Caped Fear

A lapsed superhero fanatic suddenly finds himself living in a world of fantasists

But Batman literally ends and begins with Frank Miller. His 1986 The Dark Knight Returnsand Batman: Year One—the DC-sanctioned omega and alpha of Bat stories—redefined not only the "grim and gritty" nature of Gotham's volunteer vigilante but the comic form itself. Miller, while savagely satirizing Reagan-era America, eerily radicalized Batman's vengeful quest: In Dark Knight, even Superman called Batman's anti-crime crusade "a holy war."


Now, eight years after Joel Schumacher's Gay-Glo movie bomb Batman & Robin, Christopher Nolan has undertaken chiropteran directorial duties. If there's a Bat for every time, as O'Neil suggests, what does ours look like?

illustration: Warner Bros. Entertainment

Let's see . . . a wastrel with bottomless bags of cash, tormented by the desire to honor his family legacy, out to change the world through stubborn force of will by utilizing the power of fear to distort, disorient, and thus control his enemies? Sounds like B . . . ruce Wayne to me! (Jaws may drop when Rutger Hauer tells lil' Brucie, "We'll be watching the empire. When you grow up, it'll be waiting for you.") In all seriousness, fearmongering has always been an attractive part of the Batman ethos. Attractive because it wasn't just fear itself but an iconographic idea of fear that Batman used to scare the shit out of criminals, "a superstitious and cowardly lot." Attractive because we're always looking through the cowl—we're behind the mask with him.

But what happens when we're the ones stricken with fear—when we're the superstitious and cowardly lot?

Fear, and the power to control it, is the leitmotif of Nolan's Batman Begins, but also of The Power of Nightmares—a three-hour BBC documentary delineating the similarities between Islamic fundamentalists and American neo-conservatives' promotion of fear, directed by another Brit, Adam Curtis. In the picture Curtis paints, both neocons and Islamists cook up powerful, easily digestible myths—images of absolute evil—as eternal foils against which they must set their own philosophies, lest they collapse under the weight of their own radicalism. Here again, it is the idea itself, whether depraved Western liberalism, devious Communism, or a shadowy global network of terror cells poised to strike, that poses the fantastical threat.

Holy insidious mythmaking, Batman!

A recurring line of narration in Curtis's film runs, "Those with the darkest nightmares become most powerful," a cautionary proverb fit for Batman Begins as well, particularly suited for delivery by Liam Neeson's Wayne trainer Henri Ducard. Neeson's character is rich with such dark gems: "Theatricality and deception are powerful opponents. . . . Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society's understanding. . . . To conquer fear you must bask in the fears of other men." The most chilling line comes late, courtesy of the leader of the film's ancient terrorist organization, who threatens that, as with Rome, "every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence," they are there to hit the restart button.

Culture versus anarchy. Know anybody else who wants to set this decadent, imperialist civilization back to zero?

Hmm . . . maybe it's time I write a letter . . .


Pete L'Official was born in New York, and has written for The Village Voice,Salon, andThe Brooklyn Rail.

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