Saturday, June 5, 2010

Abdication of Personal Responsibility - Two Case Studies (Two-Face and The Riddler)

This started out as a comment on my last post, and before long I realized I had something to say, but I didn’t want to take a lot of time on it. So here, in very rough form, written and read over just once, then shot out onto your computer screen, is everything I want to get out at the moment about my two favorite Batman villains.

I’ve mentioned that I don’t care for the interpretation that Two-Face is a multiple personality, as in the Dini/Timm animated show – Harvey Dent vs. “Big Bad Harv.” This isn’t because I think it’s terrible or anything, it’s entirely a matter of there being a far more interesting way of looking at Two-Face.

The brilliant thing about Two-Face – not “brilliant” as in, “Hey, that’s pretty cool,” but rather “Seriously you guys, do not tell me that 1940s comics weren’t capable of sophistication, because listen to this” – is that he was a lawyer. The law, being what it is, is a very long, messy process of deliberation, and Dent has replaced it with the instant gratification of the coin flip.

And it’s very important that he was district attorney, and not a defense attorney. Because imagine you’ve got to prosecute criminals in Gotham City. Gotham City! Not an enviable task! You have to make a lot of tough choices, wade through some really murky gray areas. I’m sure it’s the sort of thing where you have to make decisions that feel terrible and are terrible, but that you’re banking on serving the greater good in the long, long run. That’s going to really wind a dude up.

And now imagine that your reward for all that hard work, all those carefully weighed decisions and master plans, is that some uppity gangster throws a bottle of acid at you in court and ruins your perfect face.

Screw that, man, from now on I’m just going to make all my decisions with a coin toss!

What a relief it must be! Surely there’s a part of him thinking, “If only I wouldn’t have prosecuted that guy, if only I’d made sure they checked him more thoroughly, if only I’d decided to skip out on court and stay in bed or go fishing, this would never have happened.” I’m sure we can all relate to something like that, albeit less sensationally. Even when something’s “not your fault,” even if you’re the perfect innocent victim, something in your decision making process led you to a place where you became the victim. Anything bad that happens to you is, from a certain point of view, your own damn fault, no matter how unfair that may be.

But not with the coin. Nothing’s ever Harvey’s fault anymore. Caught by Batman? Mob takeover bid ruined? Hey, that’s on the silver dollar, man, not him! Neither luck nor the criminal justice system are perfect or even always fair, but at least the coin gives you a black-and-white answer with no fuss. I like to imagine DA Harvey Dent as a guy on the verge of a nervous breakdown before the incident, and that he doesn’t quite see why everyone calls him crazy for developing this great new therapy he’s found that really does make him feel so much better about everything!

But of course, that’s not a healthy way to deal with stress – he’s just abdicating personal responsibility for decision making and handing it to a coin. Which brings me, I think, to the Riddler.

So Riddler’s deal is he leaves clues at the scene of his crimes, and the reasonable enough question to ask is why a criminal would want to do this. One school of thought says that he’s less interested in crime than he is at challenging Batman, and so the riddles are an element of the “game” he’s playing. Another interpretation is that it’s a compulsion or “mental block” – that he couldn’t commit a crime without leaving a clue.

My own personal spin I’d run with, if I were given the opportunity, (and I bring this up a lot because it's my pet theory, so if you know me and I’ve already told you this a dozen times, I’m sorry,) is that the riddles serve to undermine Batman. Batman’s the world’s greatest detective, and the Riddler tries to assert superiority by condescending to him, by leaving him – let’s face it – fairly obvious clues. The mental whammy this puts on Batman is that he has to ask himself, would he be able to catch the Riddler if he didn’t leave clues? Or (he wonders, paranoid), what if the Riddler has been committing secret sideline crimes for years without leaving clues, and Batman has never found out about them?

And yet, it occurs to me now, this intrepretation might betray some insecurity on the Riddler’s part. Because what if the Riddler didn’t leave a clue … and Batman caught him anyway? Holy crap, that’d pretty much be the end of the Riddler, wouldn’t it? It’d prove that Batman really is smarter than him, and that’d be enough to make him hang up both the dapper three-piece suit and the spandex bodysuit for good, right?

So maybe those riddles have become to him what the coin is to Two-Face – a way to abdicate responsibility for his actions. So long as the Riddler leaves a clue, it’s not his fault when he’s caught. And so in this way, it does become a compulsion of sorts. But rather than the twisted pathology of a criminal genius, it’s a hedge so that he doesn’t have to face the sobering possibility that maybe he’s not as smart as he thought he was.

So I don’t know what the significance is that my own little personal interpretations of these characters are linked in this way – two guys trying to shirk their responsibility in the nuttiest, most desperate ways. But it gave me something to think about and, perhaps, you as well.*

(* - Unless, of course, you think there is a flaw in my reasoning, or even that “my” Two-Face and Riddler are just total crap ways of looking at the characters. I did ask my wife for her somewhat-outsider guess about why the Riddler leaves clues, and she said she just figures Riddler likes to be caught (a bit of pervy-ness was implied). Which is elegant and simple and sad and compelling in its own way, really.)