Batman in the Age of Trump

Batman in the Age of Trump

I’ve been on a recent Batman kick rewatching the old Michael Keaton movies, replaying Arkham Knight and Telltale’s excellent ‘Batman’ video game series. As I revisited Batman and his origins in 2016, new, troubling themes started to emerge. This was the story of billionaire reshaping the world to match his own imagine of justice. I couldn’t help asking, what does Batman mean in the age of Donald Trump?

The internet is about 90% ‘What does Donald Trump mean?’ think pieces right now, so I can understand if you groaned a little at that question, but super heroes aren’t as trivial as we like to think. They are modern-day myths and like all myths they tell us about who we are, what we think is heroic or villainous and what values are worth fighting for.

There are many themes within Batman’s mythos and that help explain Trump’s appeal. But the one that I think is the most important is their shared super power. Both Batman and Donald Trump are billionaires (maybe). On the campaign trial, there were plenty of interviews with Trump supporters who were decent, rational people who when asked why they were supporting Donald Trump said ‘He’s a successful businessman, he’ll be good for the economy, he’ll fix things.’

We tend to think billionaires are not like us. How can they be? They have billions, they must be the smartest, most dedicated people alive to earn that type of money. They know things that we don’t, because if we knew the things they did or were capable of the feats of will, self-discipline and risk taking that they are, then we’d be billionaires too. They’re just something ‘special’ about them, like super heroes.

In the comics billionaires are super heroes. Next to scientists, and maybe reporters, billionaires are the most common alter ego for super heroes (side note, I also can’t think of a single super hero billionaire who is ‘self-made’, they all inherit their fortune). But no comic book billionaire is quite like Bruce Wayne.

Tony Stark might be a brilliant engineer, but he’s also cocky alcoholic. His vices are so bad that he’s had to give up being iron man because of them and has lost his company through his hubris on multiple occasions. Also in the comics, and now in the movies, whenever Tony is given anything close to federal power he royally messes up. He’s locked up his friends or put them on lists and accidentally given military power over to super villains. Tony Stark would not make a good President.

Bruce Wayne on the other hand is perfect. He’s a genius with super human will which allows him to become the best at everything he does: the world’s greatest detective, master martial artist; a guy that’s able to beat up superman repeatedly as well as outsmart and defeat the likes of Darkseid, an intergalactic tyrant and space god. He’s got a tool for every job, knows everything, and is prepared for any possible outcome.

Can you think of better poster child for ideal of meritocracy than Batman? He’s the most American superhero out there that doesn’t start his name with ‘Captain’, because say what you will about other rich people, Bruce Wayne deserves his money. Deserves it, because like Trump, he didn’t earn it, he inherited it. And as Trump supporters felt America desperately needed a man like Donald, Gotham desperately needs Batman.

In Batman comics Gotham is a city overrun by criminals, with a dismal economy and a corrupt political climate that can only be described as ‘swampish’. In every origin when Batman arrives all that changes. Wayne industries comes in and creates jobs fixing the economy. Batman takes out the mob leaders and exposes politicians, wiping away corruption and decreasing crime (at least initially; there always must be crime or there would be no Batman). Gotham is safer, richer and better with Batman in charge.

And make no mistake, Batman is in charge. Super hero comics by no means represent realistic politics. Shield, for instance, is an international police agency which has authority everywhere and yet it’s never clear who they answer to or how they get their funding. But even by comic’s standards Gotham is some bizarre libertarian city-state, with Batman/Bruce Wayne as it’s Soldier-CEO.

In the comics, games, and movies Wayne Enterprises controls just about every major function in Gotham. All utilities are run through Wayne tower. The Wayne’s built the public monorail transportation for the city. Wayne tech systems act as the communication providers for the police, the banks, and city hall. As CEO Bruce Wayne has access to every communication and record that goes through that system. I can’t imagine that would be legal anywhere else in the U.S.

And yet in Batman comics this clearly corrupt system is for the collective good. There is no conflict of interest between Bruce Wayne’s monopoly on every industry in Gotham and Batman’s extra-legal actives in policing the city, because they both serve the same interests, that of Gotham’s. The fact that Gotham’s interests are indeterminable from Bruce Wayne’s, doesn’t matter. Gotham is after all Batman’s city, he says so himself.

And Batman’s city is Batman’s, not the mob’s, not the dangerous ‘others’ that threaten the power of the status quo. While Batman main adversaries don’t come from the minority groups that Trump targeted on the campaign trail, his rouge’s gallery is still full of people labeled as freaks, the insane, and the other. People on the fringes of society not in the mainstream.

Killer Croc has a fatal skin condition not a trust fund. The Joker is dangerous, but he’s anarchist who will burn money rather than horde it. Even the Penguin who dresses like an early twentieth century aristocrat only turns to crime after the elite of Gotham kick him out.

Batman enforces Penguin’s place on the outside by repeatedly beating the crap out of him. And yet there’s no way the pudgy penguin can physically match him. In fact Batman spends most of his time punching down; how exactly are the likes of Scarecrow, Riddler or the Ventriloquist going to fight Batman on equal footing? At times it can seem like he’s bully, a charge also labeled at Trump.

The parallels between Trump and Wayne are there. A billionaire who says he’s the best at everything, bends the law, using fear and violence against the poor to protect the majority. A political force whose best interests are also the best interest of his fellow citizens. They share that collective myth.

But myths are both inherently political and infinitely interpretable. The best ones can change and shift with the time and find new ways to grow. Batman himself has been everything from a brooding, mostly silent vigilante, to a campy, colorful detective, to an arrogant, silly Lego cartoon. All of those interpretations are equally Batman.

And writes have picked up on Batman’s generally pro-rich and pro-establishment themes before and twisted them. Frank Millar famously has Batman terrorize rich mobsters and business elites of Gotham during a dinner party telling them their time has ended. Scott Synder and Greg Capullo created ‘the Court of Owls’. A network of oligarchs who controlled Gotham from the shadows before Batman showed up. He then works to overthrow them and restore Gotham to the people.

Bruce Wayne himself is presented as being a businessman in name only. He’s never interested in wealth for himself, but rather as a tool to help the disenfranchised. Multiple Batman stories show him either ignoring his family’s business altogether or creating international charities, building orphanages or schools. He’s presented as the type of billionaire we all hope the wealthy really are.

And yet to me the answer to what should be down with Batman post-2016 has already been answered. In nearly every retelling of Batman’s origins there’s always one clear fact: Batman’s parents Maratha and Thomas Wayne are saints. In Batman Begins for example, they are the only good people with power in the whole city. Their charity even goes so far as to thwart Ra’s al Ghul’s plans to destroy the city.

This always struck me as odd. How do the Waynes become so central to Gotham while at the same time keeping themselves clean from the corruption that seeps into every part of the city? In telltale’s retelling they don’t.

In the Telltale’s ‘Batman’ game, Bruce is forced to revisit his past and realizes that hero worship of his father blinded him to his dad’s connection to organized crime. Thomas Wayne is a ruthless businessman who gains his fortune by working with the mob and corrupt politicians; even going so far as use his medical credentials to get sane people committed to Arkham against their will. He does this to both his enemies and anyone who refuses to sell him their property.

This completely changes Batman’s struggle, rather than avenging his murdered parents he’s now trying to undo the damage that his family inflicted on the city he loves. There is guilt and confusion and the world is full of more greys than simply a fight against crime. This new moral ambiguity puts Batman’s billion dollar super power in the forefront.

As Alfred says of Batman’s parents in Episode Two of Tellatle’s game, “The truth is they were billionaires, Bruce. You don’t amass that kind of wealth without making certain moral compromises. It’s just not possible, that kind of money taints you.” Post 2016 Batman’s super power is as much a curse as it is a gift.

 

Why we Time Travel

*Warning Spoilers for ’11/22/63′, ‘Erased’ and ‘Steins;Gate’*

Time Travel is one of those sci-fi concepts that has become so ubiquitous it’s essentially its own genre at this point. There’s even three different time travel shows coming to TV next season (that I’m aware of). A comedy called ‘Making History’, an action series called ‘Timeless’ and an adaption of the crime, ‘fish out of water’ novel, and later movie, ‘Time after Time,’ which stars the father of time travel stories himself, H.G Wells.

So what’s the appeal? I mean time travel plots can be some of the most confusing science fiction out there. They have all these difficult rules and concepts like alternative dimensions, time phantoms, becoming your own grandfather, the list goes on. So why do we enjoy them so much that we need yet another adaptation of ‘Time after Time’? (wasn’t the excellent 1979 movie enough?)

Before I answer that let’s break down the genre of Time Travel a bit. Most time travel stories are not about well, time. Our concept of time is basic necessity of modern life. We wouldn’t have a global society if we didn’t agree on things like time zones and Greenwich mean time. Sure America can get away with measuring length and weight differently than most the rest of the world, but imagine if we did the same with time? No, everyone has to agree that a minute is sixty seconds or everything falls apart.

And yet Einstein has taught us that time is relative; things like gravity and distance radically change the speed at which time passes. A minute on a planet circling a black hole might be closer to a year on earth. That is mind blowing; I can barely grasp it. And most time travel stories don’t want to touch it. Instead what Time Travel stories are really interested in is causality. The idea that our actions matter and led to certain outcomes. Are things destined to be the way they are? Or could they have happened differently?

If you think about it there are essentially only two time travel plots (…well, maybe three, the third being whatever the hell is going on in ‘Dr. Who’). Each plot is a different answer to the question of causality. There’s the ‘alternative dimension’ story (‘Sound of Thunder’, ‘Back to the Future II’, etc) that says, ‘yes, things could have happened differently, here’s how:’. And the ‘Loop’ story (‘The Shinning Girls’, ‘Looper’,etc) that says ‘No, things were meant to be this way and there’s no changing it, and furthermore any attempt to change it is just going to make the that thing happen’. Most Time Travel stories are either one of those two, or more commonly these days a combination of both.

The ‘Loop’ story is particularly interesting because it’s wrestles with this idea of fate. It’s essentially a modern update on old ancient Greek tragedies like Oedipus. In the anime ‘Steins;Gate’ a group of eccentric college geeks discover a cache of time travel documents and use them to subtly change their current lives. Halfway through though it’s revealed that they ‘pushed’ themselves onto a different ‘timeline’ one where their friend Mayuri is destined to die. The main character Okabe travels back in time again and again to prevent Mayuri’s death only to cause it or change the location or prevent it for a matter of hours. Just as Oedipus is fated to kill his father and marry his mother, regardless of what action he takes or preexisting knowledge he possesses, Okabe is destined to watch his friend die.

Another recent example of this is the Hulu series ‘11/22/63’ based on the Stephen King book by the same name. In it James Franco’s character, Jake Epping, inherits a dinner that lets him travel back to 1960 for some reason. He also inherits a mission to prevent the assassination of JFK. In the series ‘Time pushes back’ against time travels; suggesting that time has some stock in making sure events happens a given way. It tries to dissuade Jake’s actions by creating obstacles and adversaries like throwing random cars at him or having a whiny manifestation of time moan at him ‘You shouldn’t be here’ . Whenever there’s a physical manifestation of time like that trying to prevent our heroes from time traveling, that’s a variation of the ‘loop’ story, a literal take on our struggle with fate.

In ‘11/22/63’ Jake ultimately must succumb to his loop which turns out has nothing to do with JFK. I won’t spoil it, but the loop is pretty mishandled, both an arbitrary plot point and key element at the same time. In fact ‘11/22/63’ is an example of how not to blend the loop and alternative dimension narratives. Jake never really wants to change the world, and in the end doesn’t, because the results of doing so are so horrible and because ‘time’ as a force always wins.

Acceptance like Jake’s is the most common way loop stories end. In ‘Steins;Gate’ Okabe escapes of his loop by putting back all the subtle changes he made to the timeline and thus accepting fate as it should be. But that’s not all he does. He also sacrifices himself, taking a stab wound for the girl he loves, so he could both perverse events and change the timeline (it works in context). This is the other more interesting way characters break the loop and achieve the ‘Alternative Dimension’, though noble sacrifice.

The Anime ‘Erased’ is all about changing fate through sacrifice. It’s also a great counter to ‘11/22/63’ because it deals with a lot the same themes. Like ‘11/22/63’ ‘Erased’s’ protagonist, Satoru Fujinuma, has the ability able to travel back in time for seemingly no reason. Also like ‘11/22/63’ ‘Erased’ is focused on accurately recreating a recent time period: in ‘Erased’ it’s 1980s Japan rather than 1960s America. Where ‘Erased’ diverges and improves on ‘11/22/63’ is intimate scope. ‘Erased’ is focused on only the life of it’s protagonist and not on changing history.

When we first meet Satoru in ‘Erased’ he’s a numb outcast who has difficulty connecting with people and is working as pizza deliveryman. His ability to time travel, known as ‘Revival’ is triggered only when something bad is about to happen and sends him back several minutes to prevent the event. However every time he acts, he pays a toll, like getting into a car accident while preventing a truck from hitting a little boy.

We find out that a series of child murders occurred in Satoru’s home town when he was a kid. It left him with a profound sense of guilt because he was the last person to see the first victim, a fellow classmate, alive. The consequences of these murders bleed into the present and Satoru breaks his ‘revival’ ability to send himself all the way back to middle school in the 80s, hoping to prevent the murders from ever happening

In the 80s Satoru sees his middle school life with the world weariness of adult. He notices problems that went over his head before, like the physical abuse of a quiet classmate and the sacrifices that his single mother made for him. Unlike Jake from ‘11/22/63’ Satoru has no road map for stopping the murders and is in the body of a middle schooler, so he’s unable to use force to prevent the crimes. Instead Satoru does his best to forage a community between the potential victims, hoping that if everyone stays together they won’t be isolated long enough for the murderer to act.

Satoru still finds himself stuck in loops, but through slowly trusting and revealing his insights to his childhood friends he creates connections that have ripple effects in the future. Furthermore middle school was the moment that Satoru’s social isolation began. He witnesses this trait in the little girl he’s trying to save and by befriending her he starts to change himself. By the end of the series Satoru still pays a terrible price for meddling with time, but one that he is now strong enough to survive and thrive after.

Ultimately that is what we seek with our time travel stories, the idea that our pasts our malleable. That we can change events and escape the ‘loops’ of fate we find in ourselves trapped in. ‘Erased’, like the best time travel stories though, show that it is not fate and the past that must be changed but ourselves. It takes years of sacrifice for Satoru to break his loop, but a better alternative world is waiting for him once he was does.

As Charles Yu points out in his beautiful novel ‘How to Live Safely in Science Fictional Universe’: “Everyone has a time machine. Everyone *is* a time machine. It’s just that most people’s time machines are broken. The strangest and hardest kind of time travel is the unaided kind. People get stuck, people get looped. People get trapped. But we are all time machines.”

 

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Image from abcnews.go.com

I’m writing this blog primarily to focus on storytelling; to dissect the mechanics different mediums and genres use to tell their stories. But before getting into that, let’s talk about why we tell stories in the first place. Yes, stories are fun, but they’re much more than the anecdotes you trade at parties or the plot to an entertaining film. They’re central to how we view the world. Take this election cycle for instance, you’ll often hear pundits discuss ‘controlling the narrative’, how our two political parties are fighting over which ‘story’ most Americans believe.

‘Narrative’ in politics is often presented as something other than fact; the ‘spinning’ of events to appear the way a politician wants them to vs the way they really are. But the truth is that everyone does this all the time in their own private lives. And I don’t mean actively ‘spin’ events your way, necessarily, but try to understand things through a narrative rather than facts.

I mean look back at own life, what do you see? Is it just a dry list of sense data, accumulated over a marked numbered of years? No, it’s a story. It has plots and characters and themes. There are days and nights you value more than others, like the night of your first kiss, or the day you received a cancer diagnose. You see these moments as defining you, as causing you to change your actions or values, as being different than the rest of your life.

And yet the most important day of your life had just as many hours as the least. And to an outside observer those two days could look identical. Even in the moment, a life defining event might have meant nothing to you. But when you looked back and organized your story, shaping the the events in your mind, you started to see the value and meaning within them.

This happens to us on a cultural scale too. Nations don’t just come into being by a bunch of people living on a land or moving to a new one. They rise up from epic origin stories, full of national heroes like Liu Bei or Aeneas or even George Washington. And beyond that there are creation myths found in every culture in human history, stories that tell us how the earth was made and why. We do this because we seek understanding and we find that within the narrative.

It’s the reason Jesus spoke in parables, and Plato wrote his philosophy down as series of dialogues. Stories are communication, the best way for humans to remember and process information. That’s not to say that facts and numbers aren’t important. Science and math definitely matter and should probably matter more. But fact is supposed to be like numbers, a hard immobile object that merely exist, having no value outside of context. The narrative is meant to be that context, to let us know what it all means.

But that’s not to say there aren’t inherent problems with processing information this way. As Stalin once pointed out: ‘The death of one man is tragedy, the death of millions, a statistic’ (and he definitely and killed enough people to know what he was talking about). We relate to the story of one person, while the lives of millions is too much for us to process.

And that’s not the only cognitive dissonance narratives cause. We often value two opposing stories as equal because they repeated from the same sources (looking at you global warming) and there’s also things like identity politics, were we hold onto a narrative because we believe it defines us even if it’s been proven inaccurate or damning, (Dinosaurs being taken out by ‘The biblical flood’, or the Southern fascination with the old confederacy are a couple examples)

So in the end does our narrative understanding of the world help us or hurt us? Well, probably neither, but it also doesn’t matter, because narratives are human. Stories are just how we understand and communicate and that’s not going to change. So when you understand how stories work, you start to understand how we work. And that’s true even of fun things like super hero origin stories or how video games use gameplay to convey themes, and I’m not just saying that so you’ll stick around for the next post.