The last academic writing I did was on Shakespeare’s use and treatment of violence in his Roman plays. The bard was able to juxtapose violence with rhetoric very effectively in a number of situations. The two scenes which I found most effective were the assassination of Julius Caesar and the duel between Coriolanus and Aufidious. In both scenes, the manner of the violence reveals as much or more about the participants than the surrounding and encapsulating dialogue, and indeed there is a curious tension at moments between the two.
In Julius Caesar, violence can be read as a failure to communicate. Brutus is forced to kill Caesar because that is the only avenue he perceives for keeping the Roman Republic intact. There is no realistic ability to negotiate, because the participants of the dialogue cannot honestly engage. Brutus could ask Caesar if he planned to be Emperor, but Caesar would be bound to say no whatever his intentions, and so there is no lagrange point in a dialogue about which an argument could pivot for dissuading him if that were his intention.
In Coriolanus, violence is a substitute for communication. Coriolanus is so entrenched in the martial mode that he cannot effectively communicate any other way. His duel with Aufidius late in Act 1 is the only genuine or intimate moment for him in the play, and his death at Audifius’ hands at the close of the play is the consummation of the only real relationship he has.
All I really mean to show by these examples is that violence has a proper place and are a useful tool in storytelling; these kinds of scenes have been lurking close to my fore-brain while I’ve been re-reading the Ultimate X-Men and sundry other comics, and indeed, watching comic adaptations recently. The fact that Brutus and Coriolanus mediate their relationships through violence explain key limitations and perspectives of those characters. Is this a criterion that could tell us something useful about a super hero?
I think that by-and-large, superheroes do rely in violence as a primary tool for mediating their relationship to the outside world. Examples are commonplace, but one particular example that springs to mind was an episode of Justice League, where Wonder Woman and Superman are in a shopping mall, and both are under a spell which makes the other look like a monster. Instantly, they assume that the monster they see is responsible for causing their companion to disappear and they destroy the mall in a pointless fight – just as the villains intended. Superman and Wonder Woman: violence as the first resort.
For both Brutus and Coriolanus, their inability to have normally mediated relationships could be described as their tragic flaw. Both are out manoeuvred by far more eloquent characters. In the logic of the drama, talking defeats fighting. But this is far from the case in the hyper-violent world of the superhero, where a hero might outwit his opponents on several levels, but he must also ultimately and primarily defeat him in combat. The outwitting usually takes the form of a tactical advantage in the final encounter, Anthony’s rhetorical address completely redefines the scope and arena of the conflict with Brutus.
Now, the common argument against comics runs exactly on these rails: the prevalence, prominence and success of violence imply a world view where this is appropriate. It is not so much the violence itself which is problematic, but its position as a successful resolution strategy. Not surprisingly, authors in the superhero genre are cognizant of it, and it is actually used not-infrequently inside the fiction as a source of friction between mortals and superheroes: this is one of the main themes of both series of Justice League: Unlimited.
We need to pursue two lines of inquiry in relation to this. To what extent are alternatives to violence explored and dismissed? To what extent are the negative outcomes of violence explored? I think these two inquiries can give you some kind of handle on whether a comic has depth, or is essentially a kind of exploitation outing.
Looking at, say, Ultimate X-men, there is a heavy textual interest in whether there are alternatives to violent confrontation, but these tend to be shallow. Generally the option arises to either simply exercise violence or not, and the alternative is chosen along with a pithy interjection about the post-human values. However, the resolution it itself usually still a power-based fiat, rather than a negotiated solution. Rarely are the underlying issues addressed in any significant way. In other words, it is non-violence for the sake of non-violence, and so is not structurally more satisfactory.
Perhaps the most interesting comics to review in this kind of paradigm are The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, because both are extremely subversive in their politics. Watchmen in particular posits a world in which there is a kind of fragile stability underpinned by the absence of violence on a global scale due to MAD. In his scheme to save the world, Ozymandias makes the compelling argument that while it is peaceful, this stalemate is in effect guaranteeing that the destruction will take place. It is through an act of extreme violence that he reignites a genuine global dialogue which can actually begin to resolve differences. Catharsis on a global scale.
Reading Snyder’s almost pornographic interest in the gory result of violence would in my paradigm seem initially to deepen its meaning; whereas I think in fact the opposite is true, because it actually seems to impart some kind of meaning or result to the violence which in the comic is actually symbolic of futility. However, I do think those people who complained about the lack of emotion in the film missed that as a crucial element of the problems of the main characters in the comic.
If we take a step away from individual episodes and even serials or comic lines, we can see that however successful violence may be in the short term, virtually no line of comics endorses violence as a long term solution to the problems of its characters. In the hundreds of iterations of Batman, while he can endlessly defeat the Joker in battle after battle, in puzzle after puzzle, the essential problem of the Joker remains unresolved. The failure of the scenario is not in presenting violence as a solution, because it is clearly not, but in failing to present an alternative.
Which is what is so deeply subversive about The Dark Knight Returns, because it posits that the fundamental underpinning of society is violence and the willingness to use it for the public interest.
All of this culminates with Nolan’s The Dark Knight as probably the most deeply aware superhero film, and certainly amongst the most conscious of all superhero productions. The Joker challenges Batman in what are quickly shown to be a series of philosophical and rhetorical arguments, often shown through the prism of violence. The Joker’s entire existence is predicated on the concept that violence is the inherent mode of human relationships, and so the only resolution that should be available to Batman is to kill the Joker. Batman’s moral code stands in contrast, just as Batman himself develops an awareness, hinted at in the first film, that it is the fundamental code of his society which needs to be altered rather than simply resolving criminal acts. Batman’s own flight at the end of the film as a wanted fugitive represents the Joker’s real victory in forcing Batman to conform to the Joker’s paradigm: it is only as an affliction to the city that he can exist, only through fear can he be effective.