Friday, July 20, 2018

How Pottersville Turned Into Gotham City

"Just relax. I'll take care of the squealing, wretched pinhead puppets of Gotham!... You gotta admit, I've played this stinking city like a harp from hell!" - The Penguin, Batman Returns, 1992

     Two days ago, Bilge Ebiri of the Village Voice had written a pretty good article dissecting The Dark Knight Rises on its tenth anniversary (Yes, it's been a decade since the late Heath Ledger forever stole our hearts with his portrayal of the Joker then broke them when he tragically died of an overdose before the film's release.). He makes a pretty persuasive case that Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises is his magnum opus, one that he'll likely never surpass nor live down. Indeed, it's extremely rare that a first sequel, the middle child in a trilogy, turns out to be the best of all three. Yet, this is exactly what The Dark Knight Rises is. It's a masterpiece of existential film making, largely driven, of course, by the brilliant performance of the late Ledger and his early death.
     However, the direction this nation has taken since Election Night 2016 not only led me to rename this blog Welcome Back to Gotham City, since reading Ebiri's erudite article, it's made me think of the second entry of the first Batman trilogy, the one directed by Tim Burton: Batman Returns.
     There's something about playing a Batman villain that brings out the Grand Guignol in gifted actors (Whether you know it or not, every actor who's ever played the Joker in a movie had won at least one Academy Award, although Ledger was the only one who won it for that role.). A Batman villain is supposed to be over the top to the point where you almost forget they're villains, the operative word being "almost."
     And that's why I'm thinking of Danny DeVito's almost equally brilliant performance as the Penguin in Batman Returns. In Tim Burton's and DeVito's reimagining, the Penguin, aka Oswald Cobblepot, is born to a well-to-do family but he is deformed. He's abandoned by his socially-conscious family who is scandalized by the deformed newborn where he's then discovered and raised into manhood, presumably, by penguins in the Gotham City's sewer system.
     Aside from that improbable origin story, Cobblepot's adulthood is consumed by his obsession with finding out who he is. He breaks into the city's Hall of Records and discovers his plan for vengeance on his family has been thwarted by his parents' deaths. This is what sets his much wider plan into motion.
     On the other side, we have Bruce Wayne. As we all know, Wayne's parents were killed by a mugger and he was raised by the butler Alfred. It's a classic case of the duality of man- Both men who are orphans take two polar opposite paths in life. One becomes the Caped Crusader, the other the bane of his existence.
     In the middle, as usual, are the innocents of Gotham City. Gothamites are never portrayed in a positive light until the very end of a Batman film and Batman Returns is no exception. Gothamites can serve at least on an abstract level as a synedoche of American civilization as a whole. They tend to be either willing accomplices (Batman Returns and The Dark Knight Rises) or as helpless rubes held in thrall to the machinations of one super villain or another to the point where we wonder why they even have a police department.
     In The Dark Knight Rises, Tom Hardy as Bane takes over Gotham City and essentially gets much of the populace on his side by spouting populist propaganda, using their innate socialist sensibilities and middle class rage to turn on the very system entrusted to preserve the very infrastructure in which they toil. Of course, before and during the kangaroo courts presided over by the Scarecrow (played by Cillian Murphy), Bane deliberately fails to tell them of an experimental power source created by Wayne Enterprises, Batman's own corporation, that he plans to use as a nuclear weapon to destroy the city he's swearing to liberate.
     In Batman Returns, the complicity of Gothamites is somewhat more conventional but no less unflattering and the same goes for Cobblepot's master plan. Because the Penguin plans to take over control of Gotham City by getting elected its Mayor. He makes the incumbent look foolish by kidnapping his child then staging a rescue that's transparent to the moviegoer but works on the gullible citizens of Gotham. By pretending to be the savior of a situation he himself had created, The Penguin fools Gotham City's voters into believing that he alone can clean up their rampant crime problem that can seemingly only be addressed by a masked man. In fact, the Penguin's campaign motto is, "Cobblepot Can Clean it Up!"
      And the theatergoer in 1992 may have been silently wondering and marveling at how the people of Gotham could be taken in by such a hideous and flamboyantly evil and lecherous huckster with paper-white skin, a bloated physique and green slime constantly oozing from his mouth. Indeed, in the real world (at least until the rise of Donald Trump), a slight scandal or a verbal misstep could end not only a candidacy but an entire political career (John Edwards, anyone?).
     But in this movie, Gotham City to be precise, and its people are seemingly endlessly gullible and hapless to whatever super villain decides to break out of Arkham Asylum or just appear with mysterious financing to hold them in thrall. And it's the very viability of both the campaigns of DeVito's Penguin and Donald Trump that seem to hold up a mirror in which Gotham City looks and sees its real life analog in America as a whole.
     In the 11th hour of the mayoral election, the Penguin is surprised to hear dialogue surreptitiously recorded by Batman in the Batmobile (the quote above.). Using a remote control duck vehicle earlier in the movie, the Penguin lets loose with a torrent of abuse, his real feelings about the voters of Gotham City ("the wretched pinhead puppets of Gotham."). The words are played on a PA system hacked by Batman and Alfred while the Penguin is making a political speech. The people respond with a torrent of abuse of their own and begin throwing produce that suddenly seems to appear in the hands of his supporters and they chase him away, ending his candidacy.
     Afterward, the Penguin goes full throttle with his master plan, which is to separate children from their families with the intention of killing them. In essence, whether or not Burton intended this, the Penguin tried to turn himself into a latter-day King Herod who's trying to exact revenge on the children of Gotham in some misguided and twisted retribution for his own spoiled childhood.
     But the people of Gotham, as always, toward the end find their true north and rebel against the evil in their midst. One could argue they did so only because each person was personally offended by the Penguin's vicious words and not redeemed by a collective civic duty. But the important thing is they finally recognized evil when they saw it, thanks to some high tech wizardry from the Caped Crusader.
     We (meaning Trump's supporters) have yet to see the evil in Trump even though we've heard several Penguin moments from him ("How stupid are the people of Iowa?" "I love the poorly educated." etc.). To be fair for a moment, the people of Gotham never seem to have even this defining moment in Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises because they're too busy wreaking mayhem in their orgy of destruction.
     Yet while guilt seems to be the overarching rationale and guiding influence in Christopher Nolan's trilogy (especially in The Dark Knight). in Batman Returns the guiding and motivating energy of at least this movie is utter helplessness. DeVito's Penguin is as helpless to meaningfully change his life as he was when he was an abandoned, defenseless infant. Batman, too, is crippled by a sense of hopelessness and helplessness despite his vast wealth and technology. Wayne as the Batman is just as motivated as the Penguin by a tragic childhood and perhaps the only thing separating the two was a mental flip of the coin back in the day.
     As with the fictional Wayne, Trump was born to wealth and privilege but unlike the Lord of Wayne Manor, Trump wasn't orphaned at a young age. Yet he plainly doesn't like children, not even his own until they're at least out of diapers. And he obviously has a special ire for Latino children, if his Herodian policies at the southern border are any indication.
     Trump is essentially a Batman villain come to life in a Gotham City of not 30,000,000 but 300,000,000, one without a Caped Crusader to autonomously solve our problems. The closest we have to Batman is Robert Mueller as Harvey Dent (although Dent's idealism also failed and, through the Joker's existentialist machinations, became the exact thing he vowed to eradicate- a criminal).
     We're still waiting to have our redeeming moment that can be translated into action and that's our first mistake. Meaningful change doesn't come when you wait for it any more than the proverbial pot boils when you watch it. Trump is essentially doing exactly the same thing as the Penguin, even secretly writing into the equation a "final solution."
     If anything, we're proving to be more stubbornly gullible as the people of Gotham City in Batman Returns. The thing to remember here is that the people of Gotham finally woke up and chased off the bad guy before electing him. We lost that moment, especially in the last two weeks of the election when Putin's cyber thugs flooded social media with anti-Hillary propaganda and then James Comey announced he was reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. By that point, we would've elected Hitler if he was on the Republican ticket.

     Our country is run by a Batman villain, one who virtually reproduced Bane's words ver batim during his surreal and frightening inaugural speech.
     When will we finally see past the populist rhetoric, the lies and the racism that has come to define us instead of a sense of collective duty?


At July 21, 2018 at 4:39 PM, Anonymous Marco said...

This is a weird comparison, because Trump is a wealthy racist whose rhetoric appeals to the white middle-class, whereas Bane is a left-wing populist whose politics are more akin to Occupy Wall Street or even Bernie Sanders, and the Penguin is likewise an outcast from an underprivileged background who plans to kill the mostly white first-born children of Gotham's elite (akin to Moses as opposed to Herod) rather than victimise the brown-skinned Central American children of immigrants seeking a new life in America.

If Trump resembles any villain it is a stupider version of Max Shreck or Lex Luthor, both of whom are right-wing plutocrats, rather than the dispossessed and down-and-out criminals and circus performers that surround Bane and the Penguin.

By the way, I say this not in defence of Trump, who I loathe, but in partial defence of Bane and the Penguin who I see as tragic and damaged antagonists.

At July 21, 2018 at 5:51 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

Well, you certainly have a weird interpretation of Batman villains as well as political positions of the left and right.

#1 Lex Luthor is a Superman villain, not a Batman villain.
#2 Max Schreck was a fool and he was a minor Catwoman antagonoist, hardly a Batmam villain.
#3 Bane's populist rhetoric, as was the Penguin's, was all bullshit and self-serving, just like Trump's. All both ultimately wanted to do was kill large numbers of people (and there's also an important corollary you're missing between Trump and the Penguin threatening to take kids away from their parents forever, as well as Trump's bullshit never being detected by vast numbers of people.
#4 Considering that Bane and Penguin wanted to kill large numbers of people, I'd hardly characterize them as "tragic and damaged antagonists." Batman also came from a tragic and damaged past yet he chose to be a hero while Bane and Penguin chose to be villains with delusions of genocide.

At July 21, 2018 at 6:14 PM, Anonymous Marco said...

I'm not sure how my interpretation of political positions is 'weird'.

Surely Lex Luthor (who, yes, is primarily a Superman villain, but has nevertheless fought Batman on various occasions) and Max Shreck represent the right of the political spectrum, whereas the Penguin, who wanted revenge on Gotham's elite for his parents abandoning him as a baby, and Bane, who was a radical terrorist who wanted to send a message about social inequity to the world, represent anarchy if not a form of communism (the Penguin's gang, the Red Triangle Circus Gang are even named after the symbols assigned to political enemies of Hitler).

And as awful as Trump is, I doubt his end-game is to kill large numbers of people. His end-game is to enrich himself and his cronies, and to keep himself popular with his right-wing political base. And clearly Trump is targeting children at the opposite end of the political spectrum to the wealthy first-born white children the Penguin attempted to murder.

Also, bear in mind that Bruce Wayne grew up in a mansion and was taken care of by a kind butler. Before his parents were murdered, he spent ten or so blissful years being nurtured as the only child of an incredibly wealthy, attentive and loving mother and father. By contrast, Bane grew up in a hole in the ground, and the Penguin was raised since infancy in a cage as a circus freak. Seriously, who had the worse childhood?


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