June 17, 2005

THERE'S ONLY ONE STORY:

Cosmic Struggles of Cultural Proportions (CARYN JAMES, 6/17/05, NY Times)

LIFE is complicated enough without having to keep track of "Star Wars" mythology, in its infinite nerdiness, or the history of Batman. (Now he's campy, now he's not.) But the darkly psychological "Batman Begins" is a summer fantasy film for people who don't like summer fantasy films, and "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" - well, what can you say except at least it has an idea in its head.

Both films concern how heroes and villains take shape, and they include astonishingly similar transformation scenes that hinge on a life-changing moral question: to behead or not to behead?

In "Batman Begins," Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is urged by his mysterious mentor - part spiritual adviser, part ninja master - to behead an enemy who is at his mercy. When Bruce refuses, he is on his way to becoming the heroic Batman, complete with a black mask and cape.

In "Revenge of the Sith," Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is urged by his mysterious mentor to chop off the head of his enemy, Count Chocula - sorry, that's Count Dooku - and does. That is his crucial turn toward the dark side, and soon he's the villainous Darth Vader, complete with a black mask and cape to call his own.

The films' conflicts are not simply about good guys and bad guys, or even good versus evil, always the elements of broadly framed fantasies. With spiritual overtones, and an emphasis on an eternal struggle between equally matched forces of darkness and light, the films suggest a kind of pop-culture Manichaeism. And as crowd-pleasing movies so often do, they reflect what's in the air, a climate in which the president speaks in terms of good and evil, and religion is increasingly part of the country's social and political conversation.

There are similar Manichaean echoes in lesser-known movies that have come and gone (the recent Keanu Reeves disaster "Constantine" ) or are coming up (an ambitious Russian fantasy trilogy that begins with "Night Watch"). But "Batman" and "Star Wars" reveal most clearly that the zeitgeist lurks in apparent summer fluff.

None of these quasi-spiritual films assume that some people are simply bad seeds. Their premise is that good and evil are warring in each of us, and that an individual must consciously choose darkness or light.


It is, of course, Christian rather than Manichean because good is always more powerful than evil. Indeed, the key to George Lucas's rather muddled theology comes when Obi Wan Kenobi tells Darth Vader--who turned to the Dark Side in search of power--that: "If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could ever imagine."

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 17, 2005 10:57 AM
Comments

Well Lucas has done his best with the prequels to make his myth Manichean - he's admitted to doing this on purpose. Though most Star Wars fans refuse to view the films through that filter.

Batman, however, especially Batman Begins is in no sense Manichean. Wayne's rejection of the League of Shadows and their philosophy of balance (reminiscent of the Jedi's "balance of the force") places the film strongly in the Christian mythic milieu. Goyer and Kane (who wrote BB) must have been heavily influenced by Chesterton, especially The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, or Jung's principal of synchronicity is truer than we know.

Also I don't think Caryn James really understands Manichaeism, though to be fair he (or she?) does refer to it as "pop" Manichaeism.

Posted by: Shelton at June 17, 2005 12:18 PM

Most refuse to view the first three period.

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2005 12:24 PM

I'll second Shelton. Batman Begins is a fantastic, and fantastically ethical movie. It's also a fantastically good movie, and should in no way be compared to EpIII. It's easily the best Batman movie ever--and maybe the best superhero movie every, too.

Posted by: Timothy at June 17, 2005 1:18 PM

The Star Wars prequels aren't Manichean because the end result does show good as more powerful than evil. True Manichaeism requires an evil that can never be vanquished, not just one that wins a few battles before being defeated.

Posted by: Brandon at June 17, 2005 1:18 PM

well, at the rick of sounding somewhat anti-intellectual, I would tend to agree with Fran Leibowitz who pointed out (paraphrasing) that it's not a good idea to take seriously any activity that involves the eating of Jujubees.

Posted by: JonofAtlanta at June 17, 2005 1:58 PM

ugh, 'risk'

Sorry, Rick!

Posted by: JonofAtlanta at June 17, 2005 2:01 PM

From IGN:

"I've noticed that in three particular summer releases Kingdom of Heaven, Batman Begins, and Sith the stories follow a young man who is driven by his own inner demons and personal tragedy to march off to war. In each film, the protagonist faces a moral choice where they can either fight for their own satisfaction (vengenace, anger, hate) or they can evolve and serve a more noble cause (fighting for the people, for an ideal greater than one's own self-interest). Two protagonists Kingdom's Balian and Batman's Bruce Wayne opt for the latter, while Anakin stays with the former motivation and is consumed and destroyed by it. Oh, and just to add to the juicy irony of it, all three protagonists were mentored by Liam Neeson! Food for thought."

I really enjoyed Batman Begins and will probably see it again in IMAX. Probably the best Batman movie although Spider-Man 2 still has it beat as the most excellent comic book adaptation yet.

"Wayne's rejection of the League of Shadows and their philosophy of balance (reminiscent of the Jedi's "balance of the force") places the film strongly in the Christian mythic milieu. Goyer and Kane (who wrote BB) must have been heavily influenced by Chesterton, especially The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, or Jung's principal of synchronicity is truer than we know."

The Jedis' concept of the balance related to how they believed the use of the Force for evil by the Sith was disrupting its' harmony. Anakin Skywalker was meant to restore balance by destroying the Sith, not annihilating the Jedi.

Goyer was simply picking up what has long since been established in the Batman comics: he doesn't kill because he'd be no better than his parents' mirderer and it would be contrary to everything his father taught him regarding the value of human life.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at June 17, 2005 2:57 PM

You all missed the point of the article, which is not a serious discussion of theology, but like everything in the NYTimes these days, is there to provide a convienent size stick with which to bash the President.

"eternal battle between good and evil is simple to translate, and its language is familiar from statements like this: "We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name." Those words weren't spoken on the planet Tatooine, but by President Bush at West Point in 2002 (considering the lag time of movies, practically yesterday). By now, whether the real-life rhetoric of good and evil reminds us of the movies, or the other way around, is probably impossible to guess."

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 17, 2005 2:59 PM

Anti-Bush addenda are so common in the liberal media they may as well be tuned out.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at June 17, 2005 3:18 PM

On the comments about Star Wars: Yes, episodes 4-6 are not Manichean but the prequels explicitly are. This supports my theory that Lucas did not write episodes 4-6, he must have stolen them from someone, whole cloth. The thematic differences between the two sets of films is so stark as to be more than opposite, and Lucas rejects the traditional interpretation of the original films in favor of the nihilistic, fatalistic dualism of the prequels. You've proven my point though in that fans refuse to see it that way (which may be a good thing).

Now:

Brandon: The bad guys win at the end of the prequels.

Ali: We can't really know what the Jedi thought since they were unsure of it themselves, but if your interpretation is correct then the Jedi were stupid and wrong and they were crushed by the very force they worshipped as it sought to balance itself in spite of the wishes of Jedi and Sith.

JonofAtlanta I only take seriously activities that allow the eating of candy, though I prefer good'n'plenty to jujubees.

Posted by: Shelton at June 17, 2005 3:44 PM

Temporary victory, Shelton.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at June 17, 2005 5:01 PM

Myth, fantasy and hope notwithstanding, Good and Evil are evenly matched. "Good always wins" only if one defines victory as good.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 17, 2005 6:18 PM

No, if one defines the victory of good as good.

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2005 6:23 PM

Can't argue with that formulation, oj, but the outcome of the battle is unknowable to we mortals. All we can ever do is our best, and that may not be good enough.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 17, 2005 9:20 PM

Sure it is, the problem is we don't.

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2005 9:34 PM

Ali: The anti-administration coda is not an obligitaory bow to piety. It is their raison d'etre.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 18, 2005 12:01 AM

The good win because the evil eat their young.

Posted by: Randall Voth at June 18, 2005 7:15 AM

This theology of wimps foisted on us by the likes of Lucas and the morons who used their Crayolas to write the new Batman movie will undermine our country. If we cannot punish wrongdoing with the ultimate sanction, then anything goes.

Posted by: bart at June 18, 2005 11:04 AM

Well said, Bart. So I can mark you down in support of the Death to Child Pornographers Act, no?

Posted by: joe shropshire at June 18, 2005 2:46 PM
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