Eric and Benny go to see “The Dark Knight”, and get confused. Talk it out boys. Talk it out.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Vigilante Super Hero Movie: A Conversation Disguised as a Review of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight
Benjamin Kumming: The Dark Knight is about choices. The choices we make in the face of evil, in how we deal with the incomprehensible. Choices about how we want to be seen, about sacrifice. It’s also about Batman. And Heath Ledger being dead.
Eric Marsh: The Dark Knight is also about chaos, as personified by a smug and silly clown who is a criminal mastermind. It’s also about order, as personified by a trust-fund baby billionaire turned Dirty Harry-esque superhero (we’ll call him Batman), who takes it upon himself to take justice into his own hands. Since Batman represents “order” though, he needs (has) a code, which from what I could tell consists solely of “thou shalt not kill”. So yes. The Dark Knight is about order vs. chaos, in the form of a clown and a man who dresses up like part bat part man.
BK: What I’ve struggled with is whether or not the Nolans (director/writer Christopher and writer/brother Jonathan) are touting a specific politicized interpretation. The story wanders, unsubtly, through all sorts of modern morally ambiguous issues like wiretapping and extra-legal vigilantism (duh, Batman). In the end, Batman uses these techniques to render justice upon both The Joker and Two Face, nee Harvey Dent. Are we to understand then that morally dubious and illegal techniques are acceptable when faced with enemies that cannot be brought down by other means? Maybe. To say Batman is America and he is fighting Al-Jokaeda and the whole thing is a metaphor for how we should face an incomprehensible and irrational enemy might be reaching to far. It’s a comic book turned action movie.
EM: On one hand, I want to halt all political discussion in regards to The Dark Knight. On the other hand, it’s obviously much too fun. Let me count the ways:
1 – The Joker uses video as means of mass/public communication on multiple occasions, which is an obvious nod to any (and the many!) terrorist/torture videos that have come about post-9/11.
2 – Batman and Lucius Fox use an advanced Wayne Industries version of wiretapping a la The Patriot Act in order to combat The Joker. This might not have been a big deal had Fox/Wayne not made such a big moral ordeal out if it (Fox’s resulting “departure”). Are we (i.e. the audience) supposed to believe that secret wiretapping is okay if it’s in the name of good and/or “done only once’?
3 – The blowing up of Gotham General Hospital couldn’t have been more WTC if they tried.
4 – What’s up with the big happy humanist boats-almost-blowing-up scene? For all the right wing vigilante ass kicking Batman does, this threw me completely off – ordinary civilians and convicts have the perfect chance to blow each other up to save their own ass, but don’t (i.e. if the kids are united, they can never, be divided). Everyone’s a superhero!…or is it just that when it comes down to it, The Dark Knight (the movie), like The Dark Knight (the character), is saying that humans are good?
The list goes on, but I don’t want to hog the spotlight here.
BK: You took all the good ones, so I’ve only got these to add:
5 – Harvey Dent, “The White Knight,” is the truly good-hearted and well intentioned, yet powerful, District Attorney who has taken it upon himself to clean up Gotham City’s organized crime. His past is clean, his rise was presumably swift, and criminals, politicians, crooked cops, and shady journalists all want him gone. One guess, and it rhymes with To Rock a Llama.
6 – There were originally three gangsters that hired The Joker. One was presumably Russian, as in the Russian Mob. According to the credits listed on IMDB however he’s a Chechen. Credited as “The Chechen,” bluntly enough. The Chechen separatists are Muslim, by and large and, curiously, it was the Chechen’s urging that the others agreed to “release” The Joker upon Gotham.
The evidence points to an intentionally politicized movie. The Nolans are not studio hacks paying no attention to what their story really contains (you know, like in 300). So then what conclusions are we to draw? Batman, vigilante, user of uncouth techniques but all in the name of justice and goodguyishness, is ultimately villainized, but willingly so. Therefore, people who do unjust things in the name of justice are heroes, and we should recognize them as martyrs who give up their just reputation with the unjust populous in the name of justice, which is just fucked.
EM: Maybe now is a time to take a step back from politics, since you know, it’s Batman. It’s not rare for movies, mainly blockbusters, to use (steal, pluck) relevant cultural events/phenomena as means of tapping a nerve with the audience. The overt political references and lack of standpoint left me very confused after The Dark Knight, and not in an ambiguous Don Siegel kind of way. So yeah, while the politics are most likely intentional, it seems like smoke and mirrors trickery, because if anything, despite the film being placed in ultra-NOW 21st century context, is ultimately quite formal and modernist: it’s a John Ford film in disguise!
My initial reaction, mainly to the end of the film, was “Holy fuck, Christopher Nolan and company just remade The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as a giant blockbuster comic book movie.” This opinion, in my opinion, still holds up – Wayne/Batman martyrs himself for the sake of upholding Dent/Two-Face’s mythical power as a “good” public figure. The covering up of Dent’s ill-fated and murderous turn in the third act is thus covered up by Gordon and company, like Ransom Stoddard getting credit for killing Liberty Valance when everyone (audience members) knows that it was ultra bad ass Tom Doniphon. The only problem here, of course, is that Dent is dead, and will not be going on to be a state senator.
The second and more glaring comparison (considering the hero-worship Batman gets in the film), and one pointed out by Scott Foundas in The Village Voice, is the comparison to Ethan Edwards from Ford’s The Searchers, forever an outlaw, an idealist, a man who will never be allowed in ‘normal society’.
(The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance + The Seachers) x (50 years + several ambiguous wars) = The Dark Knight.
EM: My TI89 says “(The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance + The Searchers) x (50 years + several ambiguous wars) + (((x*360 dolly shot / x*helicopter shot) * (Michael Mann Heat style bank robbery + William Friedkin French Connection El tracks chase sequence + traditional lower Wacker-ness) ^IMAX) = The Dark Knight.”
BK: One of the more noticeable aspects of the film to me, as a resident of Chicago, is Chicago itself. I thought that, for the most part, the filmmakers made excellent use of the city, from the below-street-level chase scene on Lower Wacker Drive (aka “Lower 5th”) to filming just about everything under the El tracks around downtown and on Lake Street. The only thing I think that didn’t quite cut it was, during a helicopter shot at night over downtown, the giant blue CHASE, which they elected not to digitally remove or alter. I guess fictional Gotham could have a fictional Chase Building, but it definitely took me out of the movie for a moment. That was the only instance that did so, however, so overall, great job.
The acting was more hit or miss. Heath Ledger of course was outstanding as The Joker. He lent the character a definite sense of absolute nihilistic insanity, more so than Jack Nicholas’ cartoonish version from Tim Burton’s Batman. Much of that has to do with the different directorial styles and interpretations, but I still believe Ledger deserves a bit of credit. Plus, he’s dead, which is, you know, awkward. Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes however, wasn’t particularly engaging. Sure, she’s an improvement over Katie Holmes, but that’s like saying lemon juice in your eye is better than severing a finger. At least they killed the character before we ended up with Diane Keaton.
EM: Christopher Nolan certainly has established himself as a major force– his sense for procedural pacing and high octane action is comparable to the aforementioned Michael Mann, and the display in The Dark Knight is not far off from David Fincher’s 2007 procedural-to-end-all-procedurals masterpiece, Zodiac. Basically, there’s a shit ton of panache. And who doesn’t love panache?
I don’t care about acting, so I’ll skip out on that discussion (while simultaneously mentioning that Christian Bale’s “Batman voice” is irritating).
Okay, fine. Ledger was great, and if you’re going to have The Joker as a character, he’d better be one entertaining mo-fo (i.e. watch him lick his lips a ton). As for those who can’t control themselves in relating Ledger’s death to his hauntingly fucked up performance, I’ll concede to a wiser man than I, Glenn Kenny: “Anybody who infers and then goes on to imply that [Ledger’s] labors here somehow led to his death is slandering him in the worst way—by impugning his professionalism, for one thing.”
BK: I was being satirical about the Heath Ledger death thing. Don’t you read the New Yorker? People may want to believe that Ledger’s role as The Joker led to his death because, secretly, they want him to be the real Joker. People want chaos. We want to be chaotic. It’s our nature, which we have been waging a war of attrition against since the beginning of recorded history (not that I’m judging that particular conflict). Your buddy Glenn there is correct though. Ledger was an actor, and not always a good one. He made a fantastic Joker, but it’s a fucking movie.
The Dark Knight got a lot of critical acclaim for handling modern issues, and I agree that it did, sort of. It handled them, but only enough to make clear that they were being handled but not long enough to force the filmmakers to posit an actual opinion on them. I remain cautious about the conclusions it would lead us to believe. Giving it the benefit of the doubt, though, I think that ultimately it is about choice and the notion that human beings can choose between good and evil. What you choose, or how you choose to interpret the film, maybe less relevant in the context of discussing this movie. Maybe. The Dark Knight could also be a subtly jingoistic and xenophobic patriot-piece. I may also be overly suspicious of that ever since I saw Independence Day. I may also be reading way too much into the whole because, after all, it’s Batman. Dude wears a cape.
EM: Dear friend, I think you’re almost right. The Dark Knight is about choices, but not necessarily about ones of good and evil. Like Nolan’s previous films (The Following, Memento, The Prestige, et al), personal choice weighs heavily in a very cause-and-effect manner. In this film specifically, Alfred’s withholding of the note, and Wayne’s resultant mindset towards his relationship with Rachel has a very manipulative “what if!” of choice issues, and in a mildly abstract way is very much at fault for some of Batman’s choices (Dent lives, becomes Two-Face! Murders! Batman takes the fall!). So shades of Nolan’s previous work show up, but there is still a handful of problematic moral conundrums that dominate the film – in the most “gritty” of situations, where Batman is asked to compromise his code (“thou shalt not kill”), he actually walks away without having made a choice. Thus, The Dark Knight is a complete sham!
Ok, well maybe not. It’s not worth all the hype, but it’s a step above most blockbuster or comic movies, and that’s worth something. Maybe. I refuse to decide. I mean choose. I’m just like Batman.