau, uses the people of Gotham against one another to reveal Batman’s identity. The Joker, already several steps ahead, visits Dent in the hospital and convinces him to seek revenge, offering a twisted logic like a Mephistopheles, Dent is twisted into the very kind of person he was fighting against.

The Joker: [speaking to Two-Face] Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just, do things. The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon’s got plans. You know, they’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how, pathetic, their attempts to control things really are. So, when I say, ah, come here, when I say that you and your girlfriend was nothing personal, you know that I’m telling the truth.
The Joker: It’s the schemers that put you where you are. You were a schemer, you had plans, and uh, look where that got you. I just did what I do best. I took your plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did, to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hm? You know what, you know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gang banger, will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all, part of the plan. But when I say that one, little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds! The Joker: [Joker hands Two-Face a gun and points it at himself] Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh and you know the thing about chaos, it’s fair.

To point out, of course Chaos isn’t so much fair, just random, but the Joker isn’t finished, capturing hostages from the hospital, The Joker rigs two ferries with explosives, one ferry full of Gotham citizens, and the other full of Asylum inmates and guards, and gives them the choice the blow up the other ferry before midnight, or both ferries will explode.

Batman is forced to use an illegal city-wide prototype device with Lucius Fox’s to find the Joker, and the hostages staged as henchmen, luring Gordon’s SWAT team to strike at them, Batman is forced to attack the SWAT team, and save the hostages, apprehends The Joker, who gloats over his final victory, driving Dent to kidnap Gordon’s wife and children. Gordon is forced to watch the near death of his family, as Dent declares his judgment, while Batman appears to sacrifice himself before he tackles Dent to his death at an abandoned building. Batman is forced to take the blame for Dent, and the death of the other officers, to frame him so the public will never know of Dent’s decline, so that Dent will remain a beacon of hope for the city, thus creating a great lie that plays out in the final film, The Dark Knight Rises.

The Joker is a trickster, a Mephistopheles character that offers a deceptive philosophy that, at it’s face, seems to make sense, but rings hollow in the face of truth. He is also an enigma, whom consistently offers statements to various key characters, to explain the origin of his psychosis: that he was abused as a child, that his spouse was attacked, disfigured, and she left him when he mutilated himself, yet one cannot tell if any of it is true, as he is playing with typical liberal assumptions about what drives a person to crime, socio economic conditions, poor education, abuse, but being that he is mocking conventions, he is holding up a mirror to one aspect of society. Of course, Bruce Wayne begins to see the cause and effect of his actions.

Batman: Why do you want to kill me?
The Joker: [laughs] Kill you? I don’t want to kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, you... you complete me.

His actions have empowered a psychopath like The Joker, and indeed both represent two sides of the coin. Bruce begins to see the diminishing returns of his cause, and how he won’t escape becoming the thing he despises. Yet the The Joker goes even further.

The Joker: You’ll see, I’ll show you, that when the chips are down, these uh… civilized people, they’ll eat each other.

The Joker: [to Batman] You didn’t think I’d risk the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fistfight with you?

Of course, The Joker and Bane in their hubris, have a fatal flaw in their thinking, as we see played out in both films. The Joker’s anarchist philosophy has a ring of truth, exposing weaknesses in the human condition, but he discounts the better angels of man’s nature, and our capacity, when faced with important issues, to strive for the better. The by-product of this is a kind of Nihilism we will see played out in practice in The Dark Knight Rises.

Anarchy, in theory has it’s place, but when applied in practice doesn’t really function in a society, the exceptions could be it’s use in a commune in a limited fashion. This does not mean that one should dismiss our deeply corrupt society, history has consistently shown how easy it is for figures with authority can abuse their power, but one cannot replace one form of tyranny for a tyranny built on the illusion that it is ‘free of power’. The Joker offers easy answers to society’s problems, but a free society is messy, conflicted, and contorts around this pursuit of balance. The theme of ‘the lesser of two evils’ is constantly played out in each film, and the real question becomes, ‘should we accept the lesser of two evils if it saves lives?’: If one views each film as a reflection of the year it was released, Batman Begins seemed to deal with American Jingoism post 9/11, a year after Bush was reelected, and The Dark Knight dealt with the national security policies the Patriot act, and the imposition of TSA and it’s authority over air travel, issues that were wearing thin leading up to the election of 2008, when most people were concerned over the economy and a crumbling infrastructure. There was a great deal of concern over the Nihilism of The Dark Knight, but Nolan’s perspective might have been more an end, than a means.

Therefore the final film plays out in a closing thesis, illustrating the limits of all three brands of thought, Vigilantism, Anarchy, and Nihilism, and doesn’t advocate for the ‘rule of law’ in a authoritarian sense, but advocating for true justice to bring about balance, to live up to the American Constitution and the Declaration’s credo – to form a more perfect union. Nolan also seems to warn against following false prophets or leaders who offer easy outs to the complex problems, or easy outs to fix entrenched corrupt political systems. We shall explore how this thesis plays out in The Dark Knight Rises, how these societal issues impact individual decisions, how the karmic, or astrological themes that are implied with the Ophiuchus meme, and why interpretation should translate into positive action.

To be continued...

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