Thursday, June 30, 2005

Batman Begrudged

After a nearly two-week hiatus, I’m climbing back on the blogging wagon. I really should say something about the execrable Kelo decision. And I’m tempted to jump into Will, Brad, and Julian’s fascinating exchange about utilitarianism. But instead, I’ll complain about Batman Begins. WARNING: Spoilers ahead!

Early in the movie, the Legion of Shadows is presented as a vigilante crime-fighting society. It fights evil, but is willing to employ unsavory methods to do so. Specifically, its leaders have concluded Gotham breeds so much evil that it must be razed entirely. Now, that’s not my complaint. The best villains are those who think they’re in the right, and the excessive willingness to crack eggs to make omelettes has a venerable history in literature (think Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar).

So, how does the Legion set about destroying Gotham? After Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) reveals that he is the real Ra’s Al-Ghul, the Legion’s chief, he explains to Batman that the Legion has been trying to bring down Gotham for decades. And what tool did they use? Economics, he says. The Legion engineered a depression to create an underclass that would turn to crime.

Now hold on a cotton-pickin’ minute. The Legion wants to destroy Gotham because it’s a crime-ridden cesspool. Okay. But how did it get that way? If Al-Ghul’s story is true, the Legion made it that way. Before the Legion started mucking with Gotham’s economy, it was presumably not so criminal and corrupt. The Legion created the crime problem, and then used the problem to justify the overwrought solution. Oh, and by the way, the out-of-control crime is also part of the solution, since the plan involves letting fear-crazed felons tear down the town.

In short, the Legion is both diabolical and utterly incoherent. Incoherent villains are rife in the movies, of course, so I normally wouldn’t complain. But in this case, the Legion is supposed to be frightening precisely because it seems rational in its own fanatical way. Bruce Wayne finds the logic of the Legion’s position compelling, as indicated by his own willingness to remain a vigilante (even after saving Gotham from destruction). Making the Legion irrational cheapens it as a villain.

Incidentally, I don’t share Joe Salerno’s objection to the idea that a depression could be engineered. Although the movie does not specify the economic tools used for that purpose, it’s not hard to find them. Lousy Federal Reserve policy would do the job, as Salerno admits, but there are microeconomic routes as well. To make an economy crumble, you simply have to undermine the factors that create and sustain it. Outlaw the sale of valuable goods and services, thereby fomenting a blackmarket. Stop enforcing contracts and property rights, or enforce them in a haphazard and unreliable fashion. Raise taxes to discourage productivity. Erect regulations that stifle business formation and employment.

What is more objectionable is Al-Ghul’s suggestion that the Legion’s plan was stymied by the generous philanthropy of people like Bruce Wayne’s father. If you’ve succeeded in weakening the foundations of a strong economy, as per the recipe above, then philanthropy won’t do much good. Giving people free stuff doesn’t create wealth, and thus cannot address the root of the problem. At best, it will slow the decline; at worst, it will encourage more dependency.

But the film doesn’t delve into these topics, and that’s probably a good thing. With the Legion’s methods of economic destruction unspecified, I’m free to imagine there’s actually a coherent underlying economic theory. What I find more difficult to get past is the internal inconsistency of the Legion’s plan to destroy Gotham for evils deliberately stoked by the Legion itself.


Anonymous said...

The notion that a conspiracy of bad guys can “use economics as a weapon” to cause a depression in Gotham City is ridiculous—unless they have somehow infiltrated the Federal Reserve System - Joe Salerno

That reminiscently sounds like what we already have in the Bush administration's self-serving policies: tax cuts for the wealthy to further exacerbate the maldistribution of incomes and the trashing of Medicare with that execrable old peoples drug "benefit" to further enrich the giant pharmaceutical drug pushers, not to mention the excremental attempts to destroy true old-age benefits, i.e. Social Security established amidst the Great Depression by FDR and expanded during the Eisenhower administration. (Too bad the evil-doer Republican presidents have to tarnish the image of the rare benevolent ones.)

Fortunately, when YOU give synopses, they usually make me want to see the movie even more like in this instance. The last Batman movie I saw was so dark and gloomy that I fell asleep during 90% of the movie. What a stinko film that was - too damn dark. The producer and director took the expression "film noir" too literally. Oh yeah, two weeks is too long to be gone and you were missed.

Anonymous said...

Glen, rethink the Legion of Shadows position as a knock-off of Ragnar Danneskjold. They already believe the city is lost, so now they are just accelerating the progress.

I don't see how you get that Bruce Wayne buys into their philosophy. He's quite explicit in saying that he does not think Gotham is beyond hope of recovery.

Anonymous said...

I thought that Gotham in the movie was too bright in many places, though the depiction of the underworld was not bad. I thought that a lot of the dialogue could have been better written--e.g. the discussion that Bruce Wayne had with the mobster was abyssmal. The casting in the movie was, however, excellent. Caine as Alfred was phenomenal, as were the casting decisions for Gordon, al-Ghoul, and Batman. The best casting call was Scarecrow. The actor they got to play him was so thin-framed, meticulous, mildly efeminate. I can just imagine him as a child being beaten by his schoolmates, constantly being filled with fear of physical violence, and eventually growing fasinated by the power fear has over him. His character could have been developed much more thoroughly in the movie, and some of his dialogue was less than believable.

I didn't find the League's philosophy incoherent--they believed that decadence was itself criminal. Think of them as Thoreau-inspired faschists, like the Unabomber.

I also have my own nitpicky problems with the movie--mainly with the fear toxin. Based on what Friedman said about its analysis, it's some kind of peptide. This would make a fair amount of sense, honestly. I don't think there are any kind of specific receptor types specific to the amygdala (generally considered to be the seat of fear in the brain). Thus any agonist which produced large amounts of fear would probably have to be quite complex--some metabolic process would have to cause it to collect preferentially in the amygdala, and a such a chemical would probably have to be a peptide or a very complex molecule.

The peptide theory also fits well with the fact that it cannot be eaten--most peptides are broken down by enzymes in the stomach before they can be absorbed. There are several problems:

(1) Why did the plant evolve this chemical? I suppose it's possible that whatever grazing animal selected for this chemical might lack the necessary enzymes, but this seems improbable--all animals need protein. Indeed, all the psychoactive peptides I'm aware of are in snake venom--designed to be injected, not eaten.

(2) Wayne and Crayne both believe that excessive exposure will cause Holmes to live in a permanent state of fear. This is *extremely* unlikely. The aftereffects of agonists are the oposite of the effects--e.g. cocaine and MDMA both produce depression the day after intense euphoria. This is caused both by compensatory mechanisms, cell death, and neurotransmitter depletion in the affected areas. I suspect that if the drug had permanent aftereffects, they would probably consist of a high degree of sociality and a poor ability to evaluate risk. This is what was seen in rhesus monkeys who had their amygdalas surgically removed.

(3) If the drug were a peptide (or any protein, which Friedman specifically stated it was), it would be extremely hard for any scientist to identify. There are tens of thousands of proteins in human blood, and Friedman would need an enormous sample to find the active chromatography fraction. Even after an isolation method was perfected, identifying proteins is still quite difficult. The isolation step would probably take weeks, unless given a pure sample. Then the identification step would probably take several more weeks (depending on the size of the molecule). Finally the development of an antidote would probably take years. Friedman did it in two days, but at least he said it was really hard...

All in all, though, I thought this was the best Batman movie yet, beating out the animated /Mask of the Phantasm/, my previous favorite.

Gil said...


Maybe I wasn't following closely enough, but what leads you to conclude that the Legion started attacking the Gotham economy before it decided that the crime problem was so severe that the best thing is to destroy the city?

Anonymous said...

For whatever reason, I can totally accept the notion of a drug that causes fear and insanity when inhaled, but the idea of a microwave ray that only blows up water mains and not the 98% (or whatever) water in our bodies just does not compute. Regardless of that and other reasonable objections, I still liked the movie.

Blar said...

I think that the story of Gotham according to the League of Shadows is more coherent than Glen gives it credit for. Even before the depression, they believed that Gotham was corrupt, decadent, in decline, and beyond saving. They wanted to hasten its decline so that it would implode and be replaced by a better city, so they caused the depression. Their plan was working - the city was turning on itself - but then Bruce Wayne's dad came along with his generous and inspiring philanthropy. As Glen says, this philanthropy was not able to overturn the fundamental problems with the city (in terms of its economy and its rottenness), but it was enough to keep it from falling apart. The depression therefore failed at its goal of rapidly bringing about the fall of the city - Gotham was still limping along - so the League needed to turn to a more drastic solution.

My main problem with the movie is with the strategies, both of Batman and of the League of Shadows, in the climactic scene of the movie where they're taking the microwave weapon on the train to the hub of the city so that it will create a chain reaction that vaporizes all the water in Gotham. Batman jumps on the train with them, but he accomplishes absolutely nothing. The entire job of saving the city is carried out by Gordon, who speeds ahead in the batmobile and takes out the train tracks. So why didn't Batman just take the batmobile himself? The reasons for this decision, I'm afraid, are not Batman's. The movie needed to culminate with a dramatic confrontation between Batman and Ra’s Al-Ghul. (You might claim that Batman had two strategies for stopping the bad guys, him fighting on the train and Gordon using the Batmobile, but he was so confident of Gordon's success that he actually stopped fighting before Gordon had blown up the support pole of the tracks.)

The bigger problem with this scene: why in the world did the League bother with the train? Why did they come to the Narrows first? Why didn't they take the microwave weapon right to the hub of the city in the first place and create panic throughout Gotham all at once? This convulated strategy, along with Ra’s Al-Ghul's decision to leave Bruce Wayne to die under the burning board as a kind of poetic justice (instead of just killing him), makes the League of Shadows into a typical comic book villain, more concerned with aesthetics than with success. The rest of the movie manages to turn the Batman story into something that is more serious, darker, and more realistic, which is what made these returns to comic-bookness so jarring for me. Like Glen, I think that the rational, goal-oriented nature of the League of Shadows is central to its villainy, and that straying from this shrewd ruthlessness undermines its fearsome position.

Anton said...

Since Ras al-Ghul means (if memory serves) `Head of the Demon', shouldn't the short form be Ras rather than Al-Ghul?

Anonymous said...

"Based on what Friedman said about its analysis, it's some kind of peptide."

The actor's name is "Freeman," for pete's sake! And the character is "Lucius Fox."

Man, with a name like mine, you have NO IDEA how much that irritates me.

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