I know I said that "The Dark Knight is not the type of movie that I see for its moral lessons," but that doesn't mean I don't think about how its elements relate to real life. In fact, of all the superhero/comic book/graphic novel movies that we've had in 2008, I would argue it offers the most interesting material for a study of two ideas in particular: contemporary villains and the glorification of celebrity.
I've only read a handful of reviews in the last two days but I've already seen The Joker compared to everyone from Osama bin Laden to Hannibal Lecter to Darth Vader to Anton Chigurh. These comparisons are hinted at, but then people end up discussing Heath Ledger's already legendary performance instead of the actual existence of the character he's portraying. What I'm getting at is the fact that you could list off a number of baddies in real life or in the movies, but in my opinion, there is no contemporary villain in The Joker’s mold.
For starters, the soulless Joker barely resembles a human. His emotions and actions are wildly unpredictable and he appears to lack any guiding principles or motive aside from promoting anarchy. He kills without thinking and thinks about nothing; by his own admission he is “a dog chasing cars” that wouldn’t know what to with one if he caught one. To be sure, there are some depraved lunatics running around the world, but these aren't the people that could bring a city to its knees like The Joker does to Gotham.
In fact, we don't really have many psycho serial killers at all these days, do we? For whatever reason, the days of the Zodiac killer and David Berkowitz and the Boston Strangler seem to be gone. Instead, modern-day villains are despotic heads of state (Omar al-Bashir and Kim Jong Il) or religious fundamentalists (Muqtada al-Sadr), all of which have their own motives and none of which, I would argue, are as cartoonishly insane as The Joker. For the most part their methods, while often violent, are neither as spontaneous or as spectacularly staged (aside from 9/11) as The Joker's, and defeating them is a highly complex task.
Which brings me to this question: Do we venerate Batman (and other superheroes) because we are hoping for one to materialize in real life and solve the world's problems? I'm not talking about the heroic fantasies little boys have or the romantic notions of a caped crusader swooping down to save the falling woman. I'm talking about our collective acceptance of the idea that superheroes are the only people who can create positive change.
Just look at what happened to the Batman wannabes in The Dark Knight - average citizens trying to do something good in the world are a.) humiliated and scorned, b.) inept at stopping crime, and c.) overshadowed by the real Batman. "That's what I'm talking about," laments the hooligan when the Batmobile (it's more of a tank now, isn't it?) makes a smashing entrance through the garage walls.
Unfortunately, Batman isn't going to show up in real life. We're left with me and you and the bad guys...and these other people: celebrities, the new saviors of our time.
Who's more admired by men and more loved by women (both on screen and in the audience): Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne? Clark Kent or Tony Stark? If you want to talk about real world comparisons from these superhero movies, this is where it is. Celebrity billionaires are the ones we hold up as the brave souls who will take on the evil in the world.
George Clooney (natch, Batman himself at one time) is a "warrior" speaking out against al-Bashir and the genocide in Darfur. Brangelina fights for the environment and the plight of refugees worldwide. Bill Gates and Bono, well at this point they're defined by their humanitarian heroism as much as anything else they've done.
I'm not saying these people are wrong in what they're doing; I'm saying that we're wrong for accepting them as our modern-day heroes in the absence of Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and Iron Man. We think about these global issues (or even local issues) too simplistically, always finding someone to blame or someone to uphold while never taking a look in the mirror at we're doing. Who cares what we do wrong - some big shot's going to save the day, right? Consider the ferry scene to reflect on this as well.
Sorry to say, people, but neither Barack Obama or John McCain is going to roll up in a Batmobile and make everything nice again, and celebrities aren't going to accomplish much beyond building awareness. My expectations for human behavior are idealistically high, but I don't expect more from any of these people than I do from me or you, and I think it can be dangerous to do so. I don't know the solution to everything, but I do know at least that much.
All of this is to say that our fascination with superheroes and villains deserves some reflection outside of the theater. I know this is not a novel idea in any way (it comes up with any superhero movie), but the increasing number of movies like this and the increasing number of complex problems in the world seem to be on the same upward trajectory. What does that mean, and what else did you take home from The Dark Knight?