Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Zorro and Batman

I've just handed in my dissertation. I think I deserve this :)

Zorro and Batman are both very similar. They fight for justice and freedom, they wear black cloaks and masks, they respond to cries for help, they have costumes which reduce their peripheral vision, they keep large caves in the basement where Batman stores weapons and machines designed to help him in his fight against the crimes of the city while Zorro stores a horse.

Zorro does not need anti-shark spray

The other thing they both have in common is that unlike the X-men, or the Fellowship of the Ring, they have almost no connection to the people they are fighting so ardently to protect. Batman is a rich multimillionaire trying to stop crime in what must be the most crime laden city in the world, while Zorro is a rich Spanish Don (Don Diago de la Vega) fighting to protect the native Californians from anyone who happens to be oppressing them (i.e all the other Dons). In both cases, this seems a little screwed, how much can you genuinely admit to be representing a people living in a world that is totally alien to your own.

(I probably give Batman a little more stick for this, but only because I actually like Zorro. Me and my sister went through a phase of watching the old Disney TV series when we were about 14 and the dodgy acting, complete melodrama, bad jokes, and totally fake-looking sets utterly sold it too me. Those series were amazingly bad and I loved every half-hour installment of them).

Starting with Batman then. His drive (as it were) for protecting the crime-ridden masses is that he lost his parents at a young age. Notwithstanding the fact that loosing any close family member must be one of the most horrible experiences ever, even the most grief-stricken experience does not exactly make you an expert about the life of people on the street. The people he is fighting to protect are going through hardships and experiences Bruce Wayne can barely even dream about. The big bad guys he's fighting might be sociopaths with bad dress sense, but the people working under them are just likely to be desperate in ways that Bruce will never experience. Added to which, Batman gets to come home each evening, to a warm bath, something to fix his injuries, and plenty of food. Anyone who might have suffered any collateral damage due to Batmobile crashes, brawls or shifts in the underground economic situation is left to starve to death on the streets of Gotham.

The only source of income for three children getting punched in the face.

Zorro is slightly better, because he's usual quite clear about the fact that he only attacks the rich or corrupt, and because there's only so much collateral damage you can do with a sword and a horse. In fact I don't think anyone actually ended up dead throughout the entire TV series (the films and comics are another matter) mostly because the people Zorro ended up fighting were the people that Diago de la Vega was friends with.

Which raises what is probably the most worrying consideration for Zorro: he can achieve quite a lot by fighting with his mask on, but you get the feeling he could achieve even more by taking it off. He's a rich influential Don, if he placed his support firmly with the local populace and used his actual money and influence to make a difference rather than just his sword he could probably have a much greater positive affect.

Which again leads to another consideration that both Batman and Zorro never seem to consider. They are very rich. The people they are supposedly fighting for are very poor. Could Zorro not have built just one school? Batman not paid for a few social workers, or less-corrupt policemen? At the very least he could have given those policeman that could be trusted (there must have been at least one) some of his amazing bat-related weapons.

You throw it into the sharks mouth and then fire!

But they never do. The money gets saved for yet more inventive ways to kill people (in the case of Batman) or even more overdone ornamental waistcoats (in the case of Zorro). Batman continues to try and control a city of crime-lords and desperate people by violently attacking them, totaling their cars, blowing up their buildings and spraying their sharks, while Don Diago continues to plot by night to kill (or maim and humiliate in the TV series) the people he's friends with by day. For both of them it comes off as a bit of a rich boys hobby because they can both just stop any time they want. They don't of course but the fact is that they could and, because of the whole 'hidden identity' issue they are never, ever, at the risk of facing any actual consequences for the actions they carry out in costume. Batman never has to cough up car insurance. Zorro never has to pay for new trousers for the hilariously-fat Sergeant who rips at least one pair every episode. They can continue wrecking trails of destruction through peoples lives and then retire at the end of it to a nice big meal in a nice warm house.

It's an interesting thing to notice that the more recent films of both of these characters immediately try to redress these balances. Zorro stops being a Spanish Don, and becomes Antonio Bandaras, whose actually meant to be one of the local populace, and is therefore fighting for his own freedom. Bandaras-Zorro also doesn't have to maintain a second life as a Don. He pretends to be rich and famous at one point, but it's not a life that he has to maintain, it's as much of an act as the Zorro is and far more temporary. Likewise Batman becomes a bit more accountable and in 'Batman begins' they play around a lot with the idea that Gotham would probably be a fairly similar place to live if Batman were to vanish one day, after all, he's been in Gotham for decades now, and the crime rate there isn't exactly going down.

The newer, grittier, more-screwed-up Batman is a lot more realistic, and even if he does come off a little as a rich boy playing at being policeman (but a more cool policeman) he's at least wearing trousers now. But I think I'll always prefer Zorro, despite the fact that he comes off as a lot more sociopathic and selfish in his insistence on remaining masked. Batman has an entire bat-cave full of top-weaponry and dangerous toys and at the end of each story-arc Gotham is as crime ridden as ever. Zorro has a sword and a horse, and by the end of the Bandaras film he's saved an entire American state and married Catherine Zeta Jones.

I'm smiling at you now, but tonight I'll be sending your mail coach plumetting into the ravine!


  1. Great to see you writing about the awesomest of awesome masked heroes! To make clear where I stand in this debate: I don't mean Zorro ;).

    I'd like to address a few points you made.

    "For both of them it comes off as a bit of a rich boys hobby"
    Especially for Bruce Wayne, his life as a vigilante is not something he enjoys, but something he sees as a necessity. His parent's murder confronted him with the evil and corruption that plague his home city. Like his father as a doctor, Bruce vows not merely to avenge his parents, but to prevent the next Bruce Wayne from becoming orphaned. The easy path for Bruce, blessed with good looks and a fortune, would've been to become another nameless CEO of Wayne Enterprises, truly unaware of the suffering among the populace.

    "Could Batman not have paid for a few social workers, or less-corrupt policemen?"
    Wayne works for his goals for a 'clean Gotham' in both the white collar world as Bruce Wayne, as in the night under the cloak of Batman. Wayne Enterprises is half corporation, half charity foundation, investing in public transportation and healthcare, amongst other things.

    What makes Batman/Bruce Wayne so interesting is the inherent tension between his lives, his goals and his morals. He asks for others to follow (a just) law, placing himself out of the law to achieve this goal. This conflict and its repercussions are something we can hold this fictional superhero morally accountable for.

    As for the only source of income of the children getting punched in the face, that's the worst that will happen to this man that night. Batman will always do his utmost best not to kill or cause permanent harm. He regrets it deeply when this does happen, seeing it as his own moral failure.

    It's always a bit tricky to discuss the moral nature of a character that has performed in stories written by hundreds of writers. The characteristics that I tried to describe seem to be in line with the recent films, and most of the comics that I've come to love =).

    Wow, I've see I've rambled on long enough now... Sorry for the long comment, when it comes to Batman I tend to get a little wordy!

  2. @lucas: thanks for the reply! I must admit I know very little about Batman, having only seen the films and read a few of the comics, so it was great to get some more information. I particularly wasn't aware that Wayne enterprises was involved in Gotham-related charity activities.

    "Batman will always do his utmost best not to kill or cause permanent harm. He regrets it deeply when this does happen, seeing it as his own moral failure."
    Hmmm...I'm not convinced. Even without the cynicism factor, you have to admit that 'being deeply regretful' just isn't the same as, say, actually going to court and having to pay damages etc (although paying damages wouldn't mean much to bruce!) And in Gotham even if the only person you hurt it someone evil, their displacement or displeasure is going to have a knockdown effect on the rest of the citizens.

    Zorro is a lot worse though. As Don Diago he almost actively encourages the system that as Zorro he tries to undermine. Which makes for a very wily and dashing character but also makes him a bit of a b*stard. Bruce genuinely does seem to get very distressed at the damage he does, even though the cynical part of me does keep pointing out that it's very easy to feel internal-pain and angst when you have plenty to eat.

  3. If you want to read more on the morals behind the mask, I can recommend this little book. Different philosophers tackle different moral and philosophical aspects of the Bat, not all as insightful as the other, but there are some real gems in there =).