June 18, 2005

On blogging about Batman without comic book expertise.

Anthony Rickey has a problem with this post of mine about “Batman Begins."

He seems to think I must have gone to the movie knowing not only that Scarecrow was the villain but also that Scarecrow’s modus operandi is steaming people insane. I hate to tell you but I hadn’t the slightest idea who the villain was, and I’d never heard of Scarecrow. I like to see movies without knowing the story, so I use methods of finding out only as much as I need in order to decide whether I want to see it. Thus, since I’m interested in the director Christopher Nolan (from “Memento”) and I saw on Rotten Tomatoes that his movie had 82% "fresh" reviews, I read nothing more about it.

Rickey takes issue with another post of mine about the movie. I wrote:
I noticed a right-wing edge to some key statements: "Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society's understanding." Take that, you Gitmo critics! And it was quite clear that we were supposed to think about the criminals as al-Qaeda. Here was this "League of Shadows," based in Asia, bent on destroying "Gotham." We were nudged constantly to make this connection.

He writes:

OK, look, can I make a deal with folks like Prof. Althouse? If we leave things like the First Amendment in their bailiwick, can they please not drag their politics into our comic books?

Hmmm.... Fanboys and their comic books! They're possessive, aren't they?

Let me just quote David Denby again: the movie is “so overdone and underfelt that [it’s] hell to sit through.” Having endured that ordeal, I’ll blog whatever observations I happen to have. The whole point of this blog is to drift in and out of my bailiwick as the spirit moves me.

I don’t go to the movies that often, but when I do, I post in my own style. And I don’t review movies. I blog about them. Here’s the prototype for my movie-blogging, a post about “House of Sand and Fog,” written on January 15, 2004, the second day in the life of this blog. And here’s my post on “Kill Bill: Volume 2.”

Anyway, Rickey shares his comic-fan expertise in an attempt to refute my observation that the terrorists in the film represent al Qaeda:
Ra's al Ghul started off as a Batman villain in the early '70s, long before anyone had even considered something called al-Qaeda. And far from shoving an al-Qaeda riff down our throats, the movie does everything it can to move the film away from anything vaguely Islamic. He's played by Ken Watanabe, for crying out loud. The scenes with him in it (or, see spoiler below) seem to be set in Nepal instead of Arabia. And the "Society of Shadows"--a fanatical organization devoted to his will--is part of the character of Ra's and has been, so far as I know, since his creation.

Obviously, the filmmakers didn’t do everything they could to eliminate the al Qaeda feeling, since they kept the Arabic name Ra’s al Ghul (“the demon’s head"). (And we were certainly familiar with Arab terrorism back in the early 70s.) I didn’t go out of my way to think about al Qaeda. I don’t care whether the original comic writers meant to say anything about al Qaeda, the filmmakers would be obtuse if they didn’t see the connections people would make. Just attacking New York City is enough to push us down that particular thought path. As for using Nepal: it was reminiscent of Afghanistan, the source of most of our al Qaeda imagery.

But what really interests me is not whether we moviegoers see a terrorist group and think al Qaeda – of course, we do – but whether Batman is right wing. The line I quoted – "Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society's understanding" – struck me as distinctly right wing. But Batman, in this film, had some lefty instincts too. He was concerned with the roots of crime in poverty. On the other hand, he gleefully extracted information from a man by using torture (dangling him from a tall building and letting him drop part way).

Rickey points me to this old post of his in which he compares the politics of Spiderman and Batman, so it’s not that he objects to analyzing the politics of the film. He just seems to think you have to know the material from the comic books to analyze the movie. I can’t see why that would be. Movies based on books, including comic books, usually deviate from the books. Who feels they need to know the book to talk about the movie?

32 comments:

Ron said...

Ann: Bravo! I'm certainly tired of fanboy defenses, and I like your writing much more than Denby! (Not saying much, I know...) I prefer the honest opinions of an intelligent person than the whiny mewlings of a fanboy! Keep it up!

paa said...

The bad guy said the "criminals thrive" statement -- I hardly think the movie was endorsing those sentiments.

Ernst Blofeld said...

The scope of the Batman story is a much larger one than al Qaeda; it includes themes of vengence, justice, and vigilantism. I think you're bringing al Qaeda to an existing thematic framework and interpreting it in that light. There's nothing wrong with that, per se. But there's a difference between "thinking about how Batman applies to al Qaeda" and "Batman is about al Qaeda."

coriander said...

The other day you were talking about dealbreakers in relationships.

I thinks "reads comic books" is a dealbreaker for me.

Gerry said...

"He was concerned with the roots of crime in poverty."

Gah!

I'm pretty far to the right, and that is an ideal I have, and most everyone I know has that ideal.

The difference is over how to fight poverty, and if the things we do actually make escaping poverty more difficult.

Crime is a moral failing, but like many moral failings it occurs more often when a person is under extreme stress or duress, such as when being barely able to survive financially.

I know the stereotype is that the left cares about this and the right does not, but it is an incorrect stereotype and I'm no longer willing to cede that ground without a fight.

Ann Althouse said...

Gerry: Thanks. Didn't mean to upset you. I'm sure Hollywood was trying to left up their billionaire hero with that material. But I shouldn't have implied that the right doesn't care about poverty or doesn't see that it generates crime. The real disagreement is over how to address poverty (and crime) and maybe what priorities to set about addressing the two linked problems.

Stephen said...

Ann, despite reading your original post before I went to see the movie, and therefore having the potential tie-in between al-Qaeda in my mind when I went to see the movie, got absolutely no such impression.

I'll have to stop myself from analyzing why though, because just after watching, I really liked the movie, but the more I think about it, the less I like it, so I intend to avoid thinking deeply about it at all costs... :)

Iron Teakettle said...

Congratulations or my sympthies, whichever you think apples. Frank Rich of the New York Times is the number one accusee( I know it's not a word but this is blogging) of injecting political views into entertainment reviews.

I suppose you could say: Hey buddy, it's my opinion and what's so sacred about your comic book?

Elayne said...

Good grief. That fanboy couldn't have been all that knowledgeable about comics if he's taking you to task for your musings on whether Batman is a right-winger. Tons and tons of writers have explored that sort of theme throughout the Batman titles during the last few decades. The great thing about such an iconic character is the way he lends himself to different intrepretations depending on the story the writer really wants to tell - I've read Batman-centered dystopias, police procedurals, straight fantasy tales, horror stories, psychological profiles, etc. etc. And I read pretty much all of them, as my husband is a comic book artist on DC's comp list.

Ann Althouse said...
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Ann Althouse said...

Elayne: Thanks for commenting! I think it's cool that you're married to a comic book artist.

Iron Teakettle: Much as I usually disagree with Rich, I simply have no problem with mixing discussions of art and politics. At the same time, I tend to dislike deliberate attempts to make art political. Political art is usually bad art. But art, culture, politics, psychology -- these all blend together.

(deleted post above had a typo)

Kathleen B. said...

In the same spirit Gerry, I am going to object to the idea that fighting against crime (Bruce) is right wing, and the left merely gives $ and sits in their mansions (Bruce's parents). I am pretty far to the left, and most everyone I know believes in fighting crime, and no one sits in their mansions. I am not willing to cede this ground!

A. Rickey said...

I certainly didn't take Prof. Althouse to task for calling Batman a right-winger: I've written humorous postings on the same subject, as she notes. Nor did I say you have to know about the comic books to talk about the movie. But if you're going to make statements about the intentions of the filmmakers, then knowing something about the source material you're working with would seem pretty useful.

Prof. Althouse misstates my argument. I took took Prof. Althouse to task for stating "And it was quite clear that we were supposed to think about the criminals as al-Qaeda. . . . We were nudged constantly to make this connection."

Far from "nudging," the filmmakers removed every bit of Arabia they could from the character without getting rid of the name. The League of Shadows (actually, League of Assassins in the original) predates most American's awareness of al Qaeda: you can't get rid of it and still have Ra's. And as for reminding one of al Qaeda itself, it's far more similar to the standard Hollywood trope of the Illuminati. (The whole "we sacked Rome, burned London" thing.) Al Qaeda, after all, isn't a secret society.

And as for Nepal looking like Afghanistan, or even being "reminiscent" of it... well, that's the kind of "all Asia looks alike" comment I complain about later in my post on a different topic. In the movie, Ghul's ninjas look Japanese. The mountain retreat seems more Southeast Asian, though I doubt I could place it more closely. Most of the weapons that are traditional have no basis in Afghanistan, nor does anyone in the film wear identifiably Afghani or Arabian clothing. I can't think of a thing that actually looked particularly Central Asian. (Maybe the box the bats came out of, with its geometric laquerwork?) Most Americans associate al Qaeda with slightly less Himalayan mountain retreats, even assuming they'll not note the architectural differences. What exactly was "reminiscent" other than "it's a snowy mountain"? Can we not have the almost archetypal Hollywood dark-Shangri La motif anymore because it's too close in Prof. Althouse's imagination with something not very close at all?

Of course, in this post Prof. Althouse is saying that the filmmakers "would be obtuse if they didn't see connections": I don't disagree. I think they did see such connections, and did everything they could to minimize them without completely gutting the character they were using. (My guess is there was a conscious effort to avoid the kind of criticism True Lies faced.) But that's a far cry from her original statement, which was that it was quite clear that we were supposed to think such things: that this was a filmmaker's intent. I disagree less with what Prof. Althouse is saying now, but her argument has changed.

What is amusing is this: Prof. Althouse has made a statement that, with some knowledge of the source material, makes little sense or is at the very least highly arguable. Normally, people on this site pay a lot of attention to evidence and facts. Why is it that when one writes something that seems unsupportable about a comic book, or about a comic-book movie, it's OK to dismiss an argument with cries of "fanboy, fanboy"? Does it matter that the filmmaker's intentions were made in a movie derived from a comic book, or that in order to refute such a statement, it's helpful to know about the comic? Or is it just that people like Ron think that with comics--unlike anything else--the normal rules of knowing what you're talking about go out the window, and you can happily assume what filmmakers must be thinking, damned be the evidence if it comes from colored pages?

Now, the above is an actual argument, with a proposition, evidence, inferences and the lot. I'd actually be interested to know whether Prof. Althouse has changed her mind on what the filmmakers meant, or if she thinks the filmmakers chose Ra's as a villain in order to evoke al Qaeda and then intentionally toned down otherwise useful associations in order to be (curiously) subtle. The second seems bizarre, but maybe she can support it.

But there are two things I didn't say: first, that Batman isn't a right-wing figure. Second, that she shouldn't comment about a movie without knowing the comic. Like anything else, Althouse should comment, but should bear in mind that if she doesn't know the relevant background, she's got a good chance of simply being wrong. And if confronted with such evidence, it's generally better to address those issues, rather than answer with "fanboy, fanboy" as so many of the commentors here have.

My pique with Prof. Althouse's post stemmed from the fact that, by the standard of argument she was using, we could no longer make a comic-book movie with hidden mountain retreats, any form of secret society, or even the most slight, passing reference to Arabia or central Asia without fear of making it "clear" that there was a comment on international terrorism. These are old comic book tropes, it was a comic book movie, and sometimes a sinister secret society is, simply, a sinister secret society.

Ann Althouse said...

Tony, here's my point, which I would have made more elaborately in the original post if I'd thought it was going to be controversial. Of course, Hollywood knows to be extra careful about stoking any existing prejudice, and it will avoid the "True Lies" mistake. There was a time when Arabs were the standard villains. Now, they can never be the villains. I feel the group shown in the film is as close to al Qaeda as you can get within the well-known limits that bind Hollywood. I was surprised they even went as far as having an Arab name. Using a Japanese actor was a pretty thin veil. Training in a mountainous region -- moved further east -- is also a pretty clear cue. I think they knew what they were doing.

As to the source material that you know about, that is all interesting, as I told you in email before I read your post. You sent me to your post, and I was surprised to see that you were attacking me and saying I shouldn't write about the movie I saw, that I was disqualified from having opinions because I hadn't read comic books. At that point, I felt like defending myself. If you're offended by my defense...

And I don't disrespect comics, by the way. I actually have a lot of comics (of the Dan Clowes/Peter Bagge/Julie Doucet type, not superheroes). Comics artists themselves use the "fanboy" pejorative. I know, because I've read it in comic books. I think you know what it means.

Gerry said...

Kathleen,

I cede, you cede, we all cede together. Or, rather, we refuse to cede together. I *con*cede your point-- the stereotypes are insufficiently (God forgive me for using this word) nuanced.

Ann,

"But I shouldn't have implied that the right doesn't care about poverty or doesn't see that it generates crime. The real disagreement is over how to address poverty (and crime) and maybe what priorities to set about addressing the two linked problems."

Absolutely on the real disagreement. On the former, I'll just add that it is not only that poverty fosters crime, but also that crime fosters poverty. Fines. Jail terms that take income earning time and future potential away from families, and tear families apart. The cost of crimes on the victims, who tend to be neighbors of the perps.

Pogo said...

Ann,
My 12 year old son waited for two years to see this movie. He devoured everything he could read about it on-line, off-line and in comics. He literally told me how many days were left until the opening for three months. He knew dang near everything about it. We went on opening day, and we both liked it alot.

However, I suspected this would not be a film for those who simply want to see a good show, and care little for the oeuvre of Batman.

I thought the whole thing was a good copy of most Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns (e.g. The Outlaw Josey Wales), with the no-name anti-hero and revenge motifs. A real guy movie overall. Unlike Peter Parker in the Spiderman movie, I wouldn't think Bruce Wayne would be terribly appealing to women. But what do I know?

P.S. As I have discovered with my son, it's never good to get in the way of a fanboy and his domain. Yikes! You are a brave one.

P.P.S. Try Cinderella Man. A powerfully good Depression era drama, if you can handle watching some intense boxing scenes. My wife liked it, and she would have hated Batman (she fell asleep ...fell asleep !!... during the very first Star Wars movie.)

A. Rickey said...

First, I don't think you need to know about the comics to have an opinion about the movie, but it certainly helps.

I also didn't say you shouldn't write about anything: indeed, in the bit you quoted, you'll see that I offered (facetiously) not to write about something if you merely kept politics out of a discussion. (This after agreeing with you on two substantive critiques of the film.) It was, of course, an attempt at humor, a way of saying not that one shouldn't write, but that what has been written isn't very persuasive because it lacks substantiation. You're certainly entitled to any opinion you wish--it's your blog--but one part of blogging is that opinions can be challenged. The general tool to challenge them is fact, which is what I offered, and a competing inference.

Admittedly, it's a bit of harsh humor, but my point was this: you've offered enormously thin evidence to show that the filmmakers were doing what you said they were. What you related was a subjective experience--it evoked al Qaeda to you--but that says little about what the filmmakers intended, especially if there are multiple interpretations of their intent. I've offered a competing interpretation. In supporting that, the background material, or things like the author's words on why he chose his villains are, indeed, relevant.

Suppose, arguendo, that they just wanted to make a film about Ra's al Ghul, or at least, a Batman film using him as a villain? Goyer is a comic fan, as Nolan appears to be: suppose they just wanted to make a movie that is more "true to the comic"? (Note that this was a frequently-stated goal, and changing Ghul's name wouldn't really be.) How exactly would they have written the movie such that al Ghul didn't evoke al Qaeda to you, whilst still keeping the essentials of the character and making the movie they wanted to make? Why do you suppose the film would have looked any different from the one you saw?

It's easy to rely on the "he doesn't think I should have an opinion" line, but the challenge when confronted with contrary evidence is to justify the opinion. The film evoked images of al Quaeda to you? That's an undeniable fact, not surprising, and not one I'm taking issue with. But what you did was put words and intentions in the mouths of the filmmakers: they clearly meant something as opposed to couldn't avoid it. If someone took your words out of context, ascribed intentions to you, and I felt it unjustified, I'd defend you. Indeed, when the Bush Blog did that, I critiqued them. Then again, maybe I'm just an Althouse fanboy as well.

Ann Althouse said...

Pogo: About me and the "Batman oevre" -- although I have never read the books, I have seen all the movies in the theater soon after they came out. I've seen the first Batman movie more than once. It's clearly the best. I also watched the TV series when it originally aired. I've seen plenty of action movies on my own volition. I like some a lot. "Kill Bill: Volume 2" for example. And "Volume 1." And most of the serious dramas like "Cinderella Man" don't interest me. It wasn't just by weird chance that "Batman Begins" was the first movie I went to see since last winter. It was carefully selected as the sort of thing I would like. The last "powerful drama" I got suckered into seeing was "The Hours" and I'm still kicking myself for wasting my time seeing that. I didn't like "The English Patient" or "Schindler's List" either.

Ann Althouse said...

Okay, Tony. I'll let you have the last word. I want to have fanboys, after all.

chuck_b said...
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chuck_b said...
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chuck_b said...

I've always loved Batman & I've never thought about his politics, and I haven't seen the movie yet (looking forward to it--we have it on the IMAX screen here).

Nonetheless, I have comments!

1) In some contemporary Batman narratives (there are dozens), the police actually consider Batman himself to be a criminal, sometimes due to his sub rosa methods, and sometimes due to the results those methods produce.

2) A Batman fanboy making serious arguments about values must consider the perspective that Batman and Bruce Wayne are separate and distinct identities and therefore have separate values. The modern mythos is based on this key distinction, and the elision muddies the waters so to speak.

3) Batman for the most part doesn't fight crime; he fights the criminally insane. Batman attracts, and is attracted to, insanity.

If you like arty comic books, I recommend Warren Ellis' Apparat Singles Group Project, especially the title Angel Stomp Future. It's all about memes. It's also adults-only.

Pogo said...

Ann,

Ouch! I sense some irritation in your response, perhaps in my suggestion that women often prefer a drama to an action flick. Or that fanboys tend, on average, to be boys. Anyway, I accept your Batman bona fides, and apologize for the transgression of committing a stereotype.

Of note, I also thought the The Hours was without merit; so depressing and whiny. But I found Schindler's List to be rather moving, although I have never watched it again (the topic not one for all but certain moods, and that one thankfully is rare). Liked the English Patient quite a bit, too. Still haven't and won't see the Kill Bill pieces, probably ever. Go figure.

Alas, I violate my own stereotypes. What to do?

bill m said...

To change the subject somewhat...and no politics!! ...I've noticed that in every negative review of this enjoyable movie, the reviewer mentions "Memento". As if not remaking it or, ideally, coming up with something else completely original was a major failure on Nolan's part.

Well, I for one liked both these flicks just as I've enjoyed different movies made by Clint. Nobody ever confronted him about "Unforgiven" being better than "Million Dollar Baby", or vice versa. Well, they wouldn't dare.

CraigC said...

On the subject of poverty and crime, there have been several studies that showed that not only is there no correlation, crime actually went up during certain periods of economic boom.

At the risk of being accused of social Darwinism, I would posit that it's no surprise that most crimes are commited by people at the lower end of the socio-economic scale.

chuck_b said...
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Ann Althouse said...

Leland: I don't mean to express disdain for Batman comics. I've never looked at them much more than to see that it's not the kind of drawing I'm interested in. I look at comics for the drawings -- and I just don't like the commercial style of comics drawing, no matter how well done or arty or "dark" it is.

chuck_b said...

I didn't address my comments to you, Ann. They're general, free-standing remarks

chuck_b said...

General, post-scriptional remarks addressed to noone in particular:

I appreciate the disdain many feel for super-hero comics (as opposed to high(er) brow, arty comics. As a 35yo man w/ a house, a career and all that, I'm more likely to let people know I'm gay before I tell them I still read Batman.

That said, it's perhaps worth keeping in mind that Batman is 10 years shy of his 75th anniversary. Almost nothing produced by today's culture industry--high or low--will interest anyone 75 years from now. Ditto for the sports and business pages. But there will still be Batman.

I think people might want to bear that in mind before arguing, as some might, against super hero comic books as a valid entertainment and in favor of other forms of entertainment that are, if anything, less enduring.

CM said...

That was one of my favorite lines in the movie ("criminals thrive on the indulgence of society"). Because I found myself nodding, and then I realized that statement had all sorts of disturbing implications. I think that's what makes Batman so interesting -- the tension between justice and vigilantism, and the question of whether compassion toward enemies is essential or foolish. The movie, and the Batman comics, never try to push a clear answer to those questions.

PG said...

All the people discussing here do realize that, as paa noted in the second comment, the "criminals thrive" line is by Liam Neeson/ Ra'as al Ghul, right? It's when he's trying to get Bruce Wayne to behead a criminal, and Bruce declares that he cannot be an executioner. At the same, he isn't terribly careful of whether people die as an unintended consequence of his actions.

I'd already seen this post before I saw the movie, so my perspective was tainted, but I asked the 18 year old who went with me whether he'd seen an al Qaeda connection and he looked at me like I was crazy. So it's also something you have to be a bit politically minded even to think about. In the mind of the average member of this movie's target audience, "al" doesn't automatically bring up "Qaeda."

Remember that the villainy in the movie has a couple of layers: there's the standard mafioso who has corrupted the city, and then there is Ra'as al Ghul, who claims that he must destroy the city to cleanse it of its corruption. One could argue that without the former, or people like him, there'd be no threat from the latter. It's the common criminality that creates vigilantes.

Selena said...

I just happened to stumble onto this little page here...and I find it well, ridiculous that anyone would connect Ra's Al Ghul to the Al Qaeda. First of all...as a Batman fan for 2 decades...GRRRRRR!!! Ra's Al Ghul is Egyptian. He was a member of a group called Shadow Assassins. Ra's eventually found access to something called the Lazarus Pits and could therefore live forever. He is just a serious pain in Batman's side...not a Bin Laden wannabe. He does not, will not ever represent the Al Qaeda. If you are one of those people who are thriving on this Al Qaeda drama, then I guess you could turn an episode of the Smurfs into Al Qaeda bull crap. That movie was made for US...the fans of comic books. For the rest of you...go watch Joel Schumacher's waste of film with Batman and Robin...or better yet...Catwoman. Don't pretend like you know what is going on when you don't. You just end up offending the fans. Al Qaeda...what a joke.