I don’t see many movies in the theater anymore, partly because parenthood precludes that sort of free time and partly because I typically prefer seeing movies in my own home. Even so, certain movies – for me, movies with explosions and/or super heroes -- demand the largest screen possible, with the best sound available, and with a bag of popcorn topped with butter and brewer’s yeast. So I shirked my work- and parental- duties to take in The Dark Knight, the latest Batman movie, at a matinee at the Oriental Theatre.
Despite trying to avoid reviews, I’d heard that the movie was “dark,” that Heath Ledger’s Joker was a masterful performance, and that it had made an insanely huge amount of money in its first weekend. All of these things are true, and it is certainly an edge-of-the-seat experience, and yet: I did not like it, Sam-I-Am. I did not like this new Batman.
It’s an incredibly violent movie, and not in the Biff-Bam-Pow style of classic comics. Christopher Nolan and his fellow filmmakers clearly want to create a “realistic” comic-book world, and do so by putting real bodies in the explosions, real menace in the villains, and real angst in the heroes. Things have been tilting this way since superhero movies returned into vogue with the first X-men film (if not the first modern Batman, staring Michael Keaton, back in 1988): replacing the four-color cloth and polyester costumes (which don’t translate from 2-D drawings to full-color film) with leather and black plastic, eliminating the more fantastical elements of comics for something closer to real life. In some ways, this is a losing battle, as psycho killers, billionaire playboys, and vigilantism are only slightly more “real” than, say, a super-powered man from the dead planet of Krypton. How many hired killers work the streets of your city? How many serial bank robbers or undercover spies were in your subway car this morning? It’s a bit bizarre that we somewhat unconsciously put the ingeniously-designed bomb-on-the-bus Keanu Reeves scenario in the realm of the possible and the boarding-school-for-young-wizards scenario in the realm of totally made-up (with James Bond somewhere in the middle). We’re no more likely to ride a Speed-trapped bus than we are a Nimbus 3000 Quidditch-ready broomstick.
Batman can become more plausible, more possible, but not “real,” so it’s highly unsettling to me to have Batman placed within a movie that fairly blatantly deals with contemporary ideas about terrorism and the response to terrorism. James Bond or Keanu Reeves or the actor Christian Bale might belong in that movie, and do so very well, but Batman doesn’t fit that world. (I recognize that this new incarnation of Batman is highly influenced by the late 1980s comics of Frank Miller, which I read and enjoyed at the time, but while dark and gritty, those comics made few attempts at “realism.” The two most recent movies may be based on “The Dark Knight Returns” or “Year One,” but they avoid the villains who can’t be strictly constructed. Even this movie’s batcave has been recast as a minimalist loft apartment.)
In presenting Ledger’s Joker as the embodiment of terrorism, the filmmakers offer three distinct but interrelated possible responses to terrorism in the form of attorney Harvey Dent (Gotham’s “White Knight”), Major Crimes captain Jim Gordon, and the vigilante Batman. Dent might be said to be an analogue for the Bush Administration, in that he puts up a lot of bravura and claims to adhere to the moral high ground, while becoming increasingly immoral and compromised in his response to terrorism. Gordon takes the form of the idea that terrorism is a law enforcement problem, but at least in Gotham City, law enforcement can react to terrorism but not prevent it, as the Gotham police are just as susceptible to bombs as the people they serve and protect. So ultimately it’s Batman, the unsanctioned and privately funded one-man army who is able to curtail terrorism, once he utilizes a sonar-based device that subverts civil liberties (and destroys the liberal innocence of Morgan Freeman) as the by-product of destroying terror. An interesting article on CityStates suggests that the movie demonstrates that the only possible response to terrorism is a willed refusal to fear.
(It’s kind of interesting to think of where Batman must lie on the political spectrum. As much as I’d like for Batman to be a liberal – we need more way awesome butt-kicking liberals – I’m not sure that fits, exactly. I mean, Batman does not leave the streets of Gotham to market forces, but on the other hand his manner of protectionism is not exactly unflawed. If I’ve read my comics correctly, Gotham has a high recidivism rate and relatively few mental health services.)
Maybe because of its roots in two-dimensional comics or maybe because of the 11-year-old boy sitting with his mother in the row in front of me, but The Dark Knight struck me as way too spookily violent. Actually, it isn’t the violence that bothers me so much as the menace – there are several in-movie references to a body count, we watch hospitals and skyscrapers explode, there’s a cell-phone suicide-bomb that goes off in a crowded room, and the Joker offers a few different stories about how his face was cut into the shape of an obscenely wide smile as he threatens to do the same to other characters, tracing the intended pattern on the victim’s faces with his tiny knife. The viral internet campaign for this movie asked “Why so serious?,” a question directly tied to these scenes that – in a very “real” way – threaten mutilation and gore. The Joker here is less the Clown Prince of Crime than a twigged-out junkie sadist.
In short (he says after all that text), if this weren't a Batman movie, I would love it. The conflation of real-world concerns makes it somewhat more problematic for me. Because of the realistic approach to violence and menace, the movie should probably be rated R rather than PG-13. One also has to wonder about the action figures, outfits, toys, and so forth, all of which are clearly directed at children at or under the age of 13. The yogurt I buy for my 2-year-olds currently features Batman on its labels, and this is a yogurt that I wouldn’t imagine is palatable to anyone over 8 years old, just as The Dark Knight may not be palatable for anyone under a modern American neoconservative foreign policy.