Time flies. It was a little over 20 years ago that the New York Times published a briefly famous op-ed on Tim Burton’s just-released Batman movie in which Danny DeVito played the villainous “Penguin.” Written by two Columbia College seniors (and would-be culture critics), Rebecca Roiphe and Daniel Cooper, it accused Batman Returns of being a thoroughgoing anti-Semitic allegory. The evidence for this, they argued, was scattered throughout the film, including its music, which “makes indisputable the influence of Richard Wagner”; the “Gothic” sets; allusions not only to Wagnerian themes but also to German-expressionist vampire movies; and some plot twists that have parallels in the Old Testament (the Penguin’s abandonment in the sewers adrift in a canoe like Moses, his revenge plan to murder Gotham’s aristocratic firstborn, as in Exodus). But the most explicitly anti-Semitic element was the character of DeVito’s Penguin, who is “not just a deformed man, half human, half-Arctic-beast. He is a Jew, down to his hooked nose, pale face, and lust for herring.”
Were Ms. Roiphe and Mr. Cooper being serious? It is hard to know. Judged critically today, the op-ed could be either an undergraduate joke or a severe case of undergraduates’ taking a bright idea too far and themselves too seriously. The symptoms are more or less identical. But the authors and their thesis were taken seriously at the time. Much was made of the German-expressionist overtones of the movie’s “look.” (In retrospect we know that all Tim Burton’s movies look expressionist, even Alice in Wonderland.) Several newspapers, perhaps assuming that the Times was setting the national agenda again (Expressionism or Eliminationism? — the Dark Underside of Burton’s Dark Underside, etc., etc.), ran reports and reviews on this supposed new threat. The London Times weighed in loftily. And for a while there was that rare thing: a lively correspondence in the New York Times itself. Mostly it was skeptical to dismissive. One of the movie’s writers, himself Jewish, wrote to concede that some of the plot came from the Bible but also to deny that the Penguin was an anti-Semitic caricature of a Jew. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League wrote in to regret that the article (“a bizarre and ludicrous pseudo-analysis of the allegedly anti-Semitic implications of the blockbuster movie”) might distract attention from genuine anti-Semitism. Its publication, he concluded, was “an embarrassment” to the Times.