Three Forms Of Comedy In Justice League

justice league unlimited

In a way, comedy is the art form of the masses. Most people can’t play the cello or perform ballet, but almost everyone can make someone laugh ( hopefully, not during sex ). Not everyone knows why people laugh, however. There are a legion of theories on comedy dating back to Ancient Greece, but for the sake of argument, i’m going to narrow it down to just narrative comedy. Let’s say there are three forms of comedic plots that come out of mainstream media: situational, character-based, and farcical.

To compare and contrast these three forms, i’ll use the animated series Justice League Unlimited as a base. For some background: Justice League Unlimited was a series that ran on Cartoon Network from 2004-2006. It was the culmination of the extensive DC Comics animated universe created by character designer Bruce Timm, writer Paul Dini, and writer / producer Dwayne McDuffie. Why this series? Because it’s fucking awesome! More importantly, while listening to the DVD commentary for one of the episodes ( yes, people do that sometimes ) i was intrigued by an offhand remark by series lead artist Bruce Timm who noted that, unintentionally, they released three episodes that almost perfectly fit the three forms of comedy around the same time. This is especially funny since JLU is definitely NOT a comedy series ( at least most of the time ). I decided to re-watch those episodes to examine that claim…

1. Situational

I’m pretty sure most of you have heard of the film pitch of “X meets Y“. This is reflective of the “dartboard” approach to screenwriting, where writers literally just combine random ideas in order to create a concept. When done poorly, the results are awful. For example: ” Urban black culture meets Sci-Fi “.

Homeboys In Outer Space (1996-1997)

When done well, it can create hilarious spins on familiar stories. Much of the comedy from Shaun of The Dead ( 2004 ) derives from the fact that the main characters seem to be right out of a lighthearted romance film…yet they’re in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Hilarity ensues. The film Analyze This ( 1999 ) revolves around a psychiatrist’s relationship with his new patient…who just so happens to be a mob boss. Hilarity ensues.

The central idea  of situational comedy is “humor derived from incongruity” ( and yes, i just made that up ). When things don’t quite match up, they can be funny. The most common form of this is “fish out of water” plots which put easily identifiable character-types in situations they shouldn’t be in. Situational comedy leans mostly on dialogue and chemistry, since the disconnect has to be established by characters interactions. For example the series Frasier builds a lot of its humor from the snobby Crane brothers interacting with their working class father and friends. The biggest threat to this concept is if the initial premise becomes the only joke that can be made. One of the most maligned examples of this trope is “white guy / black guy” films where all of the humor can be summed up quite quickly…

In short, a good situational comedy BUILDS off its incongruity.

The Episode – Kid Stuff ( August 11 2004 )

KidStuff2

The Premise – Mordred, punk-ass son of the sorceress Morgan Le Fay from Arthurian legend, obtains a macguffin known as the “Amulet of First Magic”. The amulet gives Mordred ultimate power, which he uses to get back at his mother and all adults of the world ( which includes the Justice League ) by banishing them into some kind of limbo dimension. Morgan Le Fay, seeking to undo her son’s spell, finds a way to counteract the magic…by turning the League into little lads and lasses! ( i’m sorry )

How does it work? – Interestingly enough, most of the plot is played fairly straight. The situation is portrayed as fairly dire: the entire adult population is stuck in limbo for eternity and their children are left to fend for themselves. Even the heroes themselves attempt to play it straight. I say ‘attempt’ because once they’ve been reduced to ten-year-olds, they fall victim to the realities of how a ten-year-old would act in this situation.

Each character trait of the heroes is modified to a ten-year-old’s sensibility. Green Lantern’s militancy turns into dorkiness. Superman’s nobility turns into farm boy naivete. Wonder Woman’s confidence turns into flirtatiousness. Batman’s grimness turns into smartassness. What’s great about this characterization is that it saves the episode from going to the obvious “spinoff babies” direction by not having all jokes revolve around one note “aww that’s cute” humor. For example, for awhile in the series Wonder Woman has been implied to have an “interest” in Batman, which he seems to ignore because he must be the gayest man in the universe. This comes up in one scene when the heroes decides to pick teams to fight Mordred:

What makes this situation funny is that they’re STILL acting in-character, it’s just that their characters are being viewed through an exaggerated lens. Wonder Woman flirts more openly than usual, Bats is more dismissive than usual, and Supes is more oblivious than usual. Even Lantern’s jokes manages to fit in-story since he alludes to becoming more corny at the beginning of the episode. The plot of Kid Stuff manages to take a humorous AND canonical look at each character’s personality through their childhood selves.

2. Character

Some people are just naturally funny ( *cough* like me *cough* ). These guys are able to enter a room and have everyone laughing without much setup. People like these are producers’ wet dreams, because it means they can bank on a film or television project just by finding these guys. More often than not, character-based comedy draws from comedians, since they can carry shows single-handedly. The 90’s had a whole slew of these types of comedies; Martin, Seinfeld, Home Improvement, just to name a few. Often times, the character ( or characters ) is someone who is outlandish in his or her own right. A perfect film example is the The Nutty Professor ( 1963 ).

The-Nutty-Professor-10093933

See? I don’t even have to explain to you why that character would elicit laughter. Character comedy doesn’t ALWAYS have to be outlandish to work; characters can just be humorous in a believable way. The protagonists of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia manage to be both despicable, yet relatable. Their flaws are all based in reality: Dennis is a narcissistic guy who peaked in college, Dee is an entitled loser who has delusions of grandeur, Charlie is a slovenly pauper who’s struggled his whole life, Mac is an insecure conservative oblivious to his own hypocrisy, and Frank is Danny Devito. Good character comedy produces likable protagonists that keep us engaged. Bad character comedy creates protagonists who are so removed from reality that it’s difficult to connect with them ( a common criticism of Monk and the aforementioned Martin ).

The episode-The Greatest Story Never Told ( September 11 2004 )

Greatest2

The premise – Rookie Leaguer Booster Gold is called to join in an epic conflict with the universe’s most powerful wizard…as crowd control. However, during the conflict he uncovers an equally important catastrophe, which he takes on since he’s the only unattended Leaguer. And also because he’s trying to get laid.

How does it work? – First, i’ll explain the origin of Booster Gold to you non-nerds: Michael Jon Carter was a failed football star who became a janitor in the far off future. While working at a superhero museum, he had the brilliant idea to steal several pieces of high end technology ( including a living computer named Skeets who became his sidekick ) and take a one-way trip to the current time in order to become a famous superhero so he can become rich and famous.

That by itself is a hilarious set-up for jokes. It’s like if Criss Angel was a real-life Angel who became a magician to get a free hotel room. Much of the humor of this episode comes from Booster’s superficiality: at one point he gives advice to Martian Manhunter on how he should get himself a catchier name ( which is a solid point ). When the Manhunter tries to get him to realize that being a superhero is about more than just fame, Booster agrees and asks ” How much do you pull in a year, after taxes? “. Now arguably, this is somewhat of a situational plot as well: Booster’s self-serving nature is incongruous in a world of superHEROes who should be the opposite. However, most of the episode focuses on him alone, negating many comparisons with the other Leaguers. Instead, we get a lot of jokes about how much of a loser he is. In addition, there’s great voice acting from actor Tom Everett Scott ( Dead Man On CampusBoiler Room ) as Booster and veteran voice actor Billy West ( STIMPY! ) as Skeets:

3. Farcical

Now, i know some of you have been reading and thinking” Fuck you Rob; comedy isn’t about structure! Comedy is just doing funny things!” First off, don’t curse so much. Second of all, you have a point. Some stories eschew specific plots and characters in favor of “free-form” comedy. This is where we get to ‘farce”, which means “a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations”. As you can imagine, farce is easy to do for comedy, because all it requires is something that’s momentarily funny. The issue is the “momentarily” part. Remember when “THIS IS SPARTA!” jokes were funny? Imagine an ENTIRE film based around that?

4875

Exactly

Farce is probably the easiest form of comedy to fuck up because it requires a body of individual bits of humor to support it. This requires an extensive grasp of “quick comedy” ( one liners, slapstick, etc ). I think this is why older works tended to grasp this comedic form better ( The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, Airplane! ) since they had their roots in silly vaudeville acts. The best modern day examples would probably be shows like Family Guy and Adventure Time, which have almost no grip on reality. As with any form of comedy, works don’t have to be ENTIRELY farcical, farce can still exist in degrees. For example, Seinfeld was mostly character and situationally driven, but occasionally incorporated outlandish elements such as the famous “Bubble Boy” who had a heated rivalry with George Costanza.

968full-donald-sanger

One of the best ways to incorporate farce is as a “narrative crescendo”. One of the best examples is the film Tropic Thunder ( 2008 ). It incorporates farcical elements throughout the film, but it isn’t till the film’s climax where ( SPOILER ) a character intercepts an rpg with a TIVO ( END SPOILER ) that it becomes completely divorced from reality. Overall, farce is both the simplest and the trickiest category of comedy.

The Episode – This Little Piggy ( August 28 2004 )

pig3

The Premise – Wonder Woman’s archnemesis, the goddess Circe, turns her into a pig. Batman has to find out how to get her back to normal. No seriously.

How does it work? – How could it not work? This is the craziest idea in the history of the series. First off, making Batman the protagonist allows for every situation to become even funnier because of how serious he is. In the picture above, Batman is caressing a pig tenderly. No more needs to be said. Secondly, the scenario leads to a bevy of of corny-yet-effective pig puns. ( a slaughterhouse worker jumps on Wonder Pig and utters the inevitable “that’ll do, pig” line from Babe [ 1995 ] ). Notably, what i’ve mentioned so far covers only character and situational comedy. So what makes it farcical? Several things. Each scene in the episode has it’s own internal logic that creates either a character comedy or a situational comedy ( or both ) in itself. When Batman loses the Wonder Pig, he has to call a guy called ‘B’wana Beast‘ who has never been mentioned before and looks like this…

pig

…to track her down. At one point, Batman thinks to venture to the RIVER STYX to question FREAKING MEDUSA about Circe.

pig4

Medusa sounds like Patty and Selma from The Simpsons and tells Batman to ask Circe for her curling iron back. Most ridiculous of all, when a character ponders Circe’s whereabouts, we get a musical number with Circe accompanied by a full band and backup dancers.

pig2

Did she conjure that up? Is she a club regular? None of this is explained, it just happens. This all builds up to a final battle at the same club in which Batman makes a bargain with Circe in order to return Diana to humanity ( or I guess amazon-ity ). What horrible request does Circe make of Batman?

That’s it. That’s all it took to resolve the whole plot. She turned a woman into a pig and fought a huge battle just to ask for that. That, my friends, is farce.

While i wouldn’t call them reflective of the entire series, i would say these episodes reflect what’s so fun about superheroes in general. Each episode highlights how these tales can be vacillate between dramatic AND funny. In addition, they also help to show how humorous writing is almost always smart writing.

Here’s some other funny moments from the series:

For more posts on superheroes:

Batman as a Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious and Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in Gotham City

Ben Affleck as Batman: Why So Serious?

Superman as Defined By Lex Luthor

The Lois Lane Effect

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

From Comic to TV: Green Arrow as Adapted Into Arrow

Journey of Peter Parker From Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

The Best Spider-Man Issue Ever / Why Spider-Man is a Classic Anti-Hero

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

For more posts on televison:

Top 5 Bullies In Fiction

The Walking Dead: The Governor as a Well-Intentioned Extremist

Slave Ownership As Seen Through Roots

Ben Affleck As Batman: Why So Serious?

Fans-Petition-Warner-Bros-to-Uncast-Ben-Affleck-from-Batman-vs-Superman

“…by playing a superhero in Daredevil, I have inoculated myself from ever playing another superhero… Wearing a costume was a source of humiliation for me and something I wouldn’t want to do again soon”-Ben Affleck preparing the words he’s going to eat

You ever have one of those moments where you perceive something but don’t really believe it? To the point where it seemed surreal? I had one of those last week when I perused IMDB to come upon the news that Ben Affleck is playing Batman in the sequel to Man of Steel (2013). Ben “Fucking” Affleck. My response was…confused. I didn’t know how to feel, but i know i had a feel. For most, this feel was pretty straightforward: fuck that guy. The internet exploded with a surge of hate that I will dub the “Affleck-tion”. The Afflecktion has taken many forms. For example: there’s a twitter hashtag titled “betterthanbenaffleck” that contains “suggestions” for better actors.

New Bitmap Image

There’s even an honest-to-God petition by fans to somehow oust Affleck from the role. So why all the hate for the guy? He just won an Oscar, is married with kids, and has several great films under his belt recently (Argo, The TownGone Baby Gone). Isn’t that good enough to get some respect? Unfortunately, the Afflecktion runs deep in the body of American moviegoers, far before his casting as Batman.

I subscribe to three primary reasons why Ben Affleck has such a bad rap…

1. Perceived lack of contribution to Good Will Hunting 

When Good Will Hunting debuted in 1998, Hollywood was enamored with the Cinderella tale of two Bostonians who wrote and starred in an Oscar-winning film. So much so that, of course, many inquired about the impetus for such a film. Here it goes (as described by the writers themselves in Boston Magazine): Matt Damon, a Harvard student, wrote a short story about a genius Southie who’s brilliance garners the attention of the government. Later, Damon took a screenwriting class, where for a final project he turned his story into the first act of a film, telling his professor “I might have failed your class, but it is the first act of something longer“. The professor, Anthony Kubiak claimed that it even in its early stages “it was very authentic and real“. Wow, Matt sure did a good job on that screenplay. Ben Affleck’s account? He helped write it. That’s it. No specifics. No details. He. Helped. Write it. Mind you, this is his OWN WORDS.

The only thing in his interview Ben mentions that speaks on his specific contribution is that, when he thought the producers weren’t paying enough attention, he’d sneak in blowjob scenes just to see if they would notice. No, really. So as you could imagine, many began to feel that Ben Affleck basically broke into Hollywood on the coattails of Matt Damon with minimal effort on his part. People thought he didn’t “deserve” his success. It didn’t help that many filmgoers viewed Affleck as an idiot due to his brashness and boisterousness. It made it easier to visualize a drunk frat boy Ben offering meager assistance whereas bookish Harvard alum Matt Damon actually writes the film, which is realized in this Family Guy clip.

The relationship between Sean and Will in the film was oddly paralleled with the image of Matt and Ben in real life: Matt was a genius who far outstripped his lesser best friend Ben. This dynamic defined the two for awhile: Matt Damon went on to be in other well received flicks such as Rounders, Saving Private Ryan, and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Ben Affleck? Well, here’s where we get to the next reason…

2. High-profile yet lowly-received films

Like Matt, Ben was in some pretty big name films after Good Will Hunting, particularly Armageddon and Shakespeare In Love (both in 1998). He wasn’t the star of either film, however, and most of his films as a leading man were mediocre in terms of audience turnout and reception. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, since it means most of the filmgoing audience didn’t have a record of bad movies to look to. Unfortunately, when Ben Affleck did start heading major flops, it was something everyone remembered. The first was Pearl Harbor (2001), which was an obvious Hollywood attempt to recreate the success of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). It didn’t turn out that way: the film’s several inaccuracies, tedious love triangle, and association with the increasingly despised Michael Bay made it a commercial disappointment. And guess who’s name is on full display on every poster?

PearlHarborPoster

Afterwards, he was in Daredevil (2003), Marvel’s attempt at another blockbuster superhero film that combined the stylishness of Spider-Man (2002) with the “dark and edginess” of X-Men (2000). While the film did a decent job of characterization, audiences didn’t know what to make of the obscure character and therefore spent more time focusing on the actor, who had already begun to lose public credibility. The film’s lukewarm reception was heaped onto Affleck and comic fans never forgot about it. While these films garnered negative feedback, none of them put as big a nail in the coffin as Gigli (2003)

936full-gigli-poster

This film had bad press before it was even released due to conflicts between the screenwriter and the director, leading many to believe that the final product would be disjointed. Once it was released it set box office records for the biggest second-weekend drop in box office gross of any film in wide release since that statistic was kept; it dropped by almost 82% in its second weekend compared to its first. By its third weekend in release, only 73 U.S. theaters were showing it, down from 2,215 during its first weekend, a drop of 97%. The film has since gone onto be considered one of the worst films of all time. One of the primary reasons for the failure of the film is also my final reason for the Afflecktion…

3. Bennifer

Generally speaking, America loves “super couples”.

boys-drake-bell-dranke-and-josh-gay-josh-peck-kiss-Favim.com-80413_large

Drake and Josh were meant for each other

jennifer-lopez-ben-affleck-relationship-sightings-red-carpet-various-11282011-10

Unfortunately, one they didn’t care for much was Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. Sure, at first they grabbed the public eye like any other celebrity couple, but that attention quickly turned to scorn. I postulate that it was due to the fact thatbecause they had the unfortunate distinction of being both absurdly famous and absurdly unrelatable. Ben was viewed as a jockish douchenozzle and J.Lo was viewed as an egotistical diva. A blog post on whatever-dude.com called them Hollywood’s Hitler and Eva Braun“. Ben himself recognized the hate they received, outright saying in an interview with Suzy Byrne that he felt as if he was “the press’ whipping boy” during those two years. What’s worse is that much of the hate was due to Jennifer Lopez being considered “better” than him. She had a more successful film career, and a music career, AND a fashion line. Doesn’t help that SHE broke off the engagement. As one blogger put it, he came across as being “desperate and needy and lacking in self confidence, as if he were under some kind of love spell“. Arguably, the ultimate Hollywood insult directed at him during this period was during VH1’s “200 Greatest Pop Culture Icons” television special. Oh sure, he was included as #119, but look closely at his portrait by Robert Risko…

7373 (1)Yes, they literally have J.Lo on his jacket for NO discernable reason other than to remind the viewer that a large amount of his fame is due to being engaged to someone more famous (she was on the same list as #15, btw) . Even worse, every celeb in the special had an indicative tagline that was a famous quote or phrase (i.e. Arnold Schwarzenegger-“I’ll be back“, Hugh Hefner-“Big Pimpin‘”) . Guess what his was? Mr. Jennifer Lopez. Damn.

So should Ben Affleck play Batman?

Given all the vitriol i’ve just shown, obviously not, right? Honestly, I know i’m blasphemous for saying this but I really DON’T CARE who plays Batman. Batman isn’t this deep, nuanced character, he’s a franchise. The reason why DC has gotten so much use out of the property was because they can do whatever the fuck they want with the character without violating his identity. He hasn’t “grown” in the near century since his inception, just reinvented. Why do you think that the 60’s Batman series, the Burton films, the Schumacher films, the Nolan Trilogy, and the Animated series are all so different yet successful? It’s because the character is malleable. He’s a concept that can fit any story imaginable. Compare Batman to Spider-Man, who, while having different series, is always the same character that Stan Lee envisioned him to be. You’ll never see a “dark and gritty” Spider-Man or a “realist” Spider-Man. That’s because Peter Parker is intended a REAL person who has a specific personality. If he were to be in a world similar to the 60’s Batman series, he’d have to lose most of his flippancy just to sell us on the campiness. If he were in a comic similar to The Dark Knight Returns (1986), he’d have to lose much of the whimsy associated with the character. He has his limits as a property, you can’t just make him, say, a pirate.

Unlike some people

Unlike some people

Fact is, Batman is such a loosely conceived character that anyone with a decent chin could put on his costume. This isn’t to say he’s a flat character, he’s just a ‘high concept’ character, like Superman, who focuses more on connotations and iconography than character traits. By virtue of this, any actor can bring something to the character: Michael Keaton brought an eccentricity to Wayne that made him more affable, Val Kilmer brought a coldness that made Batman seem more like a shell-shocked soldier. I’m not the best person to comment on Ben Affleck as an actor (i’ve only seen a few of his films), but I think he could have a very interesting take on the character. Maybe he’ll have a lighter approach than Bale; maybe he’ll be a bit more vulnerable. It’s hard to tell. A lot of people said Michael Keaton was a bad fit for Batman, but afterwards many said he put in a decent performance. Same was said for Heath Ledger as Joker, and look at how THAT turned out. Personally, I think that no matter how he plays it, Affleck will add to the wonderful tapestry of Batmen to date. Or at least fuel some great memes.

For more commentary on the Batman franchise:

Batman As A Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious and Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in Gotham City

Superstitious and Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in the Batman Mythos

good-cop

“This isn’t Metropolis…this isn’t the city of tomorrow…it’s Gotham,and if you want to see what that means, just check out your squad room”-Gotham Central #7

Superheroes tend to be subversive of law enforcement. Aside from the illegality of vigilantism, it’s difficult to have much respect for a a moderately trained guy with pistol when compared to a billionaire genius ninja detective. Despite this, most superheroes since the induction of the comic code have had genial relations with law enforcement. It helps that superheroes rarely target “mundane” crime. Superman’s enemies tend to be as strong as he is; the X-men stick to “mutant crime” and so on. Despite this, Batman works with the police. Or really, I should say a single policeman: Commissioner Gordon. Mostly because Gotham cops are fucking dicks. Most “gritty” iterations of the franchise portray the police as at best impotent and at worst, as bad as Gotham’s criminals. This element is prevalent enough to even be present in video games such as MMORPG DC Universe Online, where Gotham cops are enemies to hero players.

518px-Heroic_Acts_-_Dirty_Cop

Just so you know: he’s a dirty cop

The GCPD’s corruption makes sense for a few reasons. For one, the Batman franchise derives heavily from film noir, a genre with cynical attitudes towards humanity and fate. Even the police can’t be relied upon in the genre; in Frank Miller’s Sin City, every character, no matter their alignment, is wary of the police.

Sin City: The Big Fat Kill #3 1995

Sin City

In addition, Batman fights predominantly “normal” people (at least by comic book standards), who the cops should be able to handle. Law enforcement has to be ineffectual in order to justify the need for a Batman. Sometimes they’re just incompetent; Tim Burton’s Batman had a Commissioner Gordon who was nothing more than a face for the police (the guy wears fucking tuxedos to busts).

Batman (1989)

Dumbass

Incompetent cops just aren’t enough to get across the dramatic weight of Batman’s quest. Giving the city a culture that enforces crime allows for an even bleaker Gotham to save. This is most prevalent in Batman: Year One (1987), Frank Miller’s origin story that details the beginning of Bruce Wayne and James Gordon’s careers. We see through Gordon’s introduction that calling the GCPD corrupt would be an understatement…

yearone0 yearone

The Commissioner even implies that he wants officers who are dirty.

yearone1

As you could see, Frank Miller tends to veer towards the “extreme” side of police corruption where everyone is as evil as possible. This isn’t totally ridiculous; LA’s infamous “Rampart scandal” in the 90’s involved a branch of the police called C.R.A.S.H. who literally REWARDED murder and evidence tampering with commendations. In Dekalb County Georgia, corrupt sheriff Sidney Dorsey assembled a group of cops to pose as gang-bangers in order to assassinate his political rival Derwin Brown, showing that even those at the top can be as corrupt as Gotham’s ex-commissioner.

Despite Frank Miller’s extreme depictions, Batman:Year One was considered canonical by DC Comics, meaning that all of the events “really” occurred in continuity. So Gotham’s previous police department ordered a hit on a newborn, blew up a tenement with civilians in the vicinity, and casually beat up teenagers on the street. Holy shit. Miller definitely went with the amoral cops route for police corruption, which works well for his “dark and edgy” stories, but has several unfortunate implications. In Metropolis, we can at least assume that the police department works in the favor of the people’s interest (as one would like to assume of most law enforcement), meaning that we can trust the local government by extension, and thus we can trust the city itself. If Gotham’s cops are corrupt, and its government is corrupt, then the CITY itself is, by default, corrupt. And if that’s true,why should anyone care if it gets saved? As with most superhero works, there are no “normal” people to care about, just heroes and villains. If the police are bad guys too it almost makes Batman’s quest silly (well, silli-er). It’s no wonder why so many antagonists seem to suggest just destroying Gotham; what Ra’s Al Ghul, Joker, and Bane all seem to agree on in the Nolan trilogy is that crime is inherently systemic. It begins from the top and ends at the bottom in the slums of Gotham. Until the police are reformed, the city can’t improve.

250px-GothamCentralCv22 One way to alleviate the unfortunate implications of Gotham’s corruption is by showing that the police force, even when misconducting themselves, have the best intentions. The biggest canonical kinda dirty/kinda good cop in the franchise is Detective Harvey Bullock (to the left). In case you’re wondering, he’s that fat cop in the animated series who’s kind of a douche. In comics, he’s probably the closest thing you get to a sympathetic corrupt cop. He takes bribes, but other cops trust him. He allows a attempted murder suspect’s identity to leak to the mafia, but that’s to avenge Commissioner Gordon. He has ties to the organized crime but uses it to gain info on crimes. He’s complicated.

Strangely enough, despite being quite a staple of the franchise, Bullock doesn’t appear in media outside of the comics and the animated series but is represented by characters who are pretty much the same person. His representatives in the Batman films are decidedly less morally ambiguous. In 1989’s Batman, his stand-in Detective Eckhardt accepts bribes from criminals and attempts to murder the same guys in order to stay out of trouble. In Batman Begins (2005), his stand-in Detective Flass (who for some reason has the name of the guy from Batman: Year One) is just as corrupt. I guess Bullock just looks so unsavory due to his fatness and manner that most adaptations just make him dirty to contrast with Gordon. In addition, comic writers can’t seem to decide if he has good intentions or is just corrupt. The is probably because, no offense to them, most comic writers aren’t capable or willing to get across the conflicts of being an ACTUAL crime fighter. The series Gotham Central goes in this direction, basically turning the Bat mythos into Dragnet with real cops interacting with the rogues gallery the way real cops would. Police misconduct is portrayed in reasonable degrees as opposed to extremes.

Gotham Central #15

Gotham Central

Gotham Central2 Gotham Central3Sometimes cops have to break the rules in order to get a job done. Sometimes cops just run out of ideas. While these methods aren’t always the best, they are human responses to often difficult scenarios. In the world of Gotham Central, normal cops have to go against men like Mr. Freeze and the Joker, people way outside of their pay-grade. It would be hard to conceive of how would one deal with such threats without being forced or compelled to go outside the line.

TDKR_Peter_Foley

Arguably, the best commentary on police misconduct in Gotham is the character Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), played by Matthew Modine (who oddly enough WASN’T a character from the comics). Remember how I said a cop has to be either corrupt or stupid in order to make Batman look good? Well he manages to do both to a realistic degree.

Foley is introduced talking to Gordon at a high-class party, where Foley tries to convince him to pay attention to crime statistics, which Gordon rejects in favor of his “gut” feelings. He also suggests that he talks to the mayor, which Gordon also dismisses by saying that’s Foley’s department. We get some quick distinctions here between the two: Gordon is more concerned with crime on a personal level that goes beyond statistics, which is all Foley knows about. Gordon doesn’t care about political maneuvering whereas Foley relishes it. If Gordon is the “good cop” than Foley is by default the “bad cop”. He’s not evil at all, only his aims have been “corrupted”. Rather than focusing on public service, he’s more concerned with personal glory. For example, when Batman appears, his main interest is one-upping Gordon to make himself look good by catching him, rather than containing the more immediate threat of Bane’s gang. His lack of “good cop” goals seems to affect his competency as well; when Blake is introduced as another “good cop”, his passion for the job allows him to believe fellow good cop Gordon’s story about soldiers in the sewers, which Foley of course scoffs at. Blake also manages to connect corrupt Wayne Industries board member Roland Daggett to Bane through ambitious detective work, which Gordon implies Foley was supposed to do, but clearly failed. Foley’s lack of “good cop-ness” comes to a head after Bane’s takeover, where he flat out decides to not get involved with the plan to save his fellow officers. Up until this point, the guy seems like a lost cause…until Batman returns to Gotham.

vlcsnap-2013-09-12-14h29m43s100vlcsnap-2013-09-12-14h29m56s226

Eventually, we see the effect the symbol had on Foley during the siege on Bane’s troops, when Foley not only joins the cops, but leads them in full uniform.

vlcsnap-2013-09-12-14h53m33s46

Foley dies doing his duty. The film never elaborates why the symbol of Batman meant so much to Foley then when it didn’t mean anything before, perhaps it was something akin to a “spiritual rebirth” that born-again Christians often allude to. While this could easily be chalked up to sentimentality (and it definitely is), that doesn’t take away from the fact Foley, a cop who seemingly had no more “good cop” left in him, was redeemed by the hope Batman brought. He became a “born-again officer”. In a “realist” scenario that Nolan claims the films take place in, Batman is just a man. He can beat up bad guys but he can’t fight crime alone. As Bruce Wayne postulates in Batman Begins: “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy”. For the police officers of Gotham, that meant inspiring them to risk their lives to save their city. This is in stark contrast to The Dark Knight (2008), where many police officers are said to have been in the pocket of organized criminals which culminated in the fall of Harvey Dent. The last film left us with a disturbing view of the GCPD, but this film manages to redeem them along with Foley. The cops retaking of Gotham and Foley’s sacrifice shows what makes Batman (and the superhero in general) such a resonant character: he makes us want to be better.

For commentary on the questionable morals of Batman himself: 

Batman as a Heroic Psychopath

Bats In The Belfry: Batman as a Heroic Psychopath

Batman-Begins

“ And there is something out there in the darkness, something terrifying, something that will not stop until it gets revenge…Me ” – Batman Begins Teaser Trailer

What constitutes heroism has always been fluid. Should one’s actions be the deciding factor, or one’s intent? I’m certain most have heard the story of the late ex-LAPD officer Christopher Dorner, who after a long, failed attempt to expose police corruption, decided to take martial action against the LAPD itself. His story isn’t too different from Frank Serpico’s, a police officer who also recognized corruption and sought to stamp it out ( with some mild success ). Paramount even made a film made about his crusade starring Al Pacino, which many would call the ultimate stamp of public approval. Will a film be made about Chris Dorner? I mean, he had good intentions (well, up until the multiple murders). We could assume the answer. This illustrates the common dissonance that exists between heroic intent and heroic action. Both men had goals that most would consider heroic, but disconnected when it came to their final actions. Dorner will never be considered a hero, in fact he would be considered quite the villain.

Compared to the other major heroes in the DC universe, Batman has consistently been written as the most suspect. Sure, all superheroes are by definition vigilantes, but Batman’s particular brand of vigilantism has an aire of madness to it.

Batman R.I.P. (2008)

Case in point

Case in point

He’s no god like Superman, just a guy who forced himself to become one in order to fight crime. He also has the additional peculiarities that come with the genre ( motif, modus operandi, etc ). His impetus for heroics just adds to how crazy he seems, after seeing the death of his parents, he decides “why not become a bat monster?”. That’s weird. This is probably why most works tiptoe around what happened in-between his parents murder and his modern day exploits. Hell, it took seven months into his original comic series for Bob Kane to even establish that his parents WERE murdered.

Detective Comics (1940)

Batman_origin_1940_02

Such a detail might have been considered too morbid to begin a comic series, since it casts Batman’s seemingly gallant crusade as a little more pathological. Despite this, his early appearances in Detective Comics portrayed him as not being shy about enacting extreme violence upon criminals. In his first comic appearance, Detective Comics #27 in 1939, he casually throws an unarmed robber OFF A BUILDING!!!

He also purple gloves for some reason

He also purple gloves for some reason

In the same issue, he punches a man into a VAT OF ACID.

He has a bit of a penchant for that

He has a bit of a penchant for that

He even expresses his pleasure at the outcome, saying that it was “a fitting end for his kind”. Cold-blooded. Oh and he occasionally carried a gun as well.

"What? Guns? That's your power, you shoot guns? There's no theme at all here."

“What? Guns? That’s your power, you shoot guns? There’s no theme at all here.”-Mystery Men

While this might sound jarring to modern fans of the character, it’s important to know that the Batman your familiar with is partially the product of censorship, particularly from an organization known as the Comics Code Authority. The organization was created in 1954 when many moral guardians were concerned with the message comics, especially ones featuring superheroes, were sending to youngsters. As you could imagine, a guy who punches people into acid was pretty disconcerting to these people. Therefore, Bats (and all superheroes for that matter) had to take on more family friendly aspects: instead of being a wanted criminal, Batman worked along with the cops through Commissioner Gordon, instead of using real weapons, Batman used gimmicky tools, and most importantly, he acquired a code to not kill.

Infinite Crisis (2005)

squabble

Whereas many other popular superheroes fit well into the brave new world of censorship, there was always some incongruity with Batman’s role as a non-killer. Bob Kane and Bill Finger based Batman on unfettered heroes such as the Phantom and Zorro, who wouldn’t hesitate to kill someone. Superman can play with kid gloves due to his power, but Batman can’t. More importantly, he still has that horrific origin driving him. His abilities stem from the pain of loss, his motif from childhood terror. Even the whimsy of the Silver Age of Comics couldn’t reconcile that, hence why it was rarely acknowledged in mediums such as the 60’s Batman live action series.

Batman Begins has a very unique take on Bruce’s mental transition from disturbed child to Batman. The film gives us a flashback to a young adult Bruce, well before his international journey, when he realizes his father’s killer has been caught. Bruce appears at the trial, only to see the man shot by a mafia gunman. In the ensuing chaos, Rachel Dawes (the attractive one) scoops him up and drives him to safety, during which he reveals that he intended to shoot the killer himself.

Batman Begins (2005)

bb09

The implications of the scene are reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, where the deranged Travis Bickle intends to shoot a senator, but is thwarted by his bodyguards, which leads Bickle to “save” a child prostitute by killing her pimp and all of his associates (it makes more sense in context). This turns him into a local hero.

Taxi Driver (1976)

Overhead View of Carnage in tax331cy

Like Travis Bickle, Bruce’s intentions here are driven more from rage than heroism. He intends to get revenge upon the man who killed his father by killing him. If he could have accomplished this, would he have still become Batman, or would his bloodlust have been sated? Keep in mind that Bruce is clearly in at least his mid-twenties by the time this trial takes place, meaning that he spent most of his life wanting to kill this man, not learning how to be a ninja in order to save people. The assertion could be made that whatever compulsion makes him want to be Batman is something akin to what made him want to kill that guy. In addition, there’s no way Bruce could have committed that act without being immediately recognized as the killer. Bruce Wayne’s name would have been coupled with the title “assassin” for all history, just like the aforementioned Christopher Dorner (see, there was a point to that tangent after all!).

Bruce’s morals is a lens for real-life history,which is filled with almost heroes/almost villains. The prestigious United States Military Academy at West Point would have almost assuredly been named after Benedict Arnold, who was the commander at the military fort it was based on, if it wasn’t for that whole treason thing. Now he’s American history’s greatest traitor, despite his admirable pre-War career. Likewise, Bruce Wayne, Gotham’s favorite son, could have easily been Gotham’s infamous murderer.

Batman:Gotham Knight (2008)/Taxi Driver

batmangothamknight-s6-bw_gun_02-50220-dangerous-movies-12-420-75

Outside of the film, the idea of Batman’s heroism being a front has been touched upon in works such as Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1988), where Joker tells one of his many possible origin stories, this one stating that he was a down-on-his-luck comedian and husband who pretended to be the Red Hood, another Batman villain, in order to rob a chemical factory. I think you know where the rest of this goes (they really need more OSHA inspectors in Gotham). This caper was supposed to help out his wife, who dies before the heist happens anyway, on the same day he takes the dip. Joker, in a moment of terrifying insight, postulates that Batman probably had a “really bad day” like he did. Joker sees Batman as a psychopath, like he is, who went through a tragedy so jarring that he couldn’t reconcile it rationally. This casts Batman’s actions as equally as insane as Joker’s. His persona is borne of madness, not heroism.

Unlike the man Joker once was, Bruce in Batman Begins has the benefit of Rachel Dawes to set him straight about what’s just. Her response to Bruce’s confession is a slap and a trip to the ghetto to look at Gotham’s underclass, which she punctuates with “I know you are a good person Bruce, but it’s not who you are, but what you do that defines you”. For a genre as unambiguously black and white as the superhero genre, this is a very odd notion. Shouldn’t right and what’s wrong be decided by intent? Shouldn’t good intentions yield good actions?

In Batman Begins’ screenplay, writer David Goyer makes excellent use of supporting characters as a way to connect Batman with the “real” world that Bruce doesn’t exist in. Bruce is a kid dressing up and playing cowboys and Indians, he doesn’t have any social conscience for the most part. In Batman: Year One (1987), Bruce laments having to fly for his return to Gotham, claiming that “he wants to see the enemy”, indicating a fairly stark view of Gotham’s criminal underworld. In Batman: Noel ( 2011 ), A Christmas Carol homage casting Batman as a Scrooge analogue, Batman even threatens violence upon a low level Joker minion on Christmas Eve who is trying to support his children.

batman-noel-20111101010818001

Due to his wealth, constant travelling, and his status as a wacko, Bruce is vastly disconnected from the concerns of normal people. This is pointed out by Rachel and the film’s warm-up antagonist, Carmine Falcone, who reminds Bruce that he’s still several times better off than most people in Gotham. Because of his disconnectedness, he views crime-fighting as almost a holy crusade rather than a social necessity. Rachel Dawes, as a district attorney, represents real life law and order, a system that wouldn’t allow the type of violent, indiscriminate action Bruce wishes to take. In a way, Rachel becomes the diegetic equivalent to the Comics Code Authority; she forces him to continue his exploits in a more socially palatable manner. He reiterates her lesson later in the film when she asks who he (dressed as Batman) is: “Someone once told me it doesn’t matter who I am inside; it’s what I do that counts”. Bruce has apparently adopted what Rachel has espoused by the film’s end; he’s subordinated his malice for the good of the city.

Even though the modern Batman has been consistently portrayed as never breaking the sixth commandment, it hasn’t stopped many writers from alluding to his desire to kill. In The Dark Knight Returns, in order to stop a bomb from destroying a skyscraper, he rewires an explosive in some goons’ helicopter to explode while they’re flying. His comment on the act?  “Two men die, leaving the world no poorer”. Bruce recognizes the consequence of his decision, but is almost callous in his indifference towards it. As with the Joker minion in Noel, all criminals are pieces of shit as far as he’s concerned, so who cares if they die? What keeps him from making lethal action a norm doesn’t seem to be concern for his enemies, but instead a fear of who he will become if he does take such action.

Batman Forever (1995)

vlcsnap-2013-11-01-05h49m07s106

In Batman Forever, Bruce makes an appeal to Dick Grayson/Robin as to why he shouldn’t kill his parents’ murderer;

“It will happen this way: you make the kill, but your pain doesn’t die with Harvey, it grows, so you run out into the night to find another face, and another, and another, until one terrible morning you wake up and realize that revenge has become your whole life. And you don’t know why…We’re the same”

Bruce sees the same anger that drives him in Dick (which is similar to how Robin recognizes Bruce as Batman due to his “hidden anger” in The Dark Knight Rises [2012] ) and gives him what is his rationale for not going down a lethal path. What’s interesting is that he doesn’t speak hypothetically, he’s making an assertion (“It will happen this way“). One could hypothesize that the film’s Batman HAS killed men in the past, but another argument is that Bruce views his crusade as Batman as a long revenge mission anyway, sans killing. If Dick is destined to follow the same path, he could at least live with it better if he foregoes lethal methods. Robin works well as a foil for Bruce’s psychoses since he represents the child that Bruce was when his parents died (specifically, the first Robin). This is why it’s so important for Bruce to guide Robin, since he fears that the boy could possibly succumb to the compulsions that plague him.

Batman: Under The Red Hood (2010)

xlarge_6301735aac65d0c80f832ce3362b9e34

In the comic arc Under the Red Hood , Robin (albeit a different one) once again acts as a foil for Bruce’s mental state. Jason Todd, a Robin who died in a fight with Joker, is resurrected and attempts to get revenge on the clown.

627571-img003521

During a tense showdown with Joker and Batman, Robin asks Batman why he didn’t kill Joker to avenge him (or at least for all the countless others). He responds:

It’d be too damned easy. All I’ve ever wanted to do is kill him. A day doesn’t go by I don’t think about subjecting him to every horrendous torture he’s dealt out to others and then end him…but if I do that, I’ll allow myself to go down into that place, I’ll never come back”.

Notice that Bruce doesn’t make an appeal to a social code of any kind (which Robin assumes he will). Instead, he makes an appeal to his desire for self-control. He knows his desires are not as pure-of-heart as others may think, and allowing himself to exercise them will possibly destroy what he’s been trying to create his whole career. Would the people of Gotham be as inspired by a murderous vigilante? Would children have the same admiration for him? Would law enforcement be as willing to rally behind him, as they do in The Dark Knight Rises? Probably not, since killing is often considered the most savage of human compulsions. As Ra’s al Ghul instructs him in Batman Begins, in order to change Gotham, he must transcend humanity and become an ideal. While this sounds like motivational bullshit, it isn’t really. Look at Marxism, Nazism, Christianity, all bodies of thought created by humans. These men were not their ideals in life, but in legacy. The Bruce Wayne of Batman Begins succeeds in leaving a legacy in The Dark Knight Rises, as his defeat of Bane and liberation of Gotham causes a monument to be erected in his honor. He will be associated, for better or worse, with the preservation of life, not the deliverance of death. Batman Begins’ Bruce Wayne could be thought of as attempting to create the image of Batman that exists in mainstream comics; a man who utilized personal tragedy in order to change the world for the better.

Batman Incorporated (2010)

Bruce_Wayne_028

“My parents taught me a…lesson… lying on this street… shaking in deep shock… dying for no reason at all. They showed me that the world only makes sense when you force it to”-The Dark Knight Returns

For more Batman related posts:

Superstitious and Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in Gotham City

Ben Affleck as Batman: Why So Serious?

For more DC Comics related posts:

Superman as Defined by Lex Luthor

The Lois Lane Effect

From Comic to TV: CW’s Arrow as an Adaptation of Green Arrow

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

For more superhero related posts:

Journey of Peter Parker from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

The Best Spider-Man Issue Ever / Why Spider-Man is a Classic Anti-Hero

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

Thor: The Dark World Review

And finally, proof of Batman’s douchiness: