The Legacy of The Dark Knight

Earlier this summer–almost to the year–they finally released The Dark Knight on HBO.

It’s one of those films I’m very particular about. It’s not Batman or Batman II. It’s The Dark Knight. I get sensitive when people are so stuck with their Adam West memories that they mistakenly allow young children to watch it as something to pass the time. I remember once asking an older gentleman what he thought and he dismissively said “ Well, my grandkid liked it. He likes that kid’s stuff.” I don’t think he heard my teeth grinding but I can’t be sure.

As it got closer and closer to the opening night, I anticipated seeing it with a fevered anxiety. Rotten Tomatoes became my new best friend and I poured over the reviews not believing what I was seeing.

For instance, I expected “Solid entertainment.” “A great way to spend close to three hours.” “Ledger’s Joker is hysterical fun.” Instead I read, “Masterpiece.” “Raises the bar of comic book films, to the point where that description would be considered an insult.” “Uncompromising and bleak. A film where The Joker is a terrorist and Gotham falls to the brink of madness and chaos while a hero hovers between the light and the dark” “Unquestionably the best Batman movie ever.” “Ledger is the definitive Joker.”

I wanted to savor it and I waited until the following week, choosing to watch Hellboy II instead. I sat in a somewhat populated theater. A family was slightly to my left behind me. As soon as I heard that singular maddening note stretched to its excruciating limit, the bat signal aflame and rushing toward the audience, and the thud as we saw Gotham City (an unadorned Gotham with an uneasy verisimilitude) I knew we were in for a ride.

I had no idea how disturbingly compelling that ride would get.

The family behind me was just as engaged and I could hear the audible shifting in the seats. They were leaning forward.

You experience two things when you watch The Dark Knight. At first it’s fairly distancing and seems like it’s going to be pretty by-the book. Batman even carries this attitude and it’s one of the most ingenious moves the movie makes. You feel you’re in for a pretty non-threatening ride. And then something starts to happen, so subtle you almost don’t really pay it any mind. The Joker creeps up on you. We know eventually he’s going to be a threat. We’ve seen enough Batman movies and read enough comic books to realize this. What we’re not prepared for is how.

That’s the mastery of Nolan’s film. We’re like Batman. We underestimate the Joker because most of us have never seen or read this version of the Joker. But once he’s let loose chaos follows in his wake. Chaos that he revels in. Chaos that in its very lack of purpose gives The Joker his.

When I watch it I tend to stop the film right at the interrogation scene. It’s a long-ass movie for one, but also it feels to me like the turning point of the film. The Joker has become a legitimate threat but he was still “manageable.” With this sequence that all changes. Batman learns at heavy cost that he twists expectations and both he and Gordon learn the bitterest of lessons. When it comes to The Joker, he’s the one holding the cards. He has the upper hand. Always.

With this in mind, what was seen as a weakness by some critics, the mafia angle, is given a poignant relevance. Early on in Batman’s experience, the mafia is the most important threat to be dealt with. It would be that way in a normal world. “One man versus the mob?” Batman asks Gordon incredulously. Gee, which would you pick?

And that’s what we see in The Dark Knight. Thanks to the Joker, that normal world that Gotham inhabited is gone. Batman puts all his concerns in the mob, yet that one man does him more personal damage than anyone else he faces. How he eventually defeats the Joker is that even in grief he’s always the detective. He figures out the Joker’s unpredictability and it gives him an edge, but as with everything that happens in the film that edge and Batman’s war to protect Gotham City comes at a price.

Hence the title. If the movie is about the battle between Batman and the Joker over Gotham’s soul, Harvey Dent represents the casualty of that war when he is transformed into Two-Face. Yes, Ms. Dawes’s tragic death well and duly noted. But physical deaths are easy. Dent’s is a death of his spirit, heart, and moral certitude. To steal a line from the animated Two-Face, justice and righteousness become arbitrary, a flip of the coin. Chaos…sssss.

Dark Knight is almost anti-fanboy. (I added the “almost” as a fail-safe–someone, somewhere is fanboy on the film. Honestly, it’s not that hard, if you want to be a dick about it). The story is so set and the characters so well constructed (not to mention we got a taste of the gritty realistic setting of Batman Begins) that you don’t care that Batman “canon” Joker was dropped into a vat of toxic material or Dent got a vial of acid thrown at one side of his face. In terms of the story it’s more compelling to have Joker slice up his cheeks and paint himself with lame white makeup. And as for Harvey, the poor guy was just trying to escape. And both Ledger and Eckhart get to the core of these two villains; the emotional truth is there even if artistic liberties were taken.

It’s this detail and story that allows for the layers of this film: the post-9/11 tone of the film, something pretty easy to discern, Joker as a terrorist threatening Gotham (New York). Batman representing the Bush Administration trying to stop the threat. But this is why seeing the film multiple times (or any film for that matter) can be so rewarding. I failed to realize that Batman and Harvey Dent are two sides of the same coin with the Bush Administration. The public, reassuring George W. that Harvey Dent represents–with the exception of being able to talk coherently, of course–versus the morally dubious and troubling tactics the Bush Administration actually employed as personified by Batman. The same Batman that we’ve experienced through our childhood comic-book adventures as a hero.

The dichotomy of the Dent/Batman relationship is expressed cinematically as well. It is significant that both characters literally fall, but only Dent’s is fatal. At first I was puzzled by this because I got why Dent fell but I didn’t understand why Batman had to. Two-Face’s sins so greatly outweighed Batman’s. Yet there was my answer. Batman sinned as well. It’s ironic how the orchestrater of both falls, Joker, tells Batman he’s incorruptible. Yet the audience–and Batman–know better. That’s the whole point. Batman is not a pure stalwart hero. He will do everything short of actual killing to achieve his goals. That is the one line he will not cross. But that’s the only line. And one man took him to this plateau. Batman discovers his limits.

And in so doing both the Joker and Batman in a strangely perverse way bring out the best in each other. Batman reluctantly earns the title of Dark Knight. The Joker’s id is allowed to flourish to its insane extremes. Joker tells Batman they are destined to do this. Somewhere, Batman is thinking the same thing. And part of him wants to scream.

If you want to, you can also see Two-Face as a harbinger. The Joker is but a first step. He begets Two-Face. Eventually, we will see more colorful villains who threaten Gotham’s sanity. A penguin. A riddler. Poison Ivy. Killer Croc. Mr. Freeze. Even a ventriloquist. One of the nice little antecedents to Batman sparing Joker’s life is that in death Joker would have been a martyr. Then the inmates would have come out in droves forming an army of madness. But because the Joker is not killed the decline will be gradual, the foes will come out one warped individual at a time. But thanks to the Joker there is no going back. Inspiration begets inspiration. The rogues gallery is coming.

The whole film is perverseness personified. The most exciting moment in the film happens after the action set-piece. And shouldn’t that be located at the end? Instead we get Batman trying to free the “doctors” from the “hostages.” But the critical moment is the people of Gotham forced into a damning decision with death dangling over their heads.

Because here is why Christopher Nolan is arguably the smartest director out there. This endgame here is Gotham City. If the people trapped on the freighters blow each other up then all Batman has fought for is for naught. The Joker has well and truly won. It’s a foregone conclusion that Batman will beat the Joker. Not so much on the ferries. Once we see the humanity and agony with which these poor people are confronted with it brings a gravitas to the outcome. Yes. It is worth it. Despite the pain and loss, this is a city worth saving.

These moments at the end humanize these anonymous ciphers that we otherwise would have felt distanced from. We’re right there with them in that boat. We feel the same shame as the warden as a seemingly badass killer does the most logical (and bravest) thing by tossing the remote out the window. Put it in God’s hands.

We rarely get these moments of vulnerability in other blockbusters. Transformers 2 is like the polar opposite of The Dark Knight. Instead of the set pieces informing the story they overwhelm it–they are the story. The human actors are ciphers while the ones you’re supposed to care about–the Autobots–don’t generate that feeling at all, even when they’re supposed to such as with Prime’s ambush by Megatron and his cronies.

And it’s not like Transformers 2 didn’t have an intriguing story if the creators bothered to search for it and trust the audience’s ability to appreciate the finer things of storytelling. For example, there was the intriguing arc of Prime exhibiting some ruthlessness and mercilessness toward his Decepticon enemies. It would have been interesting to see Optimus slip to the dark side with some coaxing by Megatron, forgetting the ideals that separate the Autobots from the Decepticons in the first place. Prime literally becomes the fallen.

Meanwhile you have the horn dog Decepticon and Jetfire who turn their back on the Decepticon ways. Jetfire could act as a wise sage to get back on track by reminding Prime that at one time the Autobots and Decepticons were the same. But the Autobots chose to become who they were. They were not programmed. Transformers are more than meets the eye. Not robots or organic but the happy medium between them. Sentient beings with free will. So it comes full circle. Prime would again be given the opportunity to be a heartless badass….but he extends mercy instead. Maybe not blowing Megatron to kingdom come, but rising from the darkness within to be Optimus Prime at his best. Hey, you gotta have a Transformers 3, perhaps a well-earned and anticipated Transformers 3? Switch out horn dog with Alpha Sigma and you’ve got a winner.

Instead, Transformers 2 is the very definition of chickenshitted summer avarice, cowardice and cynicism. No respect for the source material. No love. No faith in anything but explosions and Megan Fox’s nubile sensuality and uber-sexpottery. If fans are given swill with sweet-ass explosions, they will gladly partake in the swill. Leading moneymaker of the summer substantiates that and justifies it. These creators (except, God-willing, Steven Spielberg) have nothing to apologize for. Why apologize for success?

Here’s why. Because The Dark Knight became the second-biggest money-maker of all time. And no one–fans or critics–aired one dissenting voice. It earned that spot. It deserved it.

A Youtube movie reviewer very astutely pointed out that Dark Knight is one of those films that can be seen both analytically and as entertainment. It has the best of both worlds. And as with all great films, you see it enough times and an osmosis begins to occur. Whether you want to or not, you do see themes and metaphors developing and it enriches the experience even more.

Box Office wise I well and truly thought Dark Knight would usher in a turning point for blockbusters. Reaching for grandeur and substance not being afraid to reach for Godfather-type quality even if the source material couldn’t even touch Don Vito’s cat.

But it’s all about the safe choice. The one that guarantees a profit. Still, though, I think audiences are tiring of flash-in-the-pan hits riding their two weeks of astronomical business. Hollywood’s model of short-attention span commodity is failing. It seems that in the end audiences glom onto marathons more than sprints. It comes down to supply and demand. As long as audiences want a little meat and potatoes with eye candy, then Hollywood will produce the meals. Otherwise, we’re gonna have a frightening number of cavities….and perhaps worse.


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