Saturday, September 17, 2016

Batman, Wonder Woman, and Identity Politics

I thought about this a while back when people were complaining about the casting of Scarlett Johansson as a traditionally Japanese character in the upcoming "Ghost in the Shell" movie and flashing back to Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall in "Thor".
That the Norse gods should be a definitively thought of as a white group of characters, seeing as the Vikings were in fact white.  This argument ignores that the Vikings also traveled the world as sailors and discovered many different races and could have acknowledged this diversity in their myths.  This also ignores the fact that the myths were collected 200 years after they stopped being actively practiced, this collecting was done by a white person in a predominantly white world and... the "races" of the gods become a little more fluid as the original iconography of Vikings in the pre-Christian academic world is not very clear.
Heindall as he might have once been perceived.

And as the fictional character is now perceived.
I would also see online people asking, "What about a white/Caucasian Luke Cage? Or Black Panther?" saying that you could color blind cast in both directions.  Ignoring for a second that taking one of the few recognizable minority characters and casting them with a white actor is in no way equivalent to casting a minority into one of the many-many roles that has been traditionally considered white, my response was that being black is a big part of those character's identities.
Luke Cage is blacker than the ace of clubs and Black Panther was designed to be a distinctly Black character, with a mythology that is all about being a mysterious and powerful head of an African nation that itself is cloaked in mystery.  Most (if not all) white heroes of the Gold and Silver Ages of comics are white because that was the default at the time they were created.  The books were marketed to white children and teens and the characters were white "role models".  Race as it informs or relates to their characters is nil and the number of times the subject is approached it is very lightly touched and then moved away from (mostly because of an industry wide “mums the word” policy of not discussing social issues).
So I asked myself what character would be the definitive WHITE character because you could easily see how their position in their world is informed by and tied to their being white.
Mr. Sunshine and Happy Times himself.
It's Batman.
Bruce Wayne is old money New England elite.  His family has a crest, they have an estate, and they have been part of Gotham (New York) high society for decades or centuries and can trace themselves back further.  The KNIGHT part of Dark Knight seems to very much infer the idea of old time very wealthy royalty using their money and means to protect the people of their Barony/County/Kingdom.  Bruce is the Prince of Gotham and Batman is his suit of armor both literally and figuratively.
Now other cultures have crests and shields.  They have totems that can be utilized to strike fear into the hearts of their foes.  They have family lines... BUT! We live in a culture in which the idea of a wealthy landed elite family THAT WAS BLACK did not, and still for the most part does not exist.  If Thomas and Martha Wayne were seen as upper crust high society people descended from well to do old money and they managed to navigate the racial politics of their day to plant Bruce as the wealthy playboy and Inquirer target… well, that just doesn’t exist in Americana.  It would ring false to the audience.  So, with that in mind, Batman is very "white".
In fact, we already know what you would have to alter and tweak to make a black Batman work, I have already mentioned him.  Black Panther is basically Black Batman.  The totem, the royal trappings, the legacy of wealth, and being the best as a service to one’s city/nation.  Also the reliance on gadgets and martial arts but also having frequent elements of mysticism present in the background.  That is how you would have to change the character to make the premise work, by so fundamentally changing the setting that the idea of changing the race becomes a non-issue.
"I don't see the resemblance." -Moron.
Superman could be any race (you can tell because they have made 10,000 knock-offs of the character and many of them are of different skin tones).  Martian Man Hunter frequently is multiple races and different authors have expressed the Martian race as being gender fluid as well, because of their shapeshifting (and I personally see that as the better interpretation, that when “he” refers to his “wife” who died on Mars, “he” is using terminology that makes the most sense to those “he” is talking to).
Wonder Woman, Flash, the various Green Lanterns (though they really need more women from earth to be considered diverse to audiences), and nearly everyone else on the Justice League could be a different race. Mr. Terrific was a white guy in the Golden Age of comics and Michael Holt, the character that carries the mantel now is a black guy (and atheist which is its own sort of minority in the Comics industry).
The NEXT person to hold a particular mantel (including that of Batman) could be any race without question, and many characters do have minority characters taking on the role of following the legacy of a character (Rhodes served as Iron Man, Sam Wilson is currently a Captain America, Miles Morales is a Spider-Man… Notice how much of this is taking place under the MARVEL header?  They are better at this).  BUT, Bruce Wayne-Batman makes the most sense in the context of Americana as a White person.
Let me take this a step further with discussion of another character that I imagine people would insist is “white” or “Mediterranean” depending on how particular you are of ethnic and racial identity.  You know, Wonder Woman really doesn't have to be Greek.
I think I might be the only person who thinks that the trailer to her upcoming movie looks awful too.
Like the Vikings, the Greeks were sea fairing and were aware of lots of races and cultures outside of their own. They would have seen black people.
The idea that Wonder Woman’s homeland of Themyscira is some extra dimensional utopia that is nothing but white women is also really fucking racist.  Like on its face.  Writing tip, if you ever make a Utopian society in fiction and go out of your way to point out that everybody is the same racial group, it is explicitly racist.  Having Themyscira be a multi-ethnic/racial matriarchal utopia that follows the principles and religious guidance of a very modern interpretation of the Greek Gods... not racist.  It is still SEXIST, no question there, but that is kind of the whole point/conflict of the character of Wonder Woman when she acts as a liaison between Themyscira and Earth.
I would also draw comparisons to Asgard and Marvel’s mythical Asian city of K'un-L'un (a popular destination for the superhero Iron Fist).  Certain earth cultures saw advanced and mythical civilizations and chose to emulate them creating the distorted myths that we know today in our world.  So, rather than the Marvel comics being inspired by the myths and everyone in real life bitching about how the comics and movies do not follow the myths, instead the myths were inspired by the Marvel civilization.  In that case Wonder Woman, Thor, or any other mythical figure could look however the comic artist wanted to draw them (African, Chinese, Hindi, Samoan, or European) and the "real" myths and history could be seen as the white washed versions.
Essentially in the DC universe Greek civilization emulated the Amazons (who are actually very diverse and “wise” … though still somewhat big into misandry) rather than the Amazons following and emulating Greek society. When the Greeks copied the history and myths of the Amazons they just made everyone Greek, and made Hercules the good guy of the story and played up the "masculinity = Good" angle (in the Wonder Woman comics Hercules was a villain).  You could even see this as a form of… It is white washing, but it is also male-ifying things… Penis-Washing?
Not to mention all the typical weird stuff going on in comics from the era of her creation that got thrown in right along side the strange sexual imagery.
This sort of Greek re-writing of Amazon myth would explain the disdain Themyscira has for Earth, and why the Amazons did not interact with "Man World" for thousands of years.  The Amazons did not like being taken out of their own stories and having their worldview coopted and corrupted to a Patriarchal and Misogynistic Greek culture which saw women as inferior.
“Women are the weaker sex… being born a woman is a divine punishment, since a woman is halfway between a man and an animal.” -Socrates
“The Male is by Nature superior and the female inferior and one rules and the other is ruled… This inequality is permanent because the woman’s deliberative faculty is without authority, like a child’s.” -Aristotle
Nothing going on here.
            It is easy to see how the Amazons might have interacted with Ancient Greece, taught them some things about the gods, art, and their history, and then left because they saw it getting appropriated.
            Of course this is all the diegetic explanation of things.  All of this is fiction.  Made by people to sell books and toys to children.  Batman was not made to push an Alt-Right dream of a world protected by its white betters, but I would point out that Wonder Woman was specifically designed to be a female icon in the genre and is rife with text of female empowerment, and subtext of bondage and sexual politics.

All of this is up to the authors and readers to decide what they want.  But the idea that a fictional character must be a certain way should be looked at in the context of what that character is and where they exist in their world.  Whether race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or politics makes sense for that character should inform and be informed by who and what the character is.  Otherwise it is all just weird.
There is a great big multiverse out there, waiting to grow with weirdness though.  So whose to stop us?
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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Batman of the 90's

Since I wrote about the “Arkham” games last month I have been thinking about Batman slightly more than usual (this includes playing “Arkham City” and lamenting the Catwoman portions of the game more and more).  I figured I would look back thru my “Ideas” folder, a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency section of my hard drive just in case I get the drive to get some words out of my head.   I needed to see if I had any Batman related thoughts this year that I could turn into a full blog today to help me work out a few other ideas that are related but I need some distance from them.  I have two Batman files, and this one relates more to the other thing.  (I will probably put the other one up next week).

Let’s look back on the 1989 “Batman” film directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson.  A mysterious figure appears on the scene to fight crime, corruption, and inadvertently creates Joker, a crime boss who is using his knowledge of chemicals to poison people on a massive scale, because he thinks it’s funny, “LOL”.
He'll look pretty different by the time the Fourth movie rolls around.
At the time it was a cultural phenomenon, with an avalanche of toys and other merchandise, and the best interpretation of the character in the animated series was created specifically to capitalize on this movie’s success.  “Batman” was (perhaps) the most iconic film of the year.  I thought it was pretty boring at the time (I was four), and now I just look back on it with only two complaints of any substance:
1)     The story structure is completely insane, most of the movie we are left following a reporter and photographer… Who seem to line up personality wise with Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane…?  Or, we are following Joker’s rise with Batman mostly relegated to the shadows.  There is also the decision to make Vicki Vale into the target of a love rhombus, as she draws the attention of the reporter, Knox; Bruce Wayne (& Batman); and becomes the taste of the month for Joker’s violent obsession.  The story is kind of all over the place.
2)     I think that both Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton were miscast in their roles.  I think that Alec Baldwin would have been a better Batman, and I think that Michael Keaton should have played Joker.  If you think that is an odd choice keep in mind that Baldwin later played “The Shadow” (the character that Batman was originally the rip off of) and Keaton was already known for playing “Beetlejuice”, who is basically what people would picture the ghost of the Joker to be anyway, and a film that had Baldwin too, playing against type as the put upon everyman.

Keeping those two things in mind, there are two complaints that lots of people have that I do not share.  One that many fans of Batman would point to as a fundamental betrayal of the source material is the comically high body count Batman has by the end of the movie, which includes not only Joker, but the dozens of henchmen in the Ace Chemical Factory, and at least a handful of goons killed in hand to hand combat.  The Murderous Vigilante angle doesn’t bother me for the simple reason that not killing is just not brought up as an issue in “Batman”.  They chose not to make it a part of this Batman’s mythos, so it isn’t.  You are allowed to ignore elements of a character for the sake of telling a story in a new medium.  You are allowed to make a fundamentally different interpretation of a character.  They are, after all, fictional.
The other complaint is actually the one that inspired me to write this blog.  And that is this, “Joker did not kill Thomas and Martha Wayne in the comics, and by making him the killer the world gets very small and makes Batman’s character more about revenge than seeking justice.”  I disagree with this too, but keeping with my deluded fantasy of me being a mad genius, I disagree with this for reasons you will not expect. 
"You ever danced with the devil in the pale moon light?"
"I always ask that of all my prey.  I just like the sound of it."
In Tim Burton's "Batman", you could make the argument that Jack Napier wasn't the killer of Bruce's parents. That Bruce just conflated the two. It might be that every criminal Batman punches in that movie shares a face with his parent's killer, Jack was just the one that stuck out and crystallized in Bruce’s mind because the transformation into the Joker mirrored Bruce's transformation into Batman.
That change made Bruce think of Jack as a suitable foil to Batman. A good last chapter to him being the dark knight, a final dragon for him to slay to get his happy ending.  At the time Bruce probably thought that if he killed Joker he wouldn’t feel the drive to be Batman anymore.  Bruce already wanted out, that is why he wanted to tell Vicki Wale (A REPORTER) his secret identity, he wanted to be just Bruce, he wanted the hurt to stop, he wanted things to be okay again.
The theme of Bruce wanting the hurt to stop is explored deeply in this animated movie.
In it he speaks these words to the grave of his parents.
Bruce Wayne: It doesn't mean I don't care anymore. I don't want to let you down, honest, but... but it just doesn't hurt so bad anymore. You can understand that, can't you? Look, I can give money to the city - they can hire more cops. Let someone else take the risk, but it's different now! Please! I need it to be different now. I know I made a promise, but I didn't see this coming. I didn't count on being happy. Please...tell me that it's okay.
Why do I think this is the case?  Because it is the theme that carries thru the rest of the franchise.  “Batman Returns” has him fighting three villains that all mirror him in ways.
1)     Penguin, a disfigured millionaire who was abandoned by his parents as a child who grew up to become a criminal that uses gadgets and a legion of goons to commit crimes, which is a pretty distorted reflection of millionaire pretty boy who had his parents taken from him and uses gadgets to fight a lone war on crime.
2)     Catwoman, a person victimized by crime who takes up an animal totem in a black outfit to strike back at who wronged her and those like them.
3)     Shrek, a millionaire who wishes to use his good will with the city to push thru development to drain the city.  In the original script Shrek was supposed to be Harvey Dent who gets burned and transformed into Two Face at the end of the movie in the scene with Catwoman using the electrical cable… in the final version it just toasts him to a skeleton because they didn’t need him for a sequel.

            “Batman Returns” is about duality, and trying to take away the rest of the world’s power to hurt you by hurting it first.  Seems like killing the Joker was not the denouement Batman was hoping for.
FYI: This is my favorite of the 90's Batman movies.
It takes the crazy and darkness of the first movie and commits more fully to them.
In “Batman Forever” you can tell his being Batman is wearing on him because he talks about it with Dick Grayson, "You make the kill, but your pain doesn't die with (him), it grows. So you run out into the night to find another face, and another, and another, until one terrible morning you wake up and realize that revenge has become your whole life. And you won't know why."  Bruce can't stop.  He can't feel closure.  Though at the end of "Batman Forever" he makes peace with the idea. "You see, I'm both Bruce Wayne and Batman, not because I have to be, now, because I choose to be."  You’ll notice I spend less and less time on these movies, because we are getting away from my original point, bear with me.
This movie also has a theme of duality.
In case that wasn't obvious with Two-Face, and Riddler asking "Who are you?" as the climax of the movie.
But, to say this movie is less subtle would be an understatement.
As strange as this may sound, “Batman and Robin” continues the trend by having Bruce create a legacy with Batgirl and Robin just as Alfred, the man who raised him, slowly dies.  This makes narrative sense, forcing Bruce to acknowledge his limitations and the need to accept death, something he has been fighting against since he was a child, “No one dies tonight” is a common refrain for Batman in the comics.
This movie has an additional theme of, "Action figures make us a lot of money."
To recap: Batman is a crazy person who projects his inner demons outward, and internalizes his villains as part of his psyche.  This is not an original interpretation of the character.  Grant Morrison has written a lot on this with “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth”.  This theme also appears in “Batman: Earth One” in which it is shown that the city of Gotham is designed like a giant spiral (or drain) that pulls in and traps crazy, and that Martha Wayne’s maiden name was Arkham, and her family had a big part in the design of Gotham.
You could say that 1989’s “Batman” differs in that the person who killed Bruce’s parents is an idea, while the Joker is a person.  In the comics and other media Bruce’s parents were killed by a person, Joe Chill, while the Joker is an idea, in that his secret identity is not known and his origin changes constantly (I have my own theory, I won’t get into it right now as this is already super long).
Whenever you look back on that scene of Bruce recalling young Jack Nicholson saying, “Ever danced with the devil in the pale moon light?” that Bruce is a crazy person desperately seeking closure on the event that has dominated his thoughts and life since he was a child, and that scene might just be a metaphor for him constructing his own ending to the story… an ending he never gets to keep.
Until Nolan came along and realized the symbolic nature of Batman allows for him to carry on without literally still fighting.
Also, spoilers for a movie that is now 4 years old and has been seen by everyone.
            Let’s take this all a logical step forward and apply these lessons to our own lives.  That when trauma damages us, not only on an individual level, but at a cultural and national level, that we must remember not only the who and the why, but go deeper than that.
Rather than transform ourselves into vigilant and vengeful monsters, out to destroy the various skulking predators of the world.  Out to stop those who seek to remake our safe world in their own mad image.  Instead, let us walk a different path.  Let us acknowledge that for some wounds there is no closure.  That for some things no justice can ever be fully felt.
We must stop constructing new targets and seeing every stranger as a potential foe.  We must stop demonizing those who are different from us or those that are like us but for small nuancesThere are two wolves within every person, one of good and one of evil, and as they battle only one thing can determine which will be the victor within each of our souls, the one with the strength to succeed will be the one we have fed with our own deeds.

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