July 21, 2008

Taking It Home: The Dark Knight

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?


  1. I recommend reading Joseph Campbell's The Hear with a Thousand Faces for aspects of the hero's quest. Here is a nice rundown of some of its themes:


  2. Nice lead in piece here to your upcoming review! I particularly like your treatment of THE JOKER, asserting that he is barely human--a personification of complete anarchy.
    What did I take home from THE DARK KNIGHT? Well, the memory of a propulsive and pulsating ride, executed within its genre limitations, and a consumate meshing of a number of cinematic components. As "entertaining" a film as you'll get in a commercial framework.
    If that is a backhanded compliment, it's still a compliment.

  3. Actually, Dan, I did read your actual review yesterday, again, great work sizing up everything there!

  4. again it happened........I am the "anonymous" person in comment #2........LOL!!!

  5. Thanks for that, Marilyn. It's very interesting. I think some celebrities go from Step 1 right to Step 4 in the Departure stage.

    Thanks, Sam. I figured it was you and apologize for the Blogger difficulties! It seems to have been acting up lately, no doubt due to the millions of words being written about TDK from here to Gotham.

    I agree that as dark and serious as it was, it never overtly came out and pretended to be something more than a comic book movie. Just because we interpret it as such doesn't mean it HAS to be seen as such.

    By that measure it's a major success - the kind of movie you can forget about or write a thesis about.

    Of course I'm occasionally long-winded enough to write a thesis about a romantic comedy, but that's another story entirely...

  6. Hey. I'm hosting a film blog-a-thon on my site:


    If you could post a link to it on your site that would be awesome. And feel free to participate!

  7. This world will not get a Batman, that's for sure. But, maybe with the upcoming election, we can get the Harvey Dent, we need?

  8. That's a good call, Michael, but even then I don't know what we could expect. We saw what happened to Dent in no time...

    I'm not trying to be really cynical and make it sound like I "don't believe in heroes". I just think that we often only believe in heroes, leaving us disappointed and confused when they don't save us and we realize that WE have some responsibility for the common good. Where was the superhero after Hurricane Katrina? Who's saving exploited kids around the world? Where's "Gasman" to come and save us from skyrocketing fuel prices?

  9. I think part of the appeal of superheroes is precisely because there aren't any in real life. You either want to be one or have one save you and it's a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy.

    Dark Knight is interesting because it sort of seems to turn the idea on its head and forces us to ask what the consequences of superherodom would be.

    At least, that's my initial take on the movie. There was a lot going on there and I need to see it a second time to really pin it down.

  10. I agree that the appeal lies in that fact, Craig, but it worries me that, as a society, it doesn't change the way we act. The majority of us (me included) just assume somebody's going to take care of the big problems and people, which would be reasonable to me if we also reflected on how those big problems and people came to be. I don't know, I feel like I'm talking in circles. I just think it would be worthwhile for people to think about that aspect of this movie since it's apparently being seen by every living human within 30 miles of a theater.

    But regarding that other aspect of the consequences of being a superhero, I'd agree that it's on display here more than anywhere else.

  11. I think that is why we have these movies, as pure escapism from a world which is bleaker than the one projected on the screen in front of us.

  12. I think we have these movies because they make a lot of money for the studios that make them. It astounds me how much cyberspace of buzz this movie is consuming. Never underestimate the power of a 13-year-old boy.

  13. I would agree that most of these movies do serve as escapist fantasies, Michael, but TDK was so dark and so obviously made to be relevant (i.e., surveillance vs. public safety), that you couldn't help but think about its basis in reality.

    That might be the most astute analysis thus far, Marilyn, though I would guess that the average age for TDK has creeped up way over 13 years old!

    I mentioned elsewhere that with the number of blogs and the number of people who have seen this movie, it might be one of the most publicly discussed/reviewed movies in history.

  14. And isn't that kind of sad. So many films of quality to talk about, and TDK seems to be the obsession. I give up.

  15. Interesting comment Marilyn. You seem to grasp the concept with your first sentence, completely lose it with your second and then take a clumsy stab with your third. I guess your saying that TDK hype is being driven by middle schoolers? Whatever, I think you can do better.

    TDK has a is a summer blockbuster backed by a mega ad campaign. It has broad appeal, a familiar basis, and a bold performance amplified by Ledger's death. Not to mention the built-in comic and graphic novel fan base. I'm not sure I could be less surprised about this movies' success.

    That being said, I think the hero issues asked by Daniel and the success (ticket sales) of this movie are analogous. People are dumb, and lazy. A person may be smart but you start grouping us together and you get...studio blockbusters, American politics, bureacracy, Miley Cyrus, 24 Hour news channels and the NFL.

    It is easier to sit back waiting for the hero to fix it than it would be to face our fears, set aside differences and work together effectively. Instead we trade this responsibilty to our government and large corporations and in exhange we get Cheese Puffs and SUVs.

    BTW I wouldn't discount the similarities between The Joker and Chigurh. They resonate because we are having a harder and harder time as Americans identifying our problems.

  16. A thirteen year old boy? Since the movie is rated PG-13, I think the target audience is slightly older than that. However, I would be willing to admit that the overall message and that people cannot see the forest for the tress in this movie, which explains the Joker's popularity.

  17. I'm not surprised by its success at all, and it appears to be a reasonably good movie to boot.

    As for broad appeal, I stand by my assertion that teen market is the major audience for this film--without them, we'd have a hit on the order of Forrest Gump. With them, a new box office record is made. They will also be the repeat viewers that send profits into the stratosphere.

    As for all the buzz in cyberspace, again, I'm not surprised, just a bit aggravated.

  18. Hey what's wrong with the NFL, Tom, hehe? By the way, Miley Cyrus is only allowed to be discussed here in relation to the Oscars.

    To play the devil's advocate I could also say that people being grouped together has given us democracy, but I get your point. We're sheep in most every way.

    I like the connection you make between Chigurh and The Joker, but I still don't see either of them represented in real life "villains", at least not to those extremes and not with the same power.

    Regarding the box office, well I still think this has appeal to an older crowd that might have been 13 when Tim Burton's Batman came out, I also agree that the PG-13 rating is the only reason it broke the record. This looks to be a possibility in the future, though, as R-rated movies are opening with bigger numbers in recent years.

  19. (sorry about the deleted post ... logged in under the wrong id)

    Interesting thoughts on the Joker as a character, Daniel. I wouldn't call him soulless, though, there's no evidence of that. I wouldn't even call him an agent of chaos, necessarily. He calls himself one, true, but he is shown again and again to be an unreliable witness. Recall that he tells three different stories about how he got the slashed mouth. He tells Batman that he doesn't want to kill him, but he's already taken money from the mob to do so. He says he doesn't do it for the money, and burns some up, but can we even take that at face value?

    Much of what we know about the Joker comes from himself, and I wouldn't trust that. Take the line you quoted that he's a "dog chasing cars" ... a dog chasing cars is not chaotic behavior at all. There's an action -- the car going by -- and a PREDICTABLE reaction -- the dog chases it.

    I think the Joker is a cipher, an enigma, just as much as is Batman himself. It's entirely in keeping with Nolan's (over-cooked) schematic of Batman and the Joker being of a king, opposed to the true do-gooder, Harvey Dent.

    And, Marilyn, I agree ... of course this movie is aimed at teenagers, although perhaps a bit older than 13. (At least ones that understand that the word "hyperbole" applies to your 13-year-old remark.)

  20. oops ... that's "Batman and the Joker being of a KIND" not of a "king"!

  21. OK, I think I get what you're saying, Rick. Our impression of the Joker (and the way I describe him) comes only from his actions, and we have no way of knowing the "real" man. As opposed to Batman, where we get to know Wayne. In that sense I think Batman is less of an enigma than the Joker.

    But in reality, don't we also only know villains by their actions, with the exception of somebody like Hitler, who wrote a manifesto?

    I'm not making sense, but I guess what I'm saying is that I still think that even if we did know the depths of the Joker's character, we still wouldn't find a version of him in real life.

  22. Oh, you're undoubtedly right about that ... but what comic book characters do you ever find in real life?

    And what I was trying to get at was that he is an unreliable witness about his own life. He lies about himself, to Batman, to his victims all the time. He tells at least two different stories about how he got is slash-mouth. He tells Batman he's not out to kill him, yet he takes money to do so and tries to do it on several occasions. When he himself says he's an agent of chaos, though i think that's one of Nolan's themes, is that what we're ultimately to believe?

    Good discussion brought on by your fine piece!

  23. Thanks for the clarification on his character traits, Rick. Had I read more closely I probably could have pulled that out. It's true that we're given nothing about the Joker other than what he divulges, but even that can't be trusted.

    And no, there are no comic book characters that we see in real life - I just think people expect other people to act like comic book characters sometimes.

    Great thoughts of your own on the subject over at CCM, by the way.


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