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GOD ON THE STREETS OF GOTHAMWHAT THE BIG SCREEN BATMAN CAN TEACH US ABOUT GOD AND OURSELVES
By PAUL ASAY
TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.Copyright © 2012 Paul Asay
All right reserved.
One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. —G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
IT TAKES A SPECIAL PERSON to dress up like a flying rodent. And when I say special, I mostly mean weird.
And when I say weird, I mean weird for grown-ups. My son used to wear a homemade bat outfit around the house when he was four, flapping its sewn-on wings in a desperate effort to fly around the living room. But were he still doing so today, at age twenty, I'd sit him down and encourage a less eclectic sense of fashion. It's one thing to wear a bat costume to bed; it's another to wear one to job interviews.
Granted, Bruce Wayne—Batman's moneyed alter ego—doesn't need a job. Gotham City's prominent playboy billionaire has more money under his sofa cushions than most of us have in our checking accounts. And if he ever wanted a job for some inexplicable reason, he owns a whole corporation full of middle managers who'd be falling all over themselves to hire him. Rich folk have more license than the rest of us to engage in, shall we say, eccentric hobbies. If Lady Gaga can dress up in meat for the occasional award ceremony, who's going to begrudge Bruce a cowl and cape?
But Bruce's eccentricity—if we can call it that—goes far deeper. When he puts on his mask and straps on his utility belt, he's not playing dress-up. In his case, clothes really do make the man. What he wears is in some critical, half-understood way more reflective of the real Bruce Wayne than his billionaire playboy facade is or could ever be. When he wears this dark guise, Bruce shoots past eccentricity and reaches beyond weird. As Batman, he flies into a dangerous, dreamlike world that at times can resemble an acid trip gone terribly awry. And he has the almost unthinkable impression that he can somehow make this nightmare landscape better.
This is more than a mere oddity. It's a psychosis.
Or ... a calling.
WHY SO SERIOUS?
Whatever you call it, Batman's been doing it for a long time. He began his career in Detective Comics No. 27 in May 1939, when the country was still mired in the Great Depression and the planet was speeding toward World War II. He was a dark vigilante then, suitable for those uneasy times when gangsters and crooks sometimes seemed beyond the reach of the law. For more than seventy years, he's been fighting crime and wrestling with evildoers in comics, newspapers, television, and movies, and in the imaginations of eight-year-old boys wearing tied-on capes and forty-year-old men with too much time on their hands. And while he hasn't always been the grim character he was in the beginning, he's always had a bit of an edge. Even in the colorful, campy ABC television show that popularized the character in 1966, Adam West's Caped Crusader never laughs. For him, crime fighting is serious business ... and that's the joke.
Now, of course, West's straight-faced superhero is long gone, replaced in popular culture by Christian Bale's brooding Batman in Christopher Nolan's trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises). The DC Comics character is often complex and conflicted. For seventy-plus years, we've called him a hero.
But is he? And if he is, what makes him so? We've grown so used to the guy that we sometimes forget how disturbing his persona is, how disturbing it was designed to be. He's no cookie-cutter crime fighter with a Dudley Do-Right dimple or a Superman smile who will tell children to mind their studies, mind their parents, and always, always floss. From the very beginning, Batman has been a dark character, more at home in Gotham's shadows than its light.
So as we dive into a book that attempts to use Batman as some sort of spiritual instructor, a shadowy guide who may help us walk better in the light, it's best to remember not just who we want Batman to be but who he is. If we saw Batman on the street and didn't know who he was, we'd run away from, not toward, the guy. If we saw something like him in medieval art, we'd think he was more demon than angel.
Before the lessons begin, we must meet our instructor; we must see if this guy has anything to teach us, anything to share. Can we trust him? What if there's something not quite right underneath that cowl of his? What if he's not a superhero at all?
IT'S A BIRD, IT'S A PLANE, IT'S A MESSIAH METAPHOR!
We all know what superheroes are supposed to be about—how they look and talk and act. Batman may arguably be the most popular superhero around these days, but when we think of a generic superhero, there's still a pretty good chance that we envision another DC Comics creation—that big dude from Metropolis with the S on his chest. "Now that's a superhero," we might say. Superman defined the word, and we know that if Superman and Batman tangled in a mixed martial arts ring, the Man of Steel would clean Batman's belfry. The guy's a rock 'em, sock 'em demigod, graced with extraterrestrial super strength, speed, and good manners. And from the very beginning, he was presented as a savior.
Superman, as we know the story today, was born Kal-El (a Hebrew-inflected name interpreted by some to mean "the voice of God") on a faraway planet destroyed in a tragic cataclysm. His parents shipped him off to Earth just before things got really nasty—not just to save the boy's life, but to send him to a world that Kal-El, in turn, could save.
"They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be," his father, Jor-El, tells Superman in the 2006 film Superman Returns. "They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you ... my only son." Powerful, good, and incorruptible, Superman seems both Greek god and Christian saint. And in case anyone missed the metaphor up to that point, in Superman Returns we see him sacrifice himself for the world ... and yet return, as it were, from the dead.
Batman, conversely, is no smiling, superhuman alien sent to save humanity. He shares very little in common with the Man of Steel. We call Batman a superhero, but he has no special abilities to speak of, no talents born of Krypton or gamma ray showers, no gifts garnered through mysterious spider bites or medical experiments gone wrong. He's a self-made man—fully human, just as we are. He's not all-powerful. He's not, as we shall see, altogether good. He is a product of our fallen world even as he strives to rise above it. He holds the seed of God's perfect creation, and yet that seed is embedded in the dirt of tragedy, temptation, sin, and corruption.
And he knows it.
"Deep down, Clark's essentially a good person," Batman admits of his super pal in the DC Comics saga Hush. "And deep down, I'm not."
"You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain," we're told in The Dark Knight. In real life, we've seen countless heroes—athletes, actors, politicians, pastors—fall and crash, and Batman is complex enough, enigmatic enough, damaged enough for us to fear that he could fall too. Batman's weakness isn't kryptonite, silver, or some otherworldly thing: it's his own, very human nature. And that's part of what makes him so compelling.
Sure, Batman sometimes acts as a savior stand-in. But for the most part, he's not a Messiah figure.
HOLY INCONSISTENCIES, BATMAN!
Those of us who have been to Sunday school at least twice (and didn't sneak out during the songs) know at least a little about the character of Jesus—how he is the Son of God who came to Earth as a puny mortal to teach us stuff and save us from, essentially, ourselves. Jesus was both completely God and completely human, and since he was a normal guy (in a sense), he experienced most of what we normal guys and girls do: hunger, thirst, pain, sleepiness, that sort of thing.
But some of the stuff we humans do as just part of being human is, at least to my way of thinking, incompatible with the nature of being God.
Take, for instance, the concept of inconsistency. You can't accuse Jesus of being inconsistent. Granted, he had his moments and moods. He could be angry or gentle or sad or even a little exasperated. But while we might read about him telling stories in one chapter and turning over tables in the next, he was always Jesus, if that makes sense. Nothing he did was ever out of character, outside the mold of who we know Jesus to be.
We, on the other hand, are wildly inconsistent.
Oh, sure, we try to convince ourselves that we know who we are. We tell our friends that we're this type of guy or not that sort of girl. We tell everyone what great senses of humor we have or how much we care for the poor—traits that we feel get down to the core of what we're all about (or who we'd like to be). And if we're not so sure about who we are, we have a whole slew of personality tests designed to tell us.
For instance, the folks at Myers & Briggs tell me I'm an INFP, which means I'm a shy, artistic, touchy-feely type—the kind of person who might write a book about the spirituality of superheroes. But they'd be shocked if they knew I was nearly thrown out of one of my son's soccer games for getting, shall we say, overly enthusiastic. My math teachers, who knew me as the guy who'd doodle all over my notes, would be surprised to know that I regularly crunch a whole bunch of wonky stats while trying to compile a fantasy football team.
Truth is, I'm not always an INFP. Sometimes I might be a more gregarious ENFP or a more judgmental INFJ, and sometimes I can go totally against my character and do a good impression of an ESTJ. On really bad days, I resemble an ICBM. Sure, we might have an inkling of who we are and how we'll react. Those personality tests can be pretty revealing. But all those Myers-Briggs letters can't convey the whole story, and all the rules and inclinations and character types we set for ourselves are littered with exceptions. I think I have a great sense of humor but sometimes don't get obvious jokes. I run three hours, then grab a Sausage McMuffin at McDonald's.
And we're all like that. The most patient among us can snap at a barista. The most cautious among us sometimes take up hang gliding. We have more faces than the Rolex factory, more personas than the cast of Saturday Night Live. Sometimes it would seem that we're not one person but several—forever flexing from one to the next, changing colors like a Las Vegas fountain.
Batman fits right in with the rest of us. Sometimes he seems hardly the same superhero. One decade he's a dark loner, the next he's a veritable family man, surrounded by batwomen, batgirls, and batpets. In one graphic novel, he's a wreck, torn asunder by compulsion and neurosis. In another, he's a rock, a pillar of goodness and virtue. You're never quite sure what you're going to get with Batman—just like us.
THE MEN IN THE MASKS
Batman's inconsistencies aren't just born of outside influences—the writers, artists, actors, and directors who have all had a hand in shaping the superhero's mythic arc over the years and the demands of the readers and viewers who consume his stories. He's a complex, often contradictory character within these various works too—at one turn the billionaire playboy, at another the dark vigilante, at still another a man unsure, seemingly puzzled by who he is and what he's become, still searching for his parents' approval.
"What am I doing, Alfred?" he asks in 1993's Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, one of countless times he's turned to his loyal, ever-present valet for advice. Having fallen in love, he's in anguish over whether it's okay to be a masked vigilante and a significant other. "This isn't part of the plan!" he says.
It's not the first time Batman has surprised even himself. No wonder we're not always sure of him either. He's an enigma to us—just as, in some ways, we all are to each other.
It's interesting how he sometimes uses his cowl to find a level of consistency in himself. Push back the mask and Bruce Wayne seems lost and unsure. Slip it on and he becomes someone else, more confident in action, more definitive in deed. On the inside maybe Bruce Wayne is not that much removed from a little boy who lost his parents so very long ago. But Batman—the guy Bruce becomes when he's in costume—can't afford to express doubts or insecurity. His mask doesn't just hide his features: it helps define them.
Like Batman, all of us hide behind our masks and use them to help define ourselves for others. We all have secret identities of a sort, hidden behind our smiling social-networking profiles or our happy church faces. They're not lies, really. They're just not the whole truth, because we know that most of the people we encounter day-to-day couldn't handle the truth (or perhaps we couldn't handle giving it to them). Most of us are like those Russian nesting dolls, presenting a slightly different visage to the world depending on which world we're dealing with at the time. The outermost doll isn't a lie: mine still offers part of who I am, but it's not all of who I am. As I get closer to people, the nesting dolls open and the masks change. But it's a rare person whom I allow to see what's at my core: my innermost thoughts and fears, my dreams and desires, my pettiness and peevishness. Most of us know that if we threw ourselves open to the whole world, what would be revealed isn't always that attractive. It can be silly or ugly or off-putting, and so we only shed our masks a bit at a time.
The masks we wear aren't lies. They are, in a strange way, a critical part of who we are. Batman's not unusual in wearing one: his is just a little more obvious.
In Batman's case, though, it's harder to determine what his "mask" really is—and perhaps he's not even completely sure. He wears one when making the rounds in Gotham to bring down the bad guys. But there's another he wears, far more like the ones we show people at work or school or at the latest party: his Bruce Wayne mask, the playboy billionaire visage that he pastes on for dinners and charity balls. Lots of folks would argue that Bruce hides behind his perfectly coiffed hair and ever-easy smile far more than Batman does underneath his cowl.
In the ultra-creepy graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, the Dark Knight finds himself virtually imprisoned in Gotham City's most notorious locale for the criminally insane—at the mercy of the madmen he put there. Unconscious, Batman is momentarily helpless, and Arkham's inmates—led by Batman's personal demon, the Joker—can pretty much have their way with him.
"I say we take off his mask," says one loon in the gloom. "I want to see his real face."
"Oh, don't be so predictable!" Joker says. "That is his real face."
That's one of the interesting things about Gotham: it can be difficult to figure out just what constitutes a mask. It's not just Batman who wears one.
In Batman Begins, who is the real Dr. Crane: the apparently mild-mannered psychiatrist or the nightmare called Scarecrow? What's the true face of Two-Face in The Dark Knight? And what about the Joker's ghastly white face? Is that a mask? Is that who he truly is?
The answer to these questions may be yes, oddly enough. Gotham City is a place where masks reveal as much as they obscure—perhaps not unlike our own. And using this curiously paradoxical construct, it's satisfying to me that Joker's two most recent cinematic appearances give us two opposite, and yet somehow complementary, looks at his unforgettable visage.
Excerpted from GOD ON THE STREETS OF GOTHAM by PAUL ASAY Copyright © 2012 by Paul Asay. Excerpted by permission of TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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