Holy Batmania

Ok, I stole that title from a 1989 documentary, but unless you’re living under a rock deep, deep, deep in the backwoods, you’ve no doubt been hearing much ado about Christopher Nolan’s new addition to the Batman-in-film catalogue, The Dark Knight. It has broken records and stirred critics out of their typical complaints over summer’s big budget throwdowns, most to wild acclaim first and foremost for Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the sinister Joker, and secondly for Bale’s continued performance as the Batman. For the most part, I would agree– both actors offer impressive performances (it doesn’t hurt that I’m a huge fan of Bale), with Ledger stealing the show, just like the critics tell you, supported all around with solid portrayals of Lieutenant Gordon, Two-Face, Rachel Dawes, Alfred, and Lucius Fox. Apart from the pretty faces on the screen, the film seemed to me to be a refreshingly adult take on the subject matter, posing serious questions about our notions of the hero, the vigilante, the terrorist, government, morality and the classic struggle between good and evil, city planning…. The list goes on, aided by a runtime of 152 minutes! The characters in The Dark Knight look much more like those in Frank Miller’s graphic graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, and the Joker is stripped of all the camp and showbiz imbued him by the grinning Jack Nicholson, looking and acting like the frightening madman we see in the Arkham Asylum comics from the late 80s. I really would love to see a feature film adaptation of Miller’s comic, but in lieu of that, this darker Dark Knight does the trick.

Bale’s Batman is flawed. Quite literally, he is seen stitching his own wounds and tweaking his armour to be more flexible (to get out of the way of that which wounds him, presumably). Bale seems uncomfortable in both of his own skins– not quite at home with the jet set as Bruce Wayne, and beginning to doubt the efficacy of his nighttime vigilantism as the masked Batman. The latter point is driven home early in the film as a group of Batman impersonators is torn to shreds by some mobster thugs they are attempting to intimidate. Luckily, Batman shows up to save their hides, but the tone is set for the rest of the film. What good is Batman? He is, let us not forget, but a man, possessing no powers of the supernatural. My Webster’s describes “vigilante” as “Any person who assumes the authority of the law, as by avenging a crime.” Certainly Batman is this, and he is held in high regard for his assumptions, but this sort of justice must always fall short in any serious consideration of crime and punishment. Without the due process of the law, however flawed its institutions, we would experience moral chaos. Heavy language, no doubt, perhaps especially for those of you who know me, but the imposed morality of the Constitution is, to paraphrase another favorite film of the sidewhites.com crew, at least an ethos. Tit for tat, an eye for an ear, and everyone in shoot-em-up America armed to the gills, vigilantism is to be Feared. The Joker knows this, alluding to his and Batman’s need for one another. Not simply the classic battle royale between Good and Bad, they are locked in a sick dance, which, throughout the film, spirals further and further out of control.

Batman wishes to pass his mantle to someone worthy of the “hero” moniker, an honest-to-god elected official, D.A. Harvey Dent, who can pursue the ends of justice within the parameters of the legal system, the way it ought to be. Dent himself, spurred by events both tragic and beyond his control, succumbs to the allure of the vigilante, becoming Two-Face, a moral-less badass who decides the fate of those who cross his path with the flip of a coin. The flippant coin flipping rings of the Coen Brothers’ recent No Country For Old Men, though Wikipedia tells me the comics of old got the device from the 1936 Scarface film (a thriller beyond compare!). Either way, it’s downright dirty. Dent’s fall to villainy forces us to call once more on Batman, though it is with regret and a bitter taste in the mouth that we admit that once more our system has failed us. Batman, however conflicted, holds his moral ground and refuses, when given the chance, to kill the Joker, but by this point in the film we are conflicted as well, and Batman’s motives are questionable. Part of us wants this creep (the Joker) out of the picture, while another part knows there’s a whole heap of creeps waiting in the wings. A true vigilante would have ripped the Joker’s throat out. I shudder.

One review I read panned the opening sequence of a camera flying into Gotham’s (Chicago’s) skyline, zeroing in finally on a single window of a skyscraper, as a somewhat flippant and unsubtle play on our post-9/11 fears. This imagery helps solidify in the viewer’s mind the connection between modern terrorism and the Joker’s wild pyrotechnics– among other atrocities, he blows up a hospital in the middle of the city and elsewhere uses as a detonator a cell phone he had surgically inserted inside one of his minions. Holy Terrorism, Batman! The critic points out that the Joker is not a terrorist, he simply wants chaos, to “watch the world burn,” as it is put in the film. Perhaps it is my concurrent reading of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, set in the immediate aftermath of the towers’ falling, but the skyscraper skyline will always be, among anything else, for Americans, a visual reference to That Day. Always. Terrorist language often refers to America-in-flames, and we have seen on newsreel countless effigies burned in streets in corners of the world, how shall we say, “not in our camp.” Do these images in the film prey on my fears? Sure, I admit that, but this stuff is scary. Subtle or not, these are easy connections to make, and I don’t fault the director for making them, as it again lifts the Batman mythology from the realm of adolescence and fantasy to which it had been previously relegated on the big screen.

The movie runs a bit long (as long as this review, Walter??), but is well worth a look on the big screen, and fully entertaining the whole way through. Ledger is as good as all the hype– one glance at this Joker and you’re squirming in your seat– and one hopes the fact of his passing is not lost on even the most casual viewer. The Bat-toys are cooler than ever, Christian Bale is handsome, Maggie Gyllenhaal is hot, Michael Caine is funny, Eckhart’s Two-Face is, well, two-faced, and the special effects are not annoyingly CGI a la The Incredible Hulk (gaack!). So, until we’re given the Frank Miller treatment and Batman and Superman fight to the death in theaters throughout the world, The Dark Knight is the best of the Batman films to date. Enjoy!

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