Superstar Systems & Individualization

In 2011 I learned a sobering lesson in my sports fueled adolescence: the Indianapolis Colts of the 2000’s were never a very good football team. The Colts had recently gone to the Super Bowl in 2009. That year, the team was so good that at one point they actually gave up the last two games of the season because they didn’t want the pressure of being undefeated to hurt their chances of a Super Bowl*. Two years later, the team should have been fine, even when Peyton Manning had an injury that sat him out all year, which was the only significant roster change from the years before. But the Colts went from 1st to worst in almost every offensive category, and since they were already one of the worst defenses in the NFL… things didn’t go well. They transformed from being a 14-2 Super Bowl team in 2009 to being 2-14 joke in 2011.

*it didn’t help

Manning was that good, and the rest of the team was that bad. The owner, Jim Irsay, was famous for meddling in the day to day affairs of the team and fancied himself quite the empire builder and seemed blind to the fact that he had been propped up by a superstar.  So they got themselves another once in a lifetime talent in Andrew Luck and tried to get lightning to strike twice. For years, Irsay watched as the demands he made of different coaches, GMs and personnel failed to recapture the magic of the Manning years, despite having Andrew Luck. The Colts couldn’t build a legitimate system, they couldn’t support or protect their main assets, quarterbacks*, and they fell apart. For almost 20 years their system has been building a house of cards and hoping the wind doesn’t blow. They build a poor system propped up by a standout individual. Peyton Manning, was Batman.

Manning was forced out due to injury and Luck retired before the 2019 season because of sustained injuries from being one of the most sacked/hit quarterbacks in the league

And now, Batman

The Dark Knight trilogy is a superhero story centered around a slightly different version of the Batman everyone knows in a slightly different version of the Gotham everyone knows and he fights people and wins in the end and everyone lives happily ever after. Despite the retread of familiar settings, the movies are fantastic and explore some things that superhero movies before and since have failed to.

Recently the structure of the trilogy as a whole captured my attention. If you look at it from a 30,000ft perspective, the world of this trilogy can be summed up by: Batman Begins – Corruption breeds crime which is solved with vigilantism; The Dark Knight – Benevolent Vigilantism is countered by chaotic vigilantism and they essentially cancel each other out; The Dark Knight Rises– A chaotic power vacuum caused by the vigilante struggle is filled by a zealot promising order and without the actually miraculous return of Batman, he would have won. The first two movies, whether the good guy wins or kinda wins but kinda doesn’t, have direct, logical consequences in the plots of the following movies.

Jump down to a longer synopsis of TDK Trilogy at the bottom of this page if you need it

Batman is a fantasy in more ways than as simple criminal revenge porn. Vigilante justice can’t be what they system leans on for legitimacy because it will result in a complete upheaval of that very system, just like is shown in the Dark Knight Trilogy. In the movies the fantasy part kicks in every once in a while and especially at the end when the benevolent all powerful vigilante barely manages to fix everything. That’s not a system or a healthy society, it’s the Cleveland Cavaliers + LeBron James or the Indianapolis Colts + Peyton Manning: remove the star and find out just how shitty your team really is.

Batman’s actions resulted in bad things happening because it was the wrong way to get things done. It was effective, sure, but that’s because Batman is Batman and he can fix his own mistakes. But without him the world would have been doomed. Batman isn’t a lesson to sit back and wait for a superhero to come fix everything, it should be a warning that a vulnerable society is doomed without protection from a lunatic billionaire with nothing better to do. The answer to losing Peyton Manning isn’t to go out and find another Peyton Manning, it’s to build a team system that isn’t hot garbage. Gotham can’t just sit around and hope another Batman comes along, they need to get their shit together.

At the end of the movie, Batman fails to do anything but continue to be reactive. His plan for protecting Gotham is not to improve the city’s justice system or help with the underlying problems, he just gives all of his money to another orphan who will be the new Batman, or Robin. He’s pulling a Jim Irsay, he’s looking for another Peyton Manning, Robin is his Andrew Luck. They’re building their system on a superstar once again.

Consequences of a shitty System

Whether it was the point of the story or the results of logical storytelling, the Dark Knight trilogy does a great job of following the consequences of world situations to their next logical step, which in this case includes bending the rules and abandoning of norms to accomplish an agenda. Gotham’s corruption bends the rules and the gap is filled with crime. Crime is interwoven with and influences society so that it doesn’t have to answer to any rules. Faced with no choice, Batman breaks the rules of the justice system to save the city. The status quo of the criminals is threatened, so they throw someone at the problem who will break even more rules than the first guy. The rules have been ripped to shreds, strained and ignored. As a result, the entire system is dead in the water, floating forward only on the momentum of Batman’s benevolent actions. The momentum runs out and the people, craving some sort of order, end up willing to follow a tyrant who comes in to fill the gap.

Gotham in this story is a city that operates less and less on principle. The end result is a city where everyone’s personal agenda is the only thing driving them. Sure, there are some standouts that go against their instincts, but on the whole the city is lost. Selina Kyle starts out hopelessly selfish. Bruce Wayne enacts a cover scheme to protect his identity based on a fake, self centered persona. Detective Anna Ramirez gives up Harvey Dent, a symbol of hope to millions, because the mob says they’ll stop paying her mom’s hospital bills. Not even threatening to kill her, just not pay the bills. Choosing otherwise is not an easy decision, but it is a clear case of favoring your own desires over the potential negative consequences that will happen to others.

The city is inherently selfish, doing whatever can be done to take care of themselves. And it makes them vulnerable. This concept takes full flight in the third movie, as the oppressed underclass rise up to take down the wealthy. 

Brave New World (Huxley, 1932) argues that people in the nearsighted, self centered frame of mind are simple to control by giving them the illusion that they’re getting what they want. Moving the minds of cohesive groups is very difficult, but swaying a sea of individuals is fairly simple. A union can strike over a single transgression for months on end because of the strength of a group, but a nation of individuals can’t even remember that they were boycotting Chik-fil-a or Target for more than two weeks.

The corruption and hopelessness of Gotham led to this situation. People organize into in/out groups naturally. Perhaps as we feel powerless we begin to attach ourselves to the narrative that helps justify our own desires.

Maybe this is how all of us can be so hypocritical in our daily lives. We fixate on what works for us and push aside what doesn’t and hide behind comparisons to the other. If my SUV is bad for the environment, it’s okay because I use it to move stuff around a lot- I’m not like one of those jackasses with a big ass pickup billowing black smoke every time I accelerate from 0-5mph. Maybe it’s more like I’m not one of those pathetic girls who post to instagram every 5 minutes, I tweet every 5 minutes with actual ideas, I’m trying to help the world. We’re all left fighting each other in the underclass, and it’s worse the further underfoot you happen to be. This was done by breaking us apart, by telling us we are special or the heroes to our own story. It was done by making us individuals first. 

Hyper-Individualism helps tear down norms

When we’re made to think that we’re special, that we’re the heroes of our own story… well, what have we learned from stories about heroes? Help yourself first, you’ll be able to fix everything else later.

Popular music is being altered by this wave of individualization, but what does it do to our sense of principles? Or maybe the better question is: how does a lack of principle make us more vulnerable to individualization? Principle dictates the norms that we hold in a society. There are unspoken rules that dictate how we behave between the specifics of the law. A society where everything ran on enforceable laws would be an exhausting dystopia. We can’t have police enforcing which side of the escalator you’re allowed to stand on with fines or jail time, we have to do that ourselves with harsh stares, little comments under our breath, cyber bullying and occasionally speaking up.

Lone vigilantes doing things themselves isn’t exactly respecting norms. A free society only exists within a polite society where norms are respected. Rules of humanity are held in check by respect and shame. Just as a city of fundamentalist pacifists could be taken over by one madman and a knife, a free society held up by norms can be held hostage by one asshole without shame. When someone breaks a norm claiming that it isn’t against any technical rules, they aren’t some genius, they’re an asshole. Batman wasn’t the first person to say “to hell with the law, I’ll go arrest these bad guys myself”, he was just the only one brazen enough to break the law and destroy the precedent to do it. Again, Batman is Batman, so he was successful with it. But the guys in hockey pads pretending to be Batman at the beginning of the 2nd movie would have likely caused more harm than they would have helped. 

Breaking norms can be a slippery slope* into the degradation of society at large. And the evolutions of these broken norms will eventually lead to an overcorrection, like how the chaos created by Batman and Joker’s battle resulted in the city being taken over by the tyrannical Bane. Or how a prolonged struggle in the middle east where an evil power was removed eventually led to ISIS- when standards and norms of rules of engagement, torture and acceptance of civilian casualties are loosened because you have to do whatever it takes to catch the bad guys, the gap of justice leaves room for someone worse to slip in. 

*Slippery slope is not automatically a logical fallacy, but only if the proposed consequences are nonsensical

We can’t rely on a conditioned individual to make the tough choice

“Spider-Man! This is why only fools are heroes — because you never know when some lunatic will come along with a sadistic choice. Let die the woman you love… or suffer the little children! Make your choice, Spider-Man, and see how a hero is rewarded! We are who we choose to be…now choose!

— Green GoblinSpider-Man

The story of Batman isn’t just Batman’s struggle, it is also Gotham’s struggle. Everyone’s desire to look out for number 1 makes them vulnerable to manipulation by bad faith actors. They allow norms to be broken because it doesn’t affect them personally. The population sympathizing with that selfishness only makes the problem worse. “Well, they did it for their family, I would have done the same.” But what about when what they “did” was forsake millions? It’s like the Trolley Problem but instead of 1 vs 5 it’s 1 vs 500,000.

The exaggerated Trolley Problem, or as TV tropes defines it, the Sadistic Choice happens in superhero movies often. The bad guy gives the good guy a choice- save the world, or your giiiirrrlllfriend. And time and time again, these “heroes” choose their girlfriend over the world. 2002 spiderman- he goes after Mary Jane and then goes after the falling death trap filled with school children. The Sadistic Choice happens in X-Men, Superman- you know what, here’s a list. Batman goes after his girlfriend instead of saving Harvey Dent, the shining light of the city (though Joker cruelly tricked him and Batman ended up saving Dent anyways). He then turns it around once the choice has been made for him and sacrifices Batman’s reputation to uphold the lie of Harvey Dent. I’m glad he got it right on his second try, but this was also the easier choice to make. Batman failed the sadistic choice problem and is now working with what he’s got.

These are supposed to be superheroes- the good guys’ good guys. The only person in the entire Marvel universe that seems able to give up someone else in order to achieve (twisted) righteousness is Thanos. People are willing to sacrifice themselves, but that will still make them the good guy. It’s still a selfish act. The “good guys” choose the selfish choice almost every single time. When we’re made to think that we’re special, that we’re the heroes of our own story… well, what have we learned from stories about heroes? Help yourself first, you’ll be able to fix everything else later.

That’s why you can’t rely on individuals, you need to build a system. You need a system that doesn’t let things get to the point where it’s up to the choice of one person. Because if everything balances on one person’s judgement, we’ll have to hope they choose against the individual choice that we’ve programmed them to make. Then they’ll have to be good enough to execute on that choice. Good enough to create a miracle. You won’t always have Batman. And Batman won’t always have a second chance to do the right thing.

-Z. J. Jones


A longer breakdown of the birdseye view of the Dark Knight Trilogy:

Batman Begins – Corruption breeds crime which is solved with vigilantism

The first movie pits a benevolent vigilante against the fear (Scarecrow) that grips a city via systemized corruption from above and organized crime from below. The corrupt have shielded themselves from effects of the widespread petty crime, and the mobs have protected themselves from the corrupt by exploiting loopholes in the justice system like jurisdictions, technicalities and plausible deniability. Batman learns that he wants to clean up the system and trains to do so under the League of Shadows where he learns that Gotham is too corrupt to be allowed to continue. Batman returns to Gotham as a benevolent vigilante, and is a direct response to the corruption in addressing crime. He acts outside the rules of the corrupt system to catch the mob unaware without a structural response. He nearly wins, defeating the the Scarecrow, turning on the League of Shadows, and freeing Gotham of its fear.

The Dark KnightBenevolent Vigilantism is countered by chaotic vigilantism and they essentially cancel each other out

The Dent Act is passed, allowing the mob to be essentially arrested en masse. The legal tricks and maneuvers  the mob has used effectively for decades are taken away from them, so they resort to their own vigilante. The Joker is a direct response to Batman. The only way to ensure you beat a person who operates outside the rules it to also operate outside the rules and take it one step further. And he pushes Batman further than he’s ever had to go. He makes Batman strip the privacy rights of all individuals by using their cellphones for real-time universal surveillance. Sure it’s to catch the bad guy, but it’s one more norm that is stripped away. The Joker then nearly wins because he is willing to cross one norm that Batman won’t, which is killing. “Batman can’t endure this,” Bruce Wayne says as he’s about to turn himself in. But the Joker is eventually foiled because while he might have awoken something in individuals, he fails to complete his pipe dream of total anarchy and failure of morality on a societal level. Batman fails the Sadistic choice problem, trying to selfishly save the person who means most to him instead of Gotham, but he is tricked by Joker and gets the opposite result. Joker turns Dent, Batman takes the fall for Dent, getting the sadistic choice problem right for once.

The Dark Knight Rises– A chaotic power vacuum caused by the vigilante struggle is filled by a zealot promising order

The benevolent and chaotic vigilantes essentially cancel each other out, and a power vacuum is created and eventually filled by someone who can speak to what the Joker awakened but knows that people don’t want anarchy, but order which favors their own desires. Bane, though perhaps a flawed character with unclear desires, is a direct response to the battles witnessed in the past two movies. The people are tired of the crime, tired of the corruption, and they want to take over for themselves. They answer the call to follow, which is easier than Joker’s call to lead themselves, and take over the city. Turns out that Bane is an idealist zealot, part of the same society that Batman was trained in but rejected. The League of Shadows is still hellbent on blowing up all of Gotham (at the end of a nearly year long ticking clock, for some reason). Bane is a tyrant in populists clothing, telling the people they have the power and the prerogative to take back their city. He even claims to have given the detonator to a bomb to a regular citizen of Gotham, an illusion of ceding control to the masses. He didn’t do that, of course. He gave the detonator to the League of Shadows mastermind, a shadowy elite figure who ends up being the one with all of the power in their hand. Only by sacrificing the symbol that is Batman, the symbol of operating outside the rules of the justice system, is the city saved. 

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