August 13th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: BRAZIL: The slippery road to communist dictatorship

EDITORIAL: Australia's clean, green image at risk

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Howard Government's industrial relations pain

SCHOOLS: Subverting the English curriculum

NATIONAL SECURITY: Re-thinking Australia's response to terrorism

ECONOMICS: Ethanol and the national interest

CONSTITUTION: What is wrong with a Bill of Rights?

FAMILY LAW: Paternity fraud penalises the innocent

UNITED STATES: John G. Roberts and the US Supreme Court

STRAWS IN THE WIND: How to lose with a royal flush / Hard cases / Another 'bottom of the harbour' scheme? / Waste disposal

CINEMA: 'Vigilante justice' and movie culture

FORTHCOMING TOUR: The 'Mother Teresa of Africa' to tour Australia

Better way to help African poor (letter)

Clinical judgement on treatment of dying (letter)

Serious omission (letter)


BOOKS: NED KELLY'S LAST DAYS: Setting the record straight on the death of an outlaw

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'Vigilante justice' and movie culture

by Len Phillips

News Weekly, August 13, 2005
Len Phillips reviews the latest Hollywood schlock aimed at the teenage market.

This is about three very forgettable movies - Batman Begins, The Fantastic Four and Sin City: Hollywood schlock aimed at the teenage market with as close to no adult content as can be imagined. But interestingly, they all have at their core the same theme: that the only way to justice is through the vigilante and not the law.

Batman Begins is the least coherent. There is much idiocy in the film but the early scene where he causes a 1000-year-old Himalayan monastery to burn to the ground, becoming responsible in the process for the deaths of a large contingent of what were supposed to have been his friends, had a ridiculousness that left me uninvolved in Batman's fate for the entire remainder of the film.

Revenge motive

At the core of the story is the young Bruce Wayne who, having witnessed the murder of his parents while a young boy, promises revenge against the criminal class. And thus began the comic book Batman as well, but with a difference.

In the comic, as in the TV series and in the early films, the police represented the forces of good. The comic was from a bygone era when the police were actually seen as on the side of the public. Police Commissioner Gordon was an upright authority figure who shared with Batman the straightforward intention to send criminals to prison.

The early Batman films, in remaining true to the original, were compelled to show the police in a positive light. How against the grain of modern cinema was that!

In the pseudo-cynicism of our present times, we are supposed to understand that established authority is as corrupt as the worst of the criminal class, and that is what films such as this make a point of showing.

The latest Batman version has finally found a way round the problem left by its comic book source. The police are as bad as the criminals - indeed are criminals.

But there is one honest cop, lowly Detective Gordon. No doubt he will work his way to the top if the Batman series continues and eventually become Commissioner. In the meantime we will be able to luxuriate in the usual assumption that Batman must find a way to get the crooks while he also avoids being arrested by the cops.

The Fantastic Four is more of the same - also a movie version of a more recent set of comic-book heroes, who are endowed with a series of special powers that allow them to fight for justice. The forces of the law are obstacles when not actually criminal in their intent and actions.

Sin City continues the theme. Not only are the police corrupt, but so too are the politicians, with the most wicked a United States senator. The one good cop is shot in the back by his partner. Another of the heroes is sent to the electric chair by the criminal justice system (needless to say he was framed).

In one of the episodes, we enter a town run by gun-toting women. They have an agreement with the police that they (the women) will keep order and in return the police will keep away.

You really don't want to know the plot, but the pact looks like coming to an end because the women have inadvertently killed a cop who looked to them (and was presented to the audience) as nothing more than a criminal himself.

I would not even remotely suggest the film actually had an overt message. It is a film made up of an extraordinarily violent succession of stories that simply goes from episode to episode where the only upholders of the moral order are the loners who fight criminals on their own.

The subliminal message, however, is clear enough, and it is the same for all three films: without vigilante justice there is no justice.

It is a real question what difference such films might actually make in how the world is viewed since in many ways it is cartoon morality at work. I don't really think 20,000 hours of watching Tom and Jerry before the age of nine will turn a kid into a mouse-loving cat-hater.

And there really is no Batman out here or a Fantastic Four to save us when trouble comes, so reality must be allowed to intrude at some point. For us, on this side of the cinema screen, it is the police or nothing.

Yet it seems to be an ongoing continuation of the ethos of the counterculture 35 years after the end of the 1960s. Whether such films actively breed a contempt for the law and its officers, they certainly aren't reinforcing the importance of the role of established authority in maintaining our civil society. It's just one of the ways our movie culture helps to rend the society in which we are all trying to make our way.

  • Len Phillips

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TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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