Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891


Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

Franklin Delano Rooseveltman to the rescue!

Penned upon the 31st of August, 2008

Ms Merah very kindly took me to see the new Batman flick! For the record, that’s The Dark Knight, by Nolan with Bale and Caine – much of the crew of the rather excellent The Prestige, but with Ledger and Freeman and Gyllenhaal in place of Jackman and Bowie and Johansson. The film is actually rather good – certainly the best comic book adaptation I’ve ever seen, including the source-faithful Miller/Rodriguez/Tarantino collaboration Sin City. It also showcased the trailer for the upcoming Watchmen movie, which is promising. If they get Watchmen right, it’ll be one of the best films of the decade. If they get it wrong, well, it’ll be just another atrocious Moore adaptation and no-one will be surprised, least of all Moore himself.

Anyhow, Batman. The performances and costume designs are the film’s strongest elements, while the plot is a little tangled and relies on some extremely sketchy science. Batman’s omnipotence does tend to grate – no matter what goes wrong, he has a contingency plan to deal with it. Car gets wrecked? It turns into a bike. Bike gets attacked by dogs? It turns into a mouthwatering sausage. Dogs get invited to high tea? Sausage turns into a croissant wearing a cummerbund. What fun is a hero who never gets caught out, unless a heart-wrenching plot twist has to happen? I’d rather see a hero with limited powers, who has to withdraw and regroup if they get in over their head. ‘twould make the victory all the sweeter!

This is a minor quibble, though, as the film makes some very thought-provoking observations in and around the marvellous acting and clever-but-convoluted plot. Gotham’s organised crime comes to represent all pressing social problems, and the need for decisive and effective methods versus the need for accountability and rule of law. It’s discussed explicitly in an early scene, with reference to emergency powers in the Roman Republic, and their strength contrasted with their potential for misuse.

It’s not uncommon to deconstruct the superhero genre with such a discussion, to point out that such vigilantism would only be tolerated if crime (or, sometimes, social dissent, as seen in Watchmen) was reaching disastrous levels. The Dark Knight‘s approach is broader, though, and really touches upon something essential to the American experience. Leadership carries far greater importance in US politics than it does in almost any other stable democracy. The office of President has legislative powers no other head of state or government is accorded – presidents of the European model are generally figureheads, while prime ministers rely more on the goodwill of parliament, even with their Whips in action.

Historically, this role developed in response to a pressing need, and was used to good effect. I can’t but admire both presidential Roosevelts, and not just because of their undeniable panache (Teddy’s face on Mt Rushmore almost certainly constitutes the largest pince-nez in the world.) Theodore took a role that was largely administrative, and turned it into a vanguard of reform, aiming the government’s might at corrupt business giants and anti-labour practices. Franklin Delano went against national orthodoxy and public opinion to push the US into World War II and help save the world from genocidal fascism – as well as sneaking in an extra term in office.

On the one hand, these actions centralised power, undermined fair play and rule of law, and opened the way for colossal misuse of the highest offices. Bush has ridden on the coattails of such models of leadership to disastrous effect – a significant part of Obama’s reform policy is preventing abuse of powers of emergency and state secretiveness that characterised Bush’s rule. On the other hand, though, the Roosevelts achieved necessary ends, and history has remembered them as good people who made good decisions.

Perhaps, as always, context is everything. The US of the turn of the century, and even of the Depression, was, while wealthy, still finding its identity as a collective society. Different states had each had their own ideas about the structure of government, and economies were changing everywhere – collapsing markets, failing models of production and ownership, some interests growing unsustainably while others withered. Established Old World societies, even facing the same forces, would still have existing communalism to fall back upon (the exceptions leading up to WWII should be obvious.)

Batman’s essentially optimistic message (surprising, for what is these days the archetypal Dark-and-Edgy franchise) is that a temporary strong leader can create a society that doesn’t need leading, that can deal with its problems openly and above-board. Does this justify America’s presidents, up to WWII? Compare them with, say, the UK’s Prime Ministers – how many would you call ‘great leaders’? Disraeli and Gladstone are famous statesmen, and Churchill is famous for his wartime leadership if not his peacetime ousting, but do any approach the American model? Perhaps the distributed power structure rid them for the need to lead so. Are such presidential powers still necessary? Their increasing tendency toward misuse would suggest not, but time will likely tell. Perhaps it’s time to let local powers start doing their thing. Local governments and professional organisations might not be as exciting as charismatic leaders, but they do let you get involved, become a part of them.

So that’s my review of the Batman film. Did I cover all bases adequately?

If you so desire, you may follow any commentary upon this missive with the aid of our “RSS-O-Matic” apparatus.

Neither remarks nor trackings-back are currently permitted, so as to focus your attention better upon the wisdom herein.

Further remarks are not permitted.