Sunday, September 2, 2012

Why is This Dark Knight Different Than other Dark Knights?

RABBI CARY FRIEDMAN, A YOUNG MODERN Orthodox Rabbi whom I have great respect for - taught a generation of kids that Jewish wisdom can be found in the most unlikely places.

His classic book, Wisdom from the Batcave: How to Live a Super Heroic Life demonstrates how Batman lived a life consistent with Jewish values, and the life and mission of Bruce Wayne is in many ways metaphoric for the history and purpose of the Jewish people.

So when Rabbi Cary Friedman publishes an article in the Jewish Pressabout his thoughts on the new incarnation of Batman - as someone who also blogs about Batman I pay attention!

Rabbi Friedman contends that the "new" Batman from the Dark Knight is "definitely not the Batman I fell in love with as a child."

The "old" Batman that he loved was the hero who responded to and triumphed over tragedy by creating a life of heroism and meaning. He says that the old Batman represented the Jewish response to tragedy and hardship - bringing his own mother as an example:

"As a child of a Holocaust survivor who spent her childhood years fighting for survival and went on to create a family and life filled with meaning, compassion, for others, and dedication to justice, it is a model with which I am very familiar."


The new Batman is a dark and dysfunctional character who resolves his anger and abandonment issues by beating people up and "fortunately his actions are socially acceptable because the people he beats up are criminals." In his opinion, the "new" Batman is all about violence and "isn't all that different than the bad guys he fights."

At the forefront of this "dark" Batman's battles is the glorification of the violence itself; relegated way to the background, such that the lesson is obscured or lost, is the notion of a battle between good and evil. Gadgets and fighting prowess take center stage, and principle and integrity get lost in the shuffle.

With all respect to Rabbi Friedman - who is definitely someone who knows his Batman - he writes as if he never watched even one episode of the old Adam West afternoon show. Did he forget about the POW! BOOM! SPLAT! When Batman and Robin would hand deliver justice to the villains - dynamic duo style?

Did he forget about the amazing utility belt that always happened to have just the right Bat-device or Bat-gadget to help him and Robin escape from some giant elaborate death trap? (Let us not forget when he whipped out the Bat-Shark repellent!)

The old Batman used violence, and the new Batman uses violence. Violence is terrible, but sometimes violence is terribly necessary. In World War II the allies did not throw flowers at the Germans.

Interestingly, in the Dark Knight Rises, Batman does not personally engage in that much violence. From the start of the movie we see Batman as getting older -and he even visits a doctor who reports the terrible toll that the fighting has taken on Batman's tattered and worn body.
In the entire movie Batman only is only in two fights - one where he is beaten, and one where he wins - but not by way of his super skill, but because of his heroic will!

The many profound lessons of the Dark Knight and the Dark Knight Rises, two of the most popular movies in history, are too many to enumerate here. But I do want to express my complete disagreement with Rabbi Friedman, particularly with his statement:

This darkening of the character - the attribution to him of motives far less than heroic - reflects, and, in turn, fuels the general darkening and increasing disillusionment that pervades and poisons our society.

When I read that, I almost suspect that Rabbi Friedman didn't even see the movies he is writing about.

Starting with Batman Begins (which was actually a pretty good movie - but also pretty forgettable) a young Bruce Wayne struggles with the death of his parents. He is filled with rage as well as a desire to save the city that his parents loved. At first he acts rashly and recklessly. He eventually becomes Batman as a way of channeling the anger that he has - the anger that he rightfully should have - from the loss of his parents.

Rabbi Friedman has a big issue with Batman's anger. Of course he is angry! His parents - smart people, generous people, altruistic people, righteous people - were murdered in cold blood over a petty theft. The Rambam says that one who can simply walk away from tragedy and say, "that's life!" is a cruel person. Batman is not cruel. Batman is real. But he channeled his anger and used ti for good.

And if Adam West didn't seem angry it could be because Adam West was an older Batman and he learned how to hide it better.

But more than anything, the Dark Knight flies directly int he face of Rabbi Friedman's piece. Batman says explicitly that the whole point of being Batman was to bring about a wold that no longer needs Batman. He vies for the day when the people of Gotham will be ready for a hero like Harvey Dent. A real hero that can fight crime by day with with the rule of law, rather than by night with the rule of might. Gotham City is in bad shape, but Batman never loses hope in the people. At the end of the movie Batman triumphs over the Joker - not through violence! He triumphs when the people of Gotham foil the Joker's plan with acts of human decency and virtue. The movie ends on a down note (like all great second installments in history - a laEmpire Strikes Back) but we are left with the hope that one day the people will get the hero it needs - not the hero that it currently deserves!

Dark Knight Rises is a similar theme. The bad guys want to bring chaos and destroy the world. Batman is willing to die to stop them.

If "new" Batman is "darker" than "old" Batman it is only because "new" Batman's world is darker. I don't think Adam West would have been so chipper if he had to fight Heath Ledger instead of Cesar Romero. But even so, Batman always maintains his integrity. He dedicates his resources and his life to fighting evil - in whatever form it takes - and he davens every day for a world that does not need Batman.

I think if Rabbi Friedman searches a little harder he will find a good deal of wisdom in the Dark Knight's Batcave as well.


Rabbi Jon Gross is an Orthodox rabbi in Omaha. Follow him on Twitter at @Jon_Gross.