"Batman" - a story of Creation / Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue

Dublin Core


"Batman" - a story of Creation / Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue


anthropology of film


Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue s.357-360


Szpilka, Wiesław


Instytut Sztuki PAN




Licencja PIA











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t seems impossible to give a precise definition of mass
culture whose origin and scope continue to be di­
scussed1. Especially now, in the age of postmodern­
ism, books, films and music trends apparently intend to
intensify the distinction between mass and high culture.
Umberto Eco novels, David Lynch pictures, Sting music
are just some of the examples of this wide current. For­
tunately, some works can be easily classified and Tim
Burton’s Batman is among them. A perfect match for the
mass culture category this commercially successful film
was ranked third among the top-grossing American pic­
tures of 1989 and can be treated as a standard element
of a set, a representative of mass culture, as evidenced by
the mass audience, electronic media, plot, character pro­
file, and setting. Familiarity with all the qualities charac­
terising the film does not mean that their sense has been
exhausted. Watching events transpiring in Gotham
City one must admit that comments about a stereotypi­
cal plot, a black-and-white distribution of values, and
a lack of an in-depth psychological profile of the main
characters are apt. New solutions, original tricks, and
unfathomable situations are missing. Everyone under­
stands the screen goings-on and as demonstrated by the
box office viewers accept this straightforward form. The
interpretation of these obvious observations, however, is
far from evident and becomes such only if we accept the
unquestionable nature of common verdicts about mass
culture. In this light the discussed phenomenon can be
seen as a field dominated by trivial entertainment based
on stereotypes, banalities, and intellectual shortcuts
accessible to everyone because it is subject to the rule
of the lowest common denominator. Problems appear
only when we perceive that all the above qualities can
be evaluated in a number of ways. Amusement and en­
tertainment do not have to be associated with indolent
leisure. Ever since Huizinga’s Homo ludens at the latest
we know that ludic forms of man’s activity have a deeper
sense and that play and game possess surprising meanings2. Similarly, the importance of stereotypes, unambi­
guity, and the use of continually the same clichés cannot
be unambiguously prejudged. These traits are degrading
only when originality determines the significance of the
text. Cultures of the “ludic type”, however, attached
greatest value to a precise recreation of traditional pat­
terns. In realities of this kind efforts made to attain dura­
tion and repeatability were the most obvious technique
for accomplishing this state.3 Cultures representing the
discussed category showed little esteem for change and
innovation. One of the unquestionable successes of eth­
nography was demonstrating that, despite this attitude,
other people were capable of living just as successfully as
we do. In other words, otherness should not be in any
way associated with inferiority.
Mass culture is most frequently treated as a lower
form of elite culture and not as a separate and original
world. The history of ethnography shows how the life




B atm an

- a Story
of Creation

of the rural population, interpreted in a similar man­
ner, generated inappropriate convictions about its style
of thinking and experiencing. With all their differences
these distant worlds have certain common elements.
Being strata of the same Western culture and due to
geographic, historical, and emotional proximity they
seem to be easier to fathom. In both cases it is difficult
to maintain a distance important for their interpreta­
tion. The Poleszuk and Hutsul peoples or the Tatra Mts.
highlanders were once treated as “lesser brothers” but
not as residents of another continent. Similarly, sports
spectators, pop music fans and commercial cinema en­
thusiasts do not exist in a space of their own. This is
why the reality of people roaring at stadiums, whirling
in concert halls, or excitedly following the adventures of
Bond and Batman is not a goal in its own right but only
a means to comprehend such phenomena as manipula­
tion, mass communication, kitsch, and degradation of
high culture models. First and foremost, it is supposed
to justify an essentially ideological thesis: the common is
by its very nature inferior to the elitist, leading to highly
important social consequences.4
We shall assume that a portrait of this kind is just
one of possible depictions. A n effort aimed at a different
perspective will make it possible to treat mass culture
in the manner of ethnography, i.e. by keeping a certain
distance to our knowledge, predilections, and common
sense. Let this phenomenon manifest itself in the man­
ner of the culture of the Aboriginal Australians or the
Eskimos. Finally, we should also treat such culture with
the respect that we were able to muster for the others.
After this lengthy digression time to return to Bat­
man and begin by breaking down its plot into significant
components. Their formalisation will make it easier to
reveal mutually binding relations, and once they are put
back together - to emphasise the order of the whole sto­
ry and its goal. Only equipped with this knowledge shall
we be able to begin explaining its meaning.
The story of Batman starts with images of the city
of Gotham. From a distant perspective we see a shape
resembling a medieval stronghold rather than a modern

Wiesław Szpilka • B A T M A N - A STORY OF CREATION

metropolis, extracted from darkness by light. This wide
shot is once again used in the scene of Batman’s final
battle with the Joker in which Gotham City seems to be
placed between the sky and the earth, with a contour
similar to magic places from Disney films or tales about
the wizard of Oz. Gothic, fantastic architecture will con­
tinue to accompany particularly important events. Such
is the style of Batman’s palace, the Joker’s headquarters,
and the cathedral, where decisive confrontations take
place. We encounter, however, also a different picture
of the city, a realistic imitation of an American agglom­
eration with all its dilapidation and tacky glitter. In other
words, the whole film is set in two contradictory realms
- fairy-tale and realistic.
A similar opposition dominates the characters ap­
pearing in the story. On the one hand, there are por­
traits of average people: officials, thieves, policemen,
and journalists driven by everyday feelings of anger,
jealousy, greed, love, and curiosity. Their qualities have
a human dimension. The two lead protagonists are com­
pletely different, endowed with extraordinary talent and
superhuman power. They do not contest for the sake
of a concrete advantage but battle for the way in which
the surrounding world is to exist. The dimension of the
clash is thus cosmic and not human. The fact that they
belong to a different category is emphasised in a multi­
tude of ways. They have masks instead of faces, move in
a unique manner, and their costumes, just as their abili­
ties allow them to stand out from the rest of the crowd.
This disparate ontological status is also underlined by
their origin: in dramatic circumstances one metamor­
phoses into Batman and the second transforms from a
gangster into the mad Joker. The names of the charac­
ters stress their mediatory nature. The way Batman and
the Joker exist on the border of the twilight and fairytale
zones makes it possible to shift the plot from one dimen­
sion to the other. Without this opening it would be im­
possible to solve the situation encountered in Gotham
City, the site of a battle waged by two forces, neither
of which is able to prevail. The appearance of super­
human powers is a consequence of this state of things,
with Batman and the Joker representing the forces in
question. Take a closer look at the two characters in an
attempt at their definition. Batman is cloaked in black
while the Joker wears the multi-hued clothes of a clown.
The former flies, the latter prances. Batman is a brilliant
inventor, and his nemesis - a remarkable chemist. The
home of the former is bright and orderly, while the lat­
ter resides in gloomy clutter. One thing is obvious; the
two opposites can reveal their meaning only in a mutual
relation. The Joker creates Batman, who, in turn, is the
main force making it possible for his adversary to rise to
unequalled prominence. Opposing elements, after all,
not only determine each other but also require the pres­
ence of the other. The fact that they compete for the
same woman also acts as structural justification. Due

to their close connection everything within the range
of the interests pursued by A must also attract B, his
The film’s plot begins with a sequence in which Bat­
man becomes involved with one of the sides in a conflict
raging in the city. Logically, the Joker soon appears, opts
for the opposing party and the clash takes on a different
The whole story can be divided into three parts, the
largest presenting the main characters. This exposition
makes it possible to understand the causes and mean­
ing of the duel between Batman and the Joker, which
constitutes the second part. Finally, the last brief section
portrays the city after Batman’s victory. The bright day­
light, the delighted faces of the people, and their dec­
larations confirm the belief that evil and insanity have
been defeated and if they were to return, HE, the great
defender, shall return too. This scene is the complete
opposite of the first sequences. Recall the darkness, cha­
os, violence, anxiety and fear that created the opening
scenery of the whole story. If we describe the initial state
as chaos and the final one as order (later we shall try to
prove that there are good reasons to use these terms),
then the whole event can be presented within a scheme
of the rite of passage. Note that a lion’s share of the film
contained between the extreme states can be accurately
characterised by referring to the middle phase of the
rite of passage, i.e. transition. The extraordinary trials
and tribulations experienced by the protagonists, the
astonishing characters and powers, the different space­
time are important for the phase of transition, a stage of
trials that need to be overcome to achieve the desired
new state. The structure of the rite of passage builds the
film’s narrative plan, and the logic of this event attributes
qualities and functions to its characters. Although the
procedure in question has affected the world of Gotham
representing the whole reality-cosmos, it is portrayed by
the battle waged by two symbolic characters, Batman
and the Joker.
What do the characters dominating this motion
picture symbolise? What truth does their conflict mani­
fest, and what is its connection with the rite of passage?
Before we start answering these questions we need to
make a certain observation. The symbolic significance
of any element is connected with its place in a struc­
ture and emerges from this location, which opens it up
in a certain direction though it is impossible to say that
meaning is unambiguously determined by a given place.
The symbolic dimensions of Batman and the Joker are
obvious. After all, they collect and magnify the features
of their environment, reveal hidden truths, and over­
come ordinary measures and conditions. These are the
properties of a symbol.5 The mask acts as a detail con­
tinuously manifesting the other dimension of the main
characters’ existence. The mask is a means of stopping
time and escaping the accidental and changeable. The

Wiesław Szpilka • B A T M A N - A STORY OF CREATION

mask manifests the permanent and the unchangeable the essence. Its presence signals a shift from the field of
history and psychology into the realm of ontology.6 The
path to this dimension followed by the cruel and cynical
gangster Jack Napier leads through a vat of acid. In this
terrifying welter a man dies and a mask - the Joker - is
born. The acid that accompanies the transformation is
deeply meaningful. According to M. Lurker in his Dic­
tionary of Biblical Images and Symbols: The effect of acid
(...) became a symbol of impinging—particularly evil —upon
the surroundings. 7 In other words, right before our eyes
the human evil of Napier was etched into pure evil, with
the Joker becoming its carrier. His character and actions
represent the very essence of evil.
The name is our first hint: a joker tells or plays
jokes; a joker is also a playing card that can replace any
other card. He exists outside the accepted order, which
he scorns. Gaudy clothing, clownish gestures, dancing
and music are signs of a carnival, a reality of confusion,
toppled hierarchies, and incessant changes. As befits a
representative of the carnival the Joker is always play­
acting, pretending, emphasising the conventional and
impermanent character of all order. All his efforts are
aimed at multiplying the absurd. Smylex is the name of
his weapon, a bizarre gas that makes people abandon
their character and, rendering them absurd, reveal the
equally absurd nature of reality. The headquarters of
the demonic jokester are an abandoned chemical plant,
where various colours, smoke, and shapes mix. This is
exactly the way in which the seat of the madcap king of
the carnival, opposing everything that is simple, distinc­
tive and defined, should look. The Joker utters the same
truth in a variety of ways. The essence of evil is chaos,
which has to end in death, non-existence. This is why
the victims of Smylex die smiling and the entire Gotham
population is supposed to perish in a culmination of car­
nival frenzy.
Only another force can successfully oppose the pow­
er of entropy and nothingness, and Batman is its carrier.
Similarly to his antagonist he too experienced initiation
in the face of death changing the ontological dimension
of his existence. Hence the mask in which he appears at
all the more important moments. As in the case of the
Joker his name draws us closer to the secret of his pow­
er. Batman is literally a bat-man but also the one who
serves. The ability to fly and the night (bat qualities) are
prominently displayed. The protagonist, cloaked in uni­
form black, descends from the sky and disappears into
an abyss.
The symbolism of bird qualities - flight and wing - is
extensive8 and almost always related to spirituality and
mediatoriness. The meaning of Batman’s bird-like fea­
tures becomes clearer thanks to the relation with the
Joker. The latter sticks to the ground, slithers (his moves
are highly characteristic), is colourful and changeable,
and kills with poison, venom. In a word - a snake, a

great chthonic symbol. The fact that he multiplies chaos
is connected with his bond with the earth that contains
everything but in which nothing has yet been crystal­
lised. A battle between a bird and a snake is a frequent
medley of symbols, with the serpent representing the
subterranean world, the earth, and evil, and the bird
- the sky, air, and goodness.9 What is the principle of
goodness represented by Batman? A bat and blackness
usually reveal night, unhappiness and death. Neverthe­
less, they can also symbolise a severe, ceremonial and
lofty order contrasting with the one in which we exist.10
The blackness of Batman’s costume and its unchange­
able and uniform character become meaningful only
in the context of his enemy’s outfit. The latter denotes
changeability and chaos, and the former - duration and
clarity. Obviousness and loyalty also distinguish the re­
lations between Batman and people. His friendship with
an old valet is unquestionable and his love survives all
tests. As befits a winged creature he features consider­
able intelligence and numerous talents, which inspire
the creation of precise constructions and devices. Bat­
man is building a well-ordered, clear space. The objects
he uses are nothing more than materialised order, also
represented by good manners and elegance. Our pro­
tagonist destroys the criminal world because by breaking
the law the latter subverts the constancy of order - the
essence of goodness. In other words, Batman’s activity
in all fields can be reduced to a common denominator:
he creates, intensifies, defends and expresses order. Bat­
man himself is order, just like the Joker is chaos.
Two forces confront each other in Gotham. Evil-im­
permanence-chaos-death, on the one hand, and good­
ness-loyalty-order-life, on the other hand. It is worth
noting that the opposing nature of the characters sym­
bolising these states does not exclude their considerable
closeness. They share the feat of crossing the boundaries
of human measures and possessing powers not of this
world. Batman and the Joker do not serve the sides in­
volved in the Gotham-set conflict but rather represent
the cosmic dimension of the clash. The scope of their
duel is emphasised by corresponding time and place.
The final, decisive round is staged on a tower summit in
the course of festivities. A cosmic confrontation occurs
during a fiesta, when everything simultaneously dies and
is born, and in a place linking heaven, earth and neth­
erworld. Once again chaos, aiming at domination, falls
into an abyss. Order, i.e. existence, triumphs.
The presented story emulates an obvious example
and via the scheme of a magical fairy tale it refers to
the heroic myth. The tale about a hero saving the world
is a version of the cosmogonic myth, the core of every
mythology.11 The connection between this sacred story
and the rite of passage discernible in Batman is also in­
tentional. Each rite de passage is a revival of creation,
the latter’s update. The rite uses a different language to
present the same truth, which evokes myth. An analysis

Wiesław Szpilka • B A T M A N - A STORY OF CREATION

of the text emphasises its connections with categories re­
vealed predominantly in archaic cultures, in tribal, peas­
ant, and primitive communities. Within this context it
is worth recalling the opinion of Aleksander Jackiewicz
who described film as tribal art ingesting myths, opened
to a fairytale-like quality and to a child-like experience
of the world.12 As we have tried to show, the tropes de­
scribed by the author of Moja filmoteka are remarkably
prominent in Batman. It must be emphasised that de­
spite all its advantages our example is far from unique.
It is a splendidly crafted but typical sample of the action
genre. Once again we are presented with a plot shown a
thousand times before by using different images. Knights,
cowboys, policemen, solitary saviours continue to bring
up to date the ever identical scheme and recall a model
that we already know by heart. The collection of texts
creating the action film speaks to us about the presence
of archaic phenomena and forms seemingly inappropri­
ate for modern times. The endurance, attraction, and
vitality of films founded on these old, unoriginal topics,
the incessant popularity of worn out clichés incline us
to believe that the stratum containing such phenomena
continues to be alive and important for contemporary
man. In folk cultures the cosmogonic myth, rites, power,
order, and chaos were situated at the level of real, strong
life, which everyday existence should imitate. This was a
sacred area making it possible to understand the course
of all affairs. It was not distinguished from everyday life
because it encompassed it in its entirety. Everything that
exists at the bottom was also represented high above.
This is precisely the property of the sacral way of expe­
riencing existence that Ricoueur discussed as the rule
of suitability.13 Myth and ritual are techniques making
possible transference to a sacral and lofty realm. His­
tory and psychology become abolished, because “at that
time” only figures and archetypes act and all events are
model-like. Film is another technique for halting the
ordinary course of events. Darkness falls and we find
ourselves at the beginning of a story. As in myths, the
protagonists are strong, beautiful and good, and evil is
terrifying and powerful. As in myths, truths are distinct
and principles are divided, time is governed by differ­
ent rules, and individual qualities are a function of the
tasks that the dramatis personae have to implement. In­
deed, stereotypes, repetitions, unbelievable plots, and
unrealistic characters dominate popular movies. True
- normal life and ordinary issues do not exist and chal­
lenging intellectual deliberations are absent... Instead,
an exceptionally important revelation has been offered.
Power, order, meaning - haute monde —do exist and
last. Look for them and pursue them. Transcendence,
in other words, the sacrum can be perceived and expe­
rienced. This is the sole certainty granted by frivolous
film. Powerful, exemplary, truly sacred life does exist. If
religion denotes predominantly contact with sacredness
and the latter reveals itself through power and overcom­

ing, then mass culture has a religious dimension. The
word “religion” may come from the Latin relegere - to
frequently address, to scrupulously contemplate, to read
again, religari - to become attached, religere - to choose
again. Does mass culture not entail great attachment,
confirmed choice and intense contacts? Do sports fans
and film and music enthusiasts not display this religious
attitude? The answer seems to be obvious. Mass culture
continues to persistently confirm the presence of the sa­
cred. Its theology is not particularly sophisticated and
ends with the statement - t h i s i s. However banal such
truth may be it is also highly comforting and necessary.
Recall - we are dealing with a text. It is difficult to say
whether it is understood in this way. More important,
the text makes this sort of reception possible and opens
to such truths as well. The horizon of its meanings in­
cludes also this noble and magnificent dimension.

E n d n o te s

E B ran tlin g er, Introduction: Six Artistic
Cultures, in: Modernity and Mass Culture, ed . J. N a r e m o r e ,

J. N a r e m o r e ,

E B ran lin g e r, B lo o m in g to n a n d In d ia n a p o lis 1 9 8 1 , pp .

J. W o ź n iak o w sk i a ls o d is c u s se s re fle c tio n s c o n c e r n in g
th e m e a n in g o f p la y in c u ltu re :

wienia koniecznie potrzebna,

T h is

is su e

h as


Czy kultura jest do zba­

K ra k ó w 1 9 8 8 , p p . 2 1 5 - 2 3 5 .

t a c k le d

Antropologia kultury wsi polskiej,


e .g .


S to m m a,

W a rsz a w a 1 9 8 6 , pp .

1 3 -1 5 1 .


O n th e “ a r ist o c r a tic ” c r itic ism o f m a ss c u ltu r e , its o rig in s
a n d th e p r e se n t-d a y c o n d itio n se e : S . B a r a ń c z a k , Słowoperswazja-kultura masowa, “ T w ó r c z o ść ” 19 7 5 n o . 7.
A fte r : E T illic h , Znaczenie i usprawiedliwienie symboli
religijnych, “ E o lsk a S z tu k a L u d o w a ” , 1 9 8 8 , n o . 3 , p. 16 0 .
T h is sig n ific a n c e o f th e m a sk is p a rtic u la rly e m p h a s is e d
b y:



d e r L eeu w ,

Święta gra,

“ E o lsk a S z tu k a

L u d o w a ” , 1 9 9 1 , n o . 3 -4 , p. 6.

M . L u rk er,

Słownik obrazów i symboli bibijnych,

P o zn ań

1 9 8 9 , p. 106.

I n fo r m a tio n o n th is t o p ic after: D . F o rster,

liki chrześcijańskiej, W a rsz a w a 1 9 9 0 , p.
Słownik symboli, W a rsz a w a 1 9 9 0 , p p .

Świat symbo­

2 2 5 ; W. K o p a liń sk i,
3 4 2 -3 4 4 , 38 3 -3 8 5 .


W. K o p a liń sk i, o p . c it., p. 3 4 4 .


W. K o p a liń sk i, o p . c it., p. 2 5 5 , 5 3 - 5 4 . D . F o rster, o p . c it.,
p. 117.


B a s e d o n : M . E lia d e ,

Traktat o historii religii, W a rsz a w a
Poetyka mitu, W a rsz a w a

1 9 9 6 , p p . 4 0 3 - 4 0 6 ; E . M ie le tin sk i,
1981, pp. 2 80-285.

A . Ja c k ie w ic z ,

Moja filmoteka,

W a rsz a w a 1 9 8 9 , p p . 2 2 3 ­


E R ic o e u r,

Egzystencja i hermeneutyka, W a rsz a w a

1 9 8 5 , p.


Szpilka, Wiesław, “"Batman" - a story of Creation / Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue,” Cyfrowa Etnografia, Dostęp 4 grudnia 2022, https://cyfrowaetnografia.pl/items/show/7172.

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