How The Dark Knight sheds light on the world

Christopher Nolan’s second Batman movie is a brilliant piece of movie myth-making. PLUS: Graham Barnfield on Batman’s ‘kidult’ appeal.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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Brooding, haunting, The Dark Knight is a film with weight. Long after the credits roll following Batman’s final disappearance into the Gotham City night, its imprint persists.

Director Christopher Nolan’s first reinvention of the comic book legend – 2005’s Batman Begins – began slowly, at pains to document the development of a hero, laying bare the motivation and, more importantly, the self-doubt, of Batman’s super rich alter-ego, Bruce Wayne. The Dark Knight, on the other hand, launches straight into the action’s midst. Or, to be more precise, a bank robbery carried out by men in clown masks.

Since they’re targeting vaults full of Mafia money, the guy organising the heist – ‘the Joker’ – must be pretty mad, as one of the robbers puts it. Indeed. As his gang of thieves all discover as they’re picked off one by one at different points of the raid, he’s pretty ruthless too. ‘The criminals in this town used to believe in things’, shouts the bank manager, ‘Honour. Respect. Look at you! What do you believe in? What do you believe in!’ Considering this for a moment, the Joker responds with a leer: ‘I believe that whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you… stranger.’ It is a statement of intent: there is a new clown in town, and he’s not taking the rules seriously.

But if the sands of the criminal underworld are shifting, the ground of law enforcement is no less uncertain. Moral zeal is the order of the day. Lt Commissioner Gordon, aided and abetted by Batman, is coming down harder than ever before on Gotham’s crime networks. Accompanying zero tolerance on the ground, the new district attorney, Harvey Dent, is zealously pursuing convictions in the courts. If the Joker is the absence of rules, indeed of morality, Dent is nothing but the law, a staunch moralist looking to realise his ethical convictions in public life. As he is referred to throughout, Harvey Dent is the white knight.

The Dark Knight gains much of its initial momentum from the Joker’s incomprehensible threat, his anarchic ambition, and the ever more severe, brutalising enforcement of the law. Add to this the magisterial action sequences, from Batman’s skydiving swoop down through Hong Kong’s hi-rise skyline, to an energetic car chase through Gotham, and it is never less than compelling.

But The Dark Knight is more than that. Whether it is the beautifully crafted melancholy – from Batman perched and brooding over a darkening megalopolis, to the slow motion flip of an articulated lorry – or the frequent use of discordant noise and interference where you’d expect a portentous score, a troubled atmosphere pervades The Dark Knight throughout. It creates an ambience at odds with itself, as disoriented and torn as its characters.

And this is why the film is so very impressive. Nolan’s Gotham City is a perfectly realised, self-sufficient universe, a living and breathing environment in which its characters make sense. Contrary to some, then, Nolan’s impulse is not allegorical. He is not transforming some reality, historical or fantastical, into a cipher, a mere vehicle for some trite retelling of the War on Terror or some other partial view of the world. No, Nolan seems to be doing something else here; he is creating myth.

This isn’t to say that the concerns of the contemporary moment are absent; rather that significant historical currents are aesthetically transfigured, or if you prefer, given form. Terrorism, fear of crime, loss of institutional authority, the rise of conviction politics… each is treated as an essential trend, and incorporated into The Dark Knight’s universe as characters. In doing so, something of their truth is caught.

The result is elemental rather than metaphorical. To put it another way, it is not that the Joker is a metaphorical version of Osama bin Laden but that Osama bin Laden is an aspect of the Joker.

That Heath Ledger’s last role as the Joker should have proved so momentous is due in no small part to the nature of the role. Admittedly, his performance, from the lip-licking, tongue-darting tics, to the often lugubrious, sometimes excitable delivery is brilliantly judged. But it’s the elemental resonance of this version of the Joker that makes it so memorable.

Ledger’s Joker is far from the parody of aristocracy of Jack Nicholson’s in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Ledger’s is a nameless, motiveless tramp. Where Nicholson’s suits were finely, if gaudily cut, Ledger’s are stained and threadbare; where Nicholson’s romancing of Kim Basinger was gratuitously indulgent, Ledger’s moment with Maggie Gyllenhall’s Rachel is just malevolent.

Nolan’s Joker represents something different to Burton’s. This time, his borderline personality has historical meaning: he’s the impending collapse, the approaching chaos. ‘Some men just want to watch the world burn’, remarks Wayne’s butler Alfred.

Everything from his tatty clothes to the ruined happiness of his face evokes half-remembered civility. But it is a civility beyond recall. In response to the mayor’s questions about who the Joker is, Lt Gordon responds: ‘Nothing. No DNA, no fingerprints. Clothing is custom, no tags or brand labels. Nothing in his pockets but knives and lint. No name.’ The Joker is literally incomprehensible, his face the threat of terror itself. ‘I am an agent of chaos’, he declares.

Trailer for The Dark Knight

But the power of Nolan’s portrayal of the Joker as the intimation of social catastrophe derives from the mythical context of Gotham, that is, a community pervaded by fear and insecurity. The Joker is as much a product of the fear of chaos, of moral disorientation, as he is its cause.

And this is why Nolan’s version of Batman himself is so interesting. He is neither a hero, nor an anti-hero. He is a mask, a public persona demanded by a citizenry terrified of Gotham’s descent into disorder. Christian Bale’s performance is every bit as perfectly understated as Ledger’s is flamboyant. For what Bale captures so well in portraying the emptiness of Bruce Wayne’s life, its vacuousness, is the gap between the decadent reality of Gotham’s elite and the social demand for public virtue. As Batman explains ‘sometimes, truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.’ Batman is a necessary burden for Wayne, an obligation with which he tortures himself. Indeed, it demands the denial of his life proper, in particular, his love for Rachel.

Masks, dissimualtions, split identities – such is the fare of superhero comic books. In Nolan’s hands it becomes so much more.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

by Graham Barnfield

The Dark Knight is full of surprises. One is the acting: all six leads are of such quality that they could rotate the various roles with little deterioration in the overall ensemble. Another is the smashing of box office records: the film raked in $300million in its first 10 days on release. During its second weekend alone on release, it grossed $75.6million.

To put this in perspective: Batman Begins wrong-footed Warner Bros when it raked in an unexpectedly large $72.9million in its first week. The Dark Knight’s income from US IMAX screens alone amounted to $16.3million in its first 10 days. Clearly there’s gold in Gotham City.

This is a remarkable turnaround for a franchise once buried under its own execrable sequels, summed up in the (possibly apocryphal) story of a punter at a Batman and Robin preview screening who damned the director of that awful 1997 film with the words: ‘Death to Joel Schumacher.’ ‘Holy Box Office Bonanza!’, as Robin might have said in the camp 1960s TV show.

No doubt some of the ticket sales are down to the film’s demographics: parents will splash out on tickets for themselves in order to escort their bat-mites to the movie. But that isn’t the whole story. Indeed, the presence of large numbers of children in cinemas showing The Dark Knight has prompted some moaning, and not just from adults who resent their local multiplex turning into a bratcave.

‘You shouldn’t take your kids to see The Dark Knight’, said Marc Lee in the UK Daily Telegraph, under the headline ‘the new Batman is not family entertainment’ (1). The criticism is that the 12A certificate, for ‘moderate violence and sustained threat’, is insufficient, not least when you consider that The Joker is played so darkly and knife-obsessed in this film that it has been rumoured – wrongly – that Heath Ledger was pushed over the edge by the role (Ledger actually died of an accidental overdose in January this year).

These complaints ignore the recent history of UK film certification, which saw the invention of the 12 certificate to, more or less, deliver a young audience for Tim Burton’s Batman revival in the 1980s (2). It’s a bit sad for commentators to complain now, when the pre-teen beneficiaries of a 1989 Warner Bros/BBFC compromise can bring their own kids to watch the same character on screen some 20 years later.

Besides, the rarely used powers of local authorities to award their own certification created an equally blurred situation, starting with 2002’s Spider-man, reportedly ‘the most violent film ever aimed at young children’ (3), which my then four-year-old thought was great.

More is at stake here than the whimsical technicalities of the UK ratings system. After all, in other countries parents routinely drag their kids to the cinema regardless of what movie is showing, in order to have a night out without paying for babysitters. At the level of its marketing, The Dark Knight sustains many of the tendencies towards kidult culture, appealing to the overlapping tastes of children and adults alike. Established characters such as Batman and The Joker are treated as pre-sold – automatically familiar with audiences – and also a reminder of childhoods past.

These days, when, in theory, technically crude special effects are a thing of the past, there’s a treasure trove of superheroes to be brought to the big screen. Yet film marketing strategies are not as significant as the cultural shifts that allow The Dark Knight to prosper. Adults with nostalgic cultural appetites unwittingly pinpoint undercurrents of real unease in society. Hence products that sexualise young girls – cue parental complaints about Bratz dolls – coexist with fear of the paedophile. Society can fret over masked figures armed with knives while marketing action figures in Heath Ledger’s likeness, masked and armed with knives.

Ironically, the infantilising cultural shift that has opened doors for this latest Batman revival doesn’t do justice to either film. As a case in point, Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight shows a character who is genuinely conflicted about how to end the terror and organised crime afflicting Gotham. (Two)-faced with a genuine moral dilemma – whether to suspend the rule of law to enforce the law – where can he turn, without echoing the vigilante justice of Batman himself? (The subtleties of the film make this less black-and-white than it sounds here.)

As we slouch towards the second decade of the twenty-first century, the entertainment industry can still surprise us. The Dark Knight is not for kids. It takes an absolutist view of right and wrong, and presents the residents of Gotham as ultimately decent, a world away from fashionable filmic misanthropy. By begging hard questions, director Christopher Nolan gives new depth to a comic book character fast approaching his seventieth birthday.

Graham Barnfield blogs at the Loneliest Jukebox and writes about ‘Hollywood’s Noir Detours’ in Manmade Modular Megastructures (Architectural Design). (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Read on:

spiked-issue: Film

(1) The new Batman is not family entertainment, Daily Telegraph, 22 July 2008

(2) BBFC: the 1980s

(3) Parents warned of Spider-Man violence, BBC News, 13 June 2002

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