For the rest of Patrol’s Batman issue, click here.
This summer has been the season of mixed messages for Hollywood. It has shown that religion and the church have truly been replaced by the media experience and the movie theater, respectively. Even America’s schizophrenic attitude towards the divine is mirrored the simultaneous steep decline and feeding frenzy at the box office.
This weekend, and probably for several to come, moviegoers will make the expected pilgrimage to theaters to homage to Heath Ledger and his ultimate sacrifice for our entertainment. No doubt the Academy will honor him with a nomination, at least, and possibly even an Oscar. Truly, it is almost impossible for even the biggest cynic not to feel just a little tug of sympathy for his star potential gone awry, thwarted by its own devices (We moviegoers have somehow magically removed ourselves from the chain of guilt connecting us to Heath’s fate—hence our ability to attend this film with such purity of heart and eager sympathy, even viciously fight for the chance to honor him at the cost of one hundred dollars a ticket, as has been reported in some areas).
As Armond White pointed out, The Dark Knightdeals heavily in nihilism (not cynicism mind you—oh yes, there’s much hope in this movie): pop culture nihilism that feels a giddiness approaching its own potential destruction. This is in fact the Joker’s role. Batman’s job is to be the scapegoat, the one who operates outside the rules to sustain them. Many of the same themes that our summer superhero movies have already excavated are in The Dark Knight: our societal ubermenchen are simultaneously destructive and sustaining. Extreme power is inherently bad, except in some cases. Batman (along with Hulk and Iron Man) play this tune like a broken record, yet never offer a fuller explanation. And indeed, it only takes a small push to reveal this madness.
The Joker is the ultimate evil because he is the anarchist, obviously insane in his desire to reveal the schizophrenia at the heart of our society—yet the great scene of overcoming the Joker in Batman is only accomplished by the irrational choice to set aside the impulse to survive. There are echoes of we are the change we have been waiting for all through this movie. And yet Batman’s role can easily fit George W. Bush’s understanding of sustaining society in an age of terror. Perhaps they are two sides of the same coin for the Nolan’s, perhaps Two Face Harvey Dent’s coin of chance. But in much the same way Two Face’s coin is a cinematic ploy (the screenwriter always has power, even over chance), the viewer is manipulated and torqued continuously past the inconsistencies of the film. The law and lawlessness are equal. Batman and the Joker are the same. Two Face, the inevitable conclusion of this schizophrenia, the one who is the hope of the system that ultimately destroys him (perhaps the truest emotional moment of the film is Gordon’s desperate apology to Dent), conveniently dies in the end and is almost as quickly forgotten, lest the filmmakers be forced to deal with the absurdities of their triumphant nihilism.
I found myself missing the original Batman movies, which made me truly uncomfortable. The Dark Knightis full of dread and a forced cycle of climax and release. But the mania of the original Batman movies had a cause—whereas Knight’s Joker mocks any attempt at origin (hence the hipster more-self-conscious-than-thou attitude of the whole movie). In this summer’s movies, a lot of serious questions feel like they get answered but never do. There are lots of explosions but nobody manages the screen in an impressive way. The fight scenes are back and forth but never progress. There is not the wonderment of motion that Chaplain and Keaton first explored, and has been carried forward even in movies such as Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master II.
The Dark Knight gets points for asking questions, but loses them for its heavy-handedness in asking, and loses even more by pretending to answer them consistently. Norton’s Hulk had the same problems, but never bothered to ask them, and thus made space for some exploration of Banner’s emotional state. In this sense, it is superior to Knight’s clash of vacant titans. Knight posits questions about society, yet the hoi polloi only make occasional appearances in the most constructed situations to achieve a predetermined outcome or stare in a lowly and cow-like wonder.
In the end, what is most worrisome is not that society is operating on this hopeful nihilism, but that it is constructing a mythology out of this with which it can bolster itself.
Micah Towery is working on his master of fine arts degree at Hunter College in Manhattan. He is the founder and co-editor of The Cartographer Electric.
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