Friday, July 18, 2008
Chauncey DeVega's World of Ghetto Nerds: Batman The Dark Knight Reviewed
Iron Man made me feel like a kid again.
The Incredible Hulk made me feel like a teenager.
The Dark Knight makes me feel like an adult.
Christopher Nolan's, Batman the Dark Knight is not a superhero movie. After seeing this film, and preparing to see it again this weekend, I felt pity for those fanboys and fangirls who dressed up for the Dark Knight because their camp, levity, and joy would not be validated by the sheer weight of what they were about to witness.
Again, don't make the mistake of believing that the Dark Knight is a superhero movie because it is not. I love superheroes, the mythos, the characterizations, the transparent morality:
However wrong, some have christened the Dark Knight as the greatest superhero movie ever made, the Empire Strikes Back of comic to film translations. Yes, the genre is a close match. Yes, there are "heroes" and "villains"--and notice how I bracket those categories. Yes, there are fantastic (if not wholly believable) devices. Yes, there is a "message." But, the Dark Knight transcends its genre in a key way. Not once, not for a moment, not for an instance, does this film have a moment where it self-consciously winks at you. Kayfabe (wrestling and carnival speak for the illusion of truth) is never broken. Consider: in Superman you knew you were watching a, if not THE superhero movie, a retelling of the Jesus story from the Bible. In the X-Men films, there is a self-conscious attention to the mythos of the X-Men (Colossus metalling up; Wolverine and the Weapon X program at Alkaline lake; the Dark Phoenix, Juggernaut repeating a line from Youtube fame; the Legacy Virus, Omega Red; and Project Wide Awake). To the credit of these films, the core audience (those folks like me, like you, that go to a midnight showing as a right and ritual), are rewarded immeasurably by engaging with these films as celluloid versions of their favorite comic books and as works of popular culture which are self-aware of their status as modern mythologies.
Batman does not wink at you. The Joker does not wink at you. Harvey Dent does not wink at you. The Dark Knight does not wink at you. There are moments of sheer delight and pleasure in seeing Frank Miller's iconic characterization of the Batman brought to fruition, but the events on the screen seem utterly real because the drama and action are not self-aware. Simply, this is a crime epic which happens to feature some larger than life characters who after the trials and tribulations they endure, save for one, are made much more human, flawed, and immeasurably more vulnerable.
I will spare you the basics of the plot or a general X and Y and Z happened movie review. You can read some of those here, here, here, and here. In short, the Joker creates chaos, the nobility of our characters is challenged, and there is not a character relationship, psyche, or person left untouched by the Joker's actions. Some have said this movie is about terrorism and the cycle of escalation: the idea of blow back and unintended consequences that come from a naivete and/or shortsightedness of action. This reading is essentially correct. I would add one more layer: what if an enemy is able to hurt you more than you can hurt him? You may win, but you will be so hurt that you will be forced to ask, "Is it worth the cost?" (among professionals who study international relations and military science this dynamic is called "asymmetry of escalation"). What if in order to defeat your enemy, you must sacrifice your own morals and integrity? Would you torture an enemy in order to find out where a crazy person who was eager to meet their personal God hid a nuclear bomb? You would save the city, but in doing so you would betray what your society stood for. Would you kill 10 to save 1,000? Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one?
The cold calculus of these choices has real meaning for our souls when they cease to be the mere province of the abstract exercises that are the stuff of first year philosophy courses. The harsh truth of the Dark Knight, and why it works as a a film, is that none of us leaves unscathed by our choices. We are all dirtied. We are all stained. To win, you may sometimes have to lose.
There are four agents at work in the Dark Knight.
The first is the public.
We, the people, those fickle masses, the 50th percentile, the rabble--we are protected by our heroes and by those for whom service is a calling. But, the public's affection is often temporary and transient. As quickly as the masses anoint a chosen one, a protector, they are as quick to betray. The culture of celebrity creates heroes only to see them fall. These are the people for whom Batman sacrifices, hurts, and experiences loss. Although he believes in their goodness, in their potential for morality and honor, it is he who must endure their cowardice. Batman exists because it is easier for us to look away from evil than to engage it. It is easier for us to hide from crime, evil, and immorality than to challenge it (it is always someone else's problem isn't it?). It is easier to send another's child to fight in wars abroad than to volunteer either ourselves or our own children, is it not? It is always easier to shirk responsibility than it is to claim it. This is the cowardice that the Joker plays upon--the selfishness and instinct towards self-preservation that is our most basic of instincts. And it is the people and their safety which forms the mantle upon which Harvey Dent is sacrificed and broken.
The second is The Batman.
Batman is a prisoner of his own code of honor. He is the literal wall which stands against chaos and disorder. Batman is that figure--a person better than we deserve--precisely because we do not have the courage to really support him, or to truly aspire to be him. Why? Because to be Batman requires sacrifice and a willingness to sustain loss for the safety of others. To be Batman also requires a supreme confidence in one's own morality and a willingness to carry that burden, whatever the consequences for us professionally, personally, or spiritually. Batman is an anti-hero. There is no glamor in such a role, there are no accolades from an adoring public, and you live in a prison which is in many ways one of your own making. In Christopher Nolan and Frank Miller's Batman, Bruce Wayne is as much a victim of Batman, as he is of the criminals that killed his parents. Bruce Wayne could gallivant around, enjoy the flesh of any woman he desired, live a bacchanal life of pleasures to satisfy and titillate the soul and body, but he does not. Batman is not Tony Stark's Iron Man. No, and despite his problems, who wouldn't want to be Iron Man, and who if they really thought about it, would want to be Batman?
The third is The Joker.
The Joker is freedom through chaos. The Joker never lies. The Joker is a truth teller. The Joker is so powerful precisely because of the sincerity of his beliefs. There is something compelling about a raison d'etre that is so wonderfully sufficient: I do because I can, I exist because I do, I am free of your society's rules because I make my own. The Joker is free. He has no ends on his behavior except those boundaries which he chooses to place on himself. The Joker wins in the Dark Knight because in order to defeat him you have to defeat yourself. The Joker is ultimately triumphant because he makes sense: Why would you choose to die for a society, for people who lack the basic personal integrity and courage to do the right thing? To give you, the Batman, the respect you deserve and have earned? The Joker wins in the Dark Knight because he is consistent, unrelenting and so insane that there is a profound clarity in his meaning and purpose. As we see in the Dark Knight, the Joker, this self-imagined and self-created figure, is sane in his insanity.
The fourth is Harvey Dent.
Harvey Dent is the victim of the public, the Joker, and of Batman. Harvey lived to serve, but in his nobility he was forced to sacrifice all that mattered to him. Harvey Dent, in his appeal to chance--the coin he flipped to make choices--never had to worry about chance because he was his own person. That is the tragedy of Two Face. He was so noble, so desirous of being the White Knight, he could not escape unscarred. The irony, is that like all good people he was punished for doing the right thing. How many of us have done the right thing only to end up the only one that suffered? How many of us have made an intervention, spoke truth to power, only to suffer because of it? How many of us have been righteous in our indignation and deeds and have been made to lose, to hurt, to suffer by those less good, less righteous than we are? And adding insult to injury, who were made to suffer only because it was expedient? This is the quintessential Harvey Dent: a good man made to suffer. And ultimately, it is Harvey Dent who is both simultaneously freed and destroyed by the cathartic freedom of chaos offered by the Joker.
The Batman, the Joker, and Harvey Dent are messiah like anti-heroes. The Batman is a messiah figure because he believes he can bear any burden and through which be an Jungian outlet, a dark knight, for the public's fears and anxieties. Bruce Wayne is solely capable and able to carry upon his shoulders a horrible burden that no one else is able or willing to endure. The Joker is a messiah figure because of his sincerity in belief and action. The Joker sincerely believes in the liberatory power of chaos, of violence, of living outside of the rules imposed by "civil" society. The Joker will free us. Harvey Dent is a messiah because he believes he can save us. Harvey is the bright light, the incorruptible and unflappable defender of the public. These men are all narcissists precisely because to be a savior requires a sincere belief in your own wisdom above that of others. Two of these men, Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent are devastated by the choices that their narcissism when combined with their nobility demand of them. In the end, it is the Joker who stands triumphant because even in the last moments of the Dark Knight, the Joker's narcissism makes him immune to defeat. He has outsmarted Batman. He has bested him. He has dirtied him. The Joker knows he has won because of a final truth which he delights in uttering--the Batman needs him as much as he needs Batman, and the truth is that they, the Batman and the Joker, are not so different after all.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Heath Ledger's performance. There is a subtle, yet iconic moment in the Dark Knight, where the Joker, driving away in a police car after a triumphant escape sticks his head out of the driver side window like an innocent dog out for a ride with his family. This moment of bliss contrasts so wonderfully with the dark madness he channels during the rest of the Dark Knight--do you want to see me make a pencil disappear?--that Heath's Joker is now THE Joker.
They said Heath Ledger stayed in his room, isolating himself in order to prepare himself for this role. In the end, we are watching the Joker, a character so unhinged that we are simultaneously fascinated yet repulsed. We cannot turn away even as we fear what Heath's Joker may do next. For this ghetto nerd, that is the ultimate complement. Heath Ledger, wherever he may be, should be proud of his creation, and if the Fates or the Gods are smiling he deserves an Oscar nomination, if not award, for this singular, triumphant creation.