Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader?

THE DARK KNIGHT just killed off the superhero movie.

I sat through this 2.5 hour epic crime drama and felt uneasy throughout, kind of like watching "24" when it was on television (remember those days?). And it was a great experience too, not knowing what was going to happen at any given moment. The girl dies, the heroes lose, the bad guy successfully manipulates the situation to its bitter and tragic end. If I wasn't such an easy mark for this movie (I loved director Christopher Nolan's previous entry BATMAN BEGINS), I might protest this as some post-modern, gaudy emo-fest. But that's not the film we got here. No, THE DARK KNIGHT diminishes the superhero genre by elevating the material.

One doesn't need much reminding- the world is dangerous.  Our post-9/11 fear of chaos may have lessened from its peak from several years ago, but speaking for myself, I still haven't forgotten my fears which were formed on that day. Nolan and his writer-brother Jonathan Nolan exploit these emotions rather shamelessly (and effectively) to drive the point home-- that a guy in a batsuit fighting a malcontent psycho clown can be some pretty serious business.

Gone are the indulgences of the typical superhero movie. There is no plucky sidekick (sorry, Robin), there are no hybrid man-animal villains (sorry, Man-Bat!). What we have is The Joker-- the world's worst kind of villain. He is a man who seeks to turn a system against itself. He is a villain that would, in another part of the world, set up roadside bombs and attack U.S. troops in a foreign land. He is someone who does not seek a fortune or a seat of power. He is simply someone who wishes "to watch the world burn." This is someone that we see every single day on the news. It is an enemy that we don't fully understand. We either attempt to avoid this type of chaos, or as in the case of Batman, face it directly. That threshold decision is an important one- it defines the manner in which a society functions (and what that society is willing to tolerate).

Just as in the real world, you don't get a clean victory (or any victory for that matter) from fighting this kind of opponent. One small win against The Joker is quickly erased by a drastic and tragic outcome. This relates to the theme of escalation that Police Commissioner Jim Gordon warns of at the end of the previous Batman movie. When you bring a force upon a situation, you trigger an opposing one. Batman helped to create The Joker by arriving in Gotham City. Is this a not-so-subtle allegory to what is transpiring in the Middle East? If only the moral questions were that simple! Goodbye Gotham, welcome to the real world!

And that's what THE DARK KNIGHT does best- it asks those moral questions and shows when the good guys stumbling towards the answers. By the film's end, Batman chooses a path I never expected or witnessed in any other film- the hero chooses to become the villain. It is a complex decision, but one which redefines what true heroism means. The end strips away the remaining fragments of a comic book story and leaves us with a truly inspiring example. This is mythology for a different kind of world, one that cannot be broken down into four-colors and neat panels on a page. And at the same time, the characters still hold true to their source material, showing that the ideals of decades past still resonate somewhat. In many respects that is comforting. But to bridge that gap, it takes a filmmaker to translate the characters into a relevant form, dare I say rendering the conventional superhero genre obsolete. Gone is the Caped Crusader, long live The Dark Knight!