Some of the reasons why Dark Knight, the latest installment of the Batman movie franchise which opened last Friday, took in US$155.34 million its opening weekend may have little to do with the movie itself. Surely a bereft American public looking to mourn its own James Dean -- though in truth Heath Ledger was an Australian citizen -- could find no more apt tribute than to flock to theatres. Rumors that Ledger's role as the Joker pushed him into the abysmal funk than ended in his premature death of a prescription drug overdose drew the viewer in. After all, who doesn't want to see the role that killed the best actor of our time? The movie had and has a lot to live up to. Critics have been shouting its praises from their rooftops since Thursday. On Friday, when I saw the movie at 10 pm, the line stretching down Court Street in Brooklyn was writhing in anticipation. Twentysomethings with cardboard Batman masks, black kids in long white shirts, hairy white Jews with trail mix and WNYC tote bags. We were waiting in the heat for the Dark Knight to begin.
I think we can all agree the movie is a good movie. It is, perhaps, a great movie. Christopher Nolan, the director, has teased from his cast -- not just from Heath Ledger but from Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal -- performances that surpass in intensity and resonance any of the previous Batman heroes and villains. The movie is more stylized, less goofy and frankly more beautiful than any Batman before it. It's more Seven than Fantastic Four. Because the pervading palette is so dark, the colors blaze intensely when they do appear but generally Nolan has decreased the contrast not only visually but morally as well. Batman is no longer good. He's just less bad than the Joker.
Dark Knight isn't only better and badder than previous Batmans, it is more terrifying too. It's not yikes! scary so much as it is deeply terrifying. The fear doesn't come from the hand popping out of the void. The fear comes from contemplating the void itself. The Joker, fully embodied by a Cagney-tinged Ledger, is the worst kind of villain. He's a non-rational actor. Though there may be a method to his madness, there's nothing beyond it. He destroys to destroy and chaos is the only end. Batman and the other forces hedging on this side of good can't comprehend and therefore can't fight effectively an enemy for whom nothing has value. And though the Joker illogically craves chaos -- or rather because he does -- he delights in showing the limitations of human logic. Perhaps the movies most climactic scene -- certainly in terms of potential body counts -- is a variation on the old prisoner's dilemma. I won't spoil it by revealing who blows up whom.
But the most morally problematic conflict of the film isn't the Joker. Can mad men even be moral? It's in Batman's reaction to it. In his struggle against pure madness -- translated in this case as evil -- Batman tramples on Gotham's civil liberties. In his super cool superhero way, he wiretaps the whole city. Morgan Freeman -- who seems like he just dropped in to the movie from the Wanted set -- plays Bruce Wayne's technology whiz. He puts up a mild fight but -- due to the severity of the threat -- quickly acquiesces. Sound familiar? It is!
Only the first swath cut by the scythe is difficult. Truth follows civil liberties to its grave. Throughout the movie, the truth proves friable, disposable and elastic. It's just another thing to push around. The line that instilled the most terror in me -- in part because it was applauded by the late night crowd--comes at the end of the movie. Batman says, in substance, "The people of Gotham deserve a better truth." He promptly invents one. When the going gets tough in Gotham, truth falls victim to expediency. It will make the public feel better, says Batman in his trademark growl. They need heroes, he says. So he promptly invents one. That sounds familiar too.
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