TCS Daily


Way of the Superhero

By Douglas Kern - July 1, 2005 12:00 AM

It's summer movie blockbuster season, and we have a new contestant in the Incoherence Olympics. Joining Obi-Wan "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes, so let me absolutely smite you with my lightsaber" Kenobi and Tom "Let me burnish my credentials as an opponent of psychiatric oppression by acting like a total nut" Cruise is a rather confused Caped Crusader.

In Batman Begins, a young Bruce Wayne stands on the precipice of joining the League of Shadows, a mysterious cult of vigilante ninjas who plan on ending corruption in Gotham City by destroying it altogether. (A draconian solution, to be sure, but at least recidivism isn't a problem.) At his induction ceremony, Wayne's mentor, Henri Ducard, presents him with a captured peasant - a murderer. Wayne's initiation rite? Execute him.

"This man should be tried," murmurs Wayne.

His mentor scoffs. The peasant's guilt is indisputable. And besides, who would try such a man? The corrupt and indifferent bureaucrats of Gotham City?

Our proto-Batman pauses, steps forward - and takes on the entire ninja school. After some poorly edited chop-socky action and a barrage of Bruckheimer-style pyrotechnics (because when titans clash, monasteries made of wood just explode), Bruce Wayne wins, bringing the entire training complex down around the ears of the hapless ninjas.

Now, I'm no medical expert, but it seems to me that when you blow up a building full of people, you stand a pretty good chance of killing most of them. So way to go, Bat Moral Purity Man! To save the life of one murderer, you ended the lives of hundreds of other people - including, most likely, the very killer you refused to execute. If your philosophy catches on, it could depopulate whole continents.

So Bruce Wayne is a moral cretin, right?

Well ... maybe not.

Unlike previous Batmen, the Batman of Batman Begins doesn't spend too many evenings prowling around Gotham's rooftops seeking guilty-looking people to thrash. He focuses his energies on the fight against corruption - the incubator of evil. Gotham isn't dying because the usual run of thugs, crooks and killers are out of control. It's dying because its leaders have allied themselves with evil, thus choking off any possibility that good can triumph.

Batman doesn't fight crooked cops and underworld leaders because he intends to install himself as Grand Bat-Poobah of Gotham; neither does he strive to stamp his personal vision of the good into the face of Gotham. He isn't interested in the day-to-day struggles of right and wrong that defined human society since the beginning of time, and always will; he's concerned with the systemic evil that makes the ordinary struggles of morality impossible.

And that's why Bruce Wayne wouldn't kill the murderer presented to him. Murderers there have always been; murderers there will always be, and society has devised a proper system for disposing of them. But homicidal vigilante ninja cults that presume to play judge, jury and executioner in defiance of every existing law and custom, all while annihilating cities that offend them - no ordinary defense can be marshaled against such threats, and so the extraordinary defense of an extra-legal superhero must be accepted. Supervillains necessitate superheroes.

All things super must act outside - but not necessarily against - the law. Batman will spill not one drop of blood of a man who breaks laws, but he will rain hot CGI-generated death upon those who would break law itself. The distinction between heroism and terrorism rests on that difference.

Just as rogue ninja cults make local justice impossible, so, too, do rogue nations make moral communities impossible. Totalitarian dictatorships are famous for offering "citizens" the choice between a moral death and a compromised life lived in the thrall of evil men and evil deeds. Every government will act wrongly at some point, but a rogue nation exterminates those forces that halt and correct the ordinary evils of the world. Such evil is not amenable to the ordinary exercises of influence. To a nation that exterminates its own people, words like "sovereignty" and "rule of law" are punch lines, not deterrents. Expecting the United Nations or the Popular Opinion of Rich Western Countries to stop rogue nations is like expecting the Gotham City Police to catch the Joker: it won't happen, but we'll get lots of dead bodies and grisly laughs along the way.

But if we accept that rogue nations require rogue crime-fighting nations to oppose them, we should remember the words of Master Yo- ... er, Bob Dylan: to live outside the law, you must be honest. When we take down rogue nations, we are compelled to offer democracy in the place of tyranny. Even apart from the myriad benefits that democracy can bring to the oppressed, we must promote democracy for our own sake. Only by doing so can we ensure that our actions do not descend into arrogant vigilantism - or, worse, naked self-interest. By confining the scope of our actions to defending the right to make moral choices, we ensure that we remain Batmen, and not ninjas in the League of Shadows.

Many critics deride our efforts to spread democracy not because they will fail, but because they will succeed - perhaps bringing to power anti-democratic, totalitarian threats every bit as vicious as the one we depose. That's a risk we have to take. Sometimes you fight for justice for a murderer who really was guilty. Sometimes you fight for procedural justice and the jury hands down a stupid verdict anyway. And yes, sometimes you fight to give people freedom only to discover that the people choose not to choose, or that they choose barbarism to civilization. Freedom must entail the freedom to fail.

Beware any pundit of any political bent who tells you that the success or failure of freedom in any country is inevitable; with free will, nothing is preordained. When we fight, we fight for freedom and democracy not because they will always succeed (they won't) or because they will always serve our interests (they definitely won't) but because we will become the monsters if we fight for anything more - or less.

The great irony of the blow-up-the-ninjas sequence in Batman Begins is that it follows on the heels of a scene in which a young Bruce Wayne triumphs over his fears in a duel with his mentor. Having conquered his own demons, he saw all too clearly the demon that he would become if he failed to temper his crusade with humility. We have learned the same lesson. When you take the law into your own hands, you either become a law unto yourself, or you become the conduit for a higher law. We have chosen the path of the higher law - the path of freedom. We will be superheroes for as long as we stay on it, and supervillains the moment we fall off.

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