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?


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!

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... :)

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...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
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)

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.

KCFleming said...

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.)

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.

KCFleming said...


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?

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.

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.