Would Aristotle Dig the Dark Knight?

Submitted for discussion: Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies are superior to Christopher Nolan’s.

Now let me warn you first of all this is all entirely tangential to the post I originally set out to write, and which I am still working on: whether we should care more about movie sex than movie violence. It’s also outside the scope of this blog. But I started on it and I figured, what the hell, I’ll put it out there and see what people think.

Just to refresh your memory, Schumacher directed Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, starring Val Kilmer and George Clooney respectively. The latter film also featured Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze, a role that allowed him to deliver such memorable lines as “I’m afraid my condition has left me cold to your pleas of mercy” and “You’re not sending ME to the COOLER!”

I can already anticipate an objection to my view. It runs roughly like this: “Um, Neil, are you out of your ****ing mind?”  It’s true that Nolan’s films, especially the second, are widely considered masterpieces of modern cinema, and they have together grossed almost a billion and a half dollars. Meanwhile both critical and public reaction to the Schumacher movies was a bit, um, cool, even icy. In fact, you might suspect that on a planet that now contains over ten billion people, whose endless cultural and individual diversity ensures an unfathomable array of attitudes and values, I am the only single person who holds this opinion.

Maybe. If so, so be it. But bear with me.

Let’s ask ourselves how Aristotle would have looked at the question. For Aristotle, the virtue of a thing, whatever it is, consists in it being an excellent thing of its kind. A virtuous person is someone who fully realises the unique potential of the human species. If a person decided to go live amongst wolves, it is I suppose conceivable that she could become a very good wolf, skilled at hunting and managing a pack of underlings. But we would not hold that person up as an example of a successful human life. On a more mundane level, imagine that we buy a flute from a flute-maker, only to discover that it sounded terrible when played. We return to the flute-maker to confront him, and he says in his own defense: “it’s true it sounds terrible as a flute, but it’s actually quite effective as a small digging tool.” We would not accept this explanation, because that is not what a flute is for. It isn’t why we bought it.

To know the function of a thing, we enquire into its essence. Aristotle thought everything in the world, whether natural or artifactual, had some essence that distinguished it from all other things. So let us ask: what is the essence of a Batman movie? It’s a story about a guy in a mask, cape and macho-muscle armor who fights an array of supervillains, all of whom run around in equally-outlandish costumes. It is, as this should make clear, a movie for kids. Indeed it is most ideally suited for quite young kids. By the time you reach the age of, say, ten or so, you should really start asking some questions about the basic premiss, like: why do all the supposed criminal masterminds self-identify as super-villains by wearing ridiculous costumes all the time?

I have witnessed first-hand the reaction young kids have to the Schumacher movies. They love them. They don’t care about the bad dialogue or the ridiculous plot twists. They pay for big showpiece stand-offs between the heroes and the villains, and they love the exagerrated performances that leave no room for moral ambiguity. And they get the jokes. Nolan has produced a set of subtle character studies illustrating the thin line between good and evil, along with nuanced reflections on the role of violence in our society and gripping explorations of the inner pscyhology of sociopaths. Or something. But the thing is, if you’re old enough to appreciate all of that, you’re too old to be watching a dude in a cape fight a dude in clown make-up. Go out and buy the first season of The Wire. Then, if you are still looking for some entertainment after that, you can go buy the other four.

I went to a comic-book store the other day and asked whether he had any Batman comics appropriate for a five-year-old. He directed me to a dusty box in the back, filled with issues that pre-dated 1990 (all of which were of course much more expensive than the recent ones). He explained to me that after that it’s all “The Dark Knight”, in which Batman does things like have sex with Catwoman and get killed. They are aimed at (this is my description not his) adult fanboys who demand adult levels of sex and violence but still, for some reason totally unfathomable to me, insist on reading about guys in capes rather than about actual real-life people. Same goes for cartoons. I recently made the mistake of renting a Batman cartoon called Under the Red Hood, to show to an audience that consisted of a five year old and three year old. Now I admit it was my mistake for not checking on line to find out exactly what the film contained (it was rated PG in Canada, which a lot of perfectly innocuous fare is – the G rating seems to be reserved for stuff so soul-crushingly inane that even five year olds can’t sit through it without gagging), but I complacently figured: how bad can it be? It’s a cartoon. Well… it opened with a scene of Joker brutally beating Robin to death with a crowbar. He’s brought back to life, but, traumatised by the whole dying thing, becomes a serial killer, whose massacres are lovingly depicted on screen. I wanted to personally call everyone who actually liked this movie and say to them: dude, if you’re old enough to be into this material, you’re too old for ****ing cartooons! But, because these are the people who drive the audience numbers, now there is nothing left for very young readers and very young viewers, except to go back to the good old days of Joel Schumacher.

Now you could argue that one could make a better Batman movie than Schumacher did, while still aiming it at young kids. And I don’t dispute that. I’d love to see what Brad Bird (The Incredibles) or Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath (The Penguins of Madagascar) could do with the franchise. But for now Schumacher is what we’ve got, and I think if I could bring Aristotle back to life, and the experience didn’t turn him into a serial killer, he’d agree with me.

Okay, coming soon, the post I originally meant to write: whether we should care more about movie sex than movie violence in determining movie ratings. Stay tuned.

Image: illustration from “The Home and School Reference Work, Volume I” by The Home and School Education Society (1917), page 255, via perpetualplum.

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One Comment

  1. Jt
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 12:10 am | Permalink | Reply

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