Friday, May 3, 2013

Supervillain plot = Real life public policy

The nefarious plot of the supervillain on CW's Arrow was revealed in full last episode. As evil as it is, I was struck by the feeling that I'd heard of the idea before. And not in Batman Begins.

Spoilers below for Arrow and Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. But really, if you haven't seen Nolan's Batmans, you should really be catching up right now.

So yes, villain Malcolm Merlyn (Doctor Who/Torchwood's John Barrowman, @team_barrowman on twitter) is the progenitor of a plot to destroy "the Glades," the poverty-stricken district of Arrow's Starling City. And yes, it's pretty much the same plot that Ra's Al Ghul had in Batman Begins. Merlyn even has a mysterious device being shipped in to perform the task that has a striking visual similarity to the water-vaporizing weapon from the Batman movie.

(I'm willing to give Arrow a lot of leeway to borrow from Batman because it does it so well. If you haven't been watching Arrow and you like superheroes, you should start. I'm the first to admit that I have a bias against DC superheroes that aren't Batman. I grew up with the more underdog approach to heroes of the Stan Lee stable. But like pretty much every person on the planet, I've got a lot of love for THE BATMAN, and the Green Arrow that Arrow gives us is pretty darn close. The things that Arrow adds and subtracts from the Batman story are thoughtful: Oliver Queen has a much longer road to having a heroic mission, and he's more limited in his mental and technological prowess, making him more sympathetic and more vulnerable.)

But the mission and method of the villains in both the Nolan Batman trilogy and Arrow are to fix the problem of crime by leveling the city and starting over. On the face of it, the destruction of struggling areas to fix their problems is the idea only a supervillain could have. In reality, though, it's a fairly common approach to the problem of urban "blight" and crime.

If you watched the Wire, you know why and how it happens. There's a crime- and poverty-ridden area, politicians look for an easy and symbolic way to fix it when policing fails - knock the buildings down.

The euphemism for the practice of demolishing poor areas is urban renewal. There was a rash of urban renewal in the middle of the twentieth century following World War II, pioneered by people like Robert Moses and Richard King Mellon. The government used the American Housing Act of 1949 and eminent domain (that thing where the government can pay you what it wants for your property if it "needs" it) to take over, flatten, and rebuild large sections of major US cities. While less explode-y than the DC supervillain approach, the goal and approach was very similar.

So does the parallel between real policy and supervillainy make urban renewal crazy/evil, or Malcolm Merlyn's plan more logical? The answer is mixed; urban renewal projects have had both good and bad results. Sometimes there is improvement, sometimes further social slide. Like most public policy initiatives, urban renewal wasn't the "magic bullet" to fix cities' problems.

Of course the major difference between real life and fiction is that urban renewal doesn't - as a goal, anyway - flatten buildings with people in them.

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