Why is the latest installment of the Batman movies "The Dark Knight" on its way to becoming one of the most popular films of all time? Why are people (like myself) going back to see it?
Last night, upon a second viewing in a packed 10:20pm IMAX theatre showing, I gained some insights into why Christopher Nolan's gem is far more than a summer blockbuster about a conflicted superhero.
It's clearly not the special effects, which are good and even more dramatic in IMAX. The late Heath Ledger, while delivering an Oscar-level performance that makes you totally forget about Jack Nicholson, is worth the price of admission, but he's not the only reason to spend two and a half hours looking into the heart of darkness.
Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllenhall, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and the indelible Morgan Freeman are all first rate, but again, they are not the main draw. Even being awed by an array of Chicago skyscrapers (and the world's largest post office dressed up as a bank), aren't enough to get me into a second viewing.
The Dark Knight is a timeless story that stares us in the face and dares us to look at our collective soul.
It's not enough that Nolan taunts us with post-9/11 images of a blown-up building, the work of the Joker. Or that Batman is transformed from a caped crusader beloved by a feeble, corrupt police force into an anti-hero chased like a common criminal by dogs. There's so much more in this film that's informed by Shakespeare, Norse mythology, modern politics and hero worship.
Let's start with the Joker, which coalesced into one of the most enigmatic and terrifying characters on film under the Nolan-Ledger partnership. He's no simple psychopath. The Joker wants to create disorder just to see what happens. As the "dog chasing the car who doesn't know what he would do if he caught it," he's the self-proclaimed "agent of chaos."
My intelligent, loving and insightful spouse Kathleen, who accompanied me to the late-night IMAX showing, claims that the Joker represents Americans and materialism run amuck.
"There are no limits to greed. Look at our lust for oil and the wars we've started," she said. "Look at the mortgages and the banks who made them and all that credit-card debt. There is nothing stopping the free-market system. There are no rules."
"Yes, dear," I retorted, "maybe the Joker represents some element of our dark nature, but he's not about greed. He gets all of that money and he burns it. He doesn't want it. He wants to spread disorder."
"Then he's more of a Loki (the norse God of troublemaking)," she added.
I think he's much more than that. He's a terrorist. An anarchist. He spreads disorder and fear just to see what people will do. Carefully examine his bombing targets: A hospital, a bank, a factory. He wants to blow up institutions and turn people against each other.
There's no better scene in the movie to illustrate his terrorist agenda than the ferry scene.
Two ferries are sent out from the city: One containing dangerous convicts and the other innocent civilians. Each boat is given a detonator and told to blow up the other ferry before they are destroyed. It's a classic prisoner's dilemma. In most cases, one of the parties will take an action in interest of self-preservation. In this case, however, there's a satisfying irony in that one side decides to take no action and the other chooses to sacrifice itself. The end result is that both sides are saved, thwarting the Joker's prediction based on his observation of human nature. It's the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Because two powerful forces have the ability to obliterate each other, the only humane course is to do nothing. A perfect metaphor for our nuclear age.
Yet the Joker succeeds in winning a few hands. He does manage to sow chaos and convince the populace that their institutions can no longer protect them. He has achieved one of his goals. In this regard, he's Osama bin Laden mixed in with a little Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Mugabe and Himmler. He knows the power of fear and he plays it like a symphony.
Even more corrosive is the Joker's power to exploit the duality of human nature. After killing crusading prosecutor Harvey Dent's girlfriend and grotesquely disfiguring him (think Dr. Sardonicus or Dr. Phibes), he turns Dent into a vicious vigilante who goes on a murdering spree. Now the Joker is Iago to Dent's Othello. Human emotion is turned against itself to produce murder.
Out of chaos and loss comes vengeance. Is it an artistic coincidence that Dent's dark transformation comes right after the subtle 9/11 images? I think not. Then the crusader roams around the city murdering everyone who had wronged him and a few who haven't. His rage and lust for revenge are out of control. He's now Macbeth. Nothing stands in his way and the blood he has spilled fails to chasten him. Isn't he a raging post-9/11 America, looking everywhere for enemies, leaving a trail of death and devastation and punishing the innocent in the process?
Unlike most superhero films, the arch-enemy is left dangling. He's still out there, Nolan tells us. Although it will be monumentally difficult to do a sequel with an actor that matches or exceeds the intensity of Ledger, Nolan's message may be that Jokers still lurk in the world. They are hiding in caves, running governments or managing banks, but they are always among us, relentlessly exploiting every weak facet of human nature.
But what of Batman, who ends up being hounded like a wounded animal (mostly by choice)? After all, he's saved a few people, caught the Joker, and surprisingly has kept his integrity intact by not directly killing a soul. Batman even agrees to shut down his version of the Patriot Act: a device that lets him spy on an entire city.
Batman is no less than Ulysses. Despite his wits, strength and endurance, he is cursed by the gods. He can't return home for the time being. More trials await him. While mythical in perception, he will be a creature of the night, waiting in the shadows. Of all of the characters in this film, he is the least like us, yet the one most sorely needed.
We need to believe in a Batman, just the way we needed to believe that Harvey Dent was a hero, even in besmirched martyrdom. We want our leaders to be like Batman and swoop down from tall buildings to vanquish evil. Every fiber of our being wants to believe that such a person can exist. We put them on pedestals and hold conventions in efforts to sanctify them.
Perhaps there are no more heroes left in America to salvage our constitution, American Dream and place in the world as protector of freedom and democracy. It has always been a burden that was nearly too much to bear. Maybe we are weary of being the white knight and now stuck in a dark night phase, so immersed in decadence, cynicism and indifference that we don't even bother looking for heroes and making sacrifices to find them.
That is why The Dark Knight is the most relevant work of art at the moment, reflecting both the abyss and our gaze skyward. When we saw the spotlight with the bat image in the sky, we knew there was hope. A masked superhero would emerge from the shadows to answer the call and round up the villains. At the end of the film, the bat light is smashed. Did our innocence and faith in what we could once again stand for go out with that light?
I suspect not. Invested in the power of myth is the endless creativity and endurance of the human spirit.
The most telling scene in the Dark Knight isn't in the final sequence; it involves the ferry dilemma. Two parties with undeniable interests in self-preservation make the right choice -- and it's a huge sacrifice. They have no idea how it's going to turn out.
Are we coming out of a collective dark night of the soul?
Only the quality of our sacrifice and our way of addressing our spiritual recovery will chart the way forward. The rosy fingers of new dawn await our mutual response.
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John - thank you for this excellent journey through our collective unconscious...
which generates more thoughts on the Joker...
I agree with Kathleen's second opinion - the goal of the Joker is, ultimately, discord and chaos. The US, capitalism and its profligate ways are too large and, therefore, easy a target for all social ills. If anything, in this film it is those representing that very same ideal (a capitalist "order" if you will) who are most under siege and falling to the Joker's misdeeds.
Even further, unlike the litany of despots and autocrats listed below, chaos is the only goal for the Joker whereas for the Hitlers of the world sowing disorder is merely a tactic to achieve some greater, idealized purpose (no matter how absurd we may deem it). Even more frightening than these murderous tyrants, the Joker's only purpose is consistent, nihilistic purposeless-ness as well outlined in your examples.
Therefore, while the Osamas of the world pursue their dreams of distant golden caliphates, they merely reap the whirlwind of the Joker while he stares back laughing.
If you're interested, check out Frank Miller's 1985 graphic novel, "The Return of the Dark Knight", for the original development of the core theme and persona of this latest incarnation of "the Batman".
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