Monday, February 9, 2009

A Dark Knight Indeed pt. 1

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I believe Batman to be the best superhero ever. As a child I collected his toys, tore around the backyard in a black cape, and occasionally referred to myself as Bruce Wayne. My affection for the character has grown slightly more discrete with age, but it has also grown deeper as I've come to understand him better. Instead of super powers, Batman has serious mental problems. He is not a superior man but a broken one, yet he uses that breakage as a point to draw in strength normal people could not use. Some nitpickers say that doesn't count as a superpower, and that Batman is consequently not a real superhero. But whenever somebody says superhero, the bat symbol comes to mind pretty quick.

That acknowledged, The Dark Knight is the most important superhero movie made so far.

To those who witnessed the release of the original Batman movie, or even the first Spider-man movie, I'm sure this seems like hyperbole. After all, they both broke box office records and made nerdy fanboys out of 'mainstream audiences.' Hell, even Iron Man managed the same trick earlier in the summer: making a well-known 'comicbook character’ into a well-known character, period. Hell of a trick it was too. Tony Stark’s steal alter-ego had grown considerably rusty since his Cold War origins, and Marvel did a bang up job of polishing him into a shiny chrome champion hip to today’s sensibilities. But even after the credits rolled, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Avengers epilogue made all the sidewalk sitters squeal with schoolgirl glee, it was still just a popcorn flick.

The Dark Knight strives to do more with the concept of superhero film. As implied by the new bat-symbol, we are returning to the broken Batman. In fact, the concept of “breakage” is central to the movie’s composition. The story presents us with a number of instances of division by mirror image. To begin with, superheroes are characters fundamentally divided between crime-fighter and alter ego. Bruce Wayne, a shallow cover for the dark knight, is the inverted reflection of Harvey Dent, a white knight who publicly fights crime. Batman the crime-fighter can be similarly contrasted against the Joker, as both are anonymous rule breakers serving opposing interests. This creeping fissure model continues with Harvey’s eventual transformation into Two-Face. This kind of comparison opens the door to a lot of complicated character analysis and some pretty heavy themes.

Naturally, not everybody will like it. Needless to say, those yearning for the whimsy of the Golden Age Batman comics are better off watching the Adam West series: There be no bat-puns or “Holy___’s Batman!” here. But even those who like their caped crusaders fairly hardboiled may be put off by the film’s relentlessly somber tone, as Nolan doesn’t let a minute pass without reminding you how Dark his world is. He never succumbs to the juvenile Underworld-brand of angst that Hot Topic peddles. It’s all genuinely grim, and it can wear you out as a result.

Authentic as the presentation is, the actual message being delivered is rather unsettling. A mainstream movie has never preyed on the fears of terrorism harder. Hell, it’s even in the advertisements.
Fortunately, the Joker is a thoroughly original villain and a refreshing departure from the terrorist archetype. In fact, he’s more like something thought up on /B/ and brought to life: a prospect infinitely more loathesome and terrifying than any islamic extremists. Hell, you could even consider his anonymity to be his super villain power: Batman only manages to beat him by using technology that invades people’s privacy. For me, the “just this once” argument for using the cell-phone sonar was the most chilling scene in the entire movie (though the white-eyed effect was a great homage to the comics). The ending speech about lying to Gotham’s people so they would still have something to believe in gave me a shiver too. The inevitable impotence and corruption of diplomacy, symbolized by Harvey Dent’s transformation to Two-Face, was also a downer. The movie isn’t blatant propaganda though. One walks away with the sense that things are not right, and that the heroes were acting in true desperation as opposed to nationalistic machoism. It bears repeating.

All that writing and I still haven't explained why The Dark Knight is so important. You have to set the stage for these things though. If you bear with me for just one more post- no Dan Brown bullshit- I promise you, I'll get to the point. I'll also offer a general discussion on the academy award, a funny youtube clip embedded right in the blog. No clicking required! Though there will be funny links for the clicking inclined too.

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