The Dark Knight: Why So Serious?

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the reasons why I had such a neutral reaction to Christopher Nolan’s latest Batman flick, The Dark Knight. After all, the film has achieved both mind-boggling box office success and the kind of impassioned fan base–some might call it a mob–that clearly suggests it has touched some kind of cultural nerve. Before I continue, I’ll go through what now seems like a ritual with Dark Knight reviews in acknowledging that the film is a well-crafted comic adaptation with some genuinely breath-taking visuals. The performances, especially Heath Ledger’s, were all solid. As an implied critique of the superhero genre, it is fairly engaging. But the film’s attempts to evoke deeper themes (good vs. evil, chaos vs. order) and its tentative references to the current political zeitgeist left me feeling somewhat indifferent. If The Dark Knight is political, it’s political in the same way that a Democratic Leadership Council speech might be: some vague references to social problems but carefully calibrated to offend virtually no one (that’s not to suggest, of course, that Batman and the DLC have the same politics).

I had been entertaining the notion of writing about The Dark Knight for a couple of days but could never quite figure out why I hadn’t really engaged with the film until I read Filmbrain’s excellent discussion of the film. I certainly agree with him that The Dark Knight may be the first populist film since The Matrix to make such a concerted attempt to engage both philosophy and politics, but like him, I feel like the film does so only at the broadest of levels (although Scott’s discussion of the Teddy Roosevelt-Batman connection, which was intentional on the part of the Nolan brothers, is somewhat interesting, and I’ll try to get back to that in a minute). In terms of the philosophical references, I found the “kill-or-be killed conundrum” during the third act to be a bit tedious while also playing off racist assumptions (what will the big black felon do?!?  And why is the big felon black?).

I’ve also struggled with some of the larger political elements of the film. Like pretty much everyone, I find the Bush as Batman argument a non-starter despite the clear, if altered, references to the war or terror.  At least Batman appears to be capable of self-critique. But, again, as Filmbrain points out, the film’s politics seem carefully calculated not to offend: Batman’s perfect surveillance machine clearly evokes the Total Information Awareness excesses of the Bush administration, but it’s meant to be used only in an extreme situation and to be destroyed after the Joker is caught and order is restored. I’d say that the suspension of civil liberties, however temporary, is still an issue, and the film does naturalize some version of the state of emergency that logically warrants spying, but it also critiques that logic to some extent when Lucius Fox (the perpetually wise Morgan Freeman) quits in protest at Batman’s actions.

I don’t think the film “obviates morality” or “trashes belief systems,” either, as Armond White suggests. In fact, by pointing to the moral dilemmas faced by Batman/Bruce Wayne, the film is, in fact, quite moralistic. Wayne/Batman is punished in places for putting his selfish desires for Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) over the needs of the larger community. The ferries full of civilians are rewarded for their willingness not to kill. In short, the depiction of Batman’s moral ambiguities by no means endorses them, and we are invited to critique his actions and to recognize his moral failures while still maintaining a relatively strict moral code. Nothing here that left me that excited or specifically challenged.

Still, as a number of critics have observed (including, most eloquently, Filmbrain), the film has become a virtual religion in terms of its masscult appeal and in terms of the visceral responses to anyone who dares to criticize The Dark Knight (and I realize that I risk becoming one of those people). Obviously the film has tapped into some kind of post-9/11-with-a-bad economy cultural zeitgeist, but I’m wondering if the “Batman as Teddy the Rough Rider” reading might not be onto something. While the biographical connections clearly seem to be intentional as both Scott and Frank Murphy suggest, the more important questions seem to be connected to Teddy and Batman’s similar ideological roles: the threatened or weak male body becoming armored, the self-made man fighting against various national threats, whether terrorism or criminal masterminds such as the Joker, with Gotham standing in, as usual, for the nation itself. In fact, Harvey Dent, as the reformist public figure capable of changing the status quo seems to offer a secondary component of this ideology, the belief that civic institutions can be reformed not only to eliminate corruption but also to protect these (dangerous) city streets from crime and/or terrorism. In other words, part of the film’s appeal might be roted in some of these deeper assumptions associated with American masculinity as it has been articulated in the figure of Teddy Roosevelt. That the film offers a somewhat muted critique of this myth–Batman, at the end of the film is forced to ride away from Gotham in order to preserve the (falsified) myth of Dent as the one honest public figure–is certainly interesting, and the emphasis on that critique at the end of the film places emphasis on this critique, but again, I read the film’s politics here as intentionally ambivalent: Batman willingly sacrifices himself for the greater good (preserving the Dent myth) thus allowing Wayne/Batman some measure of heroism or, perhaps, the Joker is right and the verities of freedom and justice disappear as soon as the social order is threatened.  Both conclusions can be affirmed by this final scene.

So maybe, as I’ve written this entry, I’ve talked myself into identifying some moral complexity here, but again, I don’t think the film is quite as profound as it pretends. And I do think that anything resembling “politics” in the film is designed to go straight down the middle, offending virtually no one in its treatment of civil liberties and the war on terror. As an example of populist political art, The Dark Knight is intriguing, but I still left the theater wishing that the film had taken more risks with the material.

9 Comments »

  1. matilda Said,

    August 2, 2008 @ 9:10 pm

    You suck.

  2. Dylan Said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 12:56 am

    You’ve kinda summed up how I felt about this movie although I think I walked away from it initially more positive than you appeared to have and grew slightly more ambivalent as I got distance from the viewing.

    There’s been a lot of talk about the superhero movie renaissance and most of it has been because the select few that really have seemed a cut above have been able to find realism in the fantasy by rooting the moral dilemma in realistic terms. Maybe it’s a simple as properly reading the zeitgeist.

    For me, it was the feeling of realism that let me enjoy the fantasy more, I think. There was simply a sense of, “I recognize this world” even if the examples were still simplistic (or tailored to not be offensive, perhaps).

    A couple of side-notes: Is it possible that when we look back at this newly emerging genre of superhero movies that The Matrix will be seen as the grandfather?

    Also, I think the “Batman rides into the night so that he will be viewed as the bad guy in order for Dent to be savior” ending is actually made more interesting by the fact that we know what Dent ends up becoming.

  3. Chuck Said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 10:39 am

    Good point about the ending, Dylan. It also sets things up for another film in the saga, of course. The Matrix comparison is interesting. It was definitely one of the earliest recent films to offer such a full transmedia experience, and it also offered the pop philosophy/political threads in ways that are similar to more recent films. I’m tempted to say that older superhero films (such as the Burton Batman) were grounded in some sort of cultural zeitgeist, but I do think that Nolan, Raimi and others have been able to do more interesting work with the material.

    Matilda, thanks!

  4. Erik Said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 4:11 pm

    Excellent review/analysis of the film. I’ve been engaged in a debate on facebook about this movie, namely whether Alfred’s decision to burn the letter at the end was his to make, and the Bush comparison came up in a lighthearted way. I hadn’t read much about the film, and your links show that this is a debate already raging. The offhand comparison I made to Bush was the voiceover at the end that says something about truth being not enough, and that faith should be rewarded. The whole war on terror is a faith-based initiative, obscuring truth….you get the idea. But it really has little to do with the movie. Your note that the film really does try to stay in the political middle for the broadest appeal is well articulated, as are the comments about race and masculinity.

  5. Joker Heath Collectibles Said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 11:24 pm

    I liked the movie. But there’s no happy ending. It’s action packed for both your nerves and your eyes. But the human heart likes a little love or happiness. There is none of that in the Dark Knight. I like to compare it as a film about good versus evil in an all out nuclear war. Basically the last one standing is good…but at what cost? Who really wins?
    This kind of ending is too empty for a human heart to leave the theatre feeling “good”. Still, a good movie but not a “feel good” movie.
    http://www.JokerHeathCollectibles.com

  6. Chuck Said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 11:47 pm

    Thanks, Erik. I don’t know how many people are taking the WSJ guy seriously. I did have some questions about Alfred’s decision to burn the letter, too.

    Joker, I wouldn’t really call it nuclear war. The film is definitely more challenging than most superhero films and for that it deserves quite a bit of credit.

  7. Erik G. Said,

    September 7, 2008 @ 12:37 am

    I just saw “The Dark Knight” so guess I am behind the curve although I live in L.A. I did enjoy the film, the performances, especially Heath Ledger’s and the many special effects and moral/ethical choices. If “the child” had been killed in the third act, then the movie would have become true art. A “Sophie’s Choice” moment if you will. But of course no Hollywood test audience would allow that to happen.

    What’s interesting to me is why this film has become the zeitgeist almost because of the di rigeur long amount of time it takes for a Hollywood film to get made. Let’s say the Nolan brothers started writing the film back in ’05 and began filming late ’06. They actually were on target in creating a film about the world’s current moral quandries as the U.S. post 9/11 audience wasn’t ready for such a film until now. Most films that directly addressed the war and other related events have done poor box office. But a “fantasy” film steeped in “reality” seems to have captured the imagination for now. Until Iron Man II comes out.

  8. Chuck Said,

    September 7, 2008 @ 10:33 am

    I think you’re right to address some of the questions about how TDK became a “zeitegist” film. It’s certainly true that the Nolan brothers have had a couple of years to make sense of current moral quandaries, making the film seem politically relevant.

    But I wonder how that separates them from other filmmakers (such as Brian DePalma) who had a similar “lag time” but couldn’t draw an audience when addressing the Iraq War (and its representation) directly. I wonder if it reflects a preference for allegory and ambivalence over pedanticism.

  9. The Chutry Experiment » Has Film Criticism Lost its (Box Office) Mojo? Said,

    July 24, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

    […] matter.  In 2008, this conflict reemerged over the reception of The Dark Knight, with some fans openly chastising film critics who failed to appreciate the greatness of Chris Nolan’s film (some similar issues were […]

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