I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one
——————Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto the First
A SUPERHERO MOVIE is foremost an entertainment, often kitschy, sometimes trashy, but regardless, it is a story. “Story” is implied in “movie,” but it’s worth emphasizing the concept precisely because so few others have. In his essay “On Stories,” C.S. Lewis places himself at the end of a sparsely populated lineage of critics who have focused on the mechanics of “story considered in itself”—there was Aristotle, there was Boccaccio, there was Carl Jung, and, according to Lewis, not many others. This is unfortunate because it means that, among other things, we don’t have many explications of the ways in which “different kinds of danger strike different chords from the imagination,” or why it is that only the first trip to a new planet is the one worth writing about, or, to serve our purposes here, what a superhero story tells us about justice and human nature. The stories behind two recent superhero movies with artistic ambitions, The Dark Knight and Watchmen, make it clear that the superhero is the character in which our desire for justice and order meets our questions about what it means to be human. A superhero is, in this way, a religion unto himself.
Dozens of superhero movies have been made in the last two decades, and it remains Hollywood’s most bankable genre. The Dark Knight (which came out in the summer of 2008) and Watchmen (which premiered last spring), however, differ from the rest in that they aspire to a slightly higher perch on Mount Parnassus. Both films are long (well over two hours), and take place in human cities on the brink of anarchy and destruction (Gotham in The Dark Knight, the whole world in Watchmen). The superheroes suffer through a crisis of identity in which they question the fundamental reasons for doing what they do, as well as their moral qualifications for claiming to be upholders of justice, and they contemplate the profound ambiguity of their role in the city. These films repeat their themes over and over, explaining themselves to an audience accustomed to superhero movies full of spectacle and excitement—but they also indulge the audience with the same, making an ironic quid pro quo: a little bit of philosophy for a little bit of fireworks. The fireworks are part of the point, though: the violence that permeates the films is the violence of the city breaking apart, and the strength of these films lies in their depictions of how the superheroes try to keep things from disintegrating—the fundamentally religious problem of managing the brokenness of the human will and the fragile order that is built around it. But when the question of justice turns to the question of human nature, the dramas buckle before the gravity of the question: they are better at asking than at attempting to answer.
Recently and memorably, Andrew Tracy, writing for the film journal Reverse Shot, complained that “Talking faux-seriously about juvenilia has become a marvelous way to avoid talking seriously about the serious. The slew of hyperbolic, overheated critical rhetoric that follows in the wake—hell, in advance of—the latest high-concept blockbuster is enough to make one gag.”
But Lewis would see the matter differently. Toward the end of “On Stories,” after giving a survey of different ways that fantastical stories can reveal truths about our own real-world psychology, and quoting widely and seemingly indiscriminately from low and high works, Lewis defends himself: “This does not mean that I think them of equal literary merit. But if I am right in thinking that there is another enjoyment in story besides the excitement, then popular romance even on the lowest level becomes rather more important than we had supposed.” We could argue the same for superhero movies.
The Dark Knight is a lopsided title, because the film is as much about a White Knight as it is about the Dark one, and the film itself is lopsided, in that it presents a Manichean world where evil is more real, or at least more manifestly present, than good. Evil has a mind in the character of the Joker, a role which became legendary before the film was ever released, since its interpreter, Heath Ledger, died before the film was ever seen by the public. The Joker’s scarred face glows through his cosmetic makeup: it’s the visage of a fully costumed clown whose face paint was once violently smeared and slapped around by an agent of evil. Since then, the clown has not bothered to repaint his makeup. He has assumed that the evil that has marked him is the truest thing about human nature, and he has decided to do unto others the smearing that was done to himself: to draw out the evil at the core of every living thing.
That’s a metaphorical back-story, not a real one, because Christopher Nolan, director and co-screenwriter of the film (and an auteur of well-deserved repute already, having given the world Memento), presents the character of the Joker as an “absolute,” a complete force of chaos and destruction, without a past. In the film, the Joker himself gives two different stories explaining his scars. The back-story relevant to the film antedates the Joker. Once upon a time, there was a city named Gotham. The civil life of the city suffered from an infestation of violence radiating from organized crime families. Law enforcement was not enough to deal with the problem. A billionaire entrepreneur with a background in weapons development becomes the Batman, the Dark Knight, and fights for the law from a locus, if not outside, at least on the very fringes that separate lawful society from the lawless state of nature.
The film starts, and we learn the paradox: Batman fights criminals, but he also attracts them to the city. It is unclear whether he is a good influence for Gotham. This is one reason many critics saw the work of philosopher René Girard as the interpretive key to the film: for Girard, violence is mimetic; it escalates with observation and imitation by rival parties also thirsty with desire. Enter the Joker, Gotham’s newest criminal, who begins the movie with an assault on a bank with a coterie of accomplices wearing clown masks, in imitation of their master. As each would-be clown finishes a task in the operation, he is shot by the clown who takes over for the next step. Finally, only the Joker drives away with the duffle bags of money, which he carries in a school bus that he has crashed into the bank. While in the bank, he encounters a member of a crime family who was working there, and who was the only one to shoot back against the clowns. “Criminals used to believe in respect, in honor. What do you believe in?” the man asks. The Joker makes a joke of the question. As another character puts it later, to a member of the mob, “You’ve got rules. The Joker, he’s got no rules.”
The plot begins with an alliance between the crime families—led by the big boss, Maroni—and the Joker. This becomes necessary after the White Knight comes onto the scene. Harvey Dent, Gotham’s new district attorney, jokingly flips a double-headed quarter every time he wishes to leave a decision to chance, and with his smarts and good looks is able to corner Maroni and the mob in a legal trap. With some help from the Dark Knight, who is able to capture a Hong Kong businessman and bring him back to Gotham to spill the beans about his friends (it’s useful to have a Batman when a bad guy lies outside of your jurisdiction), Dent is able to arrest over two hundred mobsters on racketeering charges. Maroni and the top mobsters bail themselves out eventually, but the damage is done, and the damage is that the crime families now know that Dent is the toughest DA they have ever met.
The Joker offers to make a deal with the crime families, to join forces and destroy the Batman. The White Knight cannot succeed without the Dark Knight. The Joker counts on this, and he counts on his belief that all men tend toward inexorable corruption, and that all he has to do is provide the defining blow: “I am not a monster,” he says at one point; “I am ahead of the curve.” Again: “It’s not about the money. It’s about sending a message: Everything burns.” The Nolan brothers—who penned the script together—give the Joker perhaps one too many lines describing his own bottomless evil. But at least we can be sure about who he really is: an endless questioner. That might not seem like a nefarious description, but it’s an accurate one. In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis writes about the “debunkers,” who “see through” every social norm and value and end up affirming nothing. The problem with the debunkers is not that they deign to question the things that society holds to be true and good—Socrates was not a debunker—but that they are able to dismantle the methods by which we decide things to be true and good. The debunker challenges the ground beneath every declaration of value, and inadvertently undermines even the standpoint for his own debunking—but that doesn’t matter, because the debunking goes on regardless of logic. With the Joker, the Nolan brothers have created the ultimate debunker.
The Joker slashes through every premise of nobility, every first principle of morality and goodness that any character can claim. His first target is the Dark Knight, but his first real victim is the White Knight: Dent, after suffering the death of his beloved and having half of his face burned off in an explosion, becomes the villain Two-Face. One side of his two-headed quarter becomes charred and black. Now chance is truly chance. Dent flips the coin, it lands heads, and he joins the Joker in his rampage against order. Our hope is not in the White Knight, in the honest crusader who uses the law to fight for the common good.
But neither is our hope in the Dark Knight. He decays like everyone else—he tortures Maroni at one point, and after that, he tortures the Joker. So who can we hope in? Nolan wants us to place our hope in the inchoate sense of humanity and justice within the “common man,” and the famous climax of the film involves a play by the Joker to give the following option to two ships, one a chain-gang of criminals being transferred to a prison, and the other, a group of civilian tourists: at midnight, you will both be blown up, but here is the ignition to blow the other ship up. If you blow the other ship up, I won’t blow you up at midnight. Neither the criminals nor the law-abiding civilians ultimately choose to destroy the other ship. Hope!
But not quite. If the best citizen, Dent, is prone to corruption, then only time separates the good citizens of those ships and the moral decay that caused Dent’s collapse. The Joker’s deconstruction is so absolute that he makes it hard to believe, at the end of the film, that the principled are strong enough to defeat the destroyer of principles. The Joker himself is locked up, but we can still hear him laugh. How do we shut him up? How to affirm something before this ultimate debunker? The film raises this question powerfully, but manages only a provisional answer: Batman becomes a scapegoat for the evils of the city (Girard again), and Commissioner Gordon, the new White Knight of Gotham, sums it up: “Sometimes, truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes, people deserve more. Sometimes, people deserve to have their faith rewarded.”
Truth, then, is not part of the answer. The answer is a noble lie that can keep the evil at bay. Batman is too human to be a true superhero, so he must become a scapegoat in the cause of justice instead, until we come up with a true answer to the question of human nature and our tendency toward corruption, which some call the fruit of our original sin.
If Batman is too human, the central superhero of Watchmen, Doctor Manhattan, is not human enough. Doctor Manhattan was born Jon Osterman, a nuclear physicist who suffered an accident in the facility where he worked and became, after a few days, resurrected as a sort of pure-energy genius superbeing who can see his own future and is not completely a participant in the same timeline as regular human beings. He is given the name Doctor Manhattan by American government officials who want to use him in the same way they use the deterring powers of the bomb that was built in the original Manhattan Project. But Doctor Manhattan is more than a deterrent: he was also used to win the Vietnam War with actual killing. (The film takes place in an alternate world history; the historical differences—most importantly a multiple-term Nixon administration—are established in a montage during the opening credits.) Director Zack Snyder, who already converted one graphic novel into a film with 300 in 2006, is faithful to his source material, and forsakes none of the protruding bones or bloody faces of the comic original.
Doctor Manhattan once led the Watchmen, a cadre of costumed crime fighters (superheroes without special powers, also the technical term for Batman) brought together in the late 1960s to bring order to the United States and, later, to help win the war in Vietnam. At the beginning of the film, the Watchmen have been disbanded by a President Nixon serving his fifth term, and only Doctor Manhattan and the Comedian are allowed to continue their superhero work with government sanction. The plot beings with the mysterious murder of the Comedian, rendered with an indulgence of brutality by the director. Rorschach, another member of Watchmen, who shows a marked impatience for anyone “soft on crime,” and whose career has been scarred by the brutal murders he witnessed in his younger days as an investigator, takes up the Comedian’s case, working as a vigilante.
The story that follows is long and winding, and recounting it here is not necessary for an examination of the superhero metaphor, which is revealed in the clashes between characters. As in The Dark Knight, it’s the funnyman who points out the truth about original sin: “Mankind’s been trying to kill itself off since the beginning of time. Now [because of nuclear weapons], it has the power to finish the job,” the Comedian says in a flashback scene, in a cynical retort to the idealism of another member of the Watchmen, Ozymandias. Ozymandias, like Bruce Wayne, is another brilliant, billionaire entrepreneur who, in the film at least, doesn’t betray a sense of irony about his own chosen super-name. He does, however, earnestly believe that the Watchmen can save the world, “with the right leadership.” Concretely, humanity must be saved from the inevitable nuclear war between superpowers that Doctor Manhattan appears to be foreseeing. The popular hope is that Doctor Manhattan will be the savior, but he flees the earth after breaking up with his girlfriend, Silk Spectre, and being accused of involuntary manslaughter. It gets even more complicated than this, but the relevant part is the Ozymandias-devised plot to force Doctor Manhattan to lose touch with whatever vestiges of humanity remain within him, and to break his relationship with the one human person—Silk Spectre—who has until now kept him within the human fold. For Ozymandias has his own plan to save the world: he will blow up New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Moscow, and blame Doctor Manhattan for it (there’s the scapegoat again). This, presumably, will shock both world powers into cooperation and peace.
That this actually happens is the least interesting element of the story. More interesting is the scene on Mars, when Silk Spectre pleads with Doctor Manhattan to save earth. “Why would I save a world I no longer have any stake in?” he asks her. Doctor Manhattan’s misanthropy leads to an indifference to all life: lifeless Mars would not be improved by an oil pipeline or shopping mall, he declares, apparently quoting a pamphlet from the Earth Liberation Front. But Silk Spectre convinces him with: “Do it for me.” You loved me once, now do this for me. An epiphany takes place as Doctor Manhattan uses his powers to plumb Silk Spectre’s memory, and through her learns again the wonder of human life, and learns to love her again. He returns to earth to stop the war.
Back on earth, Rorschach and Night Owl have hunted down Ozymandias in his headquarters in, yes, Antarctica. The cities blow up, and Ozymandias forges Manhattan’s “energy signature,” thus convincing everyone that the mass-murderer is neither Russian nor American. Nixon is baffled, and initiates an immediate rapprochement with the Soviet Union; Ozymandias boasts that he has killed millions to save billions. Rorschach and Night Owl rebuke him, but Manhattan chooses to neither “condone nor condemn.” Ozymandias sums it all up in the same vein as Commissioner Gordon: “The Comedian was right. Humanity’s savage nature will inevitably lead to global annihilation. So in order to save this planet, I have to trick it. The greatest practical joke in human history…. A necessary crime.” Doctor Manhattan adds, “I can change almost anything, but I can’t change human nature.” Doctor Manhattan decides to leave the Milky Way for a “less complicated” galaxy, where he can create new life.
In the universe of both films, the truth about human nature remains unknown, and is in any case unnecessary to establishing a social order. The Dark Knight is a hero all too human, sharing in the same vulnerable condition of those he would save. Doctor Manhattan is not human enough, almost unable to muster the pity that a savior of humanity requires, and, in the end, unimaginative about finding an alternative to the utilitarian violence of Ozymandias.
The superhero films are born of a need to resolve the contradictions of the human condition, and from this sketchily defined need, a metaphor is crafted, the metaphor of a savior, the superhero. But two of the highest expressions of the superhero genre, The Dark Knight and Watchmen, both prove that superheroes are only as good as the deceptions that they protect. Since truth cannot be uncovered, lies must be used to protect the social order.
These films take you to the doorstep of the question of human nature, turn their backs and sit on the curb. In Watchmen, only Rorschach decides that he must tell the truth about Ozymandias; but Rorschach is so tortured by the dilemma at the heart of the story that he begs Doctor Manhattan to end his life.
“How shall we live?” is impossible to ask without at the same time asking “What am I?” This is the central truth of the superhero film, which surfaces as the story develops into a struggle for justice between forces of order and forces of chaos. The story begins in a fallen state, with a fallen people in a fallen city. Things fall apart because human beings have a weak will and often choose to do evil; there is a part of us that is broken.
How then shall we live? The law can only do so much; the superhero enters the scene. The superhero tries to save the people by fighting those who cause the most chaos, whose will has been most thoroughly perverted. But once he sees the seeds of that perversion in himself, and indeed in every living being, then the superhero enters an identity crisis. Watchmen and The Dark Knight both subject their heroes to this crisis. What am I?
For a superhero, that is an interesting question. The superhero is something like a Greek god in that he both resembles and stands above human beings. But the superhero is also infused with a moral sense that remains grounded in a Judeo-Christian inheritance. One could call a superhero a messiah or savior, except that he wasn’t sent by heaven but arose from humanity itself (whether through an incredible incident, like Doctor Manhattan, or effort, intelligence, and resources, like Batman).
No matter how godlike the superhero appears to be, he is still human in that he has a broken will; even the superhuman Doctor Manhattan is imperfect when it comes to knowing and choosing the good. The superhero is something like a religion, too, in that he addresses the brokenness of our will and our world, and attempts to set it right. The Dark Knight and Watchmen are about crisis of belief in this religion—another way of understanding the crisis of identity.
Whether the superhero genre can resolve this crisis remains to be seen. But these films are at least clear about the stakes involved. Their attempt at a resolution—a social order built on a noble lie—appears tenuous, brittle enough to allow for a sequel or two. They make clear what kind of solution we need: a way to live together that redeems the imperfect will that we human beings all share.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.