The Dark Knight – Conservative, but also liberal, pacifist, fascist, nihilist…
It is far, far too hot today. As a result my brain has shut down and my fingers are typing this on autopilot, so forgive the overly-verbose prose style and higher than usual levels of sarcasm.
I don’t intend to post often about superhero films here – much as I love superhero comics, I’m far more interested in comics as a medium than in superheroes as characters, and I’m not especially interested in seeing, say, the new Hulk film. In fact, to the extent that the films have become more important than the comics (and the fact that most of the reports on ‘comic’ news sites about the recent ‘comic’ con have been about TV shows and films should say everything important about that) then I consider them actively pernicious, as they lead to comics which are nothing more than illustrated film pitches.
However, I do enjoy film as a medium, and I’ll always watch a new Christopher Nolan film, so you’re getting some thoughts about The Dark Knight.Before we begin, I’m going to state that I wasn’t as impressed by this one as the previous film – the take on the character of Batman is darker than I’d like, and indee Batman/Bruce Wayne is almost a supporting character. Having said that, and thus gone against the growing consensus that this is Citizen Kane but done right and with Batman in it, I will say that it is an excellent film, and almost certainly the best of the year. Just not the best of all time, or even the decade, and probably not even Nolan’s best.
Now, apparently it’s good form to mention the presence of plot points in the review, but frankly I think that if you’re going to read someone reviewing a film you should expect plot points to get mentioned. The film, however, isn’t really one that can be ‘spoiled’ – there’s no big twist (the goodies win) and most of the tension is built up by the moral choices the characters have to make, rather than by any great hidden secrets or surprise twists and turns – there is essentially nothing in the plot itself that isn’t predictable (and for those worrying if there’ll be another film, the stock plot here is ‘second part of a trilogy’ rather than ‘stand-alone sequel’ – there’s some heavy-handed dialogue that suggests the next film will feature Catwoman and Robin).
The rather startling thing is that for all the pyrotechnics, it really is a character piece. That shouldn’t really be surprising given the calibre of the actors involved, but we’ve recently seen Iron Man, for example, have some wonderful performances in the service of action sequences (not that there’s anything wrong with that – Iron Man was a very good film of its type). In this film, on the other hand, the big set-piece action sequences feel almost bolted on – they’re done very well, and well-integrated with the rest of the film, but you could tell essentially the same story with a tenth of the budget.
Almost everyone has praised Heath Ledger’s performance to the skies. I wasn’t quite as impressed – it was a good performance, but I doubt it would be *as* highly praised as it is had he not died. Still, it *is* the best thought-out performance in a film full of excellent actors. In particular, while nothing the Joker does is funny, the *performance* is a funny one – Ledger does everything with a comic timing that makes you think something funny is going on even when it isn’t. The voice he puts on reminds me very much of Christopher Lloyd, but more than that the physical mannerisms of the character *are* those of Jack Lemmon – in particular in his drag scene the Joker moves so much like ‘Daphne’ in Some Like It Hot that it must have been a conscious decision to model the performance after Lemmon.
While the film owes a *lot* to various comics, the basic plot is one that has been used in everything from An Inspector Calls to Stephen King’s Needful Things, but is probably most familiar from Westerns – a stranger comes to town and makes everyone confront their own choices and realise who they really are. As a result, every major character in the film becomes a moral actor – the choices almost everyone makes have very real consequences (the exception being Rachel Womaninrefrigerator’s choices, which have no impact on anyone’s life except that of Alfred).
What Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer have done is take that ur-plot, and then build it up using elements from various of the better Batman comics from throughout the last 70 years. So we have the Joker’s plot coming from the very first Joker story by way of The Joker’s Five Way Revenge, the central moral dilemma (and the look of a couple of shots) coming from The Killing Joke, and the characterisation of the Joker being lifted from Arkham Asylum. I’d actually be very surprised as well if here wasn’t some co-ordination between the Batman editorial offices and the filmmakers given some of the resemblances between parts of the plot and some of what Grant Morrison’s been doing, especially the Batman imitators at the beginning of the film.
One of the more asinine claims being made about The Dark Knight is that it’s a ‘conservative’ or ‘right-wing’ film, because of presumed parallels with the ‘war on terror’. It’s entirely possible that the people making the film had that interpretation in mind (I know nothing of their politics), but I’d suggest that given that those fighting the ‘terrorist’ are portrayed as either spineless, amoral or psychotic, and that their behaviour leads directly to the deaths of hundreds of innocents and to property destruction on an almost apocalyptic scale, it is possibly not the pro-Bush rah-rah fest certain conservative commentators would suggest.
In reality, whatever their politics, the Nolan brothers (I’m discountiing Goyer’s influence here – his contribution seems from what I’ve read to have been to bring in elements from The Long Halloween, most of which is thankfully not visible in the finished film, though it serves as a framework for parts of Two-Face’s story) have far too nuanced a viewpoint to make propaganda for one side or another. The mistake the right-wingers have made is to view the film as a superhero film (to be fair, a reasonable mistake). Batman is the goody, and so if he spies on the whole city, that must be good, because the goody did it. (This thinking in fact explains a large majority of the right-wing commentariat’s opinions over the last few years).
In fact, for all its superhero trappings, this film is part-Western, part noir. Where it really excels is in its portrayal of chaos – it’s far more believeable that Gotham is being destroyed in this film than it was in Batman Begins. It’s a genuinely dark, scary vision. (I’d use phrases like ‘post-Katrina’ here if I was only slightly more of a fool than I am). The introduction of one minor random element managing to upset the whole delicately-balanced machinery of civilisation is all too plausible.
But its major theme, taken from The Killing Joke, is about what it takes to cause that chaos, and what it takes to make people break. For plot reasons, the film takes a slightly different line to the comic in its view on this – one bad day *does* manage to break Harvey Dent (SPOILER – he becomes Two Face. There, I’ve ruined it for you). Dent breaks because he’s too rigid, so when pressure is put on him he snaps. On the other hand, both Gordon and Batman compromise – they bend – and so they escape with their sanity intact, but at a huge cost (Gordon can’t trust the people he’s nominally in charge of, most of whom are working for the mob or the Joker, Batman is wanted for multiple murders and has lost the person who is, next to Alfred, his most important ally, as well as losing his love interest). You either try to fight corruption, in which case you break, or you try to compromise with corruption, in which case you become corrupt.
So the film for the most part has a bleak view of human existence – but a way out is shown by the boat scenes. I actually thought, in keeping with the rest of the film, that this literal ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ (but set up to make conflict, rather than co-operation, the rational solution) would end with the prisoners choosing not to set off the detonator, the ‘good citizens’ choosing to set off theirs, only for the Joker to have lied and have the ‘good citizens’ actually blow their own boat up. However, the film takes a less bleak view of human nature than either myself or most economists would take, and has both sides make an irrational choice, with a Batman-ex-machina to save everyone from the consequences of that irrationality.
So what is the political interpretation of that scene?
Maybe it’s a pacifist-anarchist film, suggesting that the only way to be good is to disengage from the whole process.
Maybe it’s anti-pacifism, showing that you can only choose to disengage from violence if you have Batman to commit it for you.
Maybe it’s a fascist film – the groups on the boat managed to show a strength through unity, and neither break nor bend, just like fasces.
Maybe it’s a wishy-washy liberal film – accept the compromises so long as you don’t have to see them.
Or maybe the film has a point of view that is nuanced, complex, and wholly unrelated to the real world, because the Joker and Batman aren’t real. Do you think it might be that? Actually, any political subtext seems to be at best tertiary after the aims of telling a story about three characters going through hell in their own ways and delivering action adventure that can be turned into cool toys.
The film isn’t perfect by a long way – there are far too many examples of characters giving long speeches about their place in the world, rather than just letting us infer these things from their actions, and these could easily have been cut. And Rachel Loveinterestgoboom is as much of a cipher as in the previous film, although at least this time she’s a cipher portrayed by a competent actor. But once again Nolan’s actually given us a film that’s as complex and interesting as some of the better Batman comics, and better than most.