HEAT, Superheroes and The Principle of Microscopic Reversibility

Much has been made over the years of the fact that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, arguably the most widely acclaimed superhero movie ever made, owes its existence in large part to Michael Mann’s 1995 masterpiece Heat. In fact, Nolan himself has never hidden away from this comparison and openly embraced it. However, the fact this relationship between The Dark Knight and Heat exists implies on the basis of what’s known in science as the principle of microscopic reversibility (i.e. that if a process is true in the forward sense, then its microscopic reverse is true as well) not only that The Dark Knight is Heat with Batman in it, but perhaps it suggests that Heat could be seen as a superhero movie in its own right. 

To appreciate this hypothesis, you must first agree to look past the film’s superficial cops-and-robbers appearance and take a closer look at the two central characters around which this thrilling police procedural is built. Disregard the iconic shootout sequence. Pocket the armoured car set piece. Leave out the procedural minutiae of stakeouts, heist preparations and blood-curdling chases. At the heart of Heat is a pared down story about two men poised for a climactic showdown of wills. However, these men – Lt. Vincent Hanna played by Al Pacino and Neil McCauley played by Robert De Niro – are quite far from being labelled as regular. They are driven. They are obsessed. They are consumed. For McCauley and his crew, robbing banks and collecting scores isn’t a job or even a career built in service of living a life. For them “the action is the juice”. They do what they do because they are compelled to do so. What is more, McCauley and his crew are incredibly capable, professional in execution and effectively unstoppable. They are supervillains. 

What separates them from traditionally described comic book supervillains is their perceived lack of motive because it often follows that the superhero’s archnemeses either act out their unresolved trauma through criminal deeds or attempt to bend the world to their will on the back of their undiagnosed megalomania. Meanwhile, McCauley does what he does because he doesn’t see any other way to live his life. In fact, during the iconic scene in which Pacino and De Niro for the first time ever shared the frame, McCauley openly admits that the life of barbecues and Sunday football matches just isn’t for him. Now, it can be potentially suggested this is in its own way a manifestation of some kind of trauma, and though I have not read the recently released Heat 2 novel, I believe it is implied that McCauley was a war veteran. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume his inability to fit in may have been traced back to traumatic events of his youth. After all, how can you enjoy a Sunday ball game with your little kid if, every time you close your eyes all you see is a rolling slide show of gore, violence and dehumanisation? 

Nevertheless, it doesn’t effectively matter if McCauley in Heat and Mike Vronsky in The Deer Hunter are the same character whose post-Vietnam trauma spiralled out of control and manifested as cold-blooded villainy, or whether his actions are motivated by anything you can rationalize. He does what he does because he’s great at what he does and he’s great at what he does because it’s the only thing he cares about doing. He’s a type-A workaholic sociopath who acts out his obsessive need to ensconce himself in productive work by way of organizing, planning and executing complex heists. It’s the only thing he cares about, and an assumption could be made that his outrageous work ethic and obsessive dedication could be easily redeployed in other careers. In another life, Neil McCauley could be an investment banker specializing in hostile takeovers or a top-class criminal barrister. Or a neurosurgeon. Or… Joker.   

However, as far as direct comparisons with the iconic supervillain – especially as envisioned in Christopher Nolan’s rendition of Heat and embodied by Heath Ledger – Neil McCauley is Joker insofar as his lack of rationalizable motive is concerned. He doesn’t want to watch the world burn, though it is true that he isn’t in it for the money or kudos. He’s in it for the juice, but he is not an agent of chaos. In fact, Waingro (Kevin Gage), the secondary villain in Heat fits this description much better and it could potentially be understood that Joker in The Dark Knight is more of a composite hybrid of McCauley and Waingro, as he is equally meticulous and driven, as he is unpredictable and fearsome.  

Now, on the other side of the ledger we have Vincent Hanna, the police detective working to dismantle McCauley’s troupe, the yang to his yin, who is equally driven and obsessed with the idea of catching guys like McCauley. He is a bulldog with a bone – once he bites down on it, good luck whisking it out of its mouth. It is perhaps instructive to view Hanna and McCauley as symmetrical – like Batman and Joker – as they have the same engine under their bonnets. They are both propelled by a roaring V8 unit that converts petrol directly into noise with little regard for the environment or the wellbeing of passersby. Hanna is equally (if not more) laser-focused on his work, which consumes nearly his entire existence.  

However, the two differ in one key aspect. While McCauley purposefully and methodically keeps everyone at arm’s length so as not to let anybody interfere with his work, like a CEO who refuses to have a family because it would become an unnecessary distraction or a burden, Hanna has a grander purpose to his work. He does what he does not because he is excellent at what he does, but because he feels he must do it to protect those around him. He is a crusader, not a self-motivated workaholic. He absorbs the evil of the world around him and derives meaning from chasing people like McCauley around the block for the benefit of other people. In fact, he is doing what he’s doing to his own detriment because the sacrifice he makes as a veritable superhero takes a toll on both him and the people closest to him: his wife and his stepdaughter. He too cannot fit in the regular mould of a husband and a father figure because what he experiences each day on the street fighting crime removes his ability to cohere with others. He can’t just have a chat about his day. He’s unable to compliment his wife on her cooking. He’s always on because if he’s not, then evil will triumph. He’s Batman. He is the hero LA needs.  

What is more, despite Hanna’s perceived inability to connect or communicate with people around them and the simple fact that his obsessive pursuit of villains like McCauley essentially forces him to adopt monstrous tactics if he desires to slay monsters, he is always in tune with the needs of others. Hanna is a hero with a heart of gold who chooses a life of sacrifice and martyrdom to hopefully spare others the grief and pain he willingly absorbs through his work. Granted, you could suggest his choices eventually lead to a tragedy, as he finds his stepdaughter – about whom nobody but him truly cares, by the way – dying in a bathtub. However, and this is perhaps a conversation for a different day, this event not only consolidates Hanna’s resolve, but also convinces his wife Justine that his work must continue and that she has an important part to play in this crusade of his. He may be unable to give her rudimentary comfort or attention a ‘regular’ man would. He’s a superhero. His focus is elsewhere, but through his work and relentless dedication he puts his money where his mouth is and saves her only daughter. He reveals himself as Batman to Justine and only then does she understand the importance of what he does. He must go into the night and fight crime not because he thinks it’s a good career move, but because it is a calling.  

Therefore, while it has been noted many times that The Dark Knight is a soft remake of Heat, it is perhaps worth understanding that the reason why that is, is because Heat is already a grounded superhero movie. In fact, it is so grounded that nobody noticed in 1995 that Vincent Hanna was Batman, and that Neil McCauley was Joker. All Christopher Nolan needed to do was dress these characters in properly archetypal attire and his work was done. But the true heavy lifting was done long before by Michael Mann who wrote and directed one of the best movies of all time and essentially re-invented a comic book movie before it was cool.  


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