Thursday, June 10, 2010
Seventy-one years ago, a new kind of hero was launched in Detective Comics #27. At least in subtle ways, he was different than any character who had come before. He wore tights, a mask, and a cape, and sought to inspire fear. But beneath the guise he was an ordinary man – in fact, a rich socialite – who was simply impeccably trained. The stories were as light in depth as they were dark in tone, but the tradition of Batman has gone on to see admirable success and longevity. An original copy of his first comic book appearance has recently sold for over $1 million. The 2008 film The Dark Knight has grossed just over $1 billion. Batman's home base has always been in the comic books and animated programs that targeted a younger or nerdier audience than the mainstream, but beyond the two thousand comic books with Batman stories, there have been live action television shows and movies that percolate attention to the Caped Crusader to general interest. Batman is integral to American culture and is, moreover, big business.
Eleven years ago, a different innovation in storytelling hit cable television, portraying a charming sympathetic villain as the central character. Drawing on organized crime stories whose cinematic renditions had a collosal impact, The Sopranos attracted millions of weekly viewers and revolutionized television. From its first season, the show won such overwhelming critical praise that it seemed to have utterly defeated its competitors in dramatic television, forcing other shows and networks to decide whether to adapt or wallow in mediocrity. In comparison to the longer-lived Batman franchise, The Sopranos has no apologies to make for being for children. By universal consensus, children should not watch The Sopranos, even for a single episode, and the subject matter as well as the execution (no pun intended) is utterly adult in nature. Neither does the show require disclaimers for the intelligence or sophistication of the approach. The most respected voices in television criticism gave the show their full approval and the show garnered so many Emmy nominations that in certain categories it choked off opportunities for its rivals to collect any. The New Yorker, from behind the monocle it holds as it turns up its nose at the world, called the show "a transformative journey" for the viewers.
More recently, another cable television program has taken the reins as the deep culture-defining drama of our times. Mad Men has completed three seasons of its story of Madison Avenue advertising in the early 1960s, frequently creating perspectives that comment on our current world: what we as a society are like and how we got this way. It shares some of The Sopranos' pedigree (Matthew Weiner pitched the show before becoming one of The Sopranos' main writers; this stint earned him the recognition that put Mad Men on the air) and is in some ways a vehicle for similar enlightment.
I present these three fictional worlds and therefore their central characters together because of their commonalities and their differences. They are similar enough to suggest a common source of interest; understanding what they have in common is therefore a way to understand their viewers. The contrasts with the two television shows – serials with a lifespan measured in years – moreover says something about the prospects for the Batman franchise, whose endurance is sure to go past a century.
We can note first that all three of these fictional worlds centers on a white, American male of noteworthy resources. In different ways, Batman, Tony Sorpano, and Don Draper are capable beyond what the viewer can imagine. Tony is not particularly polished (though he looks good in a suit), but he is clever, and he is powerful. Things that men value in life fall to Tony in abundance. He eats well, he is always with attractive women, and among a certain circle, his word is law. In those ways, Don Draper is also successful. Without being able to (or wanting to) have his enemies killed, Don has all of the things Tony has, and more. He's perfectly good-looking, as is his wife, and he has legally come by as much money as he could want. He's universally praised for skill in his profession, which happens to translate to a verbal fluency that makes him the winner in every social setting. Like Tony, he enjoys – if enjoying is the right word – a string of highly attractive mistresses.
The winning ways of Tony and Don are surely not incidental to their series' success. While their shows are successful thanks to great acting, thoughtful directing, and deft looks into everything that life is about, they are unquestionably more successful than series about plain-looking, ignorant nobodies have tended to be. (Perhaps Taxi is a useful foil, but even there, most characters were either smart or good-looking, though rarely both.)
If the best shows on television can be forgiven the indulgence of giving their protagonists soap-opera levels of charm, wealth, gravitas, and talent, then is it a crime of unsubtlety for the Batman mythology to make Bruce Wayne the paragon of those qualities? To be clear: Bruce Wayne is richer by far than Tony and Don put together. He's at least as good-looking as Don (John Hamm could easily be cast as Bruce Wayne, were there a vacancy), and he could take down Tony Soprano backed by any platoon of Cosa Nostra gunmen ten times out of ten. A billionaire, detective, escape artist, chemist, acrobat, and self-made commando, Bruce Wayne is impossibly skilled in more ways than Tony and Don and anyone they ever met put together. Does this starting point automatically disqualify a Batman story from being of general interest? Tony and Don manage to drive compelling stories that the New York Times admires despite their larger-than-life lives. But is this because they are just barely larger than life? There are, after all, mafiosi and talented creative minds in this world. Even though Tony and Don do not exist in the real world, people like them surely do. Or near enough like them. Nobody like Bruce Wayne has ever existed. If one of the world's strongest men were also one of the fastest, most agile, most intelligent, and most wealthy, he would also have to be the very most driven to resemble Bruce Wayne. Does that fact make Batman a character outside of general interest? Is the thread of interest snapped when the outstanding protagonist is made unrealistically talented?
I don't think so. Because neither Tony nor Don is interesting because he is realistic. Tony and Don are interesting because of the way their exceptional qualities become irrelevant in the face of everyday concerns. This is the point of both characters, and much the point of, say, The Godfather, Part II's Michael Corleone – to take someone exceptional, at the verge of improbability, and ask: how does this exceptional man interact with reality?
Tony, despite being successful to an extent that all men would like to be (in an enterprise that many men would stay far away from), is bogged down by exactly the same concerns in life with which law-abiding men struggle. That is the starting point of Tony Soprano's existence. Chris Albrecht, the then-President of HBO Original Programming who received the pitch for the Sopranos reflected upon Tony's ordinary life problems and concluded "The only difference between [Tony] and everybody I know is [that] he's the Don of New Jersey."
Everything in Don's life is what almost any man would choose, and without the violence and risk of Tony's life. The only real flaw in Don's life is... Don. Unlike Bruce Wayne, Tony and Don have families. Bruce's defining moment in life was the loss of his family, a tragedy that left him with a world of grief but no "problems". Tony has no end of problems – ones that are easy to see and, were he not a sociopath, ones with which to identify. Don has relatively few problems save those he and his wife Betty make for themselves. His needs come from his lack of satisfaction and satisfiability. His crisis is existential.
And in that one sense, Bruce is more like Don than Tony. Because Bruce has absolutely no problems native to his own existence. However, while Don has the perfect job, perfect house, and perfect wife, Bruce has the perfect house and fortune, but otherwise lacks the relationships one would have in a normal life. Tony and Bruce share a life on the front lines of the war between law and crime; they are on opposite sides of it, but the action it entails, the scheming, the generalship – that much, they share. But Tony goes home to a strong-willed wife and two difficult offspring. Until the death of supporting actress Nancy Marchand, Tony dealt even more with the looming presence of his mother, Livia. Bruce, in contrast, goes home to no family at all.
For in all that a strange and cataclysmic event involving his family shaped Bruce Wayne's life, in doing so it left him without a family. Orphaned at an early age (8 to 10, in many tellings), Bruce never again (in most tellings) has an older relative telling him what to do. Nor does he take a wife who would require him to balance his superhero role with the trappings of ordinary life, nor – in the most everyday sense – does he ever have children to raise. When a boy comes ito his life, it's another orphan who also begins fighting crime, with Bruce, as his main pursuit in life. And it is exactly the lack of family that gives Bruce Wayne the space to be Batman. Not just in the world of the story, where heroes have such demands, but in the way readers apprehend him: For the early years of the Batman franchise, in which the character became popular, Batman was the man an adventure-craving boy might seek to be. Everything he did was exciting, morally upright, and skillfully done. He was the moral center of his own universe, and the one perfect man in it. These aspects of the Batman narrative are so compelling that one flinches from remembering the more obvious biographical details – that a man wears a bat mask and dons a cape to fight crime. This part of the premise is so strange and absurd that the Sixties television show could climb the ratings by making fun of it on a weekly basis. But the billion-dollar Batman, the film's Dark Knight, has so much weight to him that the silliness is forgotten.
Batman, in most tellings, is a man engaged in a war, and completely defined by that war. When a story introduces conventional domestic realities (such as a girlfriend) into his life, the goes on to bring those things to an end due to his single-minded focus. So almost all Batman stories are stories about a man opposing enemies, and inhabit the border between crime drama and war drama. Historically, this has proven a success basis for a highly regarded film. And The Dark Knight makes good on that potential, making Batman the central character in the top-grossing crime movie of all time.
Tony and Don both have things in their lives that one (particularly, perhaps, a man) might seek to emulate. Present one's self like Don. Be decisive and insightful like Tony. See the small details. Be prepared. Earn respect. Don't show vulnerability or doubt.
They both also, inarguably, have things in their lives that one would be wise to avoid. And so the great power of television serials depicting them is that they provide an ongoing series of life lessons. Both experience the pitfalls of making others look bad, or in showing others up. (It wins Don an enemy in his boss Roger. It wins Tony attempts on his life.) Both imperil their marriages with serial affairs. A weekly viewing of Tony or Don is a weekly lesson on how to be, and how not to be.
In contrast, there is really only one thing to learn from Batman: Try harder. The things that Batman does are not the things that virtually anyone else does, ever. If Batman comic books and films served as a training resource for Delta Force or SWAT teams (and they are not accurate enough to serve in that respect), then he would have an audience who could sympathize with him. People who could watch and think, "Oh, so that's how you disarm twelve opponents in fifteen seconds without being shot." Batman doesn't fit into a viewer's life except for escape (incidentally, "escape" being just another thing that Batman is incredibly good at). A hundred million people are willing to parcel a couple of hours out of a summer night to consider the issues entailed by a vigilante war that threatens to tear a city apart with its collateral damage, if the narrative is done just right. The Dark Knight did that. On Monday morning, the viewer goes back to school or work. They go back to being a spouse or daughter or member of a clique.
Tony and Don tells us something about how to live those lives. When they aren't being exceptional (which they do about half the time), they face what we face. Both of them lament that fact. In Tony's "Test Dream", he cannot tear himself away from a suspenseful movie to meet his daughter's fiance's family. He explains to his wife that it's "so much more interesting" than life. She points out, referring to his Mafia existence, "What, are you kidding me? It is your life." But only half the time, and for Tony, that's not enough.
Don may not know what he wants in life. It's not the wife and children and the big house. He tells a woman who is about to be his mistress that he wants her, but this is only true when he doesn't have her. Maybe Don would like to be Batman. We haven't seen anything that Don's contented with. And so, Don's life is like that of many viewers.
With two gunshots, Bruce Wayne got Tony's wish, the adventure, all the time, with no "life". Maybe Don would like to be Batman. Bruce drives very fast, spends a lot of money, hangs out with anyone he wants to, fights and always wins, and garners boundless praise from the whole world while he shows everyone else up. It keeps Bruce Wayne from ever having the doldrums that plague and consume Tony and Don. It also keeps him from being the protagonist of a widely-watched serial. He's too much what one might wish to be and not enough what anyone is.