Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman

September 13, 2012

In the study of popular culture, academicians have recently been bringing material from abstract disciplines, such as philosophy, to bear on it. What should we make of this seemingly odd pairing? A 2007 essay by the philosopher Stephen Asma, "Looking Up From the Gutter: Philosophy and Popular Culture" captures the hesitancy with which academia has viewed such interfaces. The question on the lips of many scholars is: Can we focus on popular culture without cheapening abstract theory?

Brooker's text answers this question affirmatively in two ways. First, he brings theories to bear on the Batman mythos, deploying them with sophistication. While displaying a breadth of knowledge about Batman both as a cultural icon and a superhero with an elaborate, complicated history, he sees abstract theory as a way to wrest the caped crusader free from those who would constrain him. The heart of the debate is about Batman's interpretation: what is his true essence? In discussing the 21st-century Batman, Brooker argues that there is none. To do this, he draws on work by Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Mikhail Bakhtin and Jacques Derrida, all of whom have disrupted confidence in the authority of the author, stable identities and the binary oppositions that help us to construct such identities.

Brooker deploys this arsenal with precision in his quest to dislodge any one interpretation of Batman. In the first few chapters, as he explores the disruption of the place of the author and the questionable relationship between original and copy in the Batman universe, he shows how the director Christopher Nolan and his team, with the help of experts at DC Comics, carefully chose storylines as they created the trilogy that started with Batman Begins (2005) and ended with this year's The Dark Knight Rises. Brooker argues that Nolan could pick and choose - while presenting the illusion that there is only one "true" Batman - because Batman is most properly understood as a palimpsest. He is a found example of an identity that has no original essence, rather than a character with a true essence in need of recovery. This process reveals a character waiting for a theory to explain it, leaving it open to multiple readings.

Second, Brooker uses two polarised presentations of Batman to take on Western culture's heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy. Deploying Derrida's différance, Brooker argues that the perennial fight for the sexual heart and soul of Batman (is he Nolan's hyper-masculine Batman or the stereotypically gay Batman of Joel Schumacher's 1990s films?) is a false one. Instead, Batman must be understood on a spectrum within the fluid play of heterosexuality and homosexuality. Brooker uses the Joker, Batman's deviant "other", to further underscore this point. Batman's identity, he suggests, can be made static only through great effort on the part of both individuals and large corporations.

Brooker's accomplishment is to show that the engagement of theory and popular culture can add value to both; engagement with theory need not preclude fun topics, and fun topics can be intellectually rich. He uses theory to set the 21st-century Batman free from the stabilising discourses of Nolan, Schumacher, fans and DC Comics itself. If Foucault and others have taught us anything, it is that we can appear stable only by casting aside what threatens that stability and labelling it "not me". But every inside needs its outside. So Brooker's portrayal of Batman reinforces that we are both who we say we are and also what we might disavow. See - you really are like Batman after all.

Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman

By Will Brooker. I.B. Tauris, 2pp, £57.50 and £12.99. ISBN 97818488592 and 52808. Published 30 May 2012

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