Saturday, July 26, 2008

Another Superhero Movie Done Right

Though that, in a way, was because the emphasis was less on the "superhero" than it was on the villain and antihero of the piece. I'm not going to say much in a review of Dark Knight, because everything to be said about the acting, direction, how it is lightyears ahead of the last film, has already been said. Rest assured, the script is better than the last time around, the action is better than the last time around, and Heath Ledger as the Joker really is as good -if not better- than all of the reviews have been saying. He steals the film, just like he stole all of that money. He's like Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider, with the caveat being that Dark Knight is actually enjoyable and a good film when Ledger isn't on screen. That makes his performance even more incredible, because the initial thought upon seeing him every time he appears isn't "Oh thank God!" like it is with Nicholson. And let me just tell you this: I Believe in Harvey Dent. Aaron Eckhart was phenomenal as well, though overshadowed by Ledger both in performance and in surrounding hysteria. That's okay, because the Joker is a larger than life character and Two-Face... ...isn't. I'm still a little fuzzy on Christian Bale's appeal though, both as an actor and Batman. I'm over my intense loathing of him and think he did a much better job this time around; but again, that could very possibly be attributed to the fact that the Joker's story and Harvey Dent's story were also in play.

But what really interests me is the philosophical message of the film; I know I promised not to bring up Joss Whedon again for a while, but the whole interplay between the Joker and Batman reminded me powerfully of this line in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 3 episode "Enemies":
FAITH: What are you gonna do, B, kill me? You become me. You're not ready for that yet.
I find those two thoughts to be present throughout Batman's struggle with the Joker, and consistent with Joker's nihilistic views on society and civilization and human nature. The Joker "knows" he is going to win, because the Batman has to kill him; by killing him, Batman becomes the Joker; by becoming the Joker, Batman transcends. He has pulled back the veneer of civilization and rules and decency and become what he is meant to be. Or, alternatively, the Joker wins because Batman doesn't kill him, thus can't stop him, and Gotham burns. Either way, things look pretty damn good for the Joker, whose core belief is that humanity is at its heart as twisted and black and chaotic as he himself is; and while he can imagine one person -a man in a batsuit- being incorruptible (though it is important to note that he still takes pleasure in the idea that it can be done), he cannot imagine that there are more than one in the world; or, at the very least, within Gotham's city limits. And he believes he proves this by destroying Gotham's golden child, Harvey Dent.

The Joker embodies what Batman could turn into, what Batman is all but poised to become. The Joker is a man for whom rules do not apply; Batman is a man for whom rules do not apply. The Joker is a man playing at being a maleficent god among men; if Batman kills him, he takes up that mantle. Batman can no longer protect Gotham, because he has then turned into something Gotham needs protection from.

Batman, the character and the comic book (or, graphic novel) exists on the edge of a knife. His brand of vigilantism is not so much a form of justice as it is an extension of the police force. And that is what allows Batman to be someone to root for, to actually be a superhero instead of a thing to be feared. Batman's position in the city as its protector is tenuous at best, both in terms of his own assertion of that position and the city's tolerance for that position. His overall objective is to clean up the streets by working within the established system as much as possible. He goes where the police can't; he does what the police can't do. But although he stops crime, he still depends upon the judicial system present in the city to judge and punish the criminals. He is just a human -though a billionaire- dealing with the problems and tribulations of humans. If he crosses the line, if he begins to actually become judge, jury, and executioner of even one person, then he loses the ability to truly be Gotham's protector. Bruce Wayne doesn't want to be a god among men; presumably because he knows that although the justice system is flawed, it is still a better form of rule than one guy -with all of the emotions and flaws that implies- flying around in a batsuit.

There are several moments in the film I find especially interesting: Harvey Dent brings up Caesar, and states that he believes that form of rule is at times necessary for security. This -and the line "You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain"- sets up Dent's descent to Two-Face. Because Batman isn't a Caesar; he is perfectly happy to leave ruling to those in the light. Kill the Joker, though, and Batman becomes exactly that. And so, he cannot. Harvey Dent, however, does become a Caesar-like figure, someone who is more than comfortable being the man who holds the power of life and death over those he deems responsible for criminal acts.

The second moment in the film of importance is the ferry scene. As soon as it becomes apparent that even the worst dredges of the city still have a bit of the civilization the Joker despises as being false, as soon as the people refuse to play his game, the Joker loses. He only wins if we let him win; and there were casualties, but there would be greater casualties -even if they would be casualties of things like moral agency and personhood and the republic- if the Joker won in any real way. And so, Batman refuses to play the Joker's game, refuses to be corrupted and twisted. And the Batman wins; which is really the point of the whole thing. Nihilism is philosophical death; belief that we can achieve something better and beyond ourselves, whether through a god or works of man, is life-affirming. The movie, for all of its bells and whistles, succeeds in that it takes three separate men and shows their journeys -shows the successes and failures and pros and cons of each one of their ventures. And demonstrates how Batman's philosophy is the only one that truly works out of those three, even though it brings with it its own downsides and issues. So, kudos to that.

There is, however, a problem with lack of female presence in the film. Rachel was pretty much turned into a Woman in the Refrigerator character. And that was pretty much a bad. But gender in Batman (and comics on the whole) will have to wait for another time, because I'm still riding a high off of what this movie actually did accomplish.

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