Tuesday, November 27, 2012

“The Boy and the Bat,” or “Just How Many Laws Has Batman Broken?”

I’ll start off by saying that I’m a fan of the Batman universe on something of an uber-nerd level.  I think it all started in 6th grade when, during study hall in Mrs. Howard’s homeroom, instead of brushing up on my coursework, I would pull out from the classroom library a hardcover book detailing the Dark Knight’s exploits from inception in the 1930s on up till the ’70s.  This coincided with daily watching of the notoriously campy Adam West/Burt Ward series and the unveiling of the Tim Burton eponymous actioner on VHS—I must have worn out the tape from near-repetitive viewing. 

Even though I was a bright kid, I was—and am—prone to near-constant flights of distractibility from more pressing matters.  Eventually, Mrs. Howard made an exception, effectively allowing me to “check out” the Batman book from her library so that I could in fact “study” (or approximate as such) during study hall.  Looking back, this was probably a wise move on her part. 

Like many kids who march to the beat of a different drummer, I was more or less social Kryptonite at age 11.  If the budding preteen girls wanted to put one of their kind down, the ne plus ultra insult was to claim she was “going out” with “Furley”—my ubiquitous moniker coined due to my curly hair “style” at the time closely resembling Don Knotts’ from Three’s Company.  In the Readington Middle School cafeteria, I sat at a lunch table by myself for a good half of that entire academic year before I began to coalesce with a nebulous cloud of my fellow outcasts by year’s end.  Like many bright, socially inept and, for most intents and purposes, friendless kids that age, I sought refuge in fantasy and pulp fiction, mostly of the Bat and Indiana Jones varieties (Star Wars at that time—1990—being post-cool and not yet re-cool…and a full decade away from being George-Lucas-raped-my-childhood-with-the-prequels-and-Crystal-Skull passĂ©).  I had yet to discover rock n’ roll or to delve too deeply into my parents’ LPs, which would eventually kindle my love affair of all things classic rock.  I read a little Poe and various other fiction, but I was not yet the true literary worm that I would later be.  Nor did I read much sci-fi and fantasy, nor was I a lonely cinephile like other nerdy kids who eventually blossom were (the exception being martial arts movies).  I had few friends and even fewer interests.  This was of concern to my parents, who would often ask me if there was someone other than “The Felon” I might like to have over to play (his is a looooong tale for another time) or perhaps some club I might like to join other than karate.

Don’t even ask about girls.

Looking back upon my life, I firmly believe that 6th grade was the year that irrevocably shaped my personality as a future teenager and later an adult.  I’m 34 now, and I can say with all certainty that the two halves of my personality lifeline run pre-11 and everything after.  Here’s why:

For one thing, being relegated by my peers to Quasimodo status basically forced me to rely on myself for everything from moral support to entertainment.  I was the son of working parents who weren’t home after school until dinnertime, and my younger siblings were still just kids.  So it was basically upon myself that I had to look for whatever I needed that could not come externally or was being teasingly held back by my peers and/or clueless adults.  And while a smart kid, I never then had the sense of doing well in school for its own merits.  I knew I was smart and I didn’t care if my parents or teachers knew it (though a certain few astute teachers did push me out of my shell, if slightly)—and this lackluster attitude towards external approval translated into mediocre grades.  I always passed my classes and got respectable, if not exemplary, grades.  I was far more into karate, which was a meritocracy: If you learned your katas (forms), your terminology, the dojo rules and acted like a respectful but hungry karateka, then you were promoted in rank.  Karate provided a structure and a discipline that I lacked as a kid, and its military-style insistence on respect for one’s superiors (notice I didn’t say “betters”) and the betterment of self physically and mentally were probably the best thing I could’ve been involved in.  (I still am.)

All of this solipsistic self-reliance aside, of course I did secretly hunger for friends and social acceptance.  Sitting in meditative silence alone at lunch every day for months on end can perform wondrous calcification upon a boy’s self-esteem.  Surely they must be right to exclude me.  They can’t all be wrong.  Thus came the flipside of the Two-Face coin: the desire to belong.  Kids are painfully attuned to the social pecking order, particularly in middle school.  When you’re at the bottom, there’s nowhere to go but nowhere.  Thus, even one or two “friends” could’ve boosted me even one or two rungs up the social ladder. 

And so here was the longing for acceptance and the burn of exclusion coupled with necessary self-reliance.  It is this dichotomy that defines me to this day.  I’ve been fortunate to blossom into someone who has literally hundreds of friends scattered around the globe, and I have conquered enough social anxiety to not only walk into a roomful of people I have never even met, but to own it and be “that guy” within minutes of doing so (thanks to that frequent friend of mine—alcohol).  Eleven-year-old Eric would never, ever believe what life would be—and is—like for 34-year-old EFA. 

But even now the other side is that…I often do still feel that I am an alien who is misunderstood and too different to belong.  My M.O. in a social situation is to typically smile, looking around me at fine friends and colleagues and to be thankful and feel blessed.  And yet underneath that is a two-pronged nagging from Little Eric: I simultaneously feel a drag upon my soul to get out of the situation as quickly as possible and retire to my room with a book or a movie or to a faraway land for a solo trip in my car with only some CDs as my companion…and yet while feeling these very thoughts comes an uncomfortable, infantile screaming that when I say goodbye to these people at the end of the night, I will never see them again; they will leave me behind and ignore me and not want to spend time with me anymore!  (When I was working towards my psychology minor in college, I learned in a child development class that toddlers think their mothers no longer exist when they are out of the room.)

These are both me, and they make up the unique concoction of confidence and neurosis that is EFA.  Self-understanding is a very important part of growing up.  I firmly believe that you cannot possibly empathize and engage with others until you first understand your own motivations, positive qualities and, yes, your faults and failings.

So back to our friend Mr. Bruce Wayne.  Because I first followed along in his adventures at that tender age of 11, I’ve shared a special affinity for the Batman universe ever since.  From the Animated Series through the decreasingly crafted sequels to the initial Tim Burton film, and right on up to returning back to the comics and then on to Batman’s rebirth (and “death”) in the Christopher Nolan trilogy.  I found the Nolan trilogy to be a well-crafted, finely written and acted, involving piece of modern pop culture.  Though certainly not without its flaws—most notably in the chapterhouse The Dark Knight Rises—there’s so much to love and admire in these films because, or in spite of, their ambitions to reach beyond “comic book movies” and into dark, finely tuned and modulated morality plays of complex motivation and choice.  I could—and someday will—write a treatise on The Dark Knight and its triumvirate of the Joker, Batman and Two Face making for a Greek tragedy as magnificent as anything in the Classical canon, but my purposes today are far less literate and far more humorous. 

You're here to laugh after all.

And thusly back to the question posed by my secondary title: How many laws has Batman broken?  For our purposes, I am using only the “Dark Knight Trilogy,” and I invite my more learned attorney friends to fill in any blanks that this armchair cross-examiner may have overlooked.

Seriously, for a guy who claims to fight the good fight, Batman has one of the most seriously egregious criminal records in Gotham.  Let’s roll out Bruce Wayne/Batman’s rap sheet, shall we?

Destruction of public and private property

Batman Begins (BB):
Batman uses a Bat-boomerang thingie to blow out half of a moving train car during his climactic fight with Ra’s Al Ghul, which almost certainly fell on buildings and possibly innocent passersby.  Below, his accomplice, Sgt. Gordon, blows up the stanchions holding up said railway line, ensuring the train crashes like its conductor was texting. 

The Dark Knight (TDK):
Batman breaches the wall of a parking deck with the Tumbler to interrupt the fight between Scarecrow’s goons and the fake Batmen.  Later in the same film he fires missiles from the Bat-Cycle to blow up multiple parked cars impeding his way during his “rescue mission” of Harvey Dent.  (Let us hope that no teenagers were exploring their first "batcaves" in any of said parked cars.)

The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR): Bats basically destroys half of Gotham in his showdown with Bane by land, sea and air.  Seriously, why is no one ever “accidentally” killed in these movies? 

Manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, combined with accounting fraud and securities fraud

Think about it: The “Applied Sciences” division is basically a private one-man’s army of shit that anyone but the Armed Forces should not be in possession of.  This includes, but is not limited to, the Tumbler, the Bat-Cycle (see previous note about missiles), Batarang, and the “Bat” plane from TDKR. 

Not only that, Lucius Fox and Bruce Wayne circumvent multiple laws of accounting and securities by concealing Applied Sciences within cooked books, thereby misleading investors and shareholders as well as any relevant regulatory agencies.  (Wayne Enterprises went public at the end of BB, remember?)  Furthermore, consider the fact that when in TDK Coleman Reese tells Lucius Fox that he knows what they’re up to, Lucius then basically threatens him with all manner of shit if he spills the beans.  (Seriously, go back and watch that scene again…Lucius was seriously gonna have Bruce toss Reese off a roof!)

And never mind the “energy” thingie Wayne Enterprises was making that was revealed to be a nuclear bomb and became the crux of the climax of TDKR. 

George W. Bush must have gotten his fantasies about Iraqi WMD’s from these films. 

Manufacture and intent to distribute a controlled substance

BB: Lucius Fox develops an “antidote” to Scarecrow’s LSD-type poison that he and Batman basically manufacture in secret—without *any* oversight from the FDA or other government drug-regulating body—an untested, brand-new drug that’s designed to counteract the “really bad drug” that Scarecrow squirts in yo face.  No market trials, no beta testing, no list of “possible side effects” that may include but not be limited to hallucinations and believing you can fly and/or “disguise” your voice by simply screaming louder in supervillians’ faces. 

Conspiracy to kidnap a foreign national/illegal transport of a foreign national across international borders

Also guilty: Commissioner Gordon, Harvey Dent, Lucius Fox, Alfred Pennyworth

Remember in TDK when Andy Lau, the launderer for the Mob’s money, ran off to Honk Kong?  Shortly thereafter, Bats, Gordo, and Denty-pie meet on a well-lighted roof—in full view of anyone with even a crummy pair of binoculars—and come up with a half-baked scheme to kidnap Lau, who, as a Chinese national, is beyond Dent’s jurisdiction.  Ultra-illegal and ultra-crazy-enough-to-just-might-work.  Bats then has persons unknown fly a plane to snag he and Lau with a cable from a high-rise—no doubt in violation of various Chinese and FAA rules about airspace. 

Illegal rendition of a foreign national/torture

Notice how when Andy Lau is left with a “Dear Jim” sandwich board in front of Gotham PD HQ, he seems a little the worse for wear.  Hmm, what exactly were he and Batman “discussing” on that long flight back from Hong Kong?  My guess: most likely *not* the ramifications of 19th century British imperialism upon the Far East

Insurance fraud

Bruce “dies” and disappears in BB to go off on his Odyssean quest to live amongst the world’s criminals in an effort to “understand” them (oh, those liberal Wayneses!).  Meanwhile, all of the Wayne resources—and death insurance payouts—are left to Alfred for the duration, who, upon learning of Bruce’s still being very much alive, no doubt probably had an “aw, fuck” moment realizing that Bruce’s trillions of bucks, swimming pools and various other hot-babe magnets are going to go back to the boss once the estate lawyers untangle it all off-screen. 
And the worst part: Alfred, being the understanding, upstanding English bloke he is, goes back to work for Bruce!  So in a heartbeat, dude goes from millionaire to working-class stiff for this snot-nosed punk. 

And he’s actually *thankful* for it. 

I maintain that this is a warped Dickensian reverse-fantasy, and clearly was concocted by no one who ever had to sweat for his wages, eh, Christopher Nolan? 

Insurance fraud (again)

(spoiler alert)  Bats rides off into the sunset at the end of TDKR so that the big-ass bomb-thingie will detonate over the Gotham coast (no mention is ever made of radioactive fallout).  Wouldn’t you know it, he secretly ditched out of the Bat before the 'sploison and continues to live on and lead a healthy life of still looking none the worse for wear—no doubt as a result of continuously boning Selina Kyle/Catwoman in his new secret life.  And so for the second time, Michael Caine becomes heir to what remains of the Wayne fortune, which will provide him enough tea and crumpets to forget about ever having missed receiving his Academy Award in person while being on the set of Jaws: The Revenge.  Not exactly one to heed the basic tenants of spy craft and maintaining a low profile in the wake of an obviously faked death, Alfred then sees (or does he?????) Bruce and Selina out in full daylight at a Parisian cafĂ© still munching on beignets and still looking movie star-handsome and happy.  (Apparently Bruce wasn’t as famous on the other side of the Atlantic.) 

Reckless endangerment

TDK: Bats blows up the Tumbler within 20 feet of several homeless bystanders who, because they are meant to arouse our sympathies, are fortunately not struck by any flying shrapnel. 

Illegal wiretapping and electronic surveillance

TDK: Recall the monstrous machine in Applied Sciences that Bats concocts so he can spy on everyone in Gotham in the hopes that the Joker will just happen to make a cell phone call and thus give away his location, in violation of numerous communications, surveillance and privacy laws (to say nothing of common sense).  Yes, I realize this was meant to be an allegory for the USA PATRIOT Act, but c’mon, Bats, you’re losing your cool, man. 

Tampering with evidence

“I need five minutes alone before your men contaminate the crime scene.”  Sure thing, says then-Leftenant Jim Gordon in TDK who, in front of multiple lower-ranking police officers, allows Batman to remove a key piece of evidence—the bullet—lodged in a wall to later dust off the fingerprint of the Joker’s skeevy minion in blatant disregard of the most basic rules in the policeman’s handbook. 

About 40 minutes later, Gordon—after faking *his own death*—is promoted to commissioner by a truly understanding mayor. 

Remember, these are THE GOOD GUYS!

Second-degree murder and manslaughter/conspiracy to conceal a homicide

Batman’s only edict is that he doesn’t kill, which was part of what made the ending of TDK so tragic, as he was forced to take down Harvey Dent/Two Face, inadvertently sending Dent to his death from a rather high fall.  Bats and Commissioner Gordon then cook up the cover story that it was Batman who murdered all of Dent’s victims and then Dent himself in the hopes that the memory of Dent’s good deeds—and the concealment of his evil deeds—will prompt the citizenry of Gotham to pass stricter laws and urge them to save their own city in Batman’s absence.  (Remember, Batman’s entire motivation in TDK was to retire and pass the baton on to Dent.)  This is a great departure point for the discussion of the value of legend versus truth and their respective use as motivators. 

But make no mistake, all of this shit is 100-percent, Rod Blago-joe-bitch against-the-law shiznat.  This was also like Gordon’s third day on the job as commish, and he’s clearly setting a fabulous example for the police force after all of his attempts to not be corrupt like half of Gotham’s police force already is (thankfully, the guilt for this was revisited in TDKR). 

“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” 

Well done, gentlemen.  Well done, indeed. 

Intention to commit first-degree murder

I’m probably one of the few non-lawyers familiar with the term mens rea, which roughly translates as “the guilty mind.”  Any lawyer will tell you that our legal system is based around both action and intent.  In BB, Bruce intends to bust a cap in crusty ass of a street thug Joe Chill, who offed Bruce's parents in front of his impressionable young eyes outside an opera theater (see, the opera visit was meant to show us that they're, you know, like wealthy and white and stuff).  Again, not one for subtlety, Bruce conceals a revolver in his jacket pocket and, on a bright sunny afternoon in front of hundreds of witnesses in the very well-lit Gotham Courthouse—where no one would ever see him—walks right towards Chill, fully intent on sending him to Minor Character Hell.  However, one of crime lord Carmine Falcone’s operatives offs Chill with a piece of her own mere seconds before Bruce can do the same.  Denied his vengeance—and vicariously taking it out on the rest of Gotham’s criminals thenceforward—Bruce and his poorly combed bangs coldly watch as Chill dies the death of the day player. 

Illegal use of restricted airspace

TDKR: I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure the powers that be wouldn’t be too happy if you flew your own private Bat-craft like 10 feet above teeming city streets.  Imagine if all eccentric billionaires started doing it with their own private Trump-copters and Branson-shuttles.  It’d be a madhouse, I tells ya! 

Assault and battery/making terrorist threats

In TDK, Batman, in cold blood, drops mobster Salvatore Maroni off a balcony, breaking his legs with a mind-numbing CRUNCH.  He then proceeds to jump on top of him and scream bloody murder in his face, pressing him to reveal the Joker’s location.  For serious Batfans, you may recall that in the comics Ra’s Al Ghul often refers to Batman as “Detective.”  Bats clearly needs to brush up on his investigation techniques.  Tossing a suspect—and one whom you’re trying to question—from a balcony so that he’s basically in shock with pain…and then threatening him with further bodily harm if he doesn’t cough up the info, has been proven time and again in real life to not work.   
But see, Maroni's an Italian, and since we learned that all Italians in movies are gangsters, clearly he must be bad and therefore “deserves” such treatment. 

Here’s a partial list of other little naughties that Batman & Co. committed throughout the trilogy:

Interfering with an ongoing police investigation
Illegal interrogation of a suspect in police custody
Assault and battery upon multiple police officers
Impersonating a police officer
Making threats against a police officer
Resisting arrest
Conspiracy to fake a death
Criminal trespassing

So what we've learned from this—aside from having a few good laughs—is that Batman is, indeed, a vigilante and criminal by even the most conservative definitions of such.  But the distinction must be made that although Batman is absolutely an outlaw, he is not a villain.  Pick your cliche (the ends justify the means, etc.), but Batman is actually far more of an interesting "hero" precisely because he operates outside of the system—a system that in his universe is completely broken, and only an outlaw can make a difference under such circumstances.  So he paradoxically does right by doing wrong. 

Like the best heroes in fiction, Batman is flawed, arrogant, narcissistic, risk-taking, short-sighted and ultimately purely self-protective.  (Bats is, well, bats!)  Heroes in the "Man With No Name" mold do just like Batman: show up, fuck shit up (illegally), kill the bad guys (very illegally), bed some chicks (hopefully statutorily), then walk or ride out of town on a horse/convertible (usually stolen), but they are not "good" guys per se.  The major difference is that the archetypal hero-wanderer does so *without wearing a mask.*  Bruce Wayne hides not only from the world, but from  himself.  By giving himself an alter-ego, he never has to truly face up to the consequences of his actions.

It wasn't me that did that; it was all Batman's doing.                                                   

And it also must be said that the key to the Batman mythos has always been the depravity of his nemeses.  Only when you have true sociopaths like the Joker on the loose would you ever turn towards a schizophrenic narcissist like Bruce/Batman for help, a guy who is clearly mentally unsound and suffers from delusions of grandeur. 

And who's rich.  Let's be real here: If Bruce Wayne were just some penniless dope who worked minimum wage at a bowling alley and made weapons out of discarded Coke bottles from the dumpster, no one would care.  It's *because* he's rich that the character works.  A guy who has everything in the world risks it all every night to go out and fight criminals.  (Whether or not this is a heroic or profoundly selfish routine is your call.)  That's the key to his appeal.  Deep down, we all want to be rich or at least financially comfortable to never have to work again.  Because he's a zillionaire, Bruce needs a hobby, and because of his extensive psychological damage, he chooses a rather questionable one.

But the point is, he does something!  He uses his resources and his ample fortune to do something that he thinks is right.  Hopefully so that no one will have to go through what he has.  That's something we as readers/viewers can identify with.  No one wants to see a two-hour movie about a rich white guy who drinks bourbon all day and has his proverbial shit together because that inspires only envy and enmity as opposed to empathy. 

That's why it's called drama. 

The Batman universe is deep, but Christopher and Jonathan Nolan made it even more healthily profound and more morally complicated by forcing upended expectations upon the hero.  Maybe that's why I gravitated towards him as a boy.  Here was an outcast who doesn't really have any friends, who's in tip-top shape, drives awesome cars, is attractive to women, and blows stuff up...and does it all in the name of cleaning up his hometown. 

What's not to love?  :)