Lost in the Movies: The Dark Knight (revisited)

The Dark Knight (revisited)

I've already reviewed The Dark Knight so I don't want to get into plot points, or the film as a whole, or initial reactions or anything like that. But I saw it again tonight, solidifying some of my early thoughts, and the whole phenomenon still fascinates. Why, and on what levels, does The Dark Knight work for me? There are a number of reasons it shouldn't.

As I discussed in my reaction to Jim Emerson's blog, I have fundamental problems with the way comic books tend to be translated from one medium to another. On the page, the symbolism and shorthand - the way characters and events stand for ideas and a kind of focused economy occurs, by which unnecessary details are left out of the frame - often packs a powerful punch. But in films, it usually feels like something is missing. This is especially true when the comic-book movie in question makes some gestures towards "realism" or "darkness" or "depth" which it then can't sustain because it has grounded itself in a shallow, surface-oriented kind of storytelling.

Well, The Dark Knight is not a "realistic" film. That observation was cemented tonight by a friend who sat nearby and shook his head in disbelief every time the Joker got away with another one of his stunts. This is not a movie for those who can't suspend disbelief, and so even if the movie is gritty and dark, it really can't be called "realistic." I have no problem accepting this film on its own comic-book terms, although it grates when fans compare its storytelling chops to works which were far more constricted by plausibility. If it doesn't participate in the "this could really happen" school of realism, it also rejects another kind of realism: a cinematic, stylistic realism, characterized variously by naturalistic performances, long takes, the inclusion of idiosyncrasies. However, there is one, relatively substantial chink in this armor and he's the film's most fascinating element.

I don't want to overstate the Joker's spontaneity and unpredictability (though Erich Kuersten has a fantastic post on the Joker's termite-like ability to spread subversion and mayhem in the otherwise stable and staid universe of the film - you can, and should, read it here). While Heath Ledger's performance is delightfully eccentric (someone pointed out a resemblance to Mel Gibson's facial and speaking tics, which I can definitely see now) his wild-card behavior doesn't exactly spread like a virus into the film's form. There are a few exceptions (a shocking moment when one of Joker's victims slams up against a glass window during minor dialogue; the Joker's propensity to appear on TV in grainy, amateur video; the camera's viewpoint hanging topsy-turvy alongside the killer clown at film's end) but for the most part Joker's scenes are presented like the rest of the movie. The camera is usually moving, dialogue is exchanged in close-up or medium close-up, the cuts keep coming...in other words, all the conventions one would expect of a 2008 action film.

So, in rejecting any kind of story realism (which I don't particularly care about) and also a stylistic realism (which I do kind of care about), how exactly does The Dark Knight worm its way into my heart? Actually, it doesn't - save perhaps for Ledger's performance - but I like it because it worms its way into my mind. Curiously for an action flick, this is a movie of and about ideas. Not in the usual blockbuster fashion (where theoretically anything can be read into movies which were basically created to showcase big-budget explosions), but in the sense that the film actually exists and thrives for the most part by the ideas it presents and considers. Even more unusually, these ideas are allowed to permeate in ambiguity (see my earlier review for more on both the ideas and the ambiguity).

In its embrace of ideas, The Dark Knight is actually in line with a number of films from the past decade, a kind of growing subset of cinema (which sadly, many people seem to have taken as the main stream of the art form). Fight Club, The Matrix, Memento, Adaptation - these and more are films that privilege ideas over character, sometimes (most notably in the case of Matrix) incorporating these ideas within a mainstream action film. Where The Dark Knight parts ways with this trend - and why I tend to like it more than these other films - is in the serious fashion and complex way it approaches these ideas (for once solemnity is a virtue in a blockbuster). By contrast, The Matrix explores concepts about being and consciousness in fairly glib fashion, and its supposedly anti-authoritarian, nonconformist attitude translates with frightening ease into a kind of paranoid, unthinking quasi-fascism. The heroes don black leather and sunglasses, then go on a killing spree, murdering countless civilians (remember, even though the computer can take over their bodies, these are still living, breathing human beings plugged in to the Matrix).

Batman and the film he's in, on the other hand, are constantly grappling with the consequences of his actions. Unlike Neo, he doesn't cavalierly kill those who cross his path at the wrong time; in fact, he goes out of his way not to kill even the most heinous offenders. When his inaction leads to death, he struggles with the dilemma and considers turning himself in. Though the tenor of The Dark Knight is undeniably elitist, it is a bitter, hard-won, constantly questioned elitism, much unlike the arrogant ethos of The Matrix (question: if the reality of the Matrix was so easily disproved, why so unquestioningly accept this new reality?). And Batman must pay the price for his privilege, for as a certain other comic book hero likes to say, "With great power comes great responsibility." And sacrifice.

Another interesting contrast: Iron Man. Whereas Bruce Wayne is bored with his possessions, and traumatized by his duties, fighting crime and terrorism is more or less a joyride for Tony Stark. Actually Iron Man is the prototypical feel-good action movie for the Bush era: fight terrorists by buying cool new toys, and don't break a (moral) sweat while you're doing it! Remember when the President told us we should go shopping after 9/11? Iron Man proves the wisdom behind the great man's words. If it weren't for Robert Downey Jr.'s charming insouciance (and he's an actor who usually gets on my nerves) I probably wouldn't be able to stand the movie. As it is, it works kind of like addition with two odd numbers: Downey's smugness plus the film's smugness equals, oddly enough, not-smug or (at least not insufferably so).

Still, there's no doubt that Iron Man takes lightly what The Dark Knight does not, even if both could be warily classified as "conservative" (the difference being between neoconservatism and an older, more pessimistic breed). Though this doesn't really explain my acceptance of The Dark Knight as, if not a great film, at least a very good one. The funny thing is I agree with most of the criticisms against it. The characters DO talk explicitly about all the ideas circulating in the film, instead of letting events and subtle behavior speak for themselves. The film DOES present a rigged deck in which it's a no-brainer that a dangerous nihilistic terrorist (essentially an oxymoron in the real world, but never mind) should be stopped by any means necessary, and besides we'll only do it this once, and you know Batman has our best interests at heart. And the storyline IS extremely contrived and jury-rigged to allow all kinds of forced dramatic events which will crystallize the events and tensions the film is trying to convey. But, somehow, it all works within the context of the film.

I think this is because, despite feints towards gritty realism, The Dark Knight fundamentally accepts the tenets of the superhero genre. It is serious, but not in pretentious, unbefitting ways (like its precursor) - it doesn't try very hard to situate Wayne or Batman in "reality," or overplay its personal, psychological factors (Joker's supposedly deep-seated motivation whimsically changes depending on whoever it is he's about to mutilate). Rather, it is serious about the conventions and implications of the kind of world it is conveying. By staying true to the rules of the comic book, it elevates itself to a higher level, I would say the level of myth. I am engaged and fascinated by the ideas and the tensions within ancient epic poetry, even when I find reading the Odyssey or the Iliad to be a bit of a drag, or to be unsatisfying in conventional dramatic terms. The Dark Knight recognizes that it's not drama or depth the comic-book superheroes are reaching towards, but a mythic scope and amplification. It is not as easy to attain the level of myth on film, what with the specificity and documentary aspect of the medium; when you are focusing on themes and ideas at the expense of the characters embodying and articulating them, it often seems like something's being left out. But this movie makes a game of it and is really fascinating to mull over afterwards.

So, like Batman, I'm willing to put aside my cherished principles in order to declare The Dark Knight an excellent, thought-provoking work. But just this once.


James Hansen said...

I appreciate your well written defense of the film, but what you see as the principles and ideas that make The Dark Knight very good seem standard to me. I think it is the job of every superhero to uphold a set of values and morals and throw them around the movie. Superman, Spiderman, Daredevil, and the X Men (maybe to a lesser extent) all exist a realm of good and bad where the superhero upholds all that is good and the villain upholds everything that is bad. I don't mean this as a criticism of superhero/comic book movies (I actually think most Hollywood movies stick to this kind of character writing) but it is part of what The Dark Knight feel ordinary to me. There's a lot of talk about morals, protection, and evil, but most of it are just statements to propel the next action sequence. Ledger gives the film enormous energy when he is in it, but when he isn't I think the film drags big time. Then, when Two Face becomes a factor, the moral talk becomes really overbearing...I remember a 10-15 minute segment that felt like a trailer because it was cross cutting every character making "deep" moral statements while they were getting chased down by someone else.

Again, I'm not saying all of this to decry The Dark Knight or to be contrarian to the wildly popular film. I understand its popularity, which I think is mainly due to Ledger, and see it as the big action movie of the summer. It may be a little darker and executed a little better than some other movies this summer, but when it comes down to standing out from the rest of the movies, it is only Ledger that takes the film anywhere a standard action/superhero movie normally goes.

Joel Bocko said...

I believe that while other superhero films flirt with a set of values and morals, The Dark Knight makes itself about its own particular ethos (which I may not agree with, but hey, as Walter says, "at least it's an ethos.")

What did you think of The Dark Knight's political bent? Stay tuned - some upcoming entries will explore the similarities, in terms of mythology, politics, popularity, and an ability to tap into the public's imagination, between The Dark Knight and another, older, far more controversial film about masked vigilantes who decided to enforce their version of order to protect the public from itself.

James Hansen said...

There's no doubt that "The Dark Knight" ruminates on its ethos more than your average superhero hero, but that doesn't necessarily make it above average. And, all the same, just because "The Dark Knight" has conversation after conversation after conversation about morals and justice doesn't make it any less present in a much worse film like "Daredevil" or an equally popular series like "Spiderman". I think if anyone goes back to look at other superhero films, they will find the same sense of dealing with justice and sense of character as you find in "The Dark Knight." "The DArk Knight" might make itself about its own ethos, but, if anything, I see that as a fault.

The politics of it seem all over the place to me, which may be a good sign in a sense of dealing with "issues" (although, again, "dealing" isn't the right term...mentioning issues may be closer to the truth.) Of course, there are terrorists that have to be stopped at any cost, and we have vigilantes chasing them with mass destruction of everything around it to beat the terrorists. Batman may be the conservative's hero, but the public is seen as a little more liberal. They have a chance to kill prisoners on a boat (they've made their choice!) but find too much kindness in their liberal hearts to push the button themselves. It's a back and forth between Batman and the public which makes the film work politically a little more, I think. Obviously, there could be other readings that work just as well (on both sides of the political spectrum) but that is my gut reaction.

Honestly though, it seemed a lot more interested in blowing stuff up than grappling with much of anything.

Michael Peterson said...

I've spoken with so many people and on so many sites about my distaste for TDK that I'm not going to get into it here - however, you bring up a different film that I would like to discuss.

"Iron Man" worked for me in every way that the other film did not, and I disagree with some of your points here. I wonder if I'd view it differently if I didn't know the character as well as I do, and thus understand where the character is theoretically going to be taken in the second chapter (Favreau and Downey Jr. both have confirmed their desire to bring Stark down the dark, addiction and corporate malfeasance route that Stark took in the comics).

I'd contend that it's anything but a joyride for him. The first time he flies, sure, there's a sense of giddiness to it, but the film actively punishes him every time he starts to enjoy his role too much. On that first flight, it's the reverse-Icarus cold snap, later it's an awareness that his abandonment of his own company that lets Stane get away with what he does. Stark's consistently played as a man who has to come to terms with his own hubris, because he's spent his life being destructive. While there's a certain wish-fulfillment to flying to the middle east and blowing up tanks oneself, the fact of the matter is, he's responsible for the weapons over there, and the film's message is ostensibly "clean up your mess" - there IS a pointed arrogance to this, as well, and if the studio allows the creators of the film to follow that line as they've promised, he'll be punished for this in the end, as well.

We note all kinds of complexity to the vigilante actions of someone like Batman, who performs the same actions on the smaller scale, but what Stark is doing is just substituting the muggers and serial killers for a real and more present danger. If anything, the film is a more tragic one than TDK, because as far as the Pinocchio / Tin Man allegory goes, he gets his chance at the end to work within the system to make things better (ambiguity here - SHIELD is a govt op - will that be a better choice than vigilantism? Maybe and maybe not), but instead he gets up to the podium and gleefully admits that he's the guy flying through restricted air space and causing international incidents. In the end, he's lost some of that moral battle he's been fighting since his convoy is attacked in the desert, because he once again believes that he's indestructible.

When he makes his announcement, the long-awaited Black Sabbath song plays, and the crowd eats it up - but that song doesn't describe a hero. The lyrics are about a destructive force, which is what Tony is quickly on the way to becoming.

The stinger at the end, about being recruited to The Avengers, all but implies that he's going to go down the fascist road that TDK only teased at before abandoning. Indeed, in the original source comic, Iron Man now IS a fascist, throwing superheroes in concentration camps and hunting down former friends with government backing.

In many ways, the character is the most complex that Marvel ever came up with, and while the first film by nature couldn't dwell too deeply into this (Ang Lee learned this the hard way), all of the hints are there, including the likelihood of his alcoholism. Tony's damned. It'll be interesting to see how far they take him down by the third film.

Joel Bocko said...

Michael, an interesting criticism; perhaps I was too harsh in my assessment of Iron Man? Then again, I'm growing tired of nascent franchises farming out the heavy lifting to their sequels, so maybe not.

Anyway, your observations of worthy of a longer reply, so consider this a place-holder. Usually I am e-mailed when someone comments on an entry, but somehow I missed this one. File it with the rest of the Overlook, I guess...

Joel Bocko said...


Looking at the comment again I don't think I can really add to my response until the next Iron Man film comes out and I can recontextualize the original (if that's appropriate).

In the meantime, where are your articles/comments on Dark Knight? I'm generally tired of reading/writing about that movie, but I'd still like to hear your POV.


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