19 July 2008

The Dark Knight: Rebel Without A Cause

When I was younger, I wanted to write comic books. Batman was my favorite character, going back to my childish enjoyment of Adam West's show before I became convinced that it travestied a darker original. I've since learned to appreciate the TV show again, but my authorial aspirations remained deeply serious. Like many fans, I envisioned what might be called "the last Batman story." There are bound to be many different versions of this story, but the common idea is to portray life-changing, even career-ending events that would wrap up the Batman saga into a novelistic whole. I was always disappointed when one writer on the monthly comic would develop Bruce Wayne's characters and relationships to a certain point, only to have another writer come in and find a way to take things back to square one. I came to realize that I was looking for things in Batman comics that I wasn't meant to find there. To write "the last Batman story" is to betray the fundamental archetypes that captured my imagination forty years after the character was created. To contrive that "nothing will ever be the same" would be to deny future generations of fans the opportunity to discover those vital archetypes on their own.

I remain interested in Batman as a comic book, TV cartoon and movie character. I still feel that there's untapped potential for stories that could deepen the character and enrich his milieu without becoming "the last Batman story." I like comparing different interpretations of the character in different media, retaining a fondness for Tim Burton's movies and Paul Dini's cartoons from an era that is now over. When Christopher Nolan released Batman Begins, I was relieved to see a film superior to Joel Schumacher's abominations of the mid-90s, but still preferred Burton's films, particularly Batman Returns. Nolan has now released The Dark Knight to tremendous acclaim, and I'm now willing to argue that he's surpassed Burton.

Bruce Wayne became Batman because his parents were killed by a criminal. I've never really been satisfied with that explanation. After all, how many children are orphaned by violence each year in the real world, and how many of those become vigilantes? In its original form, the origin was an afterthought -- a two page story that first appeared several months after Batman made his first appearance in Detective Comics in 1939. After that, "Golden Age" stories didn't dwell much on Batman's motivation. In recent years, it's been more common to show Bruce Wayne moping in front of portraits of his parents, their deaths being more of an unhealed wound than they seemed to be in the past. In part, I think this is because fans are more satisfied believing that Bruce Wayne is in some way disturbed, or under a compulsion to be Batman, perhaps because they're uncomfortable with the alternate explanation, which is that he is Batman because he can -- because he can afford it.

Christopher Nolan seems to lean toward this more prosaic but also more implicitly political explanation of Batman. His Bruce Wayne, played by Christian Bale, flaunts his wealth and struts arrogantly in public in a way that Michael Keaton, Burton's more reclusive Wayne, never did. Each version of the character is trying to disguise Batman's heroic essence, but Nolan's version makes it more clear that Bruce Wayne's power is his wealth.

The Dark Knight is the most political Batman film, not because it makes any ideological or partisan statement, but because it addresses the implications of Batman's existence for public life in Gotham City. Wayne is troubled by the message Batman seems to be sending, and seeks to sponsor an alternative hero, a "white knight" untainted by the whiff of violence and vigilantism. The cleverness of the film emerges in our ability to see that, in a way, Wayne is trying to shift his burden onto someone else, at least partly for selfish reasons, and with disastrous results.

But what role is the hero supposed to be playing. In one scene, characters discuss whether Gotham City needs someone like Batman to deal with its crime problem. Harvey Dent, the prospective "white knight," invokes the Roman republican custom of suspending democracy during an emergency and investing someone with extraordinary powers to deal with the emergency by all means necessary. Tellingly, he never uses the word "dictator," but his girlfriend, who was Bruce Wayne's girlfriend in Begins, reminds him that the last Roman dictator, Julius Caesar, never gave up the power he was granted. Neither Bruce Wayne nor Harvey Dent aspires to dictatorship in the movie, but both flirt with lawlessness in their pursuit of justice, and Batman acquires a frighteningly comprehensive surveillance system in order to track down the film's villain. We're clearly meant to think of the purported police-state tendencies of the Bush administration, and the audience is invited to think that Batman really is going too far here, but the question still looms over the film: what is necessary in an age of terror?

It looks as if The Dark Knight and Iron Man will end up the most popular movies of the summer of 2008, placing the superhero genre at a new peak and probably provoking more and worse films to be made. It's probably no accident that both films, in different ways, engage with the problem of terrorism in a manner unusual for superhero films. Superheroes first appeared in the 1930s, when Americans felt helpless against gangsters and foreign dictators, and some hoped for a dictator of their own, or at least someone who'd do what had to be done, make the bad guys confess, etc. A terrorized, demoralized nation turns to fantasies of omnipotent ruthless righteousness. Americans in 2008 remain uncertain about how much power the government or the president should have to deal with the perceived terrorist threat. Films that portray people who possess nearly unlimited powers (provided in both cases by wealth and technology) have natural interest and appeal at this point in history, even if neither film has anything meaningful to say about the world's real terrorist threats....

...Which brings us, finally, to Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker. He wears the familiar colors, but his and Nolan's conception of the character is entirely original. He is not a "Clown Prince of Crime," nor does he use the traditional smile-inducing gas, as Jack Nicholson did in Burton's first film. In his temperament he somewhat resembles the Joker in his very first appearance in 1940, often grim and frowning and more sardonic than ridiculous. But that Joker was greedy for gems, while Nolan's is only out, as Michael Caine's Alfred suggests, "to watch the world burn." This nihilistic motivation is not so novel as some reviewers seem to think, since in practice Nolan's Joker is like the infinitely resourceful taunting villains from 90s action films, the characters who always got the best lines. The good lines are more evenly distributed in The Dark Knight, which has as strong an ensemble cast as any film of any genre in recent times. But reviewers are especially impressed by Ledger's work, and troubled by his words, since his is, literally, a voice from the grave. It is a strong performance, very well thought-out in voice and mannerisms, but it doesn't dominate the film, however much his presence is fueling the movie's record-setting box office receipts. Ledger does not steal the show, nor (as some reviewers have suggested) does Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent. The film is not really about the Joker's nihilistic agenda, except insofar as it complements Batman's and Dent's temptation to go beyond the rules. The surprising thing about Dark Knight that will leave it a powerful film after the morbid glamour of Ledger's presence fades, is that it Bruce Wayne and his relationships anchor the story, lending an honest weight to it that even Burton's more romantic films lacked.

When Batman Begins appeared and became a success, people inevitably began talking about a trilogy of films, as if three were the standard number for a successful series. Warner Bros. will now most likely be on their knees begging Christopher Nolan to confirm everyone's hopes and make a third film, but I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't. He may have talked of a trilogy himself, but I suspect that he's done. He seems to have said everything he wants to say about Batman, if not necessarily everything he could say, and has wiped the slate clean so a new director could start almost from scratch. There aren't really any loose ends that require another film for resolution. The only possibility I can imagine is if Nolan gets an idea for Catwoman as novel as his approach to the Joker, and one that fits his vision of Batman and Gotham City. There he'd have to deal with the lingering stink of the Halle Berry film as well as the challenge to top Burton's Catwoman, Michelle Pfeiffer. Catwoman has been my favorite of Batman's antagonists since I first saw Julie Newmar cavorting with Adam West, and I prefer Batman Returns to Batman for Pfeiffer's sake. Having Nolan introduce Catwoman into his Batman story would be a best-case scenario, but I'm not going to get my hopes up or hold my breath waiting. In any event, Nolan has earned the right to move on, especially if that means more films like The Prestige. For Batman, he has done enough.

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