I did not review The Dark Knight when it came out in 2008, though I did discuss the film in some depth with friends and colleagues elsewhere.
I realized this week, however, that I should probably try to collect those thoughts to provide a context for the forthcoming review of The Dark Knight Rises, which opens on Friday and which a number of my friends and readers are anticipating eagerly. I am prepared to like and/or even esteem the third installment of Christopher Nolan’s series, but I had deep reservations about the second film which temper my own enthusiasm and make my anticipation a bit more guarded.
In social media I quipped that I thought The Dark Knight was essentially a Saw movie with marginally less gore. That’s a deliberate overstatement but not by too much. The central structure of the film is a series of impossible dilemma’s that are other-focused rather than self-focused. Will Batman save Rachel or Dent? Will he reveal his identity or risk a hospital bombing? The murder of a betrayer?
The tone of The Dark Knight is colored a bit too much by the Joker and not enough by Batman. His psychology is that of a sadist…one who takes pleasure in the pain of others. The Joker is presented (or received?) as too cool. From the opening, oh so clever bank heist that relies on each crook killing the next, to the “watch me make a pencil disappear” mob murder that inexplicably got a laugh rather than a gasp or groan in the theater I saw the film in, the Joker’s manic energy is what propels the very long movie. It is the engine that set things in motion around a hero who is more sullen than conflicted. Batman opposes the Joker less out of any sense of conviction (that his way or beliefs are right) but out of a sense of obligation. He tries to defeat the Joker but he doesn’t really oppose him. In one of the film’s more incoherent contradictions, Batman insists to the Joker that civilians and criminals on opposing boats will not blow each other up, even when threatened with their own deaths, then turns around and insists that the same populace is incapable of accepting that Harvey Dent was an otherwise decent man who snapped as the result of a horrific experience.
It is hard for Batman to ideologically oppose the Joker in this film for a couple of reasons. Batman doesn’t know who he is or what he fights for, so how can the film? In what is the most telling exchange of the film for me, the Joker challenges, “You have these rules…and you think they will save you.” Indeed, the Batman of my youth, of the 70s and early 80s, did have rules, a code, which he lived by, and did expect that they would save him. The Batman of The Dark Knight is willing to be a sacrifice to necessity, because nothing less than a sacrifice will be effective. The rules, the code certainly will not save him, or Rachel, or Harvey.
It’s worth asking, though, save him from what?
That’s not an idle question. I fancy now as I fancied back in my naive adolescence when I was inspired by Batman comic books, that it is and was a rather important question. The Joker is surely right that the rules will not save him or those he loves from harm or death. Bad things happen to good people. God does not always intervene. Is that all there is to be saved from, however? Are there not some fates worse than death, some outcomes more tragic or lamentable than being defeated? A good friend and colleague of mine called The Dark Knight “nihilistic.” I don’t think that’s not a stretch because the Joker wins the fight (he doesn’t) or because he wins the argument (he actually does) but rather because while the film shows Batman (and many civilians) fighting him, no one attempts to or actually succeeds in answering his arguments. Nobody even tries. That silence speaks volumes about Batman and about the generation that has remade him in its image.
The Batman of my youth eschewed guns. He had a great abhorrence for guns because a gun killed his parents and his primary mission was to honor their lives and give their deaths whatever meaning could be infused from the nobility to which his pain spurred him to try to spare others from experiencing the same. The Batman of Nolan’s franchise begins (no pun intended) on a quest for vengeance. Bruce Wayne goes to the court house intending to murder the man who killed his parents. More importantly, it is chance, not self-restraint that prevents him from doing so.
Let me be emotionally frank. I had a family member who was murdered with a gun when I was very young. I know what it is to have vengeance in your heart. What made Batman a hero in my eyes was not merely that he did not take vengeance but that he chose not to take vengeance. He had the power to do so but had the will to restrain himself. I’m sorry, but that sort of self-discipline comes from someplace other than a couple hundred hours of martial arts training. That sort of self-discipline comes only from a belief system, a set of values. I know that, because believe you me, when the darkness falls, and you are holding on to sanity and sanctity by your fingernails, it is your belief in the values that you are clinging to that gives you the strength to not let go. It’s not a pragmatic thing. In Batman Begins, once the training is complete Batman refuses to be executioner, but one always gets the sense, at least I did, that the moral lines he drew were somewhat arbitrary, based on ideals of how the system was supposed to work rather than convictions of how he was supposed to be. Once the system was exposed to be broken, there was no reason for him to continue to hold onto the broken ideals.
I’ve said several times that this Batman is not the Batman of the comics I grew up with. In 1986 Frank Miller penned a classic and highly influential four volume graphic novel called The Dark Knight Returns. It reimagines and recreates the Batman legend. And let me be emphatic. It is a masterpiece, rivaled only in graphic novel history by Alan Moore’s The Watchmen.
In Miller’s novel, Bruce Wayne is fifty-five and retired. He is conflicted in a way that the younger hero was not, in part (primarily?) because he cannot see as how his work, his sacrifices, have done any good. He doubts not the choices he is making but the choices that he made. It is here, at the end of a long life, where he asks himself and the Joker, “How many people have I killed by letting you live?” Miller’s work, like Moore’s (which also came out in ’86 and ’87) was deeply rooted in a distrust of the new conservatism embodied by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Batman is aghast at how Superman has been co-opted by the government and supports jingoistic nationalism, is for the “American Way” even if and when it is not preceded by “Truth, Justice, and…” In other words, even the Batman in Miller’s work is an idealist. He is not a cynic. He is certainly not a blank cipher ready and willing to be whatever the “people” need him to be. One cannot be angry at others for betraying one’s shared ideals unless one has ideals to betray.
Miller’s work is a masterpiece. It is complex and difficult and painful and credible. It is also set at the end of Batman’s life and was surely intended as a work of speculative fiction, a one off riff on how Batman might end up, not an attempt to recreate the character from the get go. One of the difficulties arising from Nolan’s too large debt to Miller is that The Dark Knight Returns is an old man’s story, one about an old man’s demons and battles, and Nolan wrests it out of the very narrow context in which it works and reads it back into Batman’s beginnings. Those doubts, those fears, that existential pain of being in the dark night (again, no pun intended) of the soul has a very different meaning when put in the mouth of youth. It would be like taking the cry of “vanity of vanities all is vanity” at the end of Ecclessiastes and putting it in the mouth of a young Solomon (or even worse, a young David).
I understand why Nolan does it, though. It’s a Batman for our time, and that may be what saddens me. Perhaps the most overused critical cliche of the moment is “it’s a film about 9/11.” But, you know, The Dark Knight is very much a post-9/11 iteration of that hero. The Joker is called a terrorist, and if Batman has no answer to his taunt that “you have these rules, and you think they will save you” it is because there is no answer he could give that his American audience would believe. We know that the rules don’t save us from bad things happening to those we love. Yet we have trouble affirming that the rules might save us from something else, something worse. They might save us from becoming that thing which we abhor. Remember the cell phone tracking that Lucius objects is “too much power for one man”? How traditional, how naive of Lucius to think that there must needs be another way to fight evil than to become totalitarian yourself. Or, if needs be, better to lose a fight than lose your conscience. Even Lucius, though, can’t follow through on that conviction and agrees to use the power “this one time.”
The Dark Knight is a film constructed around a series of Faustian dilemmas and the last one is given to Lucius in the form of a trade of his conscience and integrity in return for results, safety, life. Need I work out the entire Faust analogy to underscore what role that means Batman is playing in this little allegory?
The Batman of my youth would not have taken on the role of tempter, justifying (or trying to justify) what he knew was wrong by testing it through the will of one whom he believed had more integrity and character than he had. Neither would the Batman of my youth have violated his code “just this once” no matter how many lives were at stake. Mister Spock may not understand, but when it comes to integrity and morality the needs of the one outweigh the needs (for life) of the many. The Batman I know would have found a way to defeat evil without compromising, or he would have died trying. He would have had at least the integrity of a Frodo or the peace of mind of a Thomas Moore, realizing that it is not the battles one wins that makes one a hero but the battles one chooses to fight, not how far a man is willing to go before he compromises that is his measure, but how much he is willing to lose rather than compromise at all.
I love Batman, and I look forward to The Dark Knight Rises, but I do so with more hope than confidence.