The Dark Knight, or who is the real Batman?

The headline reads: “The Dark Knight swing past $500,000,000 in tickets worldwide.”

I grew up when Batman was a mere comic book character and, at that, a flawed superhero who sometimes ran with a sidekick, a kid named Robin. None of us wanted to be Robin and if you asked then and also asked now, I could not tell you why. With my friends, I wanted to be Batman because he seemed closest to being real. Or better, Plastic Man, but that is another story. Batman wore a protective suit. He drove a powerful car. Sure, he could fly, but sometimes not very well. He had his bat cave, unrequited love, a fanciful disguise and won his battles by cleverness, strength of purpose, and drive, meaning he outsmarted and outlasted the bad guys. Incidentally, those bad guys were unique, not quite loveable, and easy to hate. It was easy to tell the black hats from the white hats, good from evil. Now along comes director Christopher Nolan and in his two Batman films, he changes the ground rules and effectively removes our empathy for Batman. I am not sure it is for the best, or, more pointedly, the best for my original take on that heroic crime fighter from my youth. In fairness, before Nolan’s two films, the franchise faced death. That is no longer the case.

Despite all the changes, and box office success, this latest entry in the Batman cannon “The Dark Knight” is in some ways a massive failure. The film is loud. It is dark. It makes little or no sense. Yes, it is a fantasy and as such it does not have to make sense to be entertaining. The driving music helps keep the viewer tense beyond reason. Too much happens too quickly. The Joker with his crew plant bombs with impunity. Explosions blow up everything at will. All the characters, good, bad and indifferent, migrate from point to point as if they were transplants from a Star Trek transporter. Yes, I know and understand the movie is a fantasy and anything can happen when you suspend disbelief.

Most of the actors are dull, lifeless, and unconvincing, including and mainly Christian Bale as Batman. Next time Mr. Bale, I would appreciate a bit more emotion, please. Of course, that remarkable performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker, mad as all get out, and very weirdly funny is the only character in the movie with a personality, except for Aaron Eckhart, who has a delicious insane turn in a movie where most everything is predictable and for all that noise and action, actually dull. While watching the film I sometimes wondered what other movies some of the other the actors had wandered in from. Many of scenes felt as if they were strung together only because they seemed like a good fit and in the context of a messy film, it did not matter that a piece of action made little or no sense as long as the action never flagged. And, by the way, it never does.

Christopher Nolan’s pseudo intellectualism is the sort that 15-year-old boys wallow in after they learn that all in the world is not what it seems. Video games only add to the confused philosophy of life that inhabits our young. This is true especially when a person can find anything on the Internet to energize a mind that more likely than not overflows with too much potted junk anyway. Nolan, it seems, wants us to believe that the way of the world is a world gone mad, a world in constant chaos, a world mired in hopelessness where evil is good and good is evil. Because of this confusion, morality is non-existent. There is no civility in Gotham City. The people who live there think Batman is out of control, a villain and vigilante. Nolan revels in the hopeless that for some accompanies life in the big city. We have to ask ourselves if Christopher Nolan’s cynicism should be our way of life in a world we cannot control.

Think of the end of the movie with the Joker hanging off the side of a building, facing Batman who finally has his enemy at his mercy. Batman has the opportunity to kill this madman who has been trampling Gotham City with impunity. The Joker taunts Batman and effectively says you can’t kill me because you don’t have the courage to see me die. The Joker may be right. Batman leaves the Joker hanging and runs off to do what he considers his duty elsewhere. Despite this moral dilemma, by allowing the Joker to live, a sequel is sure to come. The box office beckons. And who says Hollywood doesn’t know what it is doing.

When I saw the movie, the audience was attentive and very quiet, except for the occasional intake of breath during an exciting sequence, or a barely suppressed giggle whenever the Joker appeared. I can only guess that the audience assumed it was watching art instead of succumbing to clever commerce.

Just because what we call entertainment, in this case a Hollywood film, makes a lot of money and has a huge and growing audience does mean that it is great. The Dark Knight has all the flaws I mentioned and more. Perhaps Christopher Nolan knows whereof he speaks and his mixed message is the right one in an uncertain world. In a age where terror lies around every corner and in which military might does not often succeed in fighting fanaticism, with extra effort I can understand why the audience is rushing to see a movie where good and bad are not opposites but the same side of a single coin. More and more it seems to be the way of the world. It doesn’t make Christopher Nolan and his writer’s right, but it may make their muddled mess so.

Some may think I do not get it. They may be right, though I think you are not. Really there is not that much to get, and except for a cynical take on life, there is little to hold the movie together. It is a tribute to 21st Century blockbuster movie making, but that is all it is and nothing more.
©Ron Steinman

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