Pass the Popcorn: It’s All Greek to Me

April 27, 2012

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The earliest reviews of Joss Whedon’s Avengers are not debating whether or not it’s a good movie. They’re debating whether or not it’s the best superhero movie ever made.

This debate is the opposite of Aliens Versus Predator. Whoever wins, we win!

The real debate, in my mind, is whether or not Joss Whedon is the greatest storyteller of our time. There are other contenders to the throne, of course. We’ve written about a few folks who could vie for that title here on Jay P. Greene’s Blog from time to time.

Why pick only one winner? Here’s a much more interesting way to look at things:

Who Is Our Homer?

Candidate: Chris Nolan

Job Qualifications: High-stakes conflicts between titanic characters who evoke or represent transcendent forces; the essential passivity of man under the power of cosmic forces greater than himself. (Wars between champions loom large.)

Who Is Our Aeschylus?

Candidate: Joss Whedon

Job Qualifications: Illuminates the nobility of the human struggle against the essentially tragic nature of the human situation; the hunger for justice that we can never ignore without sacrificing part of our humanity, but can also never satisfy without sacrificing part of our humanity. (Vengeance and justice loom large.)

Who Is Our Sophocles?

Candidate: J.J. Abrams

Job Qualifications: The dynamic interdependence between our choices and our character; we can only act based on who we already are, but can only be who we are through how we act. (Daddy issues loom large.)

Who Is Our Euripides?

Candidate: (I hate to say it since I’m a Watchmen hater, but…) Alan Moore

Job Qualifications: Ecstatic confrontation with chaos and meaninglessness; deconstruction of cherished myths. (Mass atrocities loom large.)

Discuss among yourselves! ūüôā

Pass the Popcorn: City of the Dark Knight (Issue #5)

September 5, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay.

I saw it for a third time last night and now I just have to post one more City of the Dark Knight before letting this movie go (as promised two weeks ago).

You may not be surprised to hear that after three viewings within three months, the “pencil trick” has lost all its magic (so to speak). As the Joker walks into the room, I’m sitting there thinking, “here comes the pencil trick.” And of course that sucks all the life out of it.

But much more important, every time I see this movie the story of Harvey Dent comes across more fully and more believably. Since Dent has been mostly in the background in my posts on this movie, today we’re going to be all Dent all the time.

Part of the reason the Dent story made less of an impression on me during the first viewing is just my own idiosyncratic way of experiencing movies. I generally don’t “look ahead” mentally while watching a movie. I know lots of people do that, and God bless them.¬†Among regular moviegoers, those who look ahead are probably in the majority. One very dear friend of mine, who has worked in Hollywood full time for about twelve years now, looks ahead so diligently and is so intimately familiar with the conventions of the medium and the imperatives of storytelling that she claims no movie ending has ever surprised her – yet she also claims this has no impact on her enjoyment of movies. (And I guess the latter claim must be true, or she wouldn’t work in Hollywood.)

But that just isn’t how I’m built. It isn’t a conscious decision; I just don’t do it. I experience the movie as it comes. In some ways it’s better, in some it’s worse. Despite my friend’s testimony, I can’t help but think that plot twists and surprises must be much more enjoyable for me than for her. And I have a lot more patience for slow-paced movies like Heat, Unbreakable and Ghost Dog. I’m not sitting there thinking, “come on, come on, get on with it,” because I’m not looking at where we’re going, just at where we are. On the other hand, foreshadowing has to be pretty blatant before I’ll notice it. (One clever little movie, The Opposite of Sex, has the main character – a teenage girl – narrating the movie as it happens, on the pretense that she’s in control of what’s on the screen. In the first scene she’s packing up to run away from home, and she puts her father’s pistol in the backpack. Narration: “Oh, and this part where I take the gun? That’s like, duh, gonna be important later! My English teacher says that’s called foreshadowing.”) And if things happen early in a movie that turn out to have more significance later, I’m slower to catch up.

On second and subsequent viewing, however, you can’t help but look ahead. And when you do that, the Dent narrative comes across much better. The second time, when things happened like Dent saying “you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” I noticed them and said, “oh, I see what they’re doing here.” But it was still coming across all in bits and pieces. The third time was the charm – I saw the whole Dent narrative pull together. On the third viewing you’re bearing these things in mind from beginning to end – for example, one of the keys to the Dent narrative is that Dent knew all the time that Wertz and Ramierez – the cops in Gordon’s unit who got Rachel killed and him disfigured – were dirty. I don’t think I realized the full importance of that until the third viewing.

Obviously Chris Nolan was counting on you to look ahead. From the moment you hear the name “Harvey Dent,” you’re supposed to be thinking, “oh, he’s going to become evil.” And given the core audience for this movie, I’m sure that was a very sound decision. The movie is much more economical this way – sound economy being a precondition of artistic achievement.

It also helped that I now understand the Joker’s plan better. (Yes, in spite of his claims, he has a plan.) When he says to Dent “introduce a little anarchy” and hands him a gun, he’s not mainly inviting Dent to go out and kill Maroni – which is what I thought the first time. Obviously he does hope that Dent will go out and kill Maroni, which is why he plants the idea with Dent that killing Rachel was all Maroni’s idea.¬†But what he mainly wants is for Dent to kill him, just as he previously wanted Batman to kill him. That makes the whole scene make a lot more sense.

The Joker tells Dent that the world is controlled by “schemers” who make “plans,” and that everybody organizes their lives around the “plans” even if the plans are horrible. Now let’s look at this from Dent’s persepective. All his career he’s been fighting to clean up Gotham. And what has been his primary obstacle? Not the bad guys, but the system. He has Maroni dead to rights, and Maroni walks. For that matter, years ago he had Wertz and Rameriez dead to rights on corruption and racketeering charges, and they walked, too. And then the system let Gordon set up his own little unit and put these dirty cops to work on Dent’s cases. And even after Gordon and Dent round up a whole city of full of bad guys by taking advantage of the broad racketeering laws, and Dent gets a judge to sign off on it, he still has to go to the mayor and beg for permission to prosecute the cases – over the vocal objections of the police commissioner (Gordon’s predecessor). Examples like this could be multiplied.

After a track record like that, is it any surprise that Dent, lying in that hospital bed, was receptive to the Joker’s message that the legal system’s “schemers” with their “plans” are not essentially different from the mafia’s “schemers” with their “plans”? That the real problem is the futility of trying to do things by “plans” at all?

But – and here I’m sort of half expositing the movie and half speculating to fill in the blanks – Dent is not the Joker. Dent will not become simply an “agent of chaos.” He resents the system because it stands in the way of justice, and he’s still motivated by a desire to see justice done. So when he rejects the system, he doesn’t (at least from his perspective) simply set himself up as prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, because that’s not how justice works. Instead, he sets up a new “judge and jury” system of his own, one that will substitute for the real judges and juries who have proven so ineffective (their “plans” are “horrible,” as the Joker puts it). This leaves him to serve simply as prosecutor (he decides whose “cases” will come to the bar) and executioner. And the system he sets up – “chance,” as embodied in the coin toss – is “fair” not only in that it has no favorites but also in that it is not subject to all the other forms of human weakness and corruption. There will be no crazy, arbitrary rewriting of the rules by ideologically blinded judges or by self-serving, scheming politicians and police. How could there be, when chance by definition has no plans?

The temptation to set aside all civilized procedure in the pursuit of justice is a perennial one, inherent in the nature of a human race whose members are each good enough to desire justice yet evil enough not to be able to carry it out without the need for checks and balances. It is partly this temptation that makes Batman so popular in the first place, as this movie clearly understands. (“What gives you the right?” demands the Batman imitator. “What makes you different from me?” The crushing rejoinder “I’m not wearing hockey pants” is good for a laugh, yet the question remains.)

It’s a temptation that must be strictly avoided, because it never ends according to plan, as the Joker knows only too well – that, of course, is why the Joker starts Dent down this road in the first place, because he knows that Dent will end up an agent of injustice rather than of justice. He wanted to do the same with Batman. When Batman throws him from the building, he laughs with glee on the way down because he thinks he’s won. When Batman ropes him and hauls him back up, he says “you really are incorruptible, aren’t you?” That line is his admission of defeat, at least as far as Batman is concerned. But a moment later he drops the hammer: he admits defeat with respect to Batman, but (correctly) claims victory over Harvey Dent.

And in this game, the good guys have to win every time. The bad guys only have to win once.

Unless, of course, the good guys break the rules.

Pass the Popcorn: City of the Dark Knight (Issue #4)

August 22, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

After my two initial Pass the Popcorn entries on The Dark Knight, outlining what I thought was the main theme of the movie, I decided to let that go for a while rather than harp on it after I had already said my piece. But I always knew that after I had spent a while meandering around other topics, I would circle back around to the heart of the movie – the moral hypocrisy of all human beings and all civilization.

In the interim, the death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has provided a reminder of just how perennially true and relevant the movie’s observations are. If any man of our time was ever entitled to treat his enemies as simply evil and his own side as simply good, surely that man was Solzhenitsyn. But, to the contrary, he made a point of not losing sight of the real basis of evil in the moral corruption that is endemic to our species, and that is one of the reasons his intellectual legacy will live on well beyond the context of the particular historical conflict in which he participated. To say it again, if any man was entitled to treat some people as “basically good” and other people as “basically bad,” he was – but the whole point is that no man is in fact entitled to do so.

Solzhenitsyn expressed the key insight succinctly yet beautifully:

“The line between good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.”


I anticipate (without ruling anything out) that this will be my last PTP entry on The Dark Knight, at least for a good while.¬†I’d like to end where the movie ended.

To recap the central point of my first post quickly: All human beings are both good and evil, but it isn’t in their nature to admit this about themselves; hence the ubiquitous fiction that “people are basically good.” People tell themselves this ultimately because it allows them to avert their gaze from their own corruption. The outcome of this is the outrageous extreme¬†of moral hypocrisy that is easily observable (provided we’re willing to look without flinching) both in every individual person (no exceptions) and in society as a whole. In this movie, we see it play out on the individual level with the Joker’s desire to induce Batman to kill him, and at the social level with the fact that the whole restoration of Gotham City rests on the reputation of Harvey Dent – because people need heroes. Why do people need heroes? Because they’re not “basically good.” If people were basically good they wouldn’t make their support for civic justice conditional on the moral purity of some fallen human being. The very fact that people need to be rallied to support justice shows how far from real righteousness they are.

The Joker has our number:

“When the chips are down, these . . . these ‘civilized people’ . . . they’ll eat each other.”

So did Harvey Dent, in his way:

“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

One thing I didn’t comment on earlier is what Gordon says at Dent’s funeral. I noticed it especially the second time I saw the movie. If memory serves, Gordon says of Dent that “he was the hero we deserved – no more.” No more? Shouldn’t that be no less? Or is Gordon slyly reaching out to the few people in Gotham who know the truth, reassuring them that at least somebody realizes what’s really going on – that Dent was the hero Gotham deserved in the sense that Gotham deserved a man who really, really wanted to be good but ultimately failed to live up to his own standards, because that’s exactly¬†how Gotham itself behaved?

As I wrote before, one of this movie’s biggest strengths is that it doesn’t attempt to convince us that it’s a good thing that people need hypocrisy. It’s a bad thing – it’s a sign of how evil we are – that people need hypocrisy.

But since people do in fact need it, it may not be wrong to supply it.

That last assertion is the thought the movie ends on, and it’s where I stopped my first post, saying “hold that thought.” Well, I’ve been holding that thought for a month and a half now. It’s time to unpack it.

Is it wrong to supply hypocrisy? We might answer by saying that if it is, we’re all totally screwed. On the evidence, it appears that no civil order of any kind can long survive without falling back on collossal heaps of hypocrisy.

I’m not even talking about the kind of rank everyday hypocrisy that hits you in the face every time you pick up a newspaper. Although there’s always plenty of that – obviously. Take the frenzy over the past month against “speculators” who have, according to both presidential candidates¬†and most of our other leaders,¬†driven up the price of gas. It’s an old social science maxim that you should never posit malice if ignorance covers the facts, but can John McCain and Barack Obama and all the rest of them really be as ignorant as all that? As Chrales Krauthammer wrote recently: “Congressional Democrats demand . . .¬†a clampdown on ‘speculators.’ The Democrats proposed this a month ago. In the meantime, ‘speculators’ have driven the price down by $25 a barrel. Still want to stop them? In what universe do traders only bet on the price going up?”

It beggars belief that our leaders don’t know exactly what they’re shoveling here. And this is just one issue out of hundreds where the same dynamic occurs. Is there a single political issue where the public discourse isn’t dominated by claims that can’t possibly be believed by those who make them? Not for nothing did Michael Kinsley define a “gaffe” as when a politician accidentally tells the truth. But¬†Mickey Kaus strikes nearer to the mark when he says that Kinsley’s definition ought to be expanded to include all cases where a politician accidentally says what he really thinks, whether true or not.

But that kind of hypocrisy doesn’t go to the roots of social order. Although its omnipresence would be sufficient to prove the universality of some type of corruption in human nature, from a standpoint of the political system it’s an epiphenomenon.

The real hypocrisy runs deeper. It was well captured a while back by an old college acquaintence of mine who subsequently served for a while as a small-town prosecutor. Please read this brutally honest essay in which he reflects, after having left the job, on the nature of his service representing the people in our courts:

We who deal in the laws of a free people are puppeteers. We must be so . . . because our system works better than any other, and because we have no choice but to make it work. We have to give the appearance that we possess the wisdom and authority needed to make our society function. We have to make believe that our culture possesses an exclamation point as strong and as firm as the question mark of [classical] liberalism. So on with the courtroom pomp and ceremony, on with the bluster and posturing! . . .

Men who doubt themselves need puppet shows. They need little passion plays to affirm the dignity of a frequently silly and corrupt form of governance, lest something more dignified but less humane rise to power. Ours is a system of laws administered by flawed and small-souled lawyers to foolish and wicked men; such a system cannot survive without the pantomimes of solemnity.

And¬†note that he has (as far as I can tell) no regrets about having chosen to serve in this capacity. As he says, our system is better than the alternatives (i.e. “something more dignified but less humane”) and given the realities of fallen human psychology this is what it takes to sustain it.

It was with this in mind that I chose the title “City of the Dark Knight” for my mini-series on this movie. The title is meant as¬†a tribute (an obscure one, no doubt) to Augustine, whose political theory I was reminded of by The Dark Knight’s unflinching meditation on society’s hypocrisy. Augustine works so hard to puncture the Romans’ ridiculous charade of virtue and honor not because he hates them – he loves Rome dearly – but because penetrating the mask of society’s pretense of righteousness is for him (as it was for Plato) the first step to any serious wisdom about justice. The fundamental political reality is that people are neither “basically good” or “basically bad.” We tend to associate the observation that if people were “basically good” there would be no government with Madison’s Federalist #10, but I think (though I’m open to argument) that Augustine is the real source of the insight. And there would equally be no government if people were “basically bad,” since people with no natural idea of justice would never develop a system for enforcing justice (however intellectually impressive Hobbes’s attempt to argue the contrary may be). Though Augustine doesn’t put it in exactly these words (or not that I recall), I think we can say that for him politics is a manifestation of the ongoing tension between the image of God that was planted in all men at creation and the moral corruption that was planted in all men at the fall.

And this, if I may be autobiographical for a moment, is why I fled screaming from Washington after spending a year between college and grad school working there. When people with little experience of academia hear that I have a Ph.D. in political science, about 50% of the time they immediately ask me “so are you going to run for president?” Set aside for a moment the charming naivete that associates the pursuit of a Ph.D. in political science with ambition to public service. More to the point is the fact that I could never serve in public office because I couldn’t practice the hypocrisy that all public servants, seemingly without exception, must practice on a regular basis to do their jobs.

Yet though I am not the man to do it, I can see clearly the necessity of maintaining the hypocrisy. Classically, “prudence” was identified as one of the four cardinal virtues. We have a moral responsibility to consider the outcomes of our choices and act so that we aim for those outcomes to conform to the proper ordering of ends (i.e. goals or purposes). Can it really be our responsibility to rank candor above the preservation of¬†humanity?¬†For a long time I was spellbound by¬†Kant’s iron declaration “let justice be done though the heavens fall.” It would be a worthy resolution if “justice” meant simply “goodness” or “righteousness,” that is, virtue as such – including prudence. But “justice” is not virtue as such, it is only one of the virtues. And as Aristotle observed, only virtue as such can be pursued without limit. You can’t go “too far” in the right direction. But¬†any partial good, as¬†opposed to good as such, can be pursued too far – that is, to the exclusion of other partial goods that ought not to be excluded.¬†Hence Kant was actually driven to the insane extreme of preferring the destruction of the universe to the utterance of a single false statement.

The healthy conscience recoils from Kant’s famous statement that if a man intending to murder your friend asks whether your friend is home, and he is, you should tell the truth. (For a while I wondered whether this claim was misunderstood – in the 18th century, gentlemen were usually armed, so when Kant said that you shouldn’t compromise your honor by lying, was he assuming that you would just shoot the guy instead? But when I shared this speculation with a friend, he pointed out that while gentlemen in 18th century England were usually armed, that wouldn’t have been the case in 18th century Prussia.)

And Kant’s dilemma of whether to lie to the murderer is, ultimately, the choice Batman and Gordon must make at the end of the movie. The “murderer” in this scenario is Gotham City itself – which threatens to give up on its own salvation unless it is told the lie that Batman and Gordon choose to tell it.

With that, I’ve said my piece. (Again.) Next week, on to other movies.

UPDATE: Well, I hadn’t quite said my whole piece. See here for the next chapter.

Pass the Popcorn: City of the Dark Knight (Issue #3)

August 8, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

We’re now on our fourth issue of the series and we haven’t said anything yet about Heath Ledger. That was intentional, for three reasons.

First and most important, there’s not much interesting to say, or at least not that I can say. It’s obviously a virtuoso performance, and would have been a career-making breakthrough. Ledger was clearly one of the most talented performers of his generation, and it’s a shame he never reached his potential until the end of his abbreviated career.

Beyond that, what’s to say? If I were in the acting business, I could no doubt analyze the performance and say more about what makes it great. But I lack even the rudamentary ability to do so, and I’m not interested in bluffing.

Second, too much of the chatter about Ledger and this performance is shallow and feels exploitative of his death, and I don’t want to contribute to that.

And third, I think Ledger’s masterpiece contribution is overshadowing other contributions. I don’t want to take away any of the honor Ledger has justly earned, but for this movie to be what it is, a whole lot of people had to turn in top-flight performances.

Back in Issue 1, commenter Captain Napalm mentioned Aaron Eckhart and Gary Oldman – both of whom were indeed outstanding. I’ve just praised Morgan Freeman in Issue 2, and Michael Caine’s contribution shouldn’t be overlooked – one of the most important differences between a good film and a great one is that all the little things are done right, as well as the big ones. Caine and Freeman didn’t get the big drama, but they delivered fantastic little gems – “We burned down the forest” is one of the most memorable moments in the movie. So is “You have no idea.”

Everyone – by which I mean the handful of movie geeks whom I personally know – seems to agree that Christian Bale had essentially nothing to do in this movie. The first movie was about Batman, not the villains, so the villains were (as I mentioned last time) unmemorable. This movie was about the Joker, so Batman was unmemorable. But serving as the Joker’s foil is something. The Joker carries the movie, but he can’t do that if Christian Bale doesn’t act well his part, wherein all honor lies. Imagine this movie with Ledger playing opposite George Clooney – or even Michael Keaton, who I thought did surprisingly well as Tim Burton’s Batman, but would have been totally inappropriate as Chris Nolan’s. (And let’s also acknowledge that¬†“I’m not wearing hockey pants” was well delivered.)

And naturally we should be crediting Chris Nolan. Having done a little amateur acting, I know how much a director contributes to an actor’s performance – or doesn’t. When any six actors, even six really good ones,¬†all deliver a top-notch ensemble performance, it’s as much the director’s work as theirs.

Above all, though, we should be thanking the writers. Think about every scene you remember of Ledger. Isn’t it the brilliant lines as much as the brilliant performance that make this movie so amazing? “When you think about it, I knew your friends better than you did. Would you like to know which of them were cowards?” That’s really brave writing. And of course, all those clever one-liners we’ve been taking notice of in this and previous issues had to come out of somebody’s keyboard before they could come out of Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, etc.

You do know who wrote the movie, don’t you?

Chris Nolan shares the screenplay credit with his brother Jonathan Nolan, and shares the story credit with David Goyer. The Nolan brothers also co-wrote Memento and The Prestige (which came out between Batmans). Goyer has a long track record on comic book movies that includes Blade and co-writing Batman Begins with Chris Nolan, as well as sole story credit on Batman Begins. And of course Frank Miller should get a nod for his influence.

All that said, Ledger did pull off an amazing feat. In addition to what’s on the screen, consider how much prior baggage he had to overcome with the Joker character:

First Appearance!

The Clown Prince of Crime

The Ultimate Psychopath: “Whatever’s in him rattles as it leaves.”

The Outer Edge of Insanity

(Wrong “Joker,” moron!)

A lot of people thought no one could play the Joker after Nicholson, particularly not the star of A Knight’s Tale. Nicholson himself, for one. He said as much, as The Dark Knight was approaching release. I wonder if he repented after he saw the performance.

Pass the Popcorn: City of the Dark Knight (Issue #2)

August 3, 2008


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Okay, and now for something completely different! Today we’re going to talk about Bat Gear.

What was the one thing in The Dark Knight that just didn’t work? So far, everyone I’ve talked to has the same answer, even if you don’t ask them the¬†question – it’s the citywide “sonar.” Lame.

The first time through, it was really obtrusive – for a few minutes. One of the greatest innovations in storytelling in the last ten years is that movie and TV people have learned the value of throwing a lot of story at you and trusting you to keep up; among many other virtues, this means badly done moments in the narrative get left behind more quickly.

The second time through, I didn’t really mind. That was partly because dumb plot elements are always less obtrusive the second time around, because you aren’t being hit with the shock of recognizing their stupidity. This, for example, is why it is possible to watch the Lord of the Rings movies repeatedly without their being spoiled by a bunch of friggin’ elves marching into Helm’s Deep, or the army of the dead effortlessly wiping out the beseiging force at Minas Tirith (which means all those¬†Rohirrim who gave their lives on the Pelannor died for nothing).

But it was also partly because the second time I saw how it was supposed to fit into the movie. Somehow, the first time through, I totally missed the “like¬†a submarine” gag. You remember, when Lucius comes out of the evil corporation’s building in Hong Kong and shows Bruce the sonar readout:

“Sonar? Just like a . . .”

“Like a submarine, Mr. Wayne – just like a submarine.”

It just flew by and I missed it completely. (How am I supposed to catch all these little things when they throw so much at you and expect you to keep up with it all?)

Obviously they were thinking that we would buy the “sonar” because sonar fits with the bat theme. And it’s not a crazy theory. When a plot element fits the theme of the movie, artistic liberties with reality are much less obtrusive (a subject I’ve had occasion to discuss at greater length before).

But it didn’t work. And that got me thinking about the gadgets in this movie. F’rinstance, does the Bat Cycle (apparently to make it seem less fruity they’re telling us to call it a Bat Pod) belong in this movie? I mean, honestly – doesn’t it just look like the suits in the marketing department demanded that they throw in something new that would sell toys? After all, the twelve year old boys of America – who should never be permitted to see this movie under any circumstances whatsoever – are not going to shell out for another Batmobile unless it’s different from the last one.

He’s prob’ly fighting for freedom! Buy all our playsets and toys!

And the skyscraper-assault gadgets (in the Hong Kong scene and again in the assault on Fortress Joker) feel artificial, too.

But that’s not what you’d expect, is it? Gadgets belong in a Batman movie. They’re an integral part of the franchise – even more so than in the James Bond franchise.

Consider the first Batman movie – well, okay, not absolutely the first, but the first one that counts. The Tim Burton one. (The Tim Burton one that counts.) That movie doesn’t get its propers anymore, in large part because we now take for granted so much of what Burton did to define the modern comic book movie. Much of what was radical in Burton’s Batman is now so expected that it’s not even noticed.

It was a much more uneven movie than Nolan’s Batmans are – parts just didn’t work, but parts worked brilliantly. And that movie was just brimming with gadgets. The Batmobile actually did stuff – and no, going really fast and changing the driver position from Standard Seated Position to Lying Down for No Reason Position doesn’t count as doing something. Yes, okay, in the first Nolan movie the Batmobile jumped rooftops. But Burton’s Batmobile did so much more. And Batman himself used gadgets more often and it felt more natural. One of those brilliant moments that really worked was when Batman swooped in, foiled one of the Joker’s plans, and swooped out on one of his flying wires (or something) and the Joker was just so impressed that he didn’t even think about how badly he’d been beaten – he just stood there and asked: “Where does he get those marvellous toys?”

Or consider what must be the best gag ever done in a comic – from the Batman/Planetary crossover.

(If you don’t know what Planetary is . . . well, how are you even alive?)

Anyway, the Planetary crew are in Gotham chasing a man whose mind keeps opening dimensional rifts, and of course they run into Batman, who of course is chasing the same guy. But every time the guy opens a dimensional rift, they shift to an alternate reality where Batman is slightly different:



HT Planetary. How many can you identify? How many will you admit you can identify? (No fair peeking at the URLs!)

Here’s the gadget gag: Jakita Wagner, a superpowered female hero, is about to throw down with one of the badass Batmans. Then a rift opens and suddenly it’s not a badass Batman, it’s the Adam West Batman from the supercamp sixties TV show. And . . . he would never hit a girl!

So when she rushes him, he avoids compromising his honor by whipping a spray can out of his utility belt and dousing her in the face. (I always suspected the Adam West Batman was really a sucker-punching bastard.) She falls back, clutching her eyes, and Batman drops the can and springs away to chase after the rift-opening guy. As she curses him, we see the can roll into the frame.

The label on the can reads: Bat Female Villain Repellent.

I swear I Googled for probably half an hour looking for that panel, so I could share it with you. I guess you’ll have to buy the crossover instead.

But back to our subject. Gadgets not only belong in Batman, they ought to belong in Chris Nolan’s Batman. After all, this is the first movie version to include Batman’s “Q”, and he’s used to outstanding effect in both movies. What are the most memorable moments in the first movie? Liam Neeson blathering on about destroying Gotham? Dr. Crane attacking people with his fear drug? No, that movie had some of the least interesting villains ever to appear in a comic book movie. (Not a criticism – that movie was about Batman, not about them.) What you remember is: “Oh, the tumbler? You wouldn’t be interested in that.” And: “Just don’t think of me as an idiot.”

And Chris Nolan clearly knows how to get the best out of Morgan Freeman, because he’s used just as well in the new one. That “your plan is to blackmail this person?” speech is priceless.

Come to think of it, in the first movie Batman used a “bat caller” gadget to produce a swarm of bats where he needed it. It was ridiculous, of course – but it fit the theme of the movie, especially in that it was trying to explain why Bruce Wayne chose to dress up like a bat when fighting crime. Being attacked by a swarm of bats would tend to put the fear in you.

So why didn’t the gadets work in this one? The first thought to occur to me was that they were trying to force the citywide sonar to perform an awkward plot function – they wanted to abruptly set up a little mini-debate between Batman and Lucius on the whether it’s OK to spy on the whole city. But frankly, I don’t really think that’s it. I think citywide sonar would have failed even without that scene. (Speaking of which, when I first saw it, I thought that Lucius’s position was “This is wrong, but I’ll do it just this once,” which of course is a contemptable position. But that’s not what he says, as I discovered upon seeing the scene a second time. I think his position is really “This is OK as a one-time deal, but it would be wrong to use it on an ongoing basis.” I’m inclined to think that if it’s OK as a one-time deal, it’s hard to justify throwing it away, especially in a city that seems to attract supervillains like a magnet – but it’s not a contemptable position.)

Maybe – and I’m not sure about this – maybe it’s just that they obviously could have accomplished the same thing with less tampering with reality. Batman could have simply set up a computer to scan all phones for the Joker’s voice. And they could still have worked in the bat/sonar theme by equipping the Batsuit with its own sonar, which he could then have used in the Assault on Fortress Joker scene.

Like I said, I’m not sure. Theories?

(Oh, and I’m still hoping somebody can help me with the tally on Dent’s body count. I’m one cop short.)

Pass the Popcorn: City of the Dark Knight (Issue #1)

July 28, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Well, it’s not as good the second time you see it. It’s better!

See here for the premiere installment of the PTP: City of the Dark Knight series. Oh, and: Spoiler alert (duh).

This time I caught a lot more of the “moral hypocrisy” theme being set up earlier in the movie. It’s not as clear when you don’t know yet how significant it’s going to be later. But they’re clearly telegraphing that the restoration of moral order in Gotham is requiring some compromises of the rules – for example, this flew by me the first time, but Dent brings that mass prosecution of criminals knowing full well that he can’t make most of the charges stick. He argues to the mayor that they should go forward with prosecution anyway, because most of the bad guys won’t be able to make bail (Batman, Gordon and Dent having taken away most of their money) and thus will have to sit in the slammer while the cases grind through the system. “Think what you could do with eighteen months of clean streets,” Dent tells the mayor. Wrong? Not necessarily. Politics is the art of the possible. But it’s bending the spirit of the law.

Also, notice that Gordon tells his people to lie to the media about Dent’s disappearance. I did notice this the first time, and I thought about it for all of five seconds or so, and then I had to keep up with the movie. The second time, it stands out more as part of the hypocrisy theme.

Perhaps the most important thing I caught this time around is why Dent blames Gordon and Batman for what happens to Rachel. It’s because Gordon built his Major Crimes Unit by including officers who were under a cloud of suspicion. This is another “moral compromise” narrative. Confronted about it at the beginning of the movie, Gordon first insinuates that when Dent was at Internal Affairs he had been bringing bogus corruption cases against clean cops in order to build his career. (At first I thought this might be a signal from Chris Nolan that the movie is right-wing, because prosecuting innocent people to build a career¬†was always the right’s complaint about Eliot Spitzer. But then I remembered that Rudy Giuliani did the same thing.) However, Gordon seems to concede pretty quickly that his MCU does contain some shady characters. He says something like, “I have to do the best with what I have to work with.”

I also caught that they’re telegraphing from early on that Dent is not all he appears to be, morally speaking.¬†The first time I saw the movie I wanted them to do more to establish Dent’s fall – he seems to go over to the dark side pretty quickly. But now I see that he was never really that good to begin with. That, plus it occurred to me that the “Two Face” Dent is still fighting for justice in his twisted way. He’s hunting down the people he blames for Rachel, subjecting each of them one by one to the judgment of the coin.

And now for something completely different: I noticed this time that the guy on the prisoners’ boat who throws the detonator out the window has a damaged right eye (his right, our left). I got really excited by this. I thought, where else in this movie did we see a black criminal have somthing happen to his eye? That’s right: “I’m going to make this pencil disappear!” So I thought: the Joker’s goal is to corrupt everybody. But what if one of his victims found himself forced to reexamine his life while sitting in the prison hospital, and he became good because of the Joker’s actions – and that same person’s goodness¬†was the reason the Joker’s ferry experiment failed? Layers within layers within layers!

But, alas, I was barking up the wrong tree. Somebody has posted the pencil scene on YouTube, and it’s clearly not the same actor. Oh, well.

One more thing: I found an easy way to remember the mobster’s name, the one I couldn’t remember in my previous post. It’s Moroni – the same name as the angel who allegedly revealed the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith. How’d that happen? Was the entire Warner Brothers marketing department asleep?

Let me close with a bleg: At the end, Gordon says that Dent’s rampage¬†produced “five people dead, two of them cops.” I count Moroni’s driver, Moroni himself (assuming he died in the car crash), the first of the two crooked cops, and Dent himself. But the other cop won the toss and just got knocked unconscious. So that’s four people, one of them a cop. Whom am I missing? Are we supposed to assume Dent found a way to finish off the second cop despite the toss, just like he found a way with Moroni (assuming that’s what happened)? Is this a goof? Or what?

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

July 25, 2008

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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