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HERO WORSHIP

 

Reflections on Batman Forever

Robert M. Price

 

I realize such judgment calls are inevitably subjective, but I have always had trouble deciding which of the Batman movies was the best. There is no such question as to the worst: Batman and Robin was another Return of the Jedi: fun to watch but horribly, fatally flawed. Director Joel Schumacher recently apologized to the fans. Talk about misreading one's audience: he was trying to make the fourth Batman movie like the old ABC Batman TV show. He succeeded, which is why he failed. Nobody wanted to see more of that. I suspect this opprobrium has begun to overflow and to find its way backwards to pollute historical memories of Schumacher's previous Batman epic, Batman Forever. That one, in fact, may be my favorite of the Batman films. Partly this is because you don't have to keep reassuring yourself the whole way through that Michael Keaton is right for the role, despite his height. Val Kilmer really seems to be Batman. Partly I love the film because of the absolutely wonderful portrayal of Two-Face by Tommy Lee Jones, not eclipsed even by Jim Carrey's lunacy as the Riddler. And there is the generously elaborate plot, so full of twists and turns and classic superhero moments. But on top of all this is the astonishing psychological depth of the movie. And that is what I'd like to concentrate on here.

ááááááááááá The fundamental theme is the identification between Batman and Two-Face on the one hand and between the Riddler and Bruce Wayne on the other. Early on, we meet Dr. Chase Meridian, a visiting shrink called in to consult on Two-Face, the mad Harvey Dent, almost a reincarnation of the Joker. Dent, once pretty-boy District Attorney for Gotham City, snapped when a thug on the witness stand obliterated half his face with a spray of acid. This introduced the most fascinating villain schtick ever: the character would flip a coin to determine which side of his personality to listen to: the good or the evil! Don't take it for granted. Anyway, it's not as if they particularly want to help Harvey back to psychic health; it's way too late for that. No, they just want to stop his reign of terror.

ááááááááááá It quickly develops that Dr. Chase has a patient she had not anticipated: Batman. Bruce Wayne asks her guidance on his recurrent, obsessive dreams. He does not suspect that they hold the lost secret of his personal integration. From the superior perspective of the viewer, from whom no secret identities are hidden, we know there is yet more to the situation. Batman was as scarred from the traumatic death of his parents as Two-Face was by his disfigurement. Their reactions were equally extreme, both dedicated to violence and vengeance. (This theme has come over from the first film, Batman, where we learn, significantly, that, "Some people think you're as crazy as he is." They're right. You can see that also in The Killing Joke, can't you?

ááááááááááá Both the hero and the villain are consequently confused about good and evil, Harvey deciding between them randomly, Bruce seeking bloody vengeance in the name of righteousness. Notice how when Chase gives Bruce the dream totem, it is a human form divided between black and white vertically--just like Two-Face! Only the totem is symbolic of Bruce! They are the same, except that Bruce's face is split horizontally by the bat cowl. When Bruce is musing to Alfred over the death of Dick Grayson's parents he slips and, instead of saying, "He killed them," he says, "I killed them." When Dick discovers Batman's identity, he begins pummeling him, identifying him with Two-Face, as if it was Batman's fault, since, as Dick first believes, Batman could have prevented Two-Face from killing them.

ááááááááááá Bruce finally remembers the whole of the dream, about the discovery of the Batcave and the vision of the giant bat, something so fundamental to his subconscious mind that it shows up on the telepathic recording the Riddler makes of Bruce Wayne and reveals his secret identity. He is half-way healed when he realizes his one-man crusade is basically a quest for vengeance that only deepens its own thirst instead of quenching it. This much becomes clear to him when he sees his obsessed self in the throes of rebirth in Dick Grayson. But in the same moment Dick wants to become Robin, Bruce is repudiating being Batman! He has uncovered the neurosis and, in classical Freudian style, he has liberated himself from it. He doesn't need to be Batman anymore.

ááááááááááá Simultaneously we have discovered that Dr. Meridian is also a bit schizoid, indulging an obsessive preoccupation with Batman, who appeals to her Shadow self, a la Jung. And when she yields to this forbidden desire, confronting it as if in a dream, wrapped in her bedsheet, kissing Batman on the balcony, she, too, is delivered of her obsession, only to realize that she can truly love a mere mortal like--Bruce Wayne! She achieves reintegration, too. And once Bruce realizes he cannot just leave behind the clashing repercussions of his life as Batman and dons his last remaining Batsuit, as if for one final mission to lay things to rest once and for all, he discovers that his Batman aspect is not an invasive psychosis. By now it has become equally a part of him, and to be whole, he must accept it too, but now on a different basis: freely, because he wants to embrace it, not because it is a monkey on his back.

ááááááááááá What motivates Edward Nigma? He is obsessed with Bruce Wayne, successful with inventions, successful with the ladies. He admires him to the point of emulating him, wanting to be him, to replace him, to kill him and take his place. He is exactly like the creep who assassinated John Lennon, the man whose name we must never mention. He is like all fan-murderers of their idols. Rene Girard described the syndrome perfectly. He calls it mimetic rivalry, imitative rivalry. It is a coveting of someone else's identity. The mimetic "disciple" likes and wants whatever the idol likes and has, simply because the idol likes it. The disciple seeks to become like the idol by possessing what is his, finally including his identity: there's not enough room in this universe for both of us.á

ááááááááááá Nigma works at WayneTech and wants to impress his idol Bruce Wayne with his own inventions. He presumes an equality with "Bruce" that, as an employee he does not rightly share. When he is rebuffed by his mentor/idol, the disciple turns against him, embittered, believing himself now shown to be the superior, and yet the achiever of an ideal revealed as imperfect by the idol's repudiation of the disciple! He must take revenge. Thus when we see Edward glorying in the adulation of a "box" addicted Gotham society, he is wearing glasses, a haircut, and even a mole just like Bruce's, because he has, he figures, become the new Bruce Wayne. So he wastes no time cutting in on Bruce and dancing with his date, rightfully Ed's date. And, though his plan for world domination finally comes to ruin, Ed achieves his dream after all, at least within the padded walls of his crumbling psyche: "I'm Batman!" Flap, flap.

ááááááááááá So the movie ends with psychological resolution for Bruce, Dick, and Chase. It has the villains pursuing their inevitable trajectories, too, the Riddler to an impossible usurpation of another's identity the only way it can happen: in madness, and the tormented, forever ambivalent Harvey Dent sinking back into the oceanic oblivion of the womb. Maybe what makes this movie so great is its depiction of how all the roiling currents under the surface are plainly visible directing events above the surface if we can just learn to recognize them.  

 

Copyrightę2004 by Robert M Price
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