Pass the Popcorn: City of The Dark Knight (Issue #0)

New PTP Mini-Series, Issue #0 – Rare Collector’s Item!

Have you been regressing endogenous variables again?

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

It’s too much.

I mean, too much for one blog post. Last Friday I lightheartedly left a comment on Matt’s PTP entry promising to have my Batman post up by Monday. Surely, I thought, I’d be so juiced after the movie that I’d run straight back to my computer and blog until my fingers bled.

But no, this was a very dense movie. Chris Nolan is ambitious, and the movie vindicates his ambition triumphantly. After the movie, I was unable to talk much about it – because there was too much to digest. And by the time I was ready, I had already forgotten half the thoughts I’d had during and right after the movie. Clearly this is a work that’s going to repay a lot of repeat viewing – a hypothesis I intend to test vigorously, hopefully with plenty of checks for the robustness of the finding (e.g. does the movie repay repeat viewing if the repeat views are in a drive-in? In IMAX? With co-workers? In the afternoon? Does it make a difference if I order a soda with my popcorn? How about what kind of soda I order? I’d better try watching it once with each kind, just to be sure).

At this point I just know that any blogging I do is going to be no more than a pale shadow of what I really thought and felt during the movie. So, to assuage my conscience (and save myself from spending all day working on this post, fretting about what I’m forgetting to include) I’m hereby inagurating a special Pass the Popcorn Mini-Series. I’m posting some of my thoughts now, in anticipation of revisiting the subject later. (Don’t worry, not too often. But we are going to have to find something to write about on Fridays after the summer movie season dies down, and this will help fill the gap.)

Oh, before I forget:

(HT xkcd)

There are already some haters out there, like John Podhoretz in the Weekly Standard, who are offended – nay, outraged – that a comic book movie is getting the kind of praise The Dark Knight is getting. Well, OK, it ain’t Shakespeare, but that’s apples and oranges. Let’s take a similar example – say, a mob movie. Podhoretz never misses an opportunity to share his opinion that The Godfather is the best movie ever made. And I agree that The Godfather deserves to be taken seriously as a great work of art. But it is a mob movie. If The Godfather can be great, why not this?

Unforgivably, Podhoretz works out his anger by spoiling as much of the moive as he can get away with. So don’t read it until after you’ve seen the movie. (Reading the spoilers in this blog entry is of course an entirely different matter.)

It’s readily apparent from Podhoretz’s review what’s really eating him: he loves the old, wild and carefree tradition of superheroes from the Silver Age, recently resurrected so dazzlingly in Iron Man. That tradition got killed off in the 1980s, in large part due to Frank Miller’s amazing work in reinventing Batman, and Podhoretz resents that this type of superhero has crowded his preferences out of the market.

(As an aside, Frank Miller looks to have come way down in the world, artistically speaking; to judge by the preview they ran in front of Dark Knight, Miller’s newest project is to take Will Eisner’s treasure The Spirit and turn it into a porno movie. But all will be forgiven if Holy Terror, Batman! ever actually sees the light of day.)

I sympathize with Podhoretz. One of the best comics ever drawn is Scott McCloud’s ZOT!, which came out when the Dark and Serious school was at its height, as an attempt to rescucitate the wild and carefree hero. (According to McCloud’s introduction, it was especially a reaction against the literally murderous nihilism of Watchmen, which, alas, now looks like it’s finally going to get the movie they’ve been threatening to make of it for decades. Yes, there was a lot of real storytelling genius in Watchmen. That’s what makes it so horrible – to see such genius used to glorify cynicism and murder.)

But while most of the Dark and Serious stuff was crud, let’s face it, most of the Wild and Carefree stuff that preceded it was also crud. ZOT! and the new Iron Man are jewels, but jewels in the rough. So was Miller’s original Dark Knight Returns, and so is the new Dark Knight.

And then there’s the politics. There’s a handy precis of the issues, with links, here if you’re interested. My take: The Dark Knight probably isn’t directly about the war on terror. It’s about things that are universal. (Ever since Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Batman has periodically been used to explore these issues – meaning we don’t need to bring in the war on terror to explain why these issues are present in a Batman movie.) But of course if these things are universal then they’re as present in the war on terror as everywhere else, so the application of the movie’s subject matter to the war on terror in the viewer’s mind is perfectly valid. 

Having unburdened myself of these reactions to the reactions to the movie, do I have time left today to say anything about the actual movie? Just briefly.

Warning: Believe with Caution

The Dark Knight seems to be primarily about moral hypocrisy. People are not “basically good.” All human beings are both good and evil. However, it’s not in our nature to admit this about ourselves; we have to pretend that we’re good. And the same hypocrisy manifests at the social level – society, being made up of human beings, is not “basically good” but is both good and evil. However, in order to keep from becoming aware of our own evil, lest we should have to admit the truth about ourselves, we also have to sheild ourselves from other people’s evil. If we admitted that everyone else was not “basically good,” it would be really hard to avoid raising the question about ourselves. And so we have to pretend that everybody is “basically good.”

The Joker is out to expose our hypocrisy. His ultimate goal isn’t to kill, it’s to corrupt. He would say that he isn’t out to corrupt us, but to make us admit to the corruption that’s already there in our hearts. But to “admit” to the courrption in the Joker’s sense is really to surrender to it – to become “corrupt” on a whole different level.

This, incidentally, is why it was such a good decision to give the Joker no backstory (and not just by omission but by the Joker’s deliberate obfuscation about his own past). As Chris Nolan has said (I’m paraphrasing), this Joker isn’t a person, he’s a primal force. My hypothesis: the reason this Joker has to be a primal force and not a person is because he has to stand outside of our hypocrisy. The Joker’s place in the narrative requires him to be, not both good and bad, but all bad. And while the Joker is right that all people are bad, it’s also true that all people are good – therefore the Joker, being all bad, can’t be a person.

On the individual level, the Joker’s mission is manifested in the “one rule” dynamic between Batman and the Joker. As all real Batman fans know, Batman’s one rule is that he doesn’t kill people. The Joker’s goal for the Batman is to induce him to break his one rule – thereby proving that his rule is really a construction of self-righteous hypocrisy.

Here the influence of Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is obvious, although Miller’s Joker is primarily motivated by a desire for mass murder and cares about Batman’s one rule only secondarily:

Late Nite Talk Show Host “Dave”: You’re said to have only killed about six hundred people, Joker. Now don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you’ve been holding out on us.

Pansy Liberal Psychologist: This is a sensitive human being here, Dave. I won’t let you harrass-

Joker: I don’t keep count . . . I’m going to kill everyone in this room.

Dave: Now that’s darn rude.

At the social level, the Joker is out to stop Gotham City’s resurgent belief in justice, embodied (in different ways) by Batman and Harvey Dent. I wish there had been an opportunity to establish more tangibly the positive impact that Dent’s mob cleanup was having on the city; it would have made us feel more urgently the real stakes that the Joker was playing for.

What the heck is this guy’s name again? They said it, like, five times in the movie. You would think I’d remember.

And that leads to the big twist at the end – maybe the best twist I’ve ever seen in a movie: the good guys have to defend hypocrisy. Of course it would be great if society could admit the truth about its own corruption and still strive to uphold justice anyway. But fallen human nature doesn’t work that way.

All my life, I’ve hated those cheesy TV shows where they decide to cover something up because “people need heroes.” Even the Simpsons, when they set out to parody this, couldn’t quite bring themselves to pull the trigger. It’s not done as a parody when Lisa decides not to reveal that Jebediah Springfield was actually a notorious pirate; they play it straight.

But The Dark Knight makes it work. People really do need their heroes, and their heroes really are fallen people. Ergo, people really do need hypocrisy. The reason I buy this in The Dark Knight when I’ve rejected it in all previous incarnations is because The Dark Knight doesn’t try to make it out to be a good thing. It’s wrong that people need hypocrisy – that people need to have heroes before they’ll agree to uphold justice and do good and so forth. It’s ugly and stupid and evil. As Dr. Surridge says in the original V for Vendetta comic (not the dreadful movie version), “There’s something wrong with us.”

Yes, it’s wrong that people need hypocrisy – but since they do need it, it’s not necessarily wrong to supply it.

Hold that thought. More to come. Stay tuned!

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5 Responses to Pass the Popcorn: City of The Dark Knight (Issue #0)

  1. Alsadius says:

    That’s the best summary of my opinion on the Watchmen I’ve seen yet – it was brilliant and horrifying, in equal proportion. And I really like the comment on The Dark Knight too – codified a bunch of disparate thoughts floating around my head quite nicely.

  2. […] much. I mean, too much for one blog post. Last Friday I lightheartedly left a comment on Matt??shttps://jaypgreene.com/2008/07/25/pass-the-popcorn-city-of-the-dark-knight-issue-0/Heroes TV series – Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaHeroes is an American science fiction serial […]

  3. degahse says:

    As the king of an amoral universe, as a purveyor of unrestricted evil for fun, Ledger’s dastardly villain, attired as sort of a rotting Clarabell, has chosen his own damnation. He’s jumped into an abyss he has dug himself, and he wants to pull us along.
    I m watched The Dark Knight Movies Here
    http://www.80millionmoviesfree.com

  4. I finally saw it. Great movie! And great review by Greg!

  5. Greg Forster says:

    Glad to hear I’m not the only Watchmen hater out there. Saw the trailer for the movie version this weekend when I went back to see Batman again. The cinematography and the special effects (but what’s the difference when there’s nothing on the screen BUT special effects?) are amazing. That gives me some hope that they’ve messed with the plot. But not much hope – the fanboys wouldn’t stand for it.

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