Heroes and Villains in Postmodernism
Heroes and Villains in Postmodernism
Postmodernism is a creative movement that is said to have originated in the 1950s. As the name suggests, it is the successor of modernism, and the development of postmodernism is visible in not only literature, but also other creative disciplines such as architecture, music, fashion, film and painting. Postmodernism was created as a reaction to its predecessor, and its “rational, scientific, and historical aspects”. This results in postmodernism being self-conscious, ironic, and experimental, concerned with the instability and unreliability of language, and with epistemology, the study of what knowledge is.
In saying this, the purpose of postmodernism is not to shock the bourgeoisie world, as the avant-garde movement arguably does, but to challenge it- both by reducing it to its natural state, and by seeing how far it can be stretched beyond its existing ideas. Postmodernism does this by introducing deconstruction and disintegration to question our ideas of certainty, identity and the truth; and by the use of hyperreality, pastiche, bricolage, recurring characters, irony, authorial intrusions, non-linear narrative and self-reflexivity to bring more attention to the world outside of the text as a part of the world inside it.
There is a true breakdown of what we know to be true, what we expect, and what we are able to believe, and this is certainly reflected in the depictions of heroes and villains within postmodernist texts. This investigation looks into the role of heroic and villainous characters in postmodernist texts, the aspects of the postmodern world that is portrayed by these characters and how they developed, in relation to the societal and political changes that were gasoline to the flames of postmodernism.
The characters that will be used to investigate this are the superhero Batman, and one of his arch-nemeses The Joker, using the films Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, both directed by Christopher Nolan, and the graphic novels Joker written by Brian Azzarello, and The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore; Shrek from the film Shrek, directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson; Billy Pilgrim from the novel Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut; and Patrick Bateman from the novel American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis.
These texts represent the wide-ranging reaches of postmodernism, including both what people may class as “literature” and “mass culture” as distinctive examples of postmodernism. However, in studying these texts, it is clear to see the disordered nature of postmodernism by the creation of the antihero- a protagonist who lacks the traditional heroic qualities, who is flawed, who the audience is ultimately able to recognise themselves in.
How do the texts themselves reflect postmodernism?
The literary label of “postmodernism” can be applied liberally, and encompasses a large number of texts, with differing postmodern qualities found in each one. However, over the range of texts that is being investigated in this report, there are some aspects that stand out more clearly than others. As this report focuses on heroes and villains within the texts, we will firstly look at the texts that were used to analyse the characters of Batman and the Joker.
The texts used to study the Batman include The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Joker, and The Killing Joke. All of these texts are set in the fictional city of Gotham, New York, which is a postmodern setting that makes us aware of facing widespread social meltdown in which it is becoming increasingly more difficult to make a separation between law and anarchy, heroism and terrorism, and sanity and madness. This shifting, sliding, disintegrating world is clearly portrayed in all of Nolan’s, Moore’s and Azzarello’s work.
This postmodern setting, an arguably dystopian Gotham, is infested with crime and corruption, and fear and mistrust is abound- the people of the city cannot trust the authorities, nor can they trust any of the social or political institutions that they were brought up to believe in. This reflects the postmodern idea of disintegration- the dissolving of social norms and institutions on which many people based their lives, the removal of the “absolute”.
The issues that the citizens of Gotham face are not merely about right and wrong, or good and evil, they are vicious moral dilemmas presented by psychopathic and unpredictable villains. Also, the hyperrealistic nature of the violence that is depicted in both the films and the graphic novels is also a postmodern aspect of these texts.
For example, in the graphic novel, Joker, when a mob boss who went against the Joker was flayed alive and paraded on to a strip club stage; or when Harvey Dent’s hired detective/thug is shot in the head and hung upside down from a tree on the grounds of Dent’s mansion and Dent finds him in the morning, dripping brain matter over his newspaper. Hyperreality is a deliberate blurring of the boundaries between fantasy and reality, and the portrayal of hyperreal violence in postmodern texts is common, as they distort reality through a trivialization of violence and the effects it has upon human beings.
Hyperreal violence is also found in the novel American Psycho, in which Patrick Bateman, a yuppie Wall Street banker by day, and psychotic murderer by night, commits gruesome murders and sexual acts constantly throughout the novel, which are described with chillingly accurate detail. By the end of the novel, the reader is numbed to the graphic descriptions of violence and gore, accepting them as part of his everyday life, just as normal as him going to work and engaging in mindless conversation with his colleagues.
However, in American Psycho, the most obvious, and most often seen, characteristic of postmodernism is its constant references to brand names, pop culture and the corporate world that Bateman is a part of. As the novel is written in a stream-of-consciousness style from Bateman’s point of view, the reader sees his thoughts as he passes shallow, superficial judgment on virtually everyone he sees. Bateman’s thoughts as he and his girlfriend Evelyn attend a party are a good indication of the tone of the novel:
“Evelyn and I are by far the best-dressed couple. I’m wearing a lamb’s wool topcoat, a wool jacket with wool flannel trousers, a cotton shirt, a cashmere V-neck sweater and a silk tie, all from Armani. Evelyn’s wearing a cotton blouse by Dolce do Gabbana, suede shoes by Yves Saint Laurent, a stenciled calf skirt by Adrienne Landau with a suede belt by Jill Stuart, Calvin Klein tights, Venetian-glass earrings by Frances Patiky Stein, and clasped in her hand is a single white rose that I bought at a Korean deli before Carruthers’ limousine picked me up.
Carruthers is wearing a lamb’s wool sport coat, a cashmere/vicuña cardigan sweater, cavalry twill trousers, a cotton shirt and a silk tie, all from Hermès. (“How tacky,” Evelyn whispered to me; I silently agreed.) Courtney is wearing a triple-layered silk organdy top and a long velvet skirt with a fishtail hem, velvet-ribbon and enamel earrings by José and Maria Barrera, gloves by Portolano and shoes from Gucci.”
The constant allusions to brand names, fashion trends and collections, make the novel a part of, and a product of, the world outside of the text, the consumerist society we have today. Unlike the fictional, dystopian city that Batman and the Joker live in, Bateman lives in a world that we are easily able to relate to- our world. We, as the reader, have our attention called to the fact that the world the characters in the novel are experiencing is the same world that we live and take part in.
This is unlike most modernist novels, in which the story and its characters are confined to the world created in the novel, and the reader is only able to experience them through the windows of the novel. References to pop culture feature prominently across postmodernist texts, as seen clearly in the film Shrek. Although intended as a children’s film, the films are a perfect example of a postmodern fairytale. The films themselves are extremely intertextual, creating a story with many, many fairytale characters woven into the one story, such as the Wolf from Little Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs, the Fairy Godmother and the Gingerbread Man, among many others.
This intertextuality in itself is a reference to popular culture, citing multiple fairytales, stories, and nursery rhymes for many of the main characters. Other references to the world outside of the text include Robin Hood and his Merry Men dancing to Riverdance; Princess Fiona slowing down in time like Neo in film The Matrix while she is fighting; references to the film The Princess Bride; and mimicking the style of game shows and dating shows, for example when the Mirror on the Wall introduces Princess Fiona in a bachelorette-dating style.
The directors also use irony at the start of the film Shrek, as the beginning scene of the film has a narrator telling the story seriously as a fairytale, when Shrek interrupts this and mocks the author when he says, “Yeah right.” and tears the page out of the book. Not only does the use of irony and humour in this scene make the audience aware that the ogre we are introduced to is not a stereotypical one, we also see an interaction between the author and character, a barrier which is broken in postmodern texts to highlight that the text is a work of fiction.
The audience is also made aware of this as Shrek acknowledges the camera or audience when he turns to the camera and blocks it before kissing Fiona. This shows that the film is self-reflexive, the characters of the film are aware of film-making and its tools. The use of such postmodern techniques embeds the story of Shrek in a world that the audience is aware of, and while it may not fully be the reality we live in, it is one that we have grown up with and are comfortable with. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five uses similar techniques to assert its postmodernism.
It references popular culture, mentioning Christmas carols, novels (a character refers to the novel “The Brothers Karamazov”, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, as “everything there was to know about life”) and history books about one of the main events of the novel, the fire-bombing of Dresden. However, despite these links to the outside world, the reader gets constant reminders of the fact that this book is fictional.
The author, Vonnegut is present as a character in the book, as a soldier, a POW taken to Dresden along with Billy, making occasional comments, and then informing the reader that “That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.” The intrusion of the author into the narrative is also shown through the recurring phrase “So it goes”, which follows each mention of death:
“The plane crashed on top of Sugarbush Mountain, in Vermont. Everyone was killed but Billy. So it goes. While Billy was recuperating in a hospital in Vermont, his wife died accidentally of carbon-monoxide poisoning. So it goes.”
The use of the non-linear narrative structure is also a postmodern aspect of the text- the main protagonist travels randomly through time, experiencing the events in non-chronological order. For example, his death is merely four sentences in the middle of the novel, described as merely being “violet light and a hum.”
Similar to American Psycho, the usual significance of death is not present in the novel. However, while in American Psycho the reader was slowly desensitized towards death, in Slaughterhouse-Five, death simply does not matter, which challenges all the readers’ preconceived notions about death, and the sanctity of it.
The temporal structure of the novel reflects what the alien Tralfamadorians teach Billy of their beliefs about time, that it is an “assemblage” of moments rather than a linear progression. This means that they are able to accept death as a perpetually occurring event, hence their use of the phrase “So it goes”.
Another postmodern technique is the use of recurring characters: the character of Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer, appears in Vonnegut’s other novels; Eliot Rosewater appears in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; Howard W. Campbell, the American-turned-Nazi, in Mother Night; and Bertram Copeland Rumfoord is a relative of Winston Niles Rumfoord, who appears in The Sirens of Titan.
These characters that appear over a number of books connects the discrete novels as being part of a greater whole; as being part of a world outside its pages. Vonnegut also blurs the lines of genre in the novel in order to deconstruct the idea of a “war novel”. The novel swings between the genres of science fiction and a biography, and Vonnegut mixes the fantasy of aliens and the planet Tralfamadore with the reality of war, and the author’s presence and experiences of it.
The term “postmodernism” sweeps many different, and seemingly unrelated, texts under its wide reaches, but most such texts use similar postmodern techniques to achieve the ultimate effect- of making the reader aware of the text as a work of fiction, and as an entity that exists as a part of a greater whole, rather than an object existing in a world defined by itself.
In what ways are the heroes or villains of these texts postmodern?
With the ideological, cultural, and social upheaval that was present during the time of the birth of postmodernism, a new protagonist was born, which redefined our existing notions and stereotypes about the nature of these protagonists- the antihero. Defined as being the main character of a text, who does not possess the qualities of a traditional “hero”, the character appears in postmodern texts regularly.
With the movement of heroes away from the expected “good”, we are also able to see changes in the villains of texts, and these revolutionary changes in the idea of heroes and villains, which comes down to the primal, instinctive battle between good and evil, can be seen through postmodern texts.
The character of Batman is an incredibly complex one, having heroic qualities yet not conforming to the stereotype of “superheroes”, the strong, powerful men or women with a heart of gold, using their powers for the good of mankind. Batman is postmodern in that he breaks the mold for a traditional “superhero”, and rejects the story arc for one.
His whole journey started not from a need of his to create good, but a twisted sense of revenge for his parents’ death, and in order to become develop his fighting skills. After his parents’ murderer is killed, Bruce Wayne leaves Gotham and disappears for 7 years, “exploring the criminal fraternity”, and training with the League of Shadows. He obviously has a different set of morals than what is expected, when asked by Henri Ducard whether he pitied the criminals while he lived with them, he says, “The first time I stole so I wouldn’t starve, yes, I lost many assumptions about the simple nature of right and wrong.”
The recurring idea throughout the texts containing Batman is that he is not a hero, but he is “whatever Gotham needs him to be”, he is a symbol for good, a symbol for the hope of a new, functional Gotham. “As a man, I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed, but as a symbol… But as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting…” In this way, he is astoundingly similar to Patrick Bateman. Patrick Bateman exists not as a person, but as a reflection of the society that he is a part of.
He is an image created to fit the standards and ideologies of the society he lives in. “…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.”
Through the texts, we also see that the Joker is very similar to Batman, and this is what makes their relationship so psychologically complex. They are, in a way, similar to the two sides of a coin. As the Joker says to Batman, “I complete you.” The relationship between the hero and the villain is subverted and made incredibly ambiguous.
Just as the Joker is a villain who does not observe even the basic rules of criminality by which society might identify and punish him, Batman is a hero who does not observe even the basic rules of heroism so that society might recognise and glorify him. The Killing Joke ends with Batman capturing the Joker, but deciding not to kill him, and offering to help rehabilitate him, because he “needn’t be out there on the edge anymore. You needn’t be alone… Maybe I’ve been there too.
Maybe I can help.” And they laugh together at a joke that the Joker tells him, which only reinforces their similarities, and the fact that they can both understand each other. The Joker, at one point in the Dark Knight, also says to Batman that they are both “freaks”. And they are, both characters being outcasts of society. But while the Joker is there willingly because of his own calculating inhumanity, Batman is the scapegoat, the reluctant outcast who takes upon himself the violence of society and its corrupted institutions, in order that its illusions of law and order might be preserved, because he rationalizes that he is “whatever Gotham needs me to be…
Because that’s what needs to happen. Because sometimes, truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more; sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” The story of Batman and the Joker is postmodern in that it subverts most of the expected story arcs of both superheroes, and supervillains. It shows that these two need each other to be effective. The Joker we see simultaneously seduces and repels, fascinates and horrifies, and he provides the inescapable force which Batman’s own persona is dependent upon.
The character of the Joker is also very similar to Patrick Bateman, both displaying hyperreal violence in their villainy, and being incredibly unreliable narrators. In the Killing Joke, The Joker says, “”Something like that happened to me, you know. I… I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! Ha ha ha!” Similarly, in American Psycho, we are unable to trust the memories of a psychopath, shown by his blank “But I don’t remember…” statements when recounting his murders and sexual exploits.
Also, when we find that one of Bateman’s victims, a colleague of his named Paul Owen, is actually alive at the end of the book, we find ourselves being sure of the entire story- his character, the plot and definitely his grisly tales of murder and torture. Bateman and the Joker are both psychopaths- and in some ways, they are both forces of anarchy in their societies, the Joker being an elemental force unconstrained by any glimmer of humanity, fear or vulnerability. As he claims in the Dark Knight, “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.”
Meanwhile, Bateman has no regard for people as everything in his world is purely material- he does not care when he kills, as all he feels he is killing is an “Armani pantsuit”. Neither of these characters have an object nor a goal towards which they work, as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler says, “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought or bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men want to watch the world burn.” However, while the Joker is invincible due to his absolute freedom from pain and any other human attachment, Bateman is confined to the expectations of his status and social culture.
Bateman heavily refers to popular culture throughout Psycho, keeping up a steady stream of superficial commentary on all aspects of his life. In this way, the character of Shrek is similar to Bateman, as he also lives in a world where advertising, brand names, and social standing play a major part in one’s life. However, looking at the characters, they are clear opposites- while Bateman has embraced the shallow culture of his time, and practices it dutifully, the society of Shrek’s time has turned him into a hardened cynic, one who would rolls his eyes whenever his companions would make a frivolous comment.
This is related to the fact that Shrek is an ogre, and the film subverts the stereotype of the ogre as a villain, by molding him as the hero, and the actual Prince Charming as the whiny, cowardly villain of the film. This challenges conventional thinking, since we, the audience, have been conditioned to think of ogres as “evil” creatures who eat people and have no mercy. Through this film, we see that this is actually not the case; traditional villains can also become valiant heroes, given the right setting and sidekick.
Billy Pilgrim, a cowardly, weak, time-travelling optometrist who is the protagonist of the novel Slaughterhouse-Five, is an unlikely war hero. He is weak, unpopular and pathetic to the audience, and becomes a laughable soldier. Even as a time traveler, he is described as a “spastic in time”. He is postmodern in the development of his character as an “anti-hero”, an ordinary, if slightly on the pathetic side of ordinary, man.
The story is driven the other the events more than the protagonist, since he is unable to be determined and strong-minded enough to change the world, or even his social world, neither positively nor negatively. He is another unreliable narrator, when he tells the world of his tales about the Tralfamadorians, he is taken to be insane, and not believed.
Because he is such a weak character, he does not contradict the fact, but neither does he support it, and so the reader is still unsure at the end of the novel whether his tales of Tralfamadore were true, or whether they were merely an elaborate coping mechanism to help deal with the terrible experiences he suffered during the war.
Billy Pilgrim is the ultimate postmodern hero- he is an ordinary person, who is thrust into a difficult situation, and similar to large majority of humanity, does nothing heroic or commendable. Through this, we also come to the realization that for every lauded, decorated war hero, there were hundreds of other “average” ones, and Billy Pilgrim is a perfect example of one.
Through the analysis of these heroes and villains, we are able to see that postmodernism does indeed challenge the traditional notion of a clear cut hero and villain. Just as postmodernism blurs the lines of reality in texts, it also blurs the lines in our mind separating the good and the bad. Postmodernism depicts a much more realistic hero, an increasingly more human one, who makes mistakes, is determined by what society makes it, and sometimes, does nothing heroic at all.
He or she is present in postmodern texts generally not to inspire, like a classic hero, but to make the audience realize a truth about their lives, their societies, and the world around them. Villainy is depicted as a result of something, rather than a character trait. Postmodernism claims that villains are created by the expectations of society, and are therefore, an essential part of the heroes they work against.
How did the external world influence the rise of postmodernism?
The birth of postmodernism has been linked back to the political atmosphere of the time, in the atrocities of Stalinism. This, along with the horrors of Nazism, and the Holocaust, completely undermined the modernist narrative of progress, and the ability of language to describe such an incomprehensible atrocity. Thus, postmodernism was born, an era which looked not to change the world, but to redefine it, to make people look at truths differently.
Postmodernist authors reveal many of the concerns of the world today, by both realistically and symbolically representing our world, our societies, through their texts and characters, and making commentary on them. For example, Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five as a response to war- “It is so short and jumbled and jangled, because there is nothing intelligent to say about as massacre.”
The story is very jumbled, written satirically based on Vonnegut’s own experiences in WWII and being a witness to the firebombing of Dresden, which killed 130,000 people. The use of a pathetic protagonist indicates his anti-war stance- the novel was published in 1969, when USA was in the midst of the Vietnam War. During this time, Vonnegut was an outspoken pacifist, and critic of the war.
Just like Vonnegut’s novel is social commentary of the issue of his time, Bret Easton Ellis uses American Psycho to explore newer, more disturbing trends in Western culture. He looks at the desensitization of our culture to violence, the increasingly gory films, novels and graphic novels we are exposed to, and how this tendency of the media can find its way back to people who are easily influenced by it, such as Bateman.
He also criticizes our obsession with popular culture, image and brand names, by portraying his protagonist, a man with the perfect face, the perfect clothes, and the perfect image, as a psychopath, a man who kills for the fun of it at night. The popular-culture-mania of our time is also explored in Shrek, as it is a children’s movie, and even children when they watch it, recognize the references to other fairytales and brand names. This reflects how we are conditioned to believe and understand popular culture from a very young age.
The story of Batman and the Joker, on the other hand, delves a little deeper into the issues of our society. They uncover the crisis of values in which America, and most of the western world, finds itself at the beginning of the 21st century.
Cultural theorists portrayed the late 20th century in terms of “the postmodern condition”: an era in which traditional values, identities and social institutions were disintegrating and being replaced by twisted narratives, conflicting truth claims and multiple identities. Gotham City reflects what our society may be looking forward to, with the increasing fragmentation of our world into splintered groups and subgroups.
Where does that leave us?
The era of postmodernism is one that is difficult to define, but it still heralded as a time of immense cultural change, which redefined the way people look at the world today. This can be especially seen in its portrayal of heroes and villains. Gone are the days macho superheroes, instead we have flawed, sometimes even pathetic protagonists, the “anti-hero” which is increasingly similar to the ordinary person.
The villains, on the other hand, are unreliable, and cannot always be expected to do the “evil” thing, they too are human; they too have backstory which elicits sympathy from the audience. By subverting the traditional stereotypes about the world today postmodern authors and directors warn us of the dangers of human nature and culture, and the bleak future we may be looking forward to, if we let the dangerous behaviour of our culture continue.
Adamson, Andrew and Jenson, Vicky. (2001) Shrek, Dreamworks Pictures Accessed 11/07/12
Adamson, Glen, et al. (2011) Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990. London: V&A Publishing. Accessed on 26/07/12
Azzarello, Brian (writer), Bermejo, Lee (artist), Gray, Mick (illustrator).] (2008) Joker. DC Comics Accessed on 26/07/12
Ellis, Bret Easton. (1991) American Psycho. New York: Vintage Books. Accessed 31/08/12
Moore, Alan (writer), Bolland, Brian (artist). (1988) The Killing Joke, DC Comics.
Nolan, Christopher. (2005) Batman Begins, Warner Bros. Pictures Accessed 14/07/12
Nolan, Christopher. (2008) The Dark Knight, Warner Bros. Pictures Accessed 14/07/12
Vonnegut, Kurt. (2003) Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Harper Collins. Accessed 26/7/12
Wilcox, Leonard. Programme Coordinator of American Studies at University of Canterbury, interview on 12/09/12.