“Some Days You Just Can’t Get Rid of a Bomb”: the Nuclear Test Film, Uplifting Kitsch, and Batman: The Movie

MAPH THESIS AWARDS 2013 By Michelle Neuffer

 

Towards the end of Batman: The Movie (1966), Batman and Robin chase a submarine manned by the franchise’s most recognizable villains—The Penguin, The Riddler, The Joker, and Catwoman—who have formed the United Underworld under the common cause of world domination. To that end, the villains have kidnapped the members of the United World Organization’s Security Council (a fictional version of the United Nations). Batman and Robin, driving a speedboat bearing Batman’s insignia, chase the submarine in which the villains have escaped with the council members, and are forced to dodge a homing missile—clearly marked with the word “Polaris”—fired from the fleeing submarine. After Robin jams the homing device’s signal with the Bat-radio, the missile explodes underwater, and Robin, using his signature catchphrase, exclaims, “Holy bikini, Batman! That was close!” Disaster averted, Batman and Robin board the submarine and continue to save the day.

The significance of Robin’s ostensibly innocuous catchphrase becomes clear once we look beyond the surfmissace of the scene, as the heroes’ straight-faced earnestness (when juxtaposed with the film’s campy humor) continually invites us to do. The Polaris missile, for example, was the first submarine-launched ballistic missile used by the United States Navy. It was equipped with a nuclear warhead and successfully launched for the first time in 1960 (Gibson 33). The cinematic missile, shown through Robin’s binoculars in a series of close-ups, is thus marked, at least implicitly, as a nuclear device. The presence of the bomb is further underscored by Robin’s exclamation; the bikini swimsuit, which was expected to be just as shocking as the bombing of Japan, was named after the atoll where nuclear testing took place in the 1950s. Moreover, the setting and the reference to Bikini have a cynical and disturbing historical significance. On March 1, 1954, the Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru, which was 87 miles from the Bikini test site (“that was close”), was exposed to fallout from the Castle Bravo thermonuclear test (Miller 194). Eight months after the incident, the radio operator on the ship died, prompting The Washington Post to declare him, “the world’s first fatality from a hydrogen bomb blast” (Haseltine 46). With this context in mind, Batman becomes much more than a vehicle to drum up publicity for a television show; it becomes, in fact, a way of disassociating from the awful possibilities of nuclear power by recontextualizing the response to it as humorous, however black that humor may be.

The ability of Batman to slip into the register of the ridiculous (“Holy bikini!”) distances the film from the very real social and political claims it is making. The film contains several critiques of 1960s dominant ideology, particularly with relation to homosexuality. These critiques are winkingly expressed through the film’s ridiculous humor, which produces pleasure for viewers savvy enough to be in on the joke. Batman’s treatment of the bomb, however, functions a bit differently than its subversive jabs at heteronormativity when examined in the context of the bomb’s early reception in the U.S. This paper claims that Batman regards the bomb as a cause for a kind of gallows optimism, an optimism achieved through the depiction of the bomb as a weapon so devastating that it is essentially ridiculous. This approach is comparable to the satirical humor in Dr. Strangelove (1964). But while that film forms an immediately identifiable opinion about what the production of a “Doomsday Device” means for humanity, Batman registers nuclear anxiety without directly attacking it, without, in fact, forming an explicit opinion on it either way.

In her article “The Caped Crusader of Camp: Pop, Camp, and the Batman Television Series,” Sasha Torres describes the show as a “mass-cultural popularization and cannibalization” of “important political and artistic moments of the 1960s counterculture” (336). Torres locates Batman’s countercultural sensibilities in its homoerotic subtexts, arguing that the representation of Batman “has been organized not only by the generic obsessions that are the superhero’s stock in trade—the promise of technology, the limits of masculine agency, the role of the vigilante in the ideology of law and order—but also by the difficulties of managing the question of homo-hetero definition that Batman continually begs” (336). Torres argues that these subtexts find their expression through the show’s heavy use of camp. But the film’s use of camp, irony, and parody rejects more than mainstream heteronormativity. Its homosexual subtexts contribute to a tongue-in-cheek subversion of the 1960s dominant ideology, which, amidst growing Cold War and emerging Civil Rights tensions, is preoccupied, essentially, with the same “obsessions” that Torres attributes to the superhero genre. It is perhaps because of these obsessions that the superhero genre—the Batman franchise in particular—has endured as a site of political commentary.

To understand how Batman could arrive at a depiction of the bomb that is at once cynical and optimistic, it is necessary to examine how the bomb was portrayed in the 1950s, and why this portrayal led to a depiction such as that which appears in Batman. Generally, the era known as the “Nuclear Age” in America—commonly thought to start in 1945 and last through the late 1960s—is characterized by a sense of fear or anxiety surrounding the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the implications of the effects of the bomb on human civilization. This time period is also often viewed nostalgically—particularly by neoconservative movements grounded in Reagan administration ideology—as a simpler, unsophisticated era, in which (among its other imagined virtues) America was an unrivaled scientific and military superpower. Americans were, often simultaneously, both fearful about the destructive capacity of the bomb and hopeful about the uses of nuclear power. In many ways, the bomb came to symbolize American innovation, leadership, and scientific promise.atomic cake

But how did this view of nuclear power arise so shortly after the world witnessed the unthinkable destruction of which the bomb was capable? In By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age, Paul Boyer describes a fascination with nuclear power and the bomb that began long before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and which the American public was reluctant to surrender afterwards. He states, “exciting developments were…transmitted to the outside world by science writers who speculated freely about their practical applications” (110). He describes visions of atomic cars, “atomic-energy vitamin tablets,” and inexpensive energy resources and environmental solutions (one of which involved melting the polar ice cap to give the world a warmer climate) (112). This speculation continued in science writing and news media even after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Boyer states, “such pronouncements, ranging from the merely unrealistic to the totally bizarre, took on a formulaic, almost hypnotic quality, as if the entire nation were caught up in a kind of collective trance about the nuclear Utopia ahead” (114). This excitement about the possibilities of nuclear energy functions, like Batman does over 20 years later, as a way of disassociating from the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by recontextualizing the value of the bomb. But the bomb was a very real device that Americans had to confront, not least because it was being tested in the Nevada desert. Much the same way as the abundance of speculation worked immediately following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an abundance of images of the bomb provided a more comfortable way of imagining it. One way this was accomplished was through the nuclear test film.

Operation Cue (1955) is a film of the “Apple-2” nuclear test explosion that was produced by the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) to educate the public on ways to survive a nuclear attack. The goal of the test itself was to research how various types of construction materials, food, and textiles stood up to an atomic blast. In her book on the nuclear tests in Nevada, Costandina Titus explains that this was accomplished through the creation of “Doom Towns,” in which elaborate homes were built and stocked with furniture, magazines, and mannequins standing in for “Mr. and Mrs. America” (Bombs in the Backyard 63). As the female narrator of Operation Cue attests, the “Doom Towns” were to encompass “the things we use in our everyday lives.” The film, which was broadcast on television, meant to encourage viewers to take personal responsibility for their own safety in the event of nuclear warfare. In his article on the various types of test films and the audiences for which they were intended, Joe Masco states that “viewers were invited to think of themselves as mannequins caught in an unannounced nuclear attack and to watch Operation Cue for signs of what their post-nuclear environment would be like,” underscoring the film’s optimism concerning the probability of surviving a nuclear attack and its emphasis on preparedness, an emphasis that Batman also registers (28).

The voiceover of Operation Cue has a question-and-answer structure that implies governmental willingness to divulge information both about its nuclear tests and about the effects of the bomb. The female narrator, ostensibly a reporter covering the test, describes elements of test preparation. Her commentary and questions are answered by a male narrator, whom the reporter introduces as “the official who is to brief me.” An example of the exchanges of the two narrators can be found in their descriptions of the “Mr. and Mrs. America” mannequins. Over shots of the mannequins being carried into the houses and positioned watching TV or lying in bed, the female narrator says, “I looked at the mannequins sitting about so indifferently…naturally I was very interested in preparations for the testing of textiles and synthetic fabrics.” Over a close-up of a female mannequin positioned eerily against the empty desert background, the male narrator responds, “Rows of mannequins were set up in the open facing the blast. Each item of clothing and each color had been carefully selected to give much needed survival information.” Most of the narration follows this format: the female narrator describing the scene emotionally (“as a mother and housewife”) and the male narrator responding with the “official” purpose of the scenario. The emphasis on gender roles—the concerned mother and housewife, the knowledgeable military scientist representing the State—highlights the film’s concern with normativity, indicating that stereotypical “American values” will maintain order at least as much as more practical forms of preparedness might.

This question and answer narration mirrors the question and answer set up by the film’s stated goal: what happens to the houses, mannequins, textiles, and food that we’ve seen so meticulously constructed? After the blast, we see a rhyming shot of the same female mannequin and a technician lifting the folds of its dress, only this time the female narrator cheerfully asks, “Do you remember this young lady? This tattoo mark was left beneath the dark pattern.” We can see that the pattern of the mannequin’s dress is scorched onto its slip. No mention is made of the mannequin’s blackened limbs, which probably didn’t require any extra emphasis for the millions of flesh and blood “Mr. and Mrs. Americas” watching at home. Similarly elided is the danger of radiation, which isn’t mentioned at all in the film. But this elision is less surprising when considered alongside the goals of the tests at the Nevada Test Site. Whereas Operation Cue positions the test as an exercise fundamentally concerned with preparedness, the real purpose of the nuclear test explosions was to justify further testing and the creation of a nuclear arsenal in the face of the Communist threat (Bombs in the Backyard 74). However much the film seeks to allay anxiety and paranoia surrounding the bomb, the tests were as much a product of that anxiety as they were deliberately constitutive of it. The only way to garner public support for a program such as the tests in Nevada in the wake of WWII was to convince the public that nuclear energy was a positive scientific development of which the bomb was only a small part, and, furthermore, that the effects of that bomb would not be so devastating as to kill everyone. The idea was that if another bomb was dropped, U.S. citizens could be prepared enough to survive what the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could not.

The extreme under-reactions of the narrators to the effects of the bomb in Operation Cue are all the more noticeable given the emphasis placed on the power of the blast—more than a full minute of the sixteen-minute film is devoted to the countdown, detonation, and destruction. Moreover, the first two minutes of the film are devoted to a textual explanation of the yield and blast radius of the bomb. The blast is represented from several angles: as a brilliant flash illuminating the watching soldiers and civilians, as a mushroom cloud, and finally as a set of shockwaves blowing the desert sand over the test houses and radio towers before incinerating them. The final shot of this sequence is of a child-sized mannequin, positioned next to the window of one of the test houses, as the bomb explodes and the camera is ultimately obscured by debris. Watching the film now, after years of being inundated with images of the mushroom cloud, it is difficult to imagine anyone being reassured by this display, despite the evident message that knowledge is power. Perhaps, over and above its message of preparedness, this inundation was precisely the point of films like Operation Cue. Titus argues that the effect of inundating audiences with images of the bomb was, in fact, as simultaneously (and perhaps paradoxically) reassuring and awe-inspiring in the 1950s as it is desensitizing now (“The Mushroom Cloud as Kitsch” 102). In this view, the mushroom cloud can be considered a form of what Saul Friedlander termed “uplifting kitsch” in his book discussing the uses of mass-produced images in Nazism. Uplifting kitsch moves the concept of kitsch away from its roots in lowbrow art and into the realm of politics; it is a version of kitsch that is “rooted, symbol-cultured, and emotionally linked to the values of a specific group” (104).

It is evident in Titus’ explanation of the uses and abilities of uplifting kitsch how well it and the goals of Operation Cue align: “it helps people cope with traumatic change and endows them with hope by promoting the belief that they can create a better world de novo if they only have the power, the knowledge, and the right-mindedness…it becomes a reinforcing symbol, a bonding force that aestheticizes destruction and makes it acceptable” (104). Viewed in this light, Operation Cue becomes more than a simple propaganda film. It becomes, as Masco argues, a way of making the threat of the bomb normative, not only by weaving the specter of the bomb into “our everyday lives,” but by forcing the viewer to contemplate the inconceivable until it becomes commonplace. By showing the blast of an atom bomb from angle after angle until it is no longer shocking, the film makes the blast seem inevitable (29). After all, by the time we see the shot of the child-mannequin next to the window, we know what his fate will be—we’ve just seen versions of his house, which is to say versions of our house, explode three times in quick succession.

Imagery of the mushroom cloud began to appear everywhere in the latter half of the 50s: on postcards, on album covers, in advertisements, even in the form of a “Miss Atomic Bomb beauty pageant” in Las Vegas (108). However, according to Titus, by the early 1960s, Cold War tensions as well as unrest related to the Civil Rights movement caused the mushroom cloud’s Miss-Atomic-1957prevalence as a cultural symbol of American military and scientific supremacy to fade away (109).  It would resurface as a symbol for antiwar protests and further shift the focus on the effects of the bomb

In her definition of kitsch, Titus also mentions camp, which she defines as “the self-conscious use of kitsch” (104). This definition of camp implies something like intention, or the strategic application of kitsch. In his chapter on “Uses of Camp,” Andrew Ross explains the distinction and relationship between the two:

kitsch [is] more often seen as [a quality] of objects, while camp tends to refer to a subjective process: camp, as Thomas Hess put it, ‘exists in the smirk of the beholder.’…The line between kitsch and camp partially reflects a division of audience labor between, in camp terminology, ignorati and cognoscenti. The producer or consumer of kitsch is likely to be unaware of the extent to which his or her intentions or pretensions are reified and alienated in the kitsch object itself. Camp, on the other hand, involves a celebration, on the part of the cognoscenti, of the alienation, distance, and incongruity reflected in the very process by which hitherto unexpected value can be located in some obscure or exorbitant object. (145)

 

Ross’ definition places the burden of recognizing camp squarely on the spectator, the “cognoscenti,” a viewer who is well informed enough about the object in question to appreciate its camp value. The idea of such a spectator appreciating the mobilization of uplifting kitsch shows us how something like Batman: The Movie could arise out of the same zeitgeist that produced films like Operation Cue. Boyer explains how in the early 1960s there was “a sharp decline in culturally expressed engagement of the [nuclear] issue” (355). He lists several possible reasons, including “the illusion of diminished risk,” “the promise of a world transformed by nuclear energy,” the “comfort of deterrence theory,” and the likelihood that “the Vietnam War absorbed nearly every available drop in antiwar energy” (357-58).

Boyer also notes that another possible reason for the disappearance of the bomb from the imagery of popular culture was the fact that “the nuclear arms race—theoretical, remote, largely invisible—was ill-suited to the insatiable visible demands of television;” the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty effectively put an end to televised broadcasts of tests such as Operation Cue (357). But perhaps it is also true that the American public was simply unable to resolve its fear of the bomb, and so channeled it into other areas. By 1966, as the Nuclear Age waned, it is possible that Americans had tired of devoting anxiety to an issue that had no foreseeable possibility of closure, and so adjusted their reaction to it from anxiety to laughter, a form incredibly well-suited to television. It is significant that Batman: The Movie was created as a way to generate publicity for the television show from which it spun off. In his essay on television genre theory, Jason Mittell states, “Television programs explicitly cite generic categories, and advertising, promotions, parodies, and intertextual references within shows are all vital sites of generic discursive practices” (9). Operation Cue, in its advocacy of preparedness and proactive knowledge, enacted a discursive practice that linked nuclear paranoia with spectatorship and citizenship. Batman, in both its television and film incarnations, gestures toward this linkage but ultimately subverts it through camp.

In “Survival is Your Business”: Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America,” Masco emphasizes the impact the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which Boyer credits for the illusion of diminished risk, had on the shift in expression of nuclear anxiety:

The elimination of aboveground tests had two immediate effects: (1) it changed the terms of the public discourse about the bomb, as the state no longer had to rationalize the constant production of mushroom clouds and the related health concerns over radioactive fallout to U.S. citizens, and (2) it locked in place the visual record of the bomb. Thus, the visual record of the 1945-63 aboveground test program, with its deep implication in manipulating public opinions and emotions, remains the visual record of the bomb to this day. (378)

This argument explains, in part, the how the mushroom cloud became shorthand for the bomb and the zeitgeist surrounding it post-WWII, as well as explaining how the use of the mushroom cloud as kitsch originates directly from the nuclear test film. It also shows us how the fear of the bomb turned into distrust of a government that undertook not only a program of nuclear testing but also of propaganda meant to obscure the implications and potential outcomes of those tests. Perhaps inevitably, by the 1960s the use of the mushroom cloud was no longer uplifting; rather, it had become cynical and susceptible to the gallows optimism evinced in Batman.

This cynicism may seem like a sharp contrast to, for example, the cheerful commentary on the state of the mannequins’ apparel after the bomb test in Operation Cue. But we can look at the unironic glossing over of the devastating effects of the bomb in that film as well as the almost frenzied proliferation of imagery of the bomb and the mushroom cloud as something that, through its complete lack of irony, necessitated a “self-conscious use of kitsch.” Torres argues that much of the pleasure found in Batman derives from its “covert critiques” of suburbia and the heteronormative family structure, or, put another way, “Mr. and Mrs. America” (340). But Batman’s commentary extends to more than suburbia, as evidenced by its repeated, albeit veiled, references to the bomb. A straightforward critique of the mobilization of the bomb’s uplifting kitsch would mean a critique of America’s role in WWII, and the American response to the bomb, that viewers in the U.S. were unlikely to have enough hindsight to accept in 1966. But what Torres describes as “the show’s parodic hyperseriousness” allows viewers to access the irony so lacking in texts like Operation Cue (338). Ross reiterates “Sontag’s formation of ‘the ultimate Camp statement; it’s good because it’s awful,” and elaborates that it is “a darker, more gruesome side” to the passion of the spectator of the camp object (152). In this definition, we can see how camp is the perfect expression of Batman’s treatment of the bomb: good because it’s awful, funny because it’s so gravely serious.

Batman opens with an “Acknowledgment,” which reads: “We wish to express our gratitude to the enemies of crime and crusaders against crime throughout the world for their inspirational example.” This part of the acknowledgement, with its emphasis on “crusaders…throughout the world,” could be read as a nod to the ongoing Vietnam War (which, as an undeclared war, was officially described as a global police action, something akin to international crime-fighting) as well as mounting Cold War tensions, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, which occurred just a few years before Batman’s release. After a cut to a black screen and a pan of the spotlight to a concrete wall, we see the second part of the acknowledgement: “To them, and to lovers of adventure, lovers of pure escapism, lovers of unadulterated entertainment, lovers of the ridiculous and the bizarre—To fun-lovers everywhere—This picture is respectfully dedicated.”

The latter half of the acknowledgement changes the mood considerably, from “enemies of crime” to “lovers of pure escapism” and “inspirational examples” to “fun-lovers everywhere.” The acknowledgement thus sets up a recurring theme of Batman, one that continually aligns Batman and Robin—whom the narrator describes in the opening sequence as “courageous warriors against crime”—with the ridiculous, even setting them up as objects of ridicule. The acknowledgement is crucial in that it posits crime fighters and “lovers of the ridiculous” as, potentially, one and the same. In his Poetics, Aristotle describes comedy as “imitating the ugly, of which the ludicrous is one part…the comic mask is something ugly and distorted but painless” (Poetics pt. 7, para. 35). The comedy in Batman functions along these lines. Rather than outright mocking crime fighters—or perhaps more precisely, the institutions they uphold and to which they belong—the film positions crime fighting as something that necessitates escapism and even, as the rest of the film’s treatment of Batman and Robin repeatedly suggests, as an essentially ridiculous occupation. A “covert critique” such as this, one that grounds itself in the ridiculous and that appealed to “fun-lovers everywhere”, is able to recuperate something like nuclear disasterwhich is surely both ugly and ludicrousby rendering it painless. Batman thus resists forming an explicit opinion on the uses of nuclear power by shifting the criticism onto the follies of its heroes.

The first image following the opening credits is a long shot of a yacht on the ocean, which the narrator informs us “is bringing a revolutionary scientific invention to Gotham City.” We then see Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson rushing through the ritual leading to their costuming as Batman and Robin (running through Wayne Manor, sliding down fire poles into the Batcave, flipping the “instant costume change” lever as they go) while the narrator continues, informing us that the yacht and the invention onboard are in “grave danger.” Batman and Robin take the Batmobile to the airport, where they switch to the Batcopter in order to catch up to the endangered yacht. As they fly toward the beach, we see a continuation of the theme of thanking the crime fighters. A group of women in bikinis excitedly wave up at the helicopter, a trio of police officers gazing skyward remove their hats (Batman reciprocates the thanks with a solemn thumbs up), and a man having a picnic with his wife remarks, “It gives a feller a good feeling to know they’re up there doing their job.” This scene underscores the particular way of life that Batman and Robin exist to protect, and, though it can’t be read as quintessentially American, it nonetheless (and with a relatively small amount of irony) holds law and order in at least as high regard as bikini-clad women.

The opening sequence, which begins with the notion of a “fantastic new invention” and culminates in a long shot of the Batcave encompassing its various computers, radar screens, and blinking lights, also sets up two more themes that recur throughout the film: technology and preparedness. It is a long-running joke of the Batman television series that Batman has a gadget for any and every occasion. 294892-shark-repellent-bat-sprayThe film is no exception. When a shark attacks him later in the film, Batman not only has shark repellent spray, but a close-up reveals an entire shelf full of “Oceanic Repellent Bat Sprays,” including whale repellent and barracuda repellent (all of which he, for some reason, stores in his helicopter). Though obviously intended for comedic effect, it is nonetheless reassuring that a “courageous warrior against crime” such as Batman would be prepared for any eventuality, including, but certainly not limited to, shark attacks. When taken with the “good feeling” inspired in knowing that Batman and Robin are “doing their job,” this kind of preparedness seems to gesture to a kind of technological utopianism in which mankind can be defended from any threat if the right gadgets are available. This discourse on the link between citizenship and technology both acknowledges and subverts the kind of preparedness advocated by Operation Cue. In “Survival is Your Business” Masco argues that the artificial city created within Operation Cue

created an idealized consumer dream space and fused it with the bomb, creating the very vocabulary for thinking about the nuclear emergency that continues to inform U.S. politics…Thus, the motto of Operation Cue ‘Survival is Your Business’…reveals the formal project of the nuclear state, underscoring the link between the production of threat, its militarized response, and the Cold War economic program. (378)

 

Batman’s emphasis on preparedness as the key to Batman and Robin’s success certainly echoes the “consumer dream space” put forth by Operation Cue, supported further by the seemingly limitless funds that allow Bruce Wayne to acquire this assortment of gadgets and an enormous mansion in which to house them. Survival (both his own and that of the citizens of Gotham City) is, literally, Batman’s business. But the reassurance the film invests in Batman’s preparedness for any eventuality is negated by the repeated evidence that Batman’s gadgets are the only thing standing between Gotham and its demise. After all, Batman is only attacked by a shark in the first place because Robin can’t fly the Batcopter well enough to keep Batman, helplessly dangling from a ladder, out of the water. Where Operation Cue signifies the ability of Mr. and Mrs. America to keep their well-informed heads in a crisis, Batman implies the necessity of gadgets to save Batman and Robin from themselves as much as from the united villains.

Batman and Robin’s status as crime fighters is explicated further during a press conference following the mysterious disappearance of the yacht and the explosion of the shark that had attacked Batman (an explosion unrelated to Batman’s shark repellent spray, as he explains). When Catwoman, disguised as Kitayna Ireyna Tatanya Kerenska Alisoff  (“Kitka”) of the Moscow Bugle, asks that Batman and Robin remove their masks, everyone in the room is shocked. Batman, in all seriousness, explains, “If Robin and I were to remove our masks, the secret of our true identities would be revealed.Moreover, Commissioner Gordon insists that such a revelation would have the effect of  completely destroying their value as ace crime fighters,” highlighting Batman and Robin’s value as able to go above and beyond the roles of ordinary police officers. But the notion of Batman and Robin as “ace crime fighters” is repeatedly undercut, whether through Batman’s inability to recognize that Kitanya is Catwoman in disguise or his hysteria at trying to dispose of a bomb he discovers in the villains’ lair. Even at the film’s resolution their competence is in question; they fail to restore the Security Council correctly and resort to slipping “inconspicuously” away by rappelling down the side of a metropolitan office building. As Batman and Robin explain to Kitka the necessity of their hidden identities, we get one of the film’s best examples of its subversive “parodic hyperseriousness.” Gordon exclaims that Batman and Robin are “fully deputized agents of the law,” and Robin responds in a close-up, “Support your police! That’s our message.” Batman and Robin’s almost painful earnestness in their insistence on their legitimacy as “agents of the law” thus continues the film’s opening conflation of crime fighting with the ridiculous.

World politics is reintroduced later in the film when Batman and Robin discover that the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin, and Catwoman have teamed up (forming the “United Underworld”) and are threatening the “United World Organization’s Security Council,” a version of the United Nations whose mission, according to the delegate from the United Kingdom, “is to pursue peace at all costs.” The supercriminals have stolen the “revolutionary scientific invention” from the yacht, which has turned out to be capable of completely dehydrating a human being, reducing them to a pile of dust (recalling the unfortunate mannequins after the blast in Operation Cue). Batman and Robin learn of the especially horrifying potential of the device when the Penguin sneaks into the Batcave and rehydrates what he refers to as his “guinea pigs” (really, his human test subjects) with irradiated water leftover from the atomic batteries that power the Batmobile, turning the device into a stand-in for a (perhaps atomic) weapon of mass destruction. It is also, like the splitting of the atom, an example of how a seemingly innocuous scientific discovery can have disastrous consequences. Similarly, when Batman and Robin defeat the criminals and discover the vials containing the dehydrated council members, Batman exclaims, “The hope of the entire world, tottering on the brink,” to which Robin replies, “Holy almost!” and Batman continues, “To think it might have been shattered before our very eyes,” perhaps referencing the Cuban Missile Crisis and the threat of mutually assured destruction.

In referencing this threat, however, the film does not go so far as to critique it. When the vials are accidentally smashed, making it impossible to rehydrate the council members and thus restore the hope of the world, the film doesn’t condemn the device that made such a catastrophe possible. Instead, we see Batman and Robin wearing lab coats over their costumes, standing over a “Super Molecular Dust Separator.” When Commissioner Gordon calls for an update on the council, Batman tells him, “There’s always hope,” a bromide that the Commissioner then relays to the President of the United States. When Robin asks whether they shouldn’t “reshuffle” the council members in the hopes of encouraging peace, Batman chides him, “It’s not for mortals like us to tamper with the laws of nature. Indeed…you saw a ghastly example of what happens when one tries to do that.” Ultimately, however, the dust is separated and the council members are rehydrated using the same technology that was used to kill the human guinea pigs earlier.

Batman thus ends with just as much optimism about the uses of technology as it had at the beginning, and humanity’s hope is restored by the “fantastic new invention” after all. However, once rehydrated, none of the council members are speaking their native language. Noticing the mix-up, Batman and Robin escape through a window and use a Bat-rope to rappel down the side of the building, a shot over which the credits roll. Though this reworking of the Tower of Babel story upholds the film’s optimism where gadgets and inventions are concerned, it also speaks to the contradictions inherent in Batman’s depiction of nuclear power. As with the united humanity in the story of the Tower of Babel, the restored forces of the United World Organization could have been capable of greatness and would have proven the redemptive power of a potentially dangerous technology and the people who wield it. Instead, the council members are, though rehydrated and thus saved, doomed to chaos and confusion. Ultimately the tensions surrounding the powers of nuclear energy and the perils of the nuclear bomb remain unresolved. What had potential to be the film’s most overt critique of weaponized atomic power is in fact subsumed by the heroes’ ridiculous escape. As the “Acknowledgement” at the start of the film implied it would be, Batman’s critique of a device capable of causing such chaos is ultimately shifted off of the device itself and onto the heroes who mismanage it. This critique of the human error involved in something like nuclear disaster or mutually assured destruction recalls again critiques such as Dr. Strangelove or Fail-Safe (1964). However, while these films indict the people responsible for their respective disasters, Batman uses its incompetent heroes as a diversion to literally shift the focus of the scene from narrowly averted disaster to humorous antics.

This diversion recalls the type of distraction at work in Operation Cue, where the emphasis on preparedness and information dissemination shifts the focus from the overwhelming destruction of which the bomb is capable. The image of the mushroom cloud functions as a part of this program of information dissemination; it makes the bomb palatable by demystifying its effects. Operation Cue’s hyperseriousness about its goal, and its complete lack of irony concerning its subject matter, necessitates Batman’s brand of parodic hyperseriousness. In making fun of itself and couching its dark subject matter in the ridiculous, Batman is able to avoid culpability for its own critiques—or its ultimate lack thereof.

 

 

Works Cited

Aristotle, and Gerald Frank Else. Aristotle: Poetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1967. Print.

 

Boyer, Paul S. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of

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Gibson, James N. Nuclear Weapons of the United States: An Illustrated History. Atglen,

PA: Schiffer Pub., 1996. Print.

 

Haseltine, Nate. “Japanese Fisherman First H-Blast Victim.” The Washington Post and

            Times Herald 24 Sept. 1954: 46. Print.

 

Masco, Joseph. “‘Survival is Your Business’: Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear

America.” Cultural Anthropology 23.2 (2008): 361-398. Print.

 

Masco, Joseph. “Target Audience.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 64.3 (2008): 22-31.

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Miller, Richard L. Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing. The Woodlands,

TX: Two-Sixty, 1991. Print.

 

Mittell, Jason. “A Cultural Approach to Television Genre Theory.” Cinema Journal 40.3

(2001): 3-24. Print.

 

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