I just saw Doctor Strange in theatres. It’s a good movie, but this is not a review. I went into the movie not knowing much about Doctor Strange. His was not one of the titles I followed in 80s. But when I saw the movie, I recognized something familiar about his origin story: like most superheroes, he starts rich.
I guess I started to realize something was up with the economic distribution of superheroes when I thought about all the gadgets Iron Man and Batman both had. Unlimited weaponry, endless supply of toys. But it was when I was teaching a class on Superheroes, Social Justice, and the Principle of the Common Good (the kind of class you can develop at a Catholic Marianist University like University of Dayton) and as a class we started to see a pattern in the heroes. While each of them manifested different powers—most of them, most of the famous ones, had something each of us did not. Most had sources of wealth and positions of elite privilege before they got superpowers.
This is important to think about when we think of Superheroes and Power—that power is often not given to those who have no power before, but is given to those who have always had power. With a few notable exceptions, becoming a superhero requires money. This means that the average person doesn’t become a superhero without money—just like they don’t become a lot of things in the real world without money. And that is an interesting thing to think about when you think about superhero escapist fiction. We have all these possibilities! We can choose ANY storyline. We think it’s about a redistribution of power—that ANYONE can become a superhero–but analyzing origin stories, the results say something different.
The Net Worth of Superheroes
Those who have power in the superhero universe and who have the job of protecting citizens are often unacquainted with most of the 99%, are used to being wealthy and powerful, and are often living far removed from common society in Fortresses of Solitude, atop penthouses, or in private academies on large estates, or in mansions or whole buildings in downtown NYC (there are exceptions—I can hear you already, bursting to say names—but I’m talking about a surprising majority of the major superheroes we have today).
If you’ve seen the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, then you might already be in a debate about whether or not TDK was commenting on the War on Terror. See the NYT post here: Batman and the War on Terror
I’m finding the discussion interesting. I’m not sure that I agree that Batman and Co. are supporting a Bush doctrine of the Need for wiretapping, or taking away rights for the good of the city. At least they restore the rights to the people after Joker is caught. But I think there’s a nice cross-section of theories on how to restore Order in the movie—or what to do with chaos.
Gotham is overrun with crime, and in TDK, it seems that you can’t trust anyone. But Gotham needs Order and obviously Batman is not providing it completely—witness the opening sequence where there are pseudo-Batmans and other criminals afoot. The problem of Order is complicated by each group out-robbing each other and all of our assets are about to go to China. There is a semblance of order before the Joker shows up: Druglords and Mafia, who keep each other in check through greed and force. But Joker fights against all order–he is the Chaos Bringer–so he’s bad news for anyone hoping to install order–good and bad alike.
There are four ways to bring order to Gotham presented in the film, and each method gets weighed by the audience:
1. A strong police force, or Rule of Enforcement, represented by Lieutenant, later Commissioner, Gordon and his police. For all his police force, the problem is individual cops–and they can be manipulated through bribes, blackmail, or threats. One leak and the baddies always know where the cops will be. Just to enforce laws does nothing to prevent them from being broken if the enforcers can be corrupted. And, in this movie, cops can be corrupted, and cops can also be empowered to the point that they are the problem.
2. A strong vigilante, or Rule of the Individual, represented by Batman. Batman can only do so much as one man. The problem, as TDK shows, is that vigilanteism promotes more vigilantes who are outside the law (or who take the law into their own hands). Vigilantes do not stop crime in the end. Because they have no legal restraints, as cops do, and because they are often “unnamed heroes” they have the potential to be both hired guns and loose cannons–causing as much damage as they seek to stop, or promoting themselves and their own code over the rule of law. Batman has a strong sense of justice, but Joker is able to chip away at this by pointing out that Batman is as much “outside” the society as he is, and likely to remain that way. The public, Joker implies, can be turned against him. Vigilantes can be turned easily–and Batman shows us that he is often one step away from legitimizing killing as a way to stop the chaos.
3. A strong Judicial system represented by Harvey Dent, or Rule of Law. This is the movie’s strongest case, really, about how to make order from chaos. Bring those responsible under the rule of law and laws will decide their fate. Laws take the morality or culpability of individual decisions away, and make them corporate decisions. So a death penalty is dictated by law, not by a vigilante or a cop, and therefore the decision has no human face. Why is this important? In giving order to chaos, order has to be corporately decided because each individual’s order is wildly different. And laws can’t be corrupted–they can’t be bribed. They can be twisted a bit, but there are ways to untwist them. For Dent, good people can reshape society. They can create order where once there was chaos. They become the superheroes. The problem that the Joker offers in the movie is that every road to order comes through a person eventually–and people can be corrupted. Dent’s idealism blinds him to his own possible corruption. By taking down Harvey Dent, Joker proves that order is, yeah, human-led and therefore fallible, never a constant, and always subject to human variables. Good can reshape society—as long as those good people shaping it are happy. Make Dent crazy, and craziness will reshape society. Joker destroys the hope of Order through Rule of Law. Batman and Gordon know this, which leads to their pact in the end to lie. If Rule of Law is proven to be corruptible– through Dent, then people’s faith will be lost.
4. Chance is the only order, represented by Two-Face. Two Face believes order is decided by an outside force. We don’t affect our reality (not as Harvey Dent believed we could–that good people could actually be in control of reshaping society). Chance and fate affect our reality and one must succumb to their rule. Well, that’s one step up from Chaos, maybe. At least you can hope that the outside force is good. What’s interesting is that Dent had always used a two-headed coin and then lied to other people when he flipped it, making them think it had two sides. In reality, Dent always got what he wanted by making other people believe the coin had a fair chance of landing either way. The accident, scarring the coin, actually makes the coin a real game for Dent because he can’t control the outcome anymore. Unfortunately, there is no controlling an outside force like God, or Fate. So, this method only works if you’re mad. Even God allows for police and rule of law.
The Joker has no Order, but he rightly believes that Order is constructed by people. He delights in proving that every person is corruptible, that at their heart there is disorder. He uses human compassion to manipulate the cops, the crowds, Batman–turning human compassion into favoritism or elitism–making us choose who we love, who is worthy to live. We don’t want to see that side of ourselves and the Joker lives to make us confront that clown in the mirror. Personally I love the message the movie gives in regards to the two barges, one full of Gothamites, one full of prisoners–that no one is worthy to destroy. Not even, in the end, the Joker.
What then brings Order to Gotham City?
A scapegoat, and an illusion of Rule of Law prevailing. Now that’s interesting. To reboot the Rule of Law, Batman has to absorb all the negative attention and criticism for the way things are in the city, and the cops have to chase him, declare war on him. And the corrupt Harvey Dent must be forgiven, and polished up to serve as Batman’s opposite; he must absorb all the heroism. (Dead, Dent can’t argue the point.) Illusion then is what brings some order, hopefully, to the chaos of Gotham—illusion that Dent caught the Joker, illusion that Batman is a villain, illusion that Rule of Law is stable and secure. This will calm the public.
It isn’t, then, CRIME we’re after, nor is it CRIMINALS. It is the PUBLIC who needs to be assured that things are safe–and the criminals afraid–to establish order, it seems. As in the first movie, Nolan talks about FEAR and how it drives us to “become” criminals. Fear causes men and women to kill or be killed in the Haunted Gotham that the Scarecrow sets up in Batman Begins. And Fear nearly takes its toll here, though the impulse for changing people seems to be more about corruption–about our moral compasses–and how we feel about each other. Joker exploits that. But giving people the illusion of Justice served, and of a criminal to chase (the Batman) who is responsible for everything bad, gives an illusion of safety and security from which order can come–since individuals will find less need to become criminals.
It’s the illusion of established order–that there is now a good and a bad– that re-establishes order.