Today we’re going to talk about this video here.
Well recently I discovered that John Green released a video titled, “I Kind of Hate Batman,” which is admittedly a title that’s obviously designed to be flame bait. And while I’ll admit that I’ve certainly done things for the sole purpose of attracting attention like that, I’ll point out that I’m a guy who writes angry sporks on the Internet, rather than an international best-selling writer lauded as one of the greatest authors of our time who helps to lead a rather sizable worldwide Internet following.
Also, it’s a terrible video. It is an analysis of Batman by someone who knows jack shit about Batman (which usually wouldn’t be so much of an issue if it weren’t for the fact that this is a guy who teens listen to and look up and critics have hailed as one of the greatest literary minds of our time). More than that, the reasoning put in it is nonsensical and reeks of someone trying to preach a moral lesson rather than anything close to analysis of a fictional character. Now to be fair his brother Hank posted a response to the video which can be viewed here and addresses several of his points. But I thought I’d do more coverage because I have no life, the TFIOS spork hasn’t been updated in a while, and I felt like it.
First, a disclaimer: I am not writing this to make you like Batman. I don’t care whether or not you like Batman. You’re not obligated to like the character, and it’s not my business. My purpose in writing this essay is to illustrate that John Green’s arguments in his video are awful, considering how brilliant he supposedly is, and hopefully prevent this sort of thing from happening again.
And before I go on I should point out, as I have on comments before, that John Green is an advocate for a popular literary criticism theory referred to as “Death of the Author.” It basically states that the author’s intentions or ideas outside of the text itself don’t matter. And it’s not without merit—I mean, if Jim Butcher were to stand up and say, “Actually Dresden Files is about the negative effects of industrialization,” we’d all laugh and say he was wrong, because there’s no indication in any of the books that it’s actually the case.
John Green, in his take on this theory, tends to pick and choose what bits of author information he feels like. So for example, he makes a point to say that Hufflepuff isn’t so bad because Tonks was in it (a fact not revealed in any of the Harry Potter books but by Rowling herself), but when Rowling came out and said in hindsight that Hermione and Ron weren’t such a great couple, he posted “BOOKS BELONG TO THEIR READERS” in big letters on his Tumblr blog. Despite this “book belonging to their readers” business, he’s always been quick to point out what he meant and didn’t mean in writing his own books. Which isn’t wrong, but like I said, by saying that’s what the book definitively meant then it kind of negates the point of books not being the author’s, doesn’t it?
His video on Batman embodies the worst aspects of this criticism movement—that is, bending the material to fit your already preconceived notions. It’s the reason why the idea of Satan being the hero of Paradise Lost still persists—people keep saying he is, so when they finally get around to reading it that’s what they mold the text into, despite the fact that Satan is a lying douchenozzle throughout the poem. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Almost anything can be read into any book if you are determined enough.”
Adding to this confusion is the reality (or is it the fiction?) that Batman is an incredibly difficult character to pin down under a specific set of traits. Yes, there are elements that stick in every version of the character, but Batman over the years has changed an incredible amount. Just check out this chart for an example. John Green doesn’t specify which version of Batman he is talking about; something that his brother Hank makes sure to do in his rebuttal. So already the analysis is somewhat problematic and lacking in weight, because the parameters aren’t set.
So on to the debate itself! What is Green’s first argument?
Like Hank, if I were a billionaire the first thing I would do is pledge ninety percent of my money to charity…
Point being, Hank, I don’t think I’d be a particularly good or generous billionaire, but one thing I wouldn’t do is spend a gajillion dollars developing a Batmobile that only I am allowed to drive.
This is actually not an awful argument on the face of it. I mean, assuming that before Batman showed up the only criminals in Gotham were for the most part regular people instead of psychos like the Joker or Killer Croc, that city could do with a lot of charity work. However, some things to point out:
A) Almost every piece of Batman media I have ever seen, whether it be comic, animated series, live-action movie or video game, at least references Bruce Wayne’s charity work in some form or another. You could definitely argue that Batman doesn’t give enough to charity, but Green doesn’t do that. Which is a problem. One of the things I’ve had drilled into my head for every persuasive speech I’ve had to do for school is that you have got to acknowledge the opposition in some way, if only to refute it. This isn’t doing that at all. It’s ignoring anything that can be used as opposition.
B) This statement implies that he’s not talking about the Nolan movies. We don’t always get a good origin story for Batman’s car, but in Batman Begins we do, and we know that Bruce didn’t spend a gajillion dollars on it, because in that film the Batmobile was already built before Wayne returned to Gotham. He may have spent money upgrading it or painting it black, but he didn’t really develop it.
But like I said, it’s a fair enough point. It’s why I like shows like Justice League Unlimited and Batman: The Brave and the Bold for occasionally showing superheroes do something besides punching bad guys in the face. People with these privileges, gifts and abilities using them to help others is a great idea, and I’m sad it’s not as investigated more with this genre—
Look, Spider-Man got bitten by a radioactive spider. He has to be Spider-Man. He doesn’t have a choice, he can’t stop shooting webs so you might as well use that skill to aid the police.
…So let me get this straight: you’re saying that Batman shouldn’t fight crime but instead donate most of his money to charity, but because Spider-Man has powers, he has no choice but to punch bad guys in the face?
No, Peter Parker does not have the financial status to be able to give that much money to charity. But let’s look at his skill set—he’s an amazing scientist, is super strong and agile, and can travel around the city faster that an ordinary person. So why doesn’t he work the fire department? Or rebuilding places hit with disasters like tsunamis or hurricanes or earthquakes? I’m certain his skill set can be used in that regard. He definitely does have a choice.
And John Green’s assertion that if he were Bruce Wayne he’d give most of his money to charity opens all kinds of questions. Like, “Why doesn’t Spider-Man use his powers for disaster relief?” Or, “Why doesn’t Harry Potter use his magic to fix as many problems of the Muggle world as he can?” Or, “Why doesn’t Percy Jackson just go to places where there’s droughts and fix it?” And usually it wouldn’t be hard for writers to answer these questions, but they don’t always do that. Yet John Green applies this question specifically to Batman because his special privilege is money, as if money were the only solution to the problems of the world.
But Batman is just a rich guy with an affinity for bats who is playing out his insane fantasy of single-handedly ridding Gotham of crime; how is that heroic?
I’m tempted to just leave this quote from Batman: The Brave and the Bold : Someone’s gotta stand up to all this sin. But I also realize that it’s probably not enough. Please do enjoy that clip though.
Back on-topic, that is quite possibly one of the most simplistic character interpretation I’ve ever seen. I know that Batman’s often seen as a one-note character, and sometimes he’s written like that. And this idea that Batman is just a fantasy Bruce Wayne cooked up to make himself feel better, it isn’t new. The question of “Is Batman actually insane?” has been asked again and again. So no, this isn’t an original idea.
But the way the question is phrased… like I said, we can apply this to any character. “Harry Potter is just some nerdy kid who is playing out his crazy hope of standing up to an evil genocidal maniac who is nigh-unkillable; how is that heroic?”
Or, “Why do I care about Hamlet? He’s just some emo guy who plays out this elaborate plan of avenging his father’s death and might actually be insane?”
This level of scrutiny isn’t bad, but he’s applying it to just one character on the basis that he has money, so therefore he shouldn’t be a superhero. I’m not saying Bruce Wayne deserves to be uber-wealthy, more so than anyone else, fictional or otherwise. But that seems to be Green’s main accusation: he’s rich, so he should be doing more to help people.
[There’s also the question of whether not Batman works alone; yes, that’s the popular image of him, but in reality he’s got one of the largest extended “families” of any superhero. Check it out here. ]
Now Hank, I know what you’re saying: Iron Man. And fair enough, Tony Stark is a billionaire who could use his wealth a little bit better….But at least Iron Man has that weird bomb nuclear heart thing built with the token good and therefore doomed Arab guy. And he’s like, “Oh, I should use my nuclear heart for good.” It’s not much but it’s something!
Look guys, I’ve tried avoiding using gifs in this essay but…
THIS IS THE AUTHOR THAT IS “DAMN NEAR GENIUS” I SAY
You catch that? The reason Tony Stark doesn’t fall under these exact same criticisms, that he should be donating to charity instead of punching villains in the face, is because he’s got a “nuclear heart.”
Hey, you’re allowed to like Iron Man more than Batman. Plenty of people do, I’m sure. But the fact is, that argument makes no sense. If I’m trying my hardest, what I think Green’s saying is that once you have superpowers or bodily enhancement of any sort, you absolutely must become a superhero; if you just have money, then being a superhero means you’re indulging your fantasies (of being shot at, exploded, and having your friends and family targeted). Or something.
Also, slightly off-topic, I would argue that Catwoman, despite her jewelry-thieving, et cetera, is by almost any measure much more heroic than Batman.
…he doesn’t elaborate more than that, which is a shame because I’d really like to see how he argues that a person who steals from other people for a living is more heroic than Batman. I mean, if he argued that Barbara Gordon/Batgirl was more heroic than Batman, then yeah, I could definitely see that point and I’d be hard-pressed to come with any rational argument against it.
But Catwoman, more heroic? When she’s written at her best, she’s like the Han Solo of the cast; possibly more identifiable and charming than the main character, but not more heroic in any classic sense. At worst, she’s written just to be fanservice.
Crime is not actually caused by evil, it’s caused by systemic disenfranchisement and poverty and lack of access to job opportunities and education. And yet Batman goes on not funding police departments or schools or building low income housing but tearing up the infrastructure of the city he claims to love while fighting villains who are only powerful because that city is already so blighted and dysfunctional!
Oh Christ, okay… once again, this level of scrutiny and criticism is apparently not fair to aim at Spider-Man or Iron Man on the basis that their bodies are enhanced somehow. It’s aimed squarely at Batman, for whatever reason. If John Green applied this much criticism to every fictional hero, I wouldn’t have much to say here. But he explicitly has it out for Batman and excuses others on nonsensical grounds.
Never mind that in most adaptations the company Bruce Wayne runs, Wayne Tech, builds inventions that are used by everyone in the city to improve the quality of life, but since Bruce isn’t personally throwing money at those who need it he’s actually a monster who is an awful role model and we should all hate Batman along with John Green.
Also, why does no one ever call Batman out for devoting all of his resources to fighting crime in Gotham? When he could also be fighting, oh, I don’t know, global poverty or habitat destruction or climate change?
Why doesn’t the Wizarding World send some aurors to take care of world dictators? Why doesn’t Tony Stark fix the energy crisis? Why doesn’t Spider-Man mass produce his web shooters for more mundane uses? Why doesn’t that fictional character that everyone likes help my cause?!
Holy Father Francis, this guy’s like a broken record. And I know I sound like a scratched record too, but I can’t think of anything else to say because most of what Green is saying boils down to the same point: that this fictional character isn’t solving the world problems he wants him to.
But Hank, the question at the core of the Batman story still bothers me: why do we celebrate the vigilantic ambitions of individual billionaires? Surely we understand that the real work among humans is done not in isolation, but in collaboration. We do understand that, right?
As I’ve said above, Batman is usually not alone. Yeah, he’s often painted that way, but he’s far from it.
But even if we carry on with the idea that Batman is not alone, the fact remains that he’s not exactly the only one. The idea of the loner hero is one that’s got a significant amount of history in fiction. It’s one that sticks—the man or woman who has built up his or her own status by him or herself. And even if it’s unrealistic, it’s an image that’s stuck in our minds, far beyond the American icon of Batman.
And to see this criticism from an author whose own crowning achievement is a novel about two teenagers with cancer who think that they’re better than everyone else around them… well, you know. Pot calling kettle black and all.
This entire thing reminded me of an article about an article about Frozen that Lindsey Ellis/Nostalgia Chick wrote. The original article claimed that the film was un-feminist by virtue of it having its female leads being flawed, which Ellis made a point to refute thoroughly. Towards the end of her response, Ellis said this:
The era of Tumblr has brought social justice to the masses, but it has also ushered in a tendency for people to appropriate communications theories to justify why they didn’t like some Disney movie. It’s no longer “I didn’t like it”, it’s “it was a failure of [progressive thing]”, and all too often, as in the case with this article, the reasoning is just absurd.
And that’s pretty much what John Green did here. He could have easily said, “I don’t like Batman” for good reasons or no reason at all. You’re allowed to do that. Instead, he has to come up with an ideological reason for why he hates Batman which bends any sort of logic or rhetorical sense, so that he can preach about how we should all be working together. It’s not a bad message, mind you, but you don’t need to do a faux-analysis of a pop culture icon to do it.
This is the problem with people who take “Death of the Author” too seriously. Too often it turns into twisting things to make sure they fit the reader/analyst’s point of view, regardless of whether or not it’s true to what is actually on page/screen. And now everyone’s doing it, including best-selling authors/leaders of Internet nerd movements.
I need a freaking drink.