[While we're talking Batman, enjoy this guest post from frequent contributor Jessica Levai! - Ed.]
This summer, fans all over the world finally got to see The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed trilogy of Batman movies. The story, which takes place eight years after the previous film, The Dark Knight, finds an aging Bruce Wayne brought out of his seclusion to face Bane, a mercenary and terrorist who threatens to destroy Gotham City. Also this summer, in a different corner of the entertainment world, another sequel was displayed to a legion of fans: The Legend of Korra, a cartoon series on Nickelodeon. This series further explored the fantastic world introduced in Avatar: The Last Airbender, in which certain members of society are gifted with the magical ability to control, or “bend,” the four elements – earth, air, fire, and water – while performing spectacular animated kung-fu. The new series, taking place 70 years after the first in an era reminiscent of the sci-fi 1920s, features a new hero, a teen girl named Korra who, as the Avatar, possesses the ability to control all four elements.
At first, this story seems far removed from the world of an action-packed superhero blockbuster. But Korra’s primary antagonist, a revolutionary named Amon, bears remarkable similarities to Bane, both in his aims and his backstory. Yet the heroes respond to and defeat their respective threats in different ways, revealing differences in their driving philosophies that stem from the worlds their creators have given them to inhabit. Specifically, Korra’s world is one where women have more presence than in Batman’s. As a result, the show embraces more stereotypically feminine qualities, which reveal the limitations of Batman’s style and make Korra the more mature hero.
The most striking similarity between The Dark Knight Rises and The Legend of Korra is that each features a city under attack by a masked terrorist of phenomenal physical ability, who capitalizes on class tensions within society to wreak mayhem. In the former story we have Bane. In a city of haves and have-nots, Bane feeds the animosity between the groups, inciting people to eject the rich violently from their Gotham homes. “Born and raised in hell on earth,” a dank prison in some dimly-defined eastern country, Bane suffered a tortuous early existence. A horrible injury left him reliant on painkillers, delivered through his mask. He overcame these obstacles to become a cunning strategist and an agile, brutal fighter. He threatens Gotham with destruction by a stolen nuclear device.
Now let’s examine the hero who will save Gotham from this monster. Bruce Wayne is white, male, and gifted with intelligence and endurance. While the movie seeks a realistic portrayal of a man without superpowers, we cannot ignore that he is preternaturally wealthy. The tragic shooting of his parents when he was eight created a man obsessed with fighting the evil that took their lives, and to do so he has transformed himself into a legendary figure: the Batman. He fights crime with his fists and an array of technology. Frequently, it comes down to the use of force. Though an attempt to locate and deactivate the nuclear bomb threatening the city requires a bit of brains and cooperation, brawn is more often on display on both the hero’s and the villain’s sides.
The villain of The Legend of Korra provides many of the same challenges to the hero. Amon, the masked ringleader of the “Equalist” movement in Republic City, claims to have been scarred by a firebender and thus seeks to remove bending from the world. His movement emphasizes the real and perceived injustices committed by benders against those not so blessed. In addition to his considerable martial skills, Amon can remove someone’s bending ability, seemingly permanently. Like Bane, Amon suffered a traumatic childhood. His father, the series later reveals, was a crime boss in hiding, who taught his sons the forbidden art of bloodbending, through which animals and humans could be controlled like puppets. Both Amon and Bane are scary, dangerous, and command an uncanny volume of followers and tech. Neither cares much for organized sports, as a Gotham football stadium and the Republic City Pro-Bending Arena both suffer their explosive wrath. While Bane traps the entire police force underground, Amon removes the metalbending abilities of not only a chunk of the police force, but also their chief, Lin Beifong.
Standing against Amon is Korra, who is, in many ways, Bruce Wayne’s opposite. She is seventeen, non-white, and female. Her origins are humble and her parents alive, but she has powers that would seem magical in Wayne’s world. She is the Avatar, and as the show’s intro narration states, only she “can control all four elements, and bring balance to the world.” For most of the series Korra faces a problem. While she is an admirable bender of earth, water and fire, she cannot bend air. This, the show establishes, is the most spiritual of the four, something Korra admits “doesn’t come as easy to me.” This inability is a source of frustration and insecurity for the character, who wonders how she can be the Avatar if she cannot master airbending.
So what happens when these villains and these heroes meet? There is cat and mouse, there is fighting, and eventually, the hero is broken. For Batman fans, this was the moment they had been waiting for since the announcement of Bane as a movie villain. In a desperate, no-holds-barred fight, Batman loses to the superior fighter, and Bane breaks his back and his spirit. In The Legend of Korra, Korra has endured a season of Amon’s taunting, including several close calls. His power proves frighteningly real, and in the end, Amon defeats Korra in a fight and robs her of her bending. Though this shock does awaken her ability to bend air, without her connection to the other elements, she is not the Avatar. In her mind, she is nothing. It’s a blow as devastating as Batman’s spinal injury. For both, it looks like they are out of the game.
Having seen the similarities in the villains and the contrasts in the heroes, we now need to take a moment to examine the philosophies that drive them. In his review of The Dark Knight Rises at Salon.com, Andrew O’Hehir writes, “It’s no exaggeration to say that the ‘Dark Knight’ universe is fascistic (and I’m not name-calling or claiming that Nolan has Nazi sympathies). It’s simply a fact. Nolan’s screenplay … simply pushes the Batman legend to its logical extreme, as a vision of human history understood as a struggle between superior individual wills, a tale of symbolic heroism and sacrifice set against the hopeless corruption of society.”
I’m not certain that I would agree with “fascistic,” given how over-used and hard to define “fascist” is in a casual context. But the driving philosophy on display in The Dark Knight Rises might be called “masculine.” It’s about will, and power, and things traditionally associated with men. The Nolan Batman films, which feature very few female characters, have no idea how to handle the feminine. Rachel Dawes, in The Dark Knight, was less a character than a Jungian anima, a female figure on whom not one but two men (Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent) could project their ideals and their love. She is blown up to give the heroes pathos. The Dark Knight Rises continues using women as symbols, not characters. Miranda Tate turns out to be the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul, and acts merely as an extension of her father to carry out his plan to destroy Gotham. Selina Kyle, though she seems remarkably self-possessed, is eventually domesticated and serves, at the end of the film, to symbolize how Bruce Wayne has gotten on with his life.
But in addition to the lack of female characters, the feminine aspects of Batman are barely explored. The Dark Knight used Rachel as a mirror and outlet for squishy feelings like love. Compassion, a trait sometimes defined as feminine, is one of Batman’s most attractive qualities as a hero. He feels for people who suffer because of crime and wants to prevent that suffering. Yet that is little on display in any of the movies, which instead focus on the violence. Another example is Robin. Christian Bale said in 2005 that Robin wouldn’t be in any of these movies because then it would be “campy and not dark.” In other incarnations of Batman, Robin has been about Wayne’s decision to nurture another life, to do something positive that didn’t involve hitting people, to make a lasting human connection like the one he lost with his parents. Instead, what The Dark Knight Rises presents isn’t even a mentoring relationship with the eventual “Robin,” cop John Blake. It’s a workaround, story of masked emotions and a warning not to care about anyone too deeply.
The Legend of Korra, on the other hand, features several prominent female characters. It’s a small detail, but nearly every scene in the show contains at least one female character, even if she has no lines. They are young, like Korra, and old like Master Katara, Korra’s waterbending trainer. They are single and they are mothers, and they have their own stories. Korra herself is allowed to display both masculine and feminine traits. She is tough, athletic, and headstrong, with a developing sense of justice, coupled unfortunately with a teen’s patience. She engages in several violent fights with enemies, including her last battle with Amon. But she allows herself to care about other people, and to experience love.
There is a clear message against violence in The Legend of Korra, and an emphasis on compassion and healing. And while the series features many female characters, it would be unwise to suggest a causal link. While qualities such as compassion and care are seen as traditionally feminine, embraced by feminist ethicists such as Carol Gilligan, research indicates that real human beings, both male and female, use concepts like care or justice to decide moral action. But the inclusion of female characters in The Legend of Korra creates a more balanced universe, with more than one point of view. In the end, this makes it more moral and more responsible than The Dark Knight Rises.
Let’s look at what happens after our heroes are broken by their respective villains. What follows is a pair of miraculous recoveries. Korra, brought low by her loss, possibly to the point of suicide, is visited by the ghost of the previous Avatar, Aang. He returns all of her bending abilities to her, making her the true Avatar for the first time. Bruce Wayne, whose spine, we are told, is actually protruding out his back, is healed by inmates of Bane’s prison with a hearty slap on the back and several months of physical therapy. Again, we see a masculine/feminine divide. Korra is healed by spiritual powers, Batman by sheer will and time at the gym. But what happens after the hero is healed?
Batman returns to Gotham, where problems are solved by violence. He engages Bane in more fisticuffs, though he does not defeat him; that honor is reserved for Selina Kyle and the missiles on the Batpod. Batman also saves the city from the threat of nuclear annihilation by locating the bomb and carrying it a safe distance away. The bomb explodes, apparently taking Batman with it. But this is a trick. Bruce has faked his own death, and that of his alter ego. And then, most disappointingly, he quits. Having saved the city one last time, he does nothing further to help it.
I said earlier that Batman’s supernatural ability was his incredible wealth, which Bane also destroyed. Yet Bruce makes no move to heal the financial injuries he sustained, to recover the power with which he could do some real good in a city that just spent six months under a terrorist siege. His parents were philanthropists, creating jobs and public transport, things that do help people in real, if unsexy, ways. Yes, the death of Batman provides people with an example of heroic sacrifice, albeit one that turns out to be every bit the lie that Harvey Dent’s martyrdom was. Instead of doing real good to heal his city, Batman fixes his back, hits more people, and then takes off.
What does Korra do, once the villain has been vanquished? After her powers are restored, her first action is to restore Lin Beifong’s bending. The show leaves us with the belief that she can and will do the same for any of Amon’s victims. She is a hero whose job it is to bring balance to the world. The villain may have disappeared, and the immediate threat passed, but the Avatar knows she still has real work to do. Her mission is not just defeating the bad guy, but healing the injuries he left in his wake, and redressing the wrongs in the society that created him in the first place. This emphasis on healing seems, again, like a feminine trait, and so perhaps it’s not surprising to find it in a show that gives weight to female characters and points of view.
The Legend of Korra and The Dark Knight Rises show us two very different heroes who live in two very different worlds. And while Batman is an example of the power and strength an ordinary person might achieve, Korra shows how power might best be used. Another superhero was once told that, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” Korra is a hero who shows she can handle both.
Jessica Lévai is a professor of mythology and folklore who will never be dissuaded from her love of Batman: The Animated Series, and has asked students to identify Kevin Conroy on a final exam.