1 Out of Frame - S03 Ep09 "Batman and the Individual" SCENE HEADING OoF montage SEAN (VO) Welcome to a very special episode of Out of Frame. For over a year and a half, this series has been made possible in part through the hard work and talent of our fabulous editor, Arash Ayrom. Each month, after I write and record the script, Arash helps me find just the right imagery and content to make these videos as good as they are. We work on the editing together, but his ideas are essential and he rarely gets enough credit for his contributions. A while back, Arash told me a story. It was a story about his childhood growing up in Iran and his experience immigrating to the United States. And about Batman. And it was exactly the kind of intersection between art and ideas that I love talking about on Out of Frame… So, today, I’m going to turn over the reins to Arash and let him tell you this story in his own words. ARASH Thanks Sean! Let’s hop in our time machines and take a ride back to the dark ages… 1988. 2 Going back in time [something Batman themed?] Way before the “internet” was really a thing, when phones had wires that anchored them to walls, and the Nintendo Entertainment System ruled the living room in all its 8-bit glory, I was in my teens, living in San Diego with my family. We had immigrated to the US as political refugees a decade earlier from Iran. Vintage computers, telephones Personal photos - San Diego One day on a whim, I found myself in one of those hipster stores that sold vinyl records, whacky Japanese toys, and comics. I hadn’t read a comic book in years, but out of nostalgia, I picked up a childhood favorite, the latest Batman, issue #426, which started the story arc, “A Death in the Family” by Jim Starlin. Photo - store in Hillcrest Simpsons: Jack Black comic store episode Batman #426 It was dark. So different than any Batman I had ever read before. The Joker was an actual, visceral menace and… spoilers… he killed Robin. He tortures and beats Robin to an inch of his life with a crowbar, and then 3 blows him up alongside his birth mother... It was shocking and disturbing. That unspoken element that always saved the heroes from certain doom had dissipated into the ether. This didn’t feel like something for kids. It was a bridge to the real world where heroes could actually die. But there was another part of the story that affected me even more. In “A Death in the Family,” the Joker becomes the UN ambassador for Iran, my homeland that my family and I had to escape from in 1979, and he meets Ayatollah Khomeini, the new “supreme leader” who had seized power in a bloody coup and turned my world upside down. Khomeini was a zealous Islamic cleric who had been exiled in the 1960s for fomenting unrest against the Shah’s reforms, but who returned as the spearhead of the so-called “Iranian Revolution.” He and his cohorts are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in Iran, and he’s infamously remembered for the fatwa he issued against author Salman Rushdie for perceived insults against Islam in his book, “The Satanic Verses.” The Joker, having never met anyone more deranged than himself, is rendered speechless at their first meeting. To say that I got some deep, cathartic satisfaction to see a 4 fictional evil character meet his match in a real-life evil figure, one of the architects of the misery heaped upon my countrymen, would be an understatement. But it also clicked that if the evil we see in comic books can be real, so can the good. It sparked to life my own history with the character of Batman, what he meant to me and my philosophical journey in life, and my discovery of the value of the individual. "Joker" winning Venice top prize Iran in the news With "Joker" hitting the screens to widespread critical acclaim, and the Islamic Republic of Iran all over the news, it seemed like a good time to tell my story. By the way… There won’t be any spoilers for “Joker.” I haven’t seen it yet, though we will be talking about some plot points in older comic books. This dark turn in mainstream comics and graphic novels has always been fascinating to me. After reading “A Death in the Family,” I went back and found Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” which came out a couple of years earlier in 1986. Then I read Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” and Grant Morrison’s “Arkham Asylum,” all 5 titles that were so different than what I had read as a kid. These were heavy, psychological books that put the Joker on equal footing with Batman. The good guy wasn’t always going to win anymore. Batmania Burton's "Batman" A year later, in 1989, Batmania seized the world when Tim Burton’s vision of the Dark Knight going toe to toe with the Clown Prince of Crime arrived in cinemas. I was there opening night, and it’s one of the only films I've been to see multiple times. Jokers thru time; Laughing box from Joker's death scene in 1989 Batman is creepy AF. Worth playing off of here, and maybe overdubbing that on top of something classic from Heath Ledger or Mark Hamill? When the Joker was played by Cesar Romero in the ‘60s, there was an exaggerated aspect to him. That crazy laugh and the outrageous outfits and unnerving makeup became more sinister in the cinematic rebirth of the character, whether depicted by Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill or Heath Ledger. Joker trailer; Sean will help find Scott Snyder run that is influence on film Now, Joaquin Phoenix's interpretation seems to take the Joker in a new 6 direction, not as a psychotic madman, but as a downtrodden anti-hero. Early Joker During the time when the Comics Code Authority dictated what could and couldn’t be included in comic books, the Joker was just another whacky, colorful bad guy amid a rogue’s gallery of bizarre villains. Back then, DC Comics had two superheroes who dominated people’s imaginations, even though they couldn’t be further apart as characters. Superman from various media There’s the god-like Man of Steel, an alien visitor from another planet and the mightiest being on Earth, possessing the power of flight, invulnerability to nearly everything, and bonus stuff like x-ray and heat vision, super hearing, and even super breath. Superman. Apocalypse: GL to BM: "You're just a guy in a cape?" / Other good moments from film And then there’s the Dark Knight, a human with no super powers who fights crime through his sheer force of will, combined with ingenuity and skills gained from years of dedicated training. Batman and Superman are friends, an “odd couple” of sorts, while other 7 times they’re pitted against each other because of their different moral compasses and viewpoints of the world. There’s a natural comparison to make between them: immortal vs mortal; bright-colors and sunshine vs dark and lurking in the shadows; indefatigably cheery, in the best incarnations, vs sullen and reluctant to talk. Young Justice: Clark orders apple pie, Bruce orders devil's food in diner Sean probably won’t agree with this take on Superman, but… SEAN True. I don’t. But continue… ARASH As I was saying… When someone who is nigh-invulnerable steps in front of a runaway train or a hail of bullets, how impressive is it really? If he can’t get hurt, what risk did he actually take? SEAN Not the point of Superman, but whatever. Go on. ARASH Thank you. But contrast Clark Kent with a regular, albeit tall and good-looking, man. When Bruce Wayne puts himself in the same danger to rescue others, it’s way more impressive. The risks involved could severely injure him or even end his life. 8 Last Temptation cover In his controversial book, The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis argued much the same thing: that if Jesus Christ were a regular man, his ultimate sacrifice for humanity would have been more meaningful than that of the immortal Son of God. From my vantage point, the real hero to aspire to is easily Batman. Plus, he’s a much more relatable character because he’s human. When confronted by a system that let him down, he discards the rules and creates his own code as he makes his way to becoming a force for good. Ultimately, Batman represents, to me, the ideal of individualism. Graphic "Individualism" is a philosophy that recognizes the moral worth and value of every individual person. It's the principle of being independent and self-reliant. And it’s an idea that supports the freedom for everyone to make their own decisions, benefiting from their successes and taking responsibility for their failures, as long as they don't prevent others from doing the same. Individualism is the opposite of collectivism, which sees the group someone belongs to as more important than they are... Collectivism favors collective or state control over individual people's actions. 9 I know what collectivism looks like firsthand. As a little kid in Tehran in the '70s, I grew up learning English alongside my native tongue of Farsi. Maybe you’ve seen photographs of what life was like in those days in Iran, but it was a pretty free and prosperous place, especially compared to the country it is today. Iranians could travel the world without restriction, exchanging culture and ideas, and trade freely. Many studied abroad, including here in the United States. Western culture was celebrated openly alongside our own, and in my spare time, I read what a lot of kids read: comic books. Beyond the standard DC and Marvel fare of Aquaman, Spider-man, Doctor Strange, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, I also devoured European comics like the adventures of Tintin and Milou, Asterix and Obelix, Lucky Luke, and I read Mad Magazine, although a lot of the satire flew right over my head. Shows mentioned I even watched a lot of the same TV as kids in America: Star Trek, Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Sesame Street, Sid and Marty Krofft shows like H.R. Pufnstuf and The Bugaloos, and another favorite, Zorro. Batman cartoons, toys, Adam West tv show 10 But beyond a shadow of a doubt, my absolute favorite character was the Caped Crusader, whether in comics, toys, or even the campy stuff! Childhood photo, add hand drawn Batman costume on top Sadly, the photo, along with many others, were lost when we fled Iran, but one Halloween, my mom made an incredible Batman costume for me. It wasn’t like one of those plastic outfits you get at Walmart. It was mostly velour with little cardboard inserts to make the ears stand up, and completely handmade. I loved it. I was a 6 year old Batman! Unfortunately, that happy moment wouldn’t last. Two years later, when I was 8 years old, Islamic extremists working with Soviet-backed Marxists, violently took over my country in what came to be known as the Iranian Revolution. My family was forced to leave everything behind in order to escape the chaos and crumbling liberty with our lives. Overnight, we became political refugees, adrift in the world, and through circumstance and perseverance, we made it to America. We were the lucky ones. When I was 9, visiting family in Florida, I remember reading about the state of the “revolution” in Iran, and seeing photos that haunt me to this day. 11 Entire families attacked by mobs… Bodies hanging from cranes… If we hadn’t escaped, that would have been me. Not “could have been,” but “would have been.” Just a few days after we left, our home in Tehran was raided by agents of this new, barbaric government. Had my father not acted and gotten us out when he did… If instead he’d waited for the police or the army to protect us… I would have been one of the bodies in that image. (beat) How did we change from a country of peaceful Iranians to one ruled by mobs and violence? How did people living in a prosperous country somehow become fooled into believing they weren’t free? I’ve thought about this question over and over. CLIP: The Joker pits people trapped on boats against each other in “The Dark Knight” -- or some other clip showing Joker creating discord. I think it begins with sowing discord. For most of the 20th century, the USSR wanted to take over Iran and gain control over the Middle East. Part of this plan involved the KGB training and sending agents across the border to create problems and convince people they were shackled slaves. 12 The coup d’état in 1979 was an unholy alliance of leftist, communist sympathizers and Islamic zealots. Unsurprisingly, after gaining control of the country, the Islamists turned on their former allies, imprisoning, torturing and killing many of them. CLIP: Alfred, “Some people want to watch the world burn…” There was no Superman to save us from the gathering mobs with his fantastic powers… And there never would be. Heroes like Superman can’t exist. Nor can Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash, or any of the other characters with out-of-this-world powers and abilities. Show Green Lantern Corps doing something big But Batman doesn't depend on that kind of power. Beyond the cowl and cape, he’s just a guy who pursued his potential and trained himself to be self-reliant. He turned the tragedy, pain, and anguish of losing his parents into a singular motivation to take control of his life -- to become better, more skilled, and a formidable force against crime. Various Jokers The Joker’s various origin stories are also tragic… Whether he’s a mobster that falls into a vat of 13 chemicals and goes mad, or a failed comedian who can’t fit in and make ends meet. But instead of becoming motivated to improve himself and his society, Joker finds nothing but nihilism and victimhood in his pain, and decides to make the world pay. I want to be clear and say that I don’t see Joker’s “madness” as an actual mental illness, something that people can’t control. There are even interpretations of Batman as compulsive and not in control of himself, but I don’t subscribe to these views. The Joker is such a good antagonist for Batman because he is his mirror opposite. Where Batman found meaning and empowerment in tragedy, Joker just wants to wreck other people’s lives and laugh at the destruction. Why didn’t I go down that path? So many people do. There’s a common misunderstanding of “individualism” that defines it as the opposite of “groups” or “society,” as if anyone who supports an individualist philosophy is selfishly turning their back on others. But that’s not right at all. Individualism is about believing that everyone should have the right to make their own choices. It’s about rejecting the collective that wants 14 to control you and your destiny, usually for its own benefit... When Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran, one of his decrees could even be seen as inspiration for the Joker beating a young boy to death... During his war with Iraq in the early 1980s, Khomeini would send thousands of young boys running out in waves across minefields to clear the path for soldiers with their lives… Those boys were told that they’d be martyrs in Heaven, that they were doing something great for their religion and for their country. They weren’t. This isn’t to say that self-sacrifice is never right. Heroism is a beautiful thing, but only when it’s your choice and done voluntarily. When an unknown man, without regard for his own safety, marched out in front of the Chinese government’s tanks during the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, his actions were echoed around the world, and even sparked the destruction of the Berlin Wall, bringing freedom to millions. That’s not an invincible superhero standing in front of a tank, but the indestructible spirit of Batman. We now live in a time of prosperity unequalled in human history. People are able to more freely pursue their 15 goals and passions, to be individuals creating solutions for society and their compatriots. We’re seeing an individualistic, entrepreneurial transformation spread across the globe. And yet, especially here in the United States, people are protesting that they’re not free. That they’re oppressed. That they’re victims. They gleefully tear down their fellow man in service of a collectivist ideal in a country that was founded upon, and succeeded because of Individualism. I’ve lived through this before. It may seem a bit self-aggrandizing, but like Batman using the sensors built into his mask, I can see past these false illusions and promises of “the greater good.” I can see that being tricked into thinking the other side is your enemy could mean destroying everything . Is the US perfect? No, of course not. Neither was Iran before the “revolution,” but it was a much better place than it is today. We have to see the good for what it is and where it’s heading. There are brave people, especially the women in my homeland, standing up 16 to the government despite being unarmed. They’re calling for a return to the Iran we used to have. Some have suffered for their courage, but they have inspired more and more people to fight for freedom. War won’t break their shackles, and I don’t want my homeland to be a proxy battlefield for superpowered nations, but we can support their struggle by understanding they’re not just “Iranians,” but individuals. The potential in a single person is immeasurable, and it’s what scares corrupt powers the most. There is a Batman inside each and every one of us, wanting to push us to be our absolute best, and to bring more good into the world, but not at the cost of the liberty of others. But there’s also a Joker, looking to exploit moments of defeat and doubt to create chaos with false promises and by tearing down ideals. I truly hope that we all want to be Batman. [OUTRO - SEAN] Hey everybody. Thanks for watching this episode of Out of Frame. If you want to know more about Arash’s story, check out some of the links in the description or leave a comment and we'll try to get back to you. 17 If you want to see more Out of Frame content, ring the bell and get regular notifications when we upload new videos. In the meantime, check out FEE.org/shows for all the other videos and podcasts we're producing at FEE, and don't forget to like and subscribe to all our social networks on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. See you next time!

Out of Frame


About this show

Video essays that explore the intersection of art, culture, and big ideas written & produced by FEE's Director of Media, Sean W. Malone.

The Joker, Nihilism, and One Iranian Boy

October 3, 2019


For a young kid growing up in Tehran, Batman's never-ending battle with the Joker became a symbol for what was happening around him, as his once-prosperous world began to collapse under the weight of nihilism, discord, and senseless violence. Monsters like the Joker exist, but even without super-powers, we can defeat them by believing in the spirit of Batman.

Produced by Sean W. Malone
Written by Arash Ayrom & Sean W. Malone
Edited by Arash Ayrom & Sean W. Malone

Listen to Arash on The Larry Reed Hour




All Shows

Invisible Hands

Popular YouTube host Kevin Lieber (VSauce2) hosts this informative and entertaining video series designed to introduce key concepts of economics to younger audiences through credible arguments, comedy... And puppets!

Connect with FEE