Chapter 10: Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Toys?

This week's article isn't so much a vote for Batman as it is a vote against Cyborg. Almost without exception, everyone who emailed me begged me not to bother with Cyborg, it being, as one person put it, "the obvious choice, but... also a horrible movie." I also opted to pass over Cherry 2000 because in many ways it's a similar movie to Cyborg.

I would probably have chosen Batman on my own all the same, because I truly believe (as I did with Predator last week), that it's a fine example of distilled Cyberpunk. To be certain, Batman doesn't have a chrome arm or matte black mirrorshades or ripper claws. But Cyberpunk, at its center, isn't about the metal; it's about the man (or woman) beneath it all, and how he fits in with an increasingly corporate, increasingly dark, increasingly technological world that's trying to swallow him alive.

Batman is best introduced in comparison to Superman. Superman's Metropolis is all steel and glass, a bright, shiny canyon of white light and sunshine amidst which the bright, red-caped, heroic Man of Steel can swoop down to rescue the good. Batman is the antithesis of Superman. He is shadow, he is darkness, he is anti-hero. His realm is Gotham City, a world of shadow and bizarre architecture, of criminals and corporate greed, where the sun never shines and justice is determined by who's on which end of the gun barrel. The Batman script brings us home immediately:


        Gotham City.  The City of Tomorrow:  stark angles,
        creeping shadows, dense, crowded, as if hell had erupted
        through the sidewalks.  A dangling fat moon shines

Immediately thereafter, we are given a crash course in the way things work in Gotham City. It's a Cyberpunk scenario from start to finish: Cops and Fixers, Hookers and Thieves. And amidst it all, a man and his family are mugged in a street alley by thugs. But the police don't come to help. Superman doesn't swoop down to carry the punks off to jail. This is the world of shadow, the realm of the bat.

        A darkly ornate Gothic anomaly:  old City Cathedral, once
        grand, long since boarded up.

        STONE GARGOYLES gaze down from their shadowy rooftops.

        Mom's SCREAM (uninterrupted from the previous scene)
        ECHOES up.  And one of the GARGOYLES MOVES.

The "gargoyle" is, of course, Batman himself, the God of the night in this Nietzschean wonderland, a world where religion itself has been boarded up and pushed aside, where the most powerful corporations and criminals run the city by night, where it takes vigilante justice to solve problems. The two punks who've mugged the man and his family fire wildly when they see Batman appear from the shadows, but the bullets can't harm him; his body armor protects him, just like his high-tech gadgetry helps him dispatch them. No witty banter, no calls for justice. Just ass-kicking. Punk against punk. And check this out--in the script, but not in the movie:

        (Nick) looks up.  And sees, in the mirrored lenses where
        Batman's eyes should be, the twin reflections of his own
        stricken face.

Compare to our favorite Cyberpunk anti-heroine, Molly from Neuromancer:

She shook her head. He realized that the glasses were surgically
inset, sealing her sockets. The silver lenses seemed to grow from
smooth pale skin above her cheekbones, framed by dark hair cut
in a rough shag.

...She wore tight black glove leather jeans and a bulky black
jacket cut from some matte fabric that seemed to absorb light.

...She held out her hands, palms up, the white fingers slightly
spread, and with a barely audible click, ten double-edged, four
centimeter scalpel blades slid from their housings beneath the
burgundy nails.

The nails, of course, will ring more of a bell if you saw Batman Returns; specifically, the Catwoman, whose deadly nails are an obvious homage to Gibson. But the mirrored eyes, the black clothing, the cloak of shadow that the Cyberpunk anti-hero cloaks himself in for protection, they're precisely what Batman uses to do battle.

But I digress. Batman, of course, leaves the punks behind and vanishes into the night, and we're introduced to a little bit of Gotham's setting and Gotham's new District Attorney, Harvey Dent. Unlike the police, who are evidently helpless to control the wave of crime that's overrun the city, Dent gets right to the root of the problem, elevating this above the level of the street and giving us another hint that this is not just another superhero story. Dent indicates that he's talked with Commissioner Gordon:

                  He is targeting businesses
                  suspected of fronting for the
                  syndicate in this city.  Within
                  one week we'll knock down their
                  doors and shed the light of the
                  law on that nest of vipers.

This isn't Superman versus Lex Luthor, Hero versus Supervillain. This is about corporation versus corporation, about the Wayne Foundation and Gotham City, Inc. versus the corporations and businesses that are supporting the crime syndicate in the city (Robocop, anyone?). The fact that there's a "giant bat" running around the city is a sidenote to these people. The police don't believe it, and don't much care, because if he's taking care of criminals, then what's the problem? The media, however, cares quite a bit, and Alexander Knox and Vicki Vale are all over the story, ready to win a Pulitzer for getting the dirt on Batman into black and white.

Of course, we already know that this isn't a world of black and white, but shades of grey, and it becomes even more clear when we finally meet the "bad guys", in the guise of Jack Napier (aka the Joker, but not yet) and Carl Grissom. We learn that some of the police are on the payroll, and we learn that Jack is sleeping around with Carl's woman, and we learn that Grissom knows this and is, in turn, backstabbing Jack. And of course, it all comes to a head when Jack is asked to check something out at one of the "corporation's" companies, Axis Chemicals.


        From the SIGN we PAN TO a METAL SLUICE GATE -- dumping
        TONS of CHURNING TOXIC SLUDGE into Gotham's East River.

Before we get to the big brawl, however, we learn a lot about Bruce Wayne himself at a party he's hosting at his mansion. First of all, Mr. Wayne wields a tremendous amount of power in the city (in more ways than one). And secondly, we learn that he's a collector of exotic weapons and armor, as Knox and Vicki discover when they wander around his home. And of course, in another nod to all things Cyberpunk, the one weapon amongst the thousands that becomes a topic for conversation is...

                         (pointing to
                          a sword)
                  Where'd this come from?

                  It's Japanese.

                  How do you know?

                  Because I got it in Japan.

The other interesting theme that recurs in Batman is the notion of eyes, mirrors, and hiding the former behind the latter. We've already seen the script allude to Batman's own mirrorshades (obviously absent in the film), but the mirror theme continues in Wayne Manor:

        And indeed, the two of them are standing before an
        enormous WALL MIRROR, eight feet wide, running from
        floor to ceiling.


        LOOKING DOWN ON Knox and Vicki THROUGH one-way glass.
        Behind the mirror... recording everything that happens in
        the room... is a small, silent, state-of-the-art SURVEIL-


        showing KNOX and VICKI in the library.  The screen we're
        watching is only one in a whole vast bank of video mon-
        itors -- a control center showing everything that happens
        in the house.  The background is blurry, indistinct... but
        we seem to be in the midst of a vast, dark CAVE.

Of course, we already know that Bruce Wayne is Batman, and that beneath his mansion is his Bat Cave, but for the purposes of the film the discovery process is still intriguing. And it occurs to me that Bruce Wayne is not just another 35-year-old playboy millionaire running a corporation. He's the Cyberpunk who "wins". Think about that for a second. You've got your solos and gutterpunks and ravers and fixers all scrounging about on the street, and your corporates and medias and netrunners doing battle from behind their desks, but the one thing they all want is to win the game. And Bruce won, big. He's the solo who's retired from warfare, the guy who's gone on enough runs and private missions to retire, invest his money and start his own business. Bruce is what happens when your solo actually survives past the age of 25, when your nomad doesn't wind up in a body bag but instead lives to settle down at last. He's the punk who can now afford the cyber, and while he may not have metal skin, robotic eyes and neuralware, he's certainly got the high-tech toys that most punks would drool over.

And he gets to put some of those toys to work as he bolts out the door towards Axis Chemicals, having overseen the Commissioner talking about something going down there. After the obligatory gun battle, during which Batman proves his relative invulnerability to ordinary weapons, Jack winds up dangling above a vat of toxic sludge, and although Batman does his best to save Jack from falling, the criminal slips away and falls into the muck.

Of course, if he were to die this would be a really short film. Instead, Jack lives, manages (somehow) to pull himself out of the sludge and crawl into a back alley to a ripperdoc, where his mangled face is put back together (mostly). For Jack, the horrible smile he's now forced to wear due to nerve damage (much like Case's nerves are damaged in Neuromancer, albeit differently) is just too much, driving him into insanity... or perhaps it's not so much insanity as it is freedom. In the same way as Bruce's riches have given him the freedom to be Batman, Jack's death has given him the freedom to be someone else too--the Joker.

The important thing to keep in mind here, and throughout, is that just like in Cyberpunk fiction, the central characters here are not superhuman. To be sure, Batman and the Joker both whip out an impressive array of techie toys and chemical gadgets, but underneath their respective shells is nothing but two ordinary men. And so as the Joker rises through the ranks of the corporation that tried to off him, killing Grissom and then his cronies, we don't see a Terminator or a Cyberpsycho or a Replicant doing the damage--we see the flipside of Bruce Wayne, a corporate drone (albeit a criminal one) who was doublecrossed by his corporation and sent to his death (sound familiar, all you corporate soldiers?) but who managed to survive, albeit barely. He's human, all too human. And he's in charge now, doing business his way:


        LOW ANGLE ON the JOKER.  He rushes along a catwalk high
        above the refinery floor.  He passes a COUPLE OF UGLY,
        CRIMINALLY-MINDED SCIENTISTS in white coats, holding
        sheets of calculations.

                         (SHOUTING over the
                  Have we shipped a million of these

                  Yes SIR!

This is corporate warfare, through and through. It's the Joker's corporation (which runs the crime syndicate, Axis Chemicals and, we can gather, quite a lot more) versus the city, and the Wayne Corporation. It's resources against resources, mind against mind, not laser eye rays versus invulnerable regeneration powers. This is no superhero movie. This becomes even more clear when we first see exactly how the Joker is going about waging his corporate war. He's not sending armies onto the streets, or planting bombs in subways. He's mixing chemicals, and poisoning people via their pharmaceuticals and beauty care products. The ultimate way for a corporation to wage war on a populace.


        DELIVERY TRUCKS, bearing colorful manufacturers' logos,
        drive through the city bringing tainted products to

                                JOKER (V.O.)
                  I know what you're saying.  Where
                  can I buy these fine new items?
                  -- Well, that's the deal, folks,
                  chances are... you've bought 'em

Of course, the media (as prevalent in this movie as they are in other core Cyberpunk films, such as Max Headroom and Robocop) are all over it, which is how Bruce Wayne finds out about the problem. As people all over the city stop using all beauty care products, Bruce goes into action, purchasing products and doing chemical analysis on them to try to find a solution. In the interim, of course, he has to deal with the Joker on a more personal level, since the purple monster is muscling in on his new girlfriend, Vicki Vale.

One of the topics that comes up as the Joker and Vicki sit and "chat" in an art museum is Vicki's photographs of the Corto Maltese conflict. The interesting thing about it is that although it has no impact whatsoever on the overall plot, it's mentioned no fewer than four times in the script:

                  Actually I've been in Corto

        She pulls out a sheet of COMBAT PHOTOS -- exploding Jeeps,
        burning huts, bodies in piles.  A bloody revolution.


                  I've seen your photographs from
                  Corto Maltese -- You've got an
                  extraordinary eye.


                  Isn't that a little light after a
                  war in Corto Maltese?


                  Crap.  Crap.  Crap, crap, craaap
                  ... Ahhh.  Now here's good work.

        The COMBAT PHOTOS from Corto Maltese.

                  The skulls.  The bodies.  You give
                  it all such a glow.

It doesn't take too much of a stretch of the imagination to see this as a corporate war, the same sort of conflict that was a minor plot point in Neuromancer (remember all that stuff about Armitage/Corto and Screaming Fist and Siberia?) In short, it's not important; but the fact that it's here lends credence to my hypothesis that this is a decidedly Cyberpunk film, under the surface. Oh, and there is the fact that the name "Corto" is used. If that's not a nod to Gibson, I don't know what is.

But back to the present; Batman swoops in and saves Vicki from the Joker's clutches, and the duo scurry off into the night in the high-tech Batmobile, the sort of machine the Deliverator (from Stephenson's Snow Crash) would kill to get his hands on. It's a cyberpunk's wet dream. Note the shields, in particular:

        With a series of CLANGS, CHROME-STEEL PLATES slide into
        place -- across the cockpit, over the tires -- leaving
        the BATMOBILE an inert, impenetrable BLOCK OF BLACK

Black chrome, eh?

But I digress. Batman and Vicki flee into an alley to escape the Joker's goons, but ultimately Batman has to fight his way out of it. Which is the first time that we see the script allude to Batman's actually killing people who are after him. This is certainly no superhero, nor even a hero; Batman is anti-heroic through and through, a dark, shadowy neuromantic vigilante who runs when he can and kills when he must:

        and yanks him DIRECTLY INTO THE LINE OF FIRE.  GOON II
        has PULLED THE TRIGGER TWICE before he knows what's

        In one fluid motion Bruce HEAVES GOON I's lifeless body
        THROUGH THE AIR, knocking GOON II backward over a garbage
        can.  GOON II falls and CRACKS HIS HEAD on the nearest

        GOON III takes a rabbit punch to the throat.  On the way
        down he catches a STEEL-TOED BOOT in the gut.

        Four seconds after all this began, Batman is alone in the
        alleyway with GOON IV.

Having kicked ass and taken names, Batman then proceeds to take Vicki back to the Batcave, where he presents her with some documents detailing the Joker's chemical scheme, and how to thwart it. Since she's dangerously close to discovering his true identity as well, he also takes some film from her... although the very next day we find him at her apartment (as Bruce), planning to confess. Before he gets a chance, of course, the Joker intrudes, shooting Bruce in the chest; only a small silver tray from the mantlepiece acting as an impromptu bulletproof vest saves him from death.

Here is where it all starts to unravel (or ravel, as the case may be). As Bruce discovers who the Joker is--the man who killed his parents 20 years earlier--Vicki discovers who Bruce is (after Alfred lets her into the Batcave. And of course, this leads to the inevitable confrontation which we find in Cyberpunk fiction, between man and woman, on the verge of considering a relationship, and realizing it can't work out. There's Case and Molly, Johnny and Molly (Molly gets around, doesn't she?), Deckard and Rachael, Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, and on and on.

                  It doesn't have to be a perfect
                  world.  I've just got to know if
                  we're gonna try to love each

        Bruce stops and looks at her.  Vicki at him.  He can't

                  He's out there tonight, and now I
                  gotta go to work.

        Bruce DISAPPEARS into the dark.

Where he's going, of course, is to battle the Joker, taking his spiffy Batwing aircraft to do so. Which lends itself to yet another comparison. Consider:

        THE BATWING!  A phenomenal ULTRALIGHT AIRCRAFT, swift and
        sleek, it slices through the night, carrying its pilot on
        a final mission of mercy -- and vengeance.


"...The prototypes of the programs you use to crack industrial banks
were developed for Screaming Fist. For the assault on the Kirensk
computer nexus. Basic module was a Nightwing micro light, a pilot, a
matrix deck, a jockey...."

The first, of course, is from Batman; the second, from Neuromancer. Batman, like Armitage, is now waging his own personal "Corto" on the Joker, his own corporate war taking on his opponent. The battle of the wills is over; now it's down to brass tacks and bullets. Ultimately, after a battle with balloons, poison gas, extremely large pistols and falling church bells, Batman, the Joker and Vicki all wind up atop the same building that we saw when we began the film, the abandoned Gotham Cathedral. The endgame is wonderfully done, with lots of tongue-in-cheek humor, slapstick brawling and the obligatory "dangling-in-midair" scene, but of course Batman and Vicki survive, and the Joker falls to his death.

In the end, the dark vigilante does wind up working for the police in a way, by giving them a Bat Signal so they can contact him if the city ever falls sway to villains again. We know it will, of course. We also know that Vicki and Bruce will break up, that Wayne's days as a retired recluse millionaire are over, that Batman will soon become Bruce's obsession, his focus, the tech toys absorbing the man inside, the rich tycoon vanishing beneath the cowl of the bat. No matter which version of the Batman myth you follow, there's not a lot of happiness to come. Robin teams up with him, then gets killed. Batman battles Superman to the death in his old age, this time suited up in cybernetic body armor. Gotham is swallowed by an earthquake, abandoned by the government because it would cost too much to fix the place up. And so on. The shadows occasionally lighten, but the darkness never goes away.

So, is Batman "Cyberpunk?" Yes and no. Certainly, it lacks a bunch of cyborgs wandering around, and it lacks the computer hackers scurrying around in cyberspace, and it lacks a group of punks fighting back against an evil corporation. But who ever said that those things were Cyberpunk? I've always asserted that what really matters are the deeper themes prevalent in the work, and even if we set aside the many obvious references to Cyberpunk themes (chrome, mirrorshades, corporate warfare, etc), the overall theme of man versus machine holds. Bruce Wayne is our anti-hero, our punk, a street rat orphan who just so happened to inherit a ton of money, the neuromantic protagonist who battled his way up from the streets to wealth, and who, in the guise of Batman, is now taking the war back to the streets. It's a story about a man losing his humanity to his imposing tech toys, about a guy slowly wrapping himself so deep in his body armor and vendetta that he's becoming nothing more than the criminals he battles on the streets. On a larger scale, it's about corporations battling for control of Gotham City, Wayne Manor and City Hall on one end, Axis Chemicals and the criminals on the other end.

Sure, we can call Batman a hero. But that's only because he works for the same corporation that we work for. From the other side of the fence, he's just another shade of grey. Or chrome, as the case may be.

The 1980s have come to a close, and we enter the '90s with a bang, and with some pretty difficult choices. There are at least four movies I could cover, and I'd love to hear which one you'd most like to see discussed here. There's the underrated Hardware, Arnold's reappearance in Total Recall, the strange suburban gothic Edward Scissorhands and the brilliant Luc Besson film, La Femme Nikita. Give me a yell, or give me hell--but either way, let me know what you think.