It’s May 3 and 4, 1993. Topping the charts is “Freak Me” by Silk, followed by Janet Jackson with “That’s the Way Love Goes” and Snow with “Informer.” The top movie last weekend was Aladdin, fittingly enough for this story; next weekend it’s Loaded Weapon 1, which is less so. A Few Good Men is in the top five both weekends, but Ra’s al-Ghul is only looking for one.
In the news, Pierre Beregovoy, former Prime Minister of France, and Ranasinghe Premadasa, sitting president of Sri Lanka, both die May 1, by suicide and suicide bomber, respectively. On May 4, the US-led UNITAF mission in Somalia is succeeded by the UNOSOM II mission, which like UNOSOM and UNITAF is supposed to help stabilize the region, construct infrastructure, and so on. It will be back to full-blown war by mid-June, and declared a failure in less than a year.
Batman, meanwhile, is having fun bouncing around the globe with his new buddy Ra’s al-Ghul, six-hundred-year-old leader of an ecoterrorist cult. Ostensibly, they are searching for their kidnapped “children,” Talia al-Ghul and Robin, but it is fairly obvious (as Batman notes near the episode’s end) that al-Ghul is the kidnapper. After a chase around Asia, Batman rescues Robin and reveals he knows al-Ghul set this up; al Ghul explains this was a test to see if Batman is worthy of marrying Talia and becoming his heir. Batman refuses, and al-Ghul’s raging declaration of war in response is interrupted when he collapses. Talia leads the others in using a Lazarus Pit to heal him, leading to the second part, where al-Ghul plans to detonate all the Lazarus Pits in the world simultaneously, which will kill more than two billion people but rejuvenate the damaged environment. After another chase around parts of Asia not visited in the prior episode, Batman saves the day.
The story originates as an adaptation of two unrelated comics published a year apart, and it shows: there is only the most tenuous connection between the plots of the two episodes, namely that Batman is only aware of what al-Ghul is attempting in the second episode because Robin overheard something while imprisoned in the first, and al-Ghul claims he accelerated his plans after Batman rejected becoming his heir. However, that tenuous connection between the parts only strengthens the story’s connection to the adventure serials it keeps homaging. In a single story, we have the back alleys of Calcutta, a jungle temple in Malaysia, a Himalayan fortress, and a castle perched on a promontory jutting out of the Arabian Desert; we have Batman fighting a panther, parachuting out of a helicopter, getting his shirt torn off, and sword-fighting al-Ghul on the lip of a deadly-poisonous Lazarus Pit. Even the music homages those serials, with its almost stereotypical use of instruments and styles associated with each locale (in film, if not in reality), all held together by the use of the core Batman theme in each.
Which, of course, is where the trouble starts. Like the adventure films it draws on, this episode has a deep xenophobic streak, since its core premise is “white man goes to countries where people of color live, encounters danger and evil in all of them.” The only characters (leaving out Alfred’s very brief appearance at the beginning of the first part) who aren’t cooperating with al-Ghul’s plan to kill billions just so happen to be the only characters with American accents, and all of al-Ghul’s minions are depicted as South Asian or Middle Eastern.
This is oddly prescient. The deferred apocalypse of the 1980s was, as we have discussed before, the climactic nuclear war between the capitalist West and communist East, which never happened due to the fall of the Soviet Union. The Cold War–a state of eternal readiness and perpetual conflict, used as justification for enormous military budgets and violations of civil liberties–ended suddenly, and it took more than a decade to find a new enemy against whom a similarly unending war could be fought. In the interim, conflicts like the Gulf War, Somalia, and Bosnia served as paper-thin excuses to maintain military funding at or near Cold War levels, not that the Cold War itself had ever been much thicker of an excuse.
When that new enemy was finally found in 2001, it proved to be “terrorism,” by which is meant any form of violence perpetrated by Middle Eastern or Central Asian terrorism–domestic terrorists of European descent tend to be curiously overlooked. Ra’s al-Ghul fits the bill perfectly, with his Arabic name, obviously Western education, and plan to destroy civilization. Add in Ubu’s habit of calling Batman “infidel,” and you have the pitch-perfect picture of a stereotypical Islamist terrorist circa 2015.
So al-Ghul is a terrorist, the episode manages to be forward-looking in the most regressive way possible, and the whole thing is, while great fun, intensely xenophobic. Is that it?
Not quite. Because the episode is a lot of fun, superbly well-directed, and an excellent pastiche of a classic genre of films, so we should at least take a stab at a redemptive reading, while remembering that, despite the name, a redemptive reading redeems nothing–it simply exists side-by-side with the more negative readings, a reminder that things are never simply black-or-white.
But consider: Ra’s al-Ghul’s minions are a racialized Other, but what of he himself, the true villain? Is that all he is? And the answer is of course no; he is also a shadow of the past, constantly returning even though it has a corrupting effect, bathing in the wounds of the Earth to cling to life long past his own time. He is, in short, out of date, and thus Batman becomes the exemplar of modernism by comparison.
Consider al-Ghul’s repeated references in the first episode to finding “the children,” and indeed his entire obsession with finding an heir. This is precisely the reproductive futurism I discussed in regards to Seduction of the Innocent, this notion that our primary duty as a society is to create a safe environment for “the children,” a nebulous concept characterized by total innocence and immense fragility that bears no resemblance to (and indeed, supersedes the needs of) any actual child. In this context, al-Ghul’s particular brand of villainy–a willingness to cause suffering and death on an unprecedented and unimaginable scale for the benefit of an abstract notion of “nature”–becomes that of the puritan, seeking a better world “for the children” he imagines need protecting, while creating a materially worse world for people (children included) who actually exist.
In every way, al-Ghul is a regressive figure. His goal is to restore an imagined past in which “the planet” was healthy, as if “the planet” in this sense is any less of an abstraction than “the children.” His attitude toward his daughter is tremendously sexist: he treats Talia as nothing more than a bargaining chip by which to acquire an heir, whereas in “Off Balance” we saw a woman with skills to rival Batman’s own, as worthy an heir to al-Ghul as could be imagined. Indeed, she is the ideal heir when it comes to carrying on his work: someone who shares his goals but has new ideas about how to achieve them.
But al-Ghul’s role changes when Batman rejects him, as he moves from regressive to reactionary. He no longer wishes to prevent change away from his imagined past, a slow evolution of the status quo back to the state he dreams of; now he wants change on a massive scale, wiping away the civilization he despises. Now he desires the apocalypse, because “the children” have rejected him and he no longer cares what happens to them.
It’s telling, here, that this plan must have been in place well before al-Ghul approached Batman. He knew the Lazarus Pits’ effectiveness was declining, and that he was going to either need to finish his project immediately or hand the reins to someone else. His own personal world now coming to an end, he decides he might as well end everyone else’s as well, and hope the shattered pieces assemble themselves into a better world.
So Batman is called to avert a true apocalypse at last, and how appropriate an apocalypse it is! As al-Ghul points out in the first episode, it is the great engine of capitalism that has been devouring the rain forests and poisoning the seas, and it is the society built upon that engine (or, perhaps, upon which that engine is built) that he seeks to destroy. And no matter how much money Bruce Wayne may donate personally, he has neither the power nor the will to stop the machine from which his own power derives.
Ra’s al-Ghul does, albeit at terrible cost. But in the end Batman performs the highest function of the superhero: he averts the apocalypse. He keeps the engine running. Avatar of the capitalocene extinction, Batman sends al-Ghul plunging into the abyss.
And, laughing maniacally, al-Ghul emerges stronger and more destructive than ever. The apocalypse is once again deferred, not prevented. This battle will be fought again.
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