The idea of one individual committed to the eradication of evil has a long and noble lineage. Sir Galahad rescuing the damsel in distress is an image that continues to inspire the imagination. What is truly surprising about the persistence of this idea or myth is the fact that evil in its various forms has continued to grow and almost envelop human existence. Perhaps because evil has increased, the notion that good will triumph over it, or that one individual can defeat it, has attracted people. There is no other explanation for the popularity of comic-strip characters like Phantom, Zorro, Superman and, of course, Batman. All these figures have made the transition from the printed pages of comic books to the big screen. Their appearance on the screen has added to their draw, and millions have willingly suspended their disbelief to see their hero or superhero battle evil. The phenomenal success of the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, provides another occasion to ponder the success of this genre. Is it all to do with hype? Or is there a sociological/cultural phenomenon that is worth noting?
The Dark Knight Rises is the third Batman movie in the series, but the craze around it outstrips the popularity of the first two films. Bruce Wayne, an ordinary man in one life, transforms himself into Batman when he encounters the challenge to counter evil. The very ordinariness of Wayne and the utter extraordinariness of Batman are an integral attraction of the storyline. Unlike Zorro, Batman has no aristocratic lineage. Zero tolerance on the streets of Gotham, Wayne/Batman’s town, has reduced the challenges before Batman. But there are subterranean currents that threaten to overwhelm the apparent peace in Gotham. At the centre of that underworld, Moriarty like, is Bane, a gas-masked revolutionary who styles himself “Gotham’s reckoning”. The battle lines are thus drawn: hero and villain; good and evil. The storyline is predictable, almost banal. But the attraction lies in the manner in which the action is grafted on to this to develop the plot. What attracts is not the plot but the unfolding of it. A different edge is provided by the rationale behind Bane’s call to action. He wants to rally those affected by the recession against those who have exploited them. Batman has to stop the ordinary man from being corrupted by such a message.
But there is something more, and the appeal of the film and the character, Batman, possibly lies there. In 2005, in Batman Begins, Wayne uttered the following words, “As a man, I can be ignored and destroyed, but as a symbol I can be incorruptible, everlasting.” Batman has become an icon. He is a presence even when he is not on the screen in his unmistakable costume. But what does Batman the icon represent? And why is it everlasting? The icon represents hope — a mysterious and bewildering emotion — that allows human beings in their quotidian to live, love and work in spite of the overwhelming presence of evil around them. That is what is everlasting.