Gotham, The Dark Knight, and The Subjective Nature Of Morality
I like Gotham. Now, before you lynch me for having terrible taste, let me explain. I know that the show can be over the top, in particular with the depiction of the Riddler’s insanity in the most recent episode (Smashing a skull with a hammer is a little on-the-nose, if you ask me). I have some things to say about that incident in specific, but it ties into the broader point I’m trying to make here, so we’ll loop back around to that.
The other criticism viewers of the show have is that it is illogical. The idea that Bruce Wayne, as an eight-year-old, could not only track down a hired assassin but also push him out a window is ludicrous. I agree with that assessment, to some extent. But let me tell you why the ruthless, intelligent, and frighteningly competent characterization of young Bruce makes sense within the larger themes of the Batman mythos. Here we go.
The most terrifying thing about villains is that they don’t know they’re the bad guy. This might seem like a departure from the thesis I outlined above, but bare with me. All of this will make sense by the end of this thing, I promise. Anyway, back to that thing I said about villains a second ago. The way to write an interesting villain is to give them a Machiavellian end justifies the means mentality. The villains, even the truly, criminally insane ones, must believe that their actions are necessary for the greater good. Joker must think that killing Batman will improve Gotham. Lex Luthor has to believe that Superman is bad for the world. Good, or rather interesting, villains believe that their brand of psychotic, murderous vigilante justice is the right way to do things.
And so does Batman. At his core, Bruce Wayne, even as an adult, is a child who watched his parents die. He was unable to stop an objectively evil event from occurring, and it broke him. He is shattered because of what happened, and what he could not do. It was this shattering, this insanity, that led him to put on the bat-suit. Rather than using his vast fortune to Improve the city he claims to love by, say, buying houses personally for all Gotham’s disadvantaged citizens.
Rather than donating to the police and using legal channels to fight the crime he professes to hate, he turned himself into a warrior. A weapon. He sunk untold amounts of money and time into beating the shit out of criminals, into ‘cleaning up the streets.’ And he did it because he’s broken. He is so wounded that he believes the only way to work trough his unsolved aggression (He never got therapy, remember), and to ostensibly improve Gotham City, is to put on a costume and smash some heads. He inflicts violent physical and emotional harm onto people, which would be tantamount to torture if we preformed it on even the most despicable terrorists.
But it’s okay, because everything Batman does is for the greater good.
Are you noticing a pattern here? Both Batman and his enemies believe that their specific brand of psychosis will help make the world a better place. This means that morality is subjective, but so what? What does any of this have to do with Gotham and its characterizations of both Young Bruce and The Riddler? Well, I’m glad you asked.
The point of Batman, to me, is to show the subjectivity of morality. It’s about confronting our own demons and realizing that humanity is a whole. A hive. We are not so different from whoever, or whatever, we consider to be evil. We can all become evil, if we allow our emotions to cloud our actions. Wayne was angry, so he lashed out and became violent as Batman. That’s the whole freaking point of the character.
And that’s why Gotham works, at least as far as Young Bruce is concerned. He’s ruthless, murderous, and calculating. He’s damaged. He is on the path of a villain, or at least a competently written one. The fact that he’s on this path earlier than in the comments serves to tell the audience that this can happen to anyone. The subjectivity of the ‘greater good’ is timeless.
From a story point of view, the timeline allows for a more realistic portrayal of recovery. Healing Bruce’s shattered psyche will not happen overnight. By allowing him to confront his malicious nature early in life, we can see the entire journey. Grown Bruce still has to heal, he still has to get back to normal. And now he’s been entrenched in rage from a young age, so it’s even harder for him to climb out of that pit of darkness. That’s dark and complex without being moody. That’s the essence of Batman.
Now let’s look at Gotham’s interpretation of The Ridder. Edward Nygma is crazy. He dismembered a man and smashed his skull into little pieces with a hammer. That’s crazy, pure and simple. But the guy he killed was an abusive asshole, and he was hurting the woman Nygma loves. Therefore, he’s doing good. This is what makes the psyche of Bruce Wayne so interesting. Because it’s not that different from that of one of his greatest villains. It is this moral quandary that makes the story and the mythos of Batman so freaking compelling.
Now, you might say that the Riddler and Batman are different because the latter doesn’t kill, at least not outright. I think Batman is a murderer regardless. He breaks thug’s bones regularly, and I’ve never once seen him call an ambulance for one of those guys. Leaving someone for dead, to me, is just as bad as killing them. It might even be worse. This is a subjective point, as is all morality, but whatever. It really has no bearing on the rest of this essay.
Let’s assume that Batman agrees with my hypothetical reader, as opposed to me. He doesn’t kill. He might have confronted and made peace with the psychotic nature of his actions, but that is the one line he won’t cross. If this is true, then the Riddler represents what he might become. If Batman continues down his current path, then he might eventually lose whatever thread of sanity he has been clinging onto. The Riddler is Batman taken to his logical extreme. He’s a villain, and a really insane one. Now, the Joker might’ve filled this role in the comic books, but after his stellar portrayal by Heath Ledger in Nolan’s Batman films, and the upcoming butchering of the character in Suicide Squad, I think that character deserves a rest. Don’t you?
That’s why I like Gotham. It gives us a glimpse inside the mind of a mentally-ill man with tremendous power and influence, and a tremendous amount of work to do in the healing process. All this while teaching us a little something about the nature of morality. Plus, it’s still a relatively interesting show. If you ask me, that’s what every superhero story should strive to do.
As a side note, this complex morality presented in Batman is why Dawn of Justice will presumably be terrible. See, Superman is a boring character. The fact is, he’s a bland goody-two-shoes with an outdated sense of right and wrong. But he can work as an archetype. He can be the pinnacle of heroism, the thing that every other superhero, and indeed every regular person, is aiming to be.
It is in this capacity that the character works as a foil for Batman. Clark’s unwavering sense of justice serves as a poignant counterpoint to Bruce’s torn, villainous mindset. He forces Batman to confront another idea of what a real hero is. With Superman by his side, Batman has a beacon of hope to look towards. He knows what a really good person looks like. And, put simply, it isn’t him. The Batman-Superman relationship is just another facet of the moral puzzle the series presents (Side note: Robin is also an excellent foil for Batman, who serves the exact same purpose. Not that it matters right now).
But it simply does not exist within the Superman depicted in Man of Steel and, by extension, the forthcoming Dawn of Justice. Jesus Christ, is that really the goddamned title? Seriously? Whatever. In that film, Superman wears dark gray and muted red, and he is distraught over the destruction of his homeworld. He’s no longer the shining, primary-colored light we all look up to. He’s a murderer, even going so far as to snap the neck of Zod, the villain of the movie.
I know he did that in the comics, too, but at least there was some emotional conflict involved. Here, he just kills and then whines about it. They’re trying to pack some emotional punch, but it falls flat because he’s just a gritty asshole. Instead of overcoming his grief, and showing that everyone has to make hard choices sometimes, but that we can still overcome them, he wallows in his own self-pity for half an hour. Brilliant, right?
In simple terms, the new Man of Steel is Batman. Now that they are both dark, conflicted characters, there’s no counterpoint, and neither is forced to evaluate their own choices with a critical eye. It’s not how that dynamic is supposed to play out, and that is why the film will surely be awful.
Zod, by the way, is just as grim and serious, if a bit more unhinged, than the title character. Then again, they both destroy the city, so can you really call Superman a hero in this context. That works with the Dark Knight, but it just isn’t who Superman is.
The subjectivity of morality is not present in the new dynamic, meaning that the two characters have no conflict, and thus no reason to fight one another. Batman Versus Superman is not a feasible path to take. Maybe they’ll do something new and interesting with that relationship, but I’m skeptical of that. Is that cynical? Sure. But at least I’m right.
But, then again, this last bit is all speculation, so maybe they’ll go in a completely different direction with their relationship. Even if they include a different metaphor, independent of all my talk about morality. Somehow, I really doubt it.
Just something to think about.