I went to catch a movie with my family recently, and the trailer for Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film preceded our picture. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch it at the end of this post, which I encourage you to do so, for it looks phenomenal. A portion of the trailer involving a game at a football stadium brought to surface thoughts that have been dormant in my mind but never vocalized. I realize, therefore, that I’m probably extremely late and unoriginal in writing down the fleshing out of these thoughts, but I write them nevertheless—the realization and appreciation for how our concept of villainy or what constitutes a “crooked criminal” has been drastically altered by technology.
Let me first start by admitting that I am, in no way, an avid comic book reader. I think I’ve owned only one comic book in my life (which I will reference later), so I realize I could be “treading” on terrain that isn’t mine. But I don’t believe this does anything to negate or hamper what I’m writing since possessing comic book lore is not contingent upon my being able to connect these two dots: technology and the redefining of what signifies an evil villain.
With greater technological advances comes a concurrent change in the nefarious nature of the quality or availability of maleficent acts. We can take small and large representations to support this statement. In a narrower example, take pornography. As soon as there’s a new digital device out there with internet capability, porn studios are finding ways to make their content compatible with those devices, and, consequently, companies who create content filters scramble to keep up. On the broader spectrum, take bloodshed. Technology advances to the point that we can kill more people with a bigger bang in a quicker amount of time. Add to that how science continues to advance. Today, we are smarter and, perhaps, cleverer than ever (not more intelligent, though, since intelligence is subjective to each discipline, time period, and culture), which means there are more and more layers behind which you can hide your malevolent intentions. I mean, think about it: When was the last time you saw an action flick that didn’t have the “tech guy,” the “cyber guru,” the brainy, nerdy “you-wouldn’t-last-a-second-without-my-ability-to-hack-into-the-system” character. Simply put, technology has affected everything: how we kill each other, how we construct our evil plots, and how we go about counteracting such societal detriments. There’s no way that won’t affect the comic book villain.
Now let’s rewind to the only comic book I ever owned when I was a youngster. It wasn’t even really a legitimate comic book because it came with a model car. The only reason I got the model car was because I wanted the comic book—a Batman comic book, no less. It was shorter than your average comic book, but was not any less entertaining. The villain of choice in the abridged tale was the Riddler.
Here’s the seethingly vile deed the Riddler committed. He stole a rare artifact—small enough to fit in the palm of his hand—from a museum. What was his sneaky, maniacal method? He hid in a nearby sarcophagus!
Let’s come back to present day.
This plot would be child’s play now. There’s really no point arguing whether our reaction is “wrong” or “right” or a sign of our culture’s lack of morality and how we’re all going to hell. It just simply is child’s play. More than that: It needs to change from that former child’s play. Art (and comic books are a legitimate art form) has to stay relevant to the culture it is in. It must comment on the culture it describes to have any worth, any timelessness, any poignancy. Somebody trying to steal an artifact from a museum? Please. Who cares about that anymore besides Indiana Jones?
But seriously, if Bane and Catwoman attempt to steal rare diamonds from a museum in The Dark Night Rises, Nolan is going to have a heaping amount of criticism to respond to. Why? Because we expect more form our villains now. How come?
Because villains have always been “tops” in terms of exceeding evil in our culture. Or, at least, this is the way they’ve been presented to us. In the good ol’ days when Batman was played by Adam West and wore blue instead of black, there was no question that the Penguin, Joker, Riddler, or Catwoman had to be stopped at all costs, regardless of how petty their crimes may have seemed if we were to just stop and really think about it for a moment. For villains, though, to continue to have that “at all costs” idea associated with them, they’ll have to up their malicious ante.
The concept of Batman (and any superhero, for that matter) is that he is our last resort. The evil and depravity of this world is so overwhelming that, if Batman doesn’t intervene, we’re probably not going to make it. But if the Riddler continues to steal archaeological specimens while governments start wars, terrorists blow up buildings, or extremists pull off suicide bombings, then the predicament for the world of hero-versus-villain storytelling is the following: Batman no longer worries about the Riddler. So, that means Batman will be fighting . . . terrorists? That can’t happen. Why? Because we all know how the Batman script is supposed to go. He has to fight the Riddler, the Penguin, the Joker, Catwoman. Therefore, they have to be evil enough to merit Batman’s attention. Thus, we make the villain (nay, the very comic book culture itself) bow to culture and evolve along with the technology.
This is why Heath Ledger’s Joker had to be more disturbing than ever before. Compare Jack Nicholson’s portrayal to Ledger’s. Obviously different. Granted, there are a host of reasons as to why the differences are there (different actors, different stories, different directors), but you can’t help but begin to believe that one major catalyst is how the world changed quite a bit between 1989 and 2008. If Ledger were to come out on the screen and ham it up like Nicholson did with the face paint and red lips, we’d all look at each other and think, “This is ridiculous.” This is why Ledger needed to shove pencils through peoples’ skulls, exhibit a mental instability that viewed his own masochism as comical, and put peoples’ lives in the balance of an ethical and naturalistic conundrum on ferry boats in Gotham’s harbor. If he were to squirt water from a fake flower in his lapel, we’d be dissatisfied as viewers because obviously Batman would have better things to be doing than responding to a Joker who only dabbles in practical jokes.
And so I segue into the trailer below. Nolan and company have done a superb job in constructing, yet again, a situation that looks impossible, overwhelming, and full of shades of grey. The situation Batman faces needs to look that way because then, if he does succeed, he truly did do something superhuman and is, thus, a superhero. Reclaiming a stolen artifact? A mall cop could do that. Though characters like Batman exist in a mythical sort of world, there has to be enough contemporary contact with our circumstances in his adventures and trials. And so now Batman must face villains who place their finger on the trigger of the detonator. Cold blood is in. Kleptomaniac behavior is not.