One of the important turning points in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns comes as a citywide power outage — and the attendant escape from prison of scores of members of the violent “Mutants” gang — threatens to plunge Gotham into anarchy. The new police commissioner, Ellen Yindel, sees Batman and Robin ride on horseback into the middle of a crowd of Mutants.
Yindel has, up to this point, been a foe of Batman’s, a by-the-book cop infuriated by Jim Gordon’s willingness to turn a blind eye to vigilantism, whose first act as commissioner is to issue a warrant for Batman’s arrest. Gordon has tried to prepare her to understand the necessity of Batman by relating a story about evidence FDR had advance warning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but let took no action to stop it, in order to motivate the US to fight a necessary war. The idea is monstrous — but so was the Axis, and US involvement was key to the outcome of WWII. Gordon concludes, “It bounced back and forth in my head until I realized I couldn’t judge it. It was too big.”
So, then, into the middle of the crowd of Mutants escaping from the jail, Batman rides triumphantly on a giant horse, and commands all their attention with the sheer power of his will. Commissioner Yindel watches the scene with several cops by her side, and one asks whether they should arrest Batman. “No,” Yindel stammers: “he’s…too big.”
I started writing this post right after Steve Jobs died, and reactions mainly fell into two camps. Many mourned Jobs as a fallen hero, a world-changing visionary, an incalculable loss; on the other hand, many castigated the first group, decrying Jobs’s perceived megalomania and his history of not giving publicly to charities, Apple’s tight controls on its product ecosystem, and especially the terrible conditions under which Apple products (as well as many other companies’) are manufactured, at Foxconn and other Chinese suppliers.
If you think I’m leading up to comparing Steve Jobs to Batman, you’re not quite right, but you’re not quite wrong, either.
A little over two years ago, Ted Kennedy died, after a long and indisputably checkered life in public service. Many mourned Kennedy as a fallen hero, a world-changing statesman, an incalculable loss; on the other hand, many castigated the first group, decrying Kennedy’s hypocrisies and personal foibles, his role in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, his defense of William Kennedy Smith, and many other issues.
If you think I’m going to compare Ted Kennedy to Batman, well, you’re still not quite right.
I’m going to compare everyone to Batman.
The Dark Knight Returns, as anyone familiar with it or with Miller’s work in general knows, is a powerful, well-told story, but also a deeply reactionary one, full of visceral loathing for liberalism, egalitarianism, empathy, mercy, redemption, and all that other hippie shit. In Miller’s Gotham, there is a continuum from the irredeemable, vicious, abject, reasonless evil of the Mutants and the Joker, through the cowardly, simpering, lefty moral relativism that enables them, and the merely self-interested venality of the majority, to the well-intentioned but ultimately compromised few like Jim Gordon, who do what they can manage but can only manage so much — and then, apart from the spectrum, there is Batman, who may fail, but is never compromised. Dark Knight, then is an expression par excellence of the “Great Man theory”: Batman is “too big” to judge, as was FDR — but next to these titans everyone else, even Superman, falls short, and deserves to be judged and found wanting both in character and means. It is, perhaps, no one’s fault if they don’t measure up, but measured they will be.
This is the fundamental flaw in Dark Knight‘s moral worldview — and while Miller presents an extremely stark version of it, in various degrees of intensity it is far from an uncommon view in the world outside graphic novels. FDR, Batman, Steve Jobs, Ted Kennedy, and the countless others whose names litter history textbooks indeed are too big to judge. Their thoughts and words and deeds, and the ripples of consequences spreading out from those thoughts and words and deeds, can be examined and evaluated, found harmful or helpful; but they can’t simply be totted up in a column to produce a single number, good or bad, hero or villain. They’re more complex than that, the world is more complex than that, and the ramifications of their actions are too extensive to admit of such a simplistic weighing. This is a true and valuable moral insight, but Dark Knight fails to see it all the way through to its necessary conclusion.
In point of fact, everyone is too big to judge. Our thoughts and words and deeds, and the ripples of consequences from them, can be examined and may be found helpful or harmful, but they can’t simply be totted up to produce a single number. People are more complex than that, life is more complex than that people are more complex than that, and the ramifications of our actions do not admit of a simplistic weighing against each other. We all do good and bad things, affect the world in positive and negative ways, but a good deed doesn’t cancel out a bad one, or vice versa, and there is no ultimate accounting by which we can be deemed righteous or wicked.
In short, there is no such thing as a good person, or as a bad person. I don’t mean something glib like “we are more than the sum of our deeds;” I mean that the notion of “the sum of our deeds” is itself incoherent. This is something I tried to approach from a different angle some time ago, and it’s something I continue to have difficulty expressing in what feels to me like an adequate manner. I’m sure I’ll make further attempts as well. For now, I’ll just repeat my claim and hope it makes some sense. We are all too big to judge: if you like, we’re all Batman.
It’s very difficult, sometimes, to hold onto this idea. It’s very easy to think, “but this person is clearly just bad!” and to let go of the understanding that a person’s actions in the world aren’t just opposing terms in an equation, that they don’t simply obliterate each other until a simple answer is left. But if I do that I must necessarily disregard their human complexity, which is an injustice both to them and to myself. And conversely, if I let myself think someone is “just good,” inevitably they’ll do something I see as harmful or unacceptable, and for violating my unjustly stark picture of them I’ll shift them from the “good” list to the “bad.” That might serve my own sense of self-righteousness, but it serves no other purpose — and self-righteousness is a trap to be avoided at all costs.
We are all too big to judge. If you like, we’re all Batman.