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Teddy in tights?

July 27, 2008, 3:09 pm

As the premier Dark Knight poster ’round these parts, it has been demanded of, er, falls upon me to draw your attention to an interview with Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale in which the pair reveal their Batman is based on Edmund Morris’ The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex.* In the interview, Bale admits to confusion when the Nolans — brother Jonathan co-writes Christopher’s films — insisted he read The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt before they began principle photography on Batman Begins. Nolan then explains (and I paraphrase):

Batman’s not as unique as people think. Grant Bob Kane’s Gotham is New York and Batman has a direct historical precedent in Theodore Roosevelt. His father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., had been one of the city’s preeminent philanthropists — having found and funded the New York City Children’s Aid Society, the Met, and the American Museum of Natural History, to name a few of his charitable works — and died in a way Morris contends traumatized his son: suddenly, from a cancer whose existence he’d hidden, and mere hours before Theodore returned from Harvard. In 1884, his beloved mother and wife died in the same house, on the same day. A bereft Roosevelt set out for the Dakota Territory shortly thereafter. He spent his time in the hinterlands learning how to be a proper police, then applied those lessons when he became president of the New York City Police Commissioners in 1895. Like Batman, Roosevelt employed bleeding-edge technology into his crime-fighting: under his watch, telephones were installed in precincts, bicycles were deployed on beats, and various criminal identification systems, like Bertillonage, were monkeyed about with.

Nolan’s statement resonates with many a recent discussion about the Roosevelt’s legacy vis-a-vis the current administration. If Bush-is-Batman and Batman-is-Roosevelt, logic demands that middle be distributed and then it’s case closed, verdict delivered, suit settle, put a period on it already: Bush-is-as-Batman as Socrates-is-mortal.

The which-president-is-more-Airwolf-Batman debate aside, Nolan’s decision to craft Batman’s appeal after Roosevelt’s is ridiculously savvy, inasmuch as it speaks to that most cherished (if post-dated) primal American myths: self-invention. In Batman Begins, the young Bruce Wayne isn’t some spectacular physical specimen; in fact, he’s thin, fragile, and perpetually frightened. Nolan’s direction reinforces this: he’s either in tears, bed, or the bottom of a well in every shot. Even Bale’s adolescent Wayne, returned from school for Chill’s parole hearing, buries a wisp-thin frame beneath layers of clothes as if to prevent circumstance from buffeting his head into a doorknob. The first act of Batman Begins plays directly into the Roosevelt mystique, i.e. the frail boy who refines his body into a weapon. The first film ends, then, much where Morris’ Rise does: his reputation established, his name to be reckoned with, but his future uncertain. Where does this self-made man fit in the political machine in which he’ll have to function? What compromises must he make? What ideals must he betray in order to act upon?

I can’t do much in the way of answering these questions myself, as my copies of the Morris are at home, but I’d be curious to do a closer inspection of Theodore Rex alongside The Dark Knight, if only to ask questions like “What will be Batman’s San Juan Hill?” I’m not sure what I’m up to here, whether I’m following broad parallels between Roosevelt’s life and the Batman mythos, or more specific correspondences between Morris’ life of Roosevelt and Nolan’s films. The former would speak more to Batman’s cultural appeal, but the latter has the virtue of being, you know, doable.


*I’m not sure where I saw this interview. A quick search suggests I was watching Batman Unmasked: The Psychology of the Dark Knight on The History Channel, but that can’t be correct, as there ain’t no such beast where I’m at.

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