The Dark Knight (part 1)

So I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people about the second installment of the re-invention of the Batman film franchise: “The Dark Knight”. These conversations have led to a kind of formulation of some thinking about the film and what it represents so I’m going to try to spew some of that here:

Because I’m going to focus on a particular criticism here, let me preface this by saying that I enjoyed to movie and think it’s a thought provoking piece of entertainment with one foot (we’ll get to who’s) solidly in the realm of actual art.

It is not a new or original thought/observation that there is a shift well underway in the American cinema. It is a move from the novel to the comic book as primary source material. This has been going on for a long time, and much has been said about it. The aspect of this that I’ve been thinking about lately however is how the this shift has led to a reduction in the level of complexity within the stories that are told on our screens. What I mean by that is that comic books (and I am including graphic novels in that term, even though I realize that there is a distinction) are by their nature simpler in their construction than novels. I do not mean by this that they are less intelligent, legitimate or valuable. But there tends to be a certain simplification of issues.

Example: I recently saw “Wanted”. (Disclaimer: I have not read the graphic novel it was based on) The conceit of “Wanted” seems to be centered around an ancient and secret society of Assassins (which is what the “Assassins” were as well) who’s targets’ names are encoded into the fabric woven by a devise known as the “Loom of Fate”. If the “Loom of Fate” says that someone should be killed, there is no question about it. The rest is simply technique. The plot centers around an abuse of this loom, but nevertheless the plot doesn’t function unless there is a preexisting confidence in the “Loom of Fate”. What I’m saying is that this is a simplification of the entire moral problem of an assassin by eliminating the thorny “why.” This is not substantively different from the obviously less complicated situation of “Superman is the good guy.” I see this fundamental simplicity over and over in this material.

However, I also notice that there is a fetish, within comic book culture for a SENSE of complexity. An APPARENT ambiguity. This is where we get to Batman. The idea of the Dark Knight is that there is a fundamental moral ambiguity within him. Is he really a good guy? It seems that this is an attractive quandary in this culture. What I would argue is that this question isn’t being asked. Not really. In the case of Batman, there is never ANY doubt on the part of the audience (as distinct from the citizens of Gotham) that Batman is good. He is not a Dark Knight. He’s a White Knight in a bat-suit.

“Hellboy” is also a good example here (again, although in this case, I’ve glanced at the primary sources, I haven’t read them). The character himself who is supposed to be the son of the devil, whose destiny it is to bring about the end of the world, is never faced with a significant quandary about which side he’s on. Posters all over New York showing him with the caption “Believe it or not, he’s the good guy” are entirely misleading. There is NEVER any question which side he’s on. There is a momentary cognitive dissonance that comes from a character that looks like he does, being a good guy, but never an actual moment of ambiguity. The worst thing you can say about him is that he’s a lazy, beer swilling jerk, and although there’s something interesting about his low brow concerns, the implied question of actual evil never comes up. He’s an angel in a devil-suit.

Purely by coincidence I re-watched “A Clockwork Orange” (the new DVD edition) a day or so before seeing “The Dark Knight.” And I think this is why the thought about the distinction between comic books and novels crystallized for me. Anthony Burgess wrote the novel “A Clockwork Orange” as a complicated response to, among other things, a brutal rape his wife experienced. The resulting novel is not simply about justice or social responsibility. It is, most centrally, about free will. The book, and even more so Kubrick’s film, is constructed around the complicated dynamic resulting from a character who is simultaneously attractive and repellent. Alex is both. I would somewhat arrogantly assert that any reading of the film that collapses him to one side or the other is simply evidence of cinematic illiteracy (hence the copy-cat crimes that resulted). Now anyone who has seen both films realizes that the reason for bringing up “A Clockwork Orange” in a discussion about “The Dark Knight” is that Alex has a strong relationship to Heath Ledger’s deservedly acclaimed portrayal of The Joker. This is not an accident. I understand that there were conversations to this effect between director and actor. Ledger’s performance is amazing. Absolutely top shelf. And I don’t think it’s already becoming legendary only because of the actor’s tragic death. But I would argue that part of what is so arresting about The Joker is that there is actual, genuine ambiguity in our feelings towards him. Like Alex, we are simultaneously attracted and repelled by him. As a result, he walks away with the movie, and as much as I like it, I think that’s a problem. I can’t help imagining a film in which Batman is also as complicated. Where I honestly question, on a fundamental level, whether what he’s doing is ok. In “Batman Begins” there is a moment where Alfred directs Bruce Wayne’s attention to news footage of the violent high-speed chase that Batman caused the night before. Alfred’s admonishment of “It’s a good thing no one was killed” actually gets the character off the hook. How would we feel about Batman if Alfred came in and said “5 people were killed last night” and has to deal with the fact that Wayne/Batman actually thinks this collateral damage is worth it?

Why do I bring this up?

Because these films are claiming to be storming the wall separating entertainment from art. And if we apply the useful distinction that entertainment confirms existing assumptions, and art questions them, the question of Batman’s ambiguity is the question of whether or not he’s in a work of art or not.

Batman is a mythological character. Our historic proximity to his invention (and inventors) doesn’t change this. But what I think is often misunderstood is that the nature of mythology is that as source material, it is almost completely inert. It’s value and interest depend entirely on what artists do with it. To say that Batman is interesting is like saying the the marble of which Michelangelo’s David is hewn is what’s interesting about the sculpture. Obviously the stone does have certain values, but it is next to nothing compared to what the artist did with it. Our perceptions of a character like Odysseus and Agave have more to do with Homer and Euripides than with these figures themselves. Until Dark Knight for example, I never gave the character of The Joker much thought (sorry Jack), but what Mr. Ledger et al have done has changed what this mythological character is. He is alive in our culture now in a way he never was before.

I think that Batman is potentially a potent character for our time. I think it’s marble worth carving. I think he could be a hero to struggle with the dark moment of the soul that we are going through as a society. The Dark Knight suggests this, but I think the bar is higher. The bar that Heath Ledger set. I want to see a movie about Batman.

All that being said, let me repeat that I like the movie, I love what it made me think about, and it has resulted in some fascinating conversations with friends.

More coming soon, in part 2 of this post…

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