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NPR Arts & Life

Catharsis In A Cape: On Comic-Book Heroes And Real-World Violence

<strong>Emotional Armor:</strong> Superheroes like Batman (Christian Bale) function as talismans when our fears are darkest — symbols of good, and of justice, when we wonder whether either exists.
<strong>Emotional Armor:</strong> Superheroes like Batman (Christian Bale) function as talismans when our fears are darkest — symbols of good, and of justice, when we wonder whether either exists.

What is Batman for?

The whole idea's ridiculous, always has been. Guy dresses up like a bat to scare criminals. Shyeah. Not something that can truly chill the blood — a snake, say, or a spider — but a bat, the sight of which causes most of us to sigh and reach for a tennis racket to shoo the little guy out the nearest window.

It's an idea a kid would come up with, which is one reason it's come in for such merciless lampooning over the years: Pow. Zap. "Holy priceless collection of Etruscan snoods, Batman," et cetera.

After all, a one-man Chiroptera-themed War on Crime is the kind of notion that loses its primal power as soon as it leaves the comics page, which is when the mind proceeds to boggle at the real-world logistics it would entail. Christopher Nolan's films work very hard to create a world of plausible-seeming technology to keep our disbelief suspended, or at least loosely tethered, for those two-plus hours. Even so.

And then there's the violence. In his every iteration, Batman fights crime by fist-fighting it — throwing elbows for justice is pretty much his whole schtick.

Pow. Zap.

His city is a grim, brutal place with a sociopath on every street corner, wreaking senseless havoc, murdering innocent bystanders in cold blood. In a Batman story, this violence exists for a reason: It is the triggering action, the set of conditions that spur our hero into battle. Without it, Batman would spend the whole movie brooding on a rooftop.

As the New Yorker's Anthony Lane points out, it's easy to draw connections between film violence and a staggeringly senseless act like the one that took place in Aurora on Friday morning. Too easy. We look for reasons where no reason exists; we gaze in abject horror at an effect and comfort ourselves by imagining we can divine its cause.

But madness isn't so tidy. No reason will satisfy; no reason can, because the act occurred in reason's absence. We are left in its wake to guess and blame and, ultimately, finally, helplessly, to mourn.

Batman didn't create this act of random violence. In a very real sense, he exists to help us respond to it.

True, comic-book heroes are childish notions. But this is exactly what lends them a simple, primal purity of meaning. They are a means by which we vicariously confront — and defeat — what threatens us. Batman is our agent, our proxy, our sense that Good exists and that it invariably wins out over Evil. On the streets of Gotham he will be met by Fear (The Scarecrow), Greed (The Penguin), Wrath (Bane) and, inevitably, repeatedly, Insanity (The Joker).

But he — and thus, we — will win. Always. Every time. That knowledge is what he gives us. That is what he is for.

And how he wins is just as important as that he wins: He seeks not vengeance, but justice — which is to say, he does not kill. Instead, he subdues his foes. Contains them.

Because that's his greater symbolic role, as well — to help us contain the abject horror of violence like this, to provide a cathartic pressure valve. So, for example, we thrill as we watch him swoop down upon some vile fiend seconds before the killing stroke lands.

"Never again," he whispers, and for a moment, a millisecond, we imagine a world where such a patently ridiculous, childish promise could be kept, where unimaginable violence never erupts, where no innocents die.

It doesn't exist, of course. Tomorrow a new costumed criminal will plague Gotham; another act of real-world violence will leave us feeling lost and scared.

Of course, Gotham has Batman to protect it. But we have him, too — the idea of him, anyway. And on a terrible day, it's possible to think about that silly, ridiculous, utterly childish idea, and feel a little less lost and a little less scared.

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