09/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dark Knight America

The Dark Knight, matching America's dark mood, has swiftly rocketed up to the #2 position on the all-time domestic box office list.

A lot of chatter about veeps, much more focus on the Olympics. There's one thing we do know about where America is now.

When America is in a dark mood, Batman pictures do well. America is in a very dark mood. As we note pretty much every day on my New West Notes.

The presidential candidates are trying to punch through the Olympics, and a deep summer malaise, prior to their back-to-back national convention infomercials.

With very limited success for all the effort. One thing they know they can't alter is the national mood. The national mood is dark. And in this milieu, The Dark Knight, sequel to the 2005 franchise reboot Batman Begins, is shattering box office records. Fastest to $100 million. Fastest to $200 million and $300 million. Fastest to $400 million, over twice as fast as the previous record.

The Dark Knight has continued and expanded upon the recent vogue of superhero movies. After last weekend, the picture, released on July 18th, has rocketed to number two on the all-time domestic box office list. With a stunning $475 million today, it's second only to Titanic.

John McCain says this is his favorite movie. But does he really get it? I happen to know that a number of his top people have not seen the picture.

Naturally, lots of explanations are offered for the success of this dark and violent movie -- hardly a date movie -- moving into titanic territory. The Dark Knight is a darkly epic comic book picture starring the late Heath Ledger as an anarchistic terrorist calling himself The Joker, the always excellent Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and an all-star cast of actors filled with Oscar winners and indie film faves. It's expertly directed by Christopher Nolan, with hugely expensive set piece action sequences and plenty of memorable lines.

Then there is the late Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker. As much as I enjoyed Jack Nicholson in the same role 19 years ago, Ledger is far more impactful. Fittingly, like the shark in Jaws, which he greatly resembles in a metaphorical sense, the Joker has his own musical motif signaling danger. An electronically twisted one-note affair from Hans Zimmer that is notably unsettling.

Perhaps all this is why Dark Knight quickly roared past such recent blockbusters as The Lord of the Rings movies, the Star Wars prequels, and the Spiderman and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises, not to mention this year's return of Indiana Jones, finally passing the much re-issued original Star Wars last weekend.

But all that probably doesn't account for the phenomenon that Dark Knight, suddenly in a tie for best movie of all time with The Godfather on the Internet Movie Database, has become.

Meanwhile, it has Aaron Eckhart as Bobby Kennedy-type District Attorney Harvey Dent, the shining knight of the picture. Not a Bushie in sight. And somebody as the bin Laden analogue, naturally.

While some on the left say it's really a liberal movie about the problems of the war on terror. That would be, ah, a liberal movie about a vigilante who nonetheless triumphs in the end.

The Dark Knight "takes the viewer on a sometimes traumatic but ultimately redemptive and humanistic journey towards a post-9/11 ethic", writes Michael Dudley, of the Institute of Urban Studies, on AlterNet.

Kind of like, say, that noted liberal Dirty Harry. Count me as a Callahan fan. He's no lefty, that is for sure.

More darkly on the left, it's suggested that Batman actually attracts the evil he ends having to destroy. That Batman is happy to beat a confession out of the Joker, as American soldiers and agents have done at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. And even more sardonically, that the people of Gotham Batman thinks have opted to "believe in good" actually vote to blow up hundreds of people in order to save themselves. Batman wins in the end, but at what cost?

At much the same cost encountered by the heroes and heroines in another middle film of a trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back.

While the claims from the left are wrong-headed or sardonic -- which is not to say they are wrong -- those from the right, which have gotten much bigger play, are unintentionally amusing.

"There seems to me no question that The Dark Knight is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W Bush in this time of terror and war," conservative screenwriter Andrew Klavan wrote in The Wall Street Journal. "Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past."

Kyle Smith, film critic for the New York Post, says that Batman isn't Bush, he's Cheney! "Batman isn't popular, partly because he's a zealot and partly because he doesn't bother to explain himself to the press. He is independently wealthy, having spent years as the head of an industrial company. His methods are disturbing, his operations bathed in darkness. He is misunderstood, mistrusted, endlessly pursued by the attack dogs of the night. And he lives in an undisclosed location. Isn't it obvious? Batman is Dick Cheney with hair."

What's obvious is that the Joker is a much smarter and more capable -- not to mention far funnier -- version of Osama bin Laden. And that Bruce Wayne/Batman, for all his vigilante ruthlessness, is a much more scrupulous and competent character than the current cast of characters in La Maison Blanche.

Let's go through the movie without spoiling it entirely for those few of you who haven't seen it.

** The Rendition. Bruce Wayne, in his guise as Batman, joins forces with Bobby Kennedyesque new DA Harvey Dent and good guy cop Jim Gordon to crack down on the Mob that has corrupted Gotham's politics, journalism, and legal system. They decide to go after all those ill-gotten gains. Which are largely secreted offshore, where the legal system can't get at them.

But as the Joker notes when he offers himself to the Mob bosses as their most unlikely of contractors, "Batman has no jurisdiction." In a dramatic action totally outside the law, Bruce Wayne kidnaps the Mob's financial mastermind, who is intimidated into giving up his clients.

** The Big Roll-Up. With this intel, gotten outside the normal system, the organized crime system of Gotham is taken down in one fell swoop.

** The Joker Empowered. As a result, the Mob hires the Joker to take down Batman. But the now empowered Joker, with huge resources at his command, has more in mind than that.

** The Joker Creates Havoc. With a few well-placed blows, he creates havoc in Gotham. He's not out to do what the Mob hired him to do, i.e., kill Batman. He's out to unravel Gotham's systems themselves, including the organized crime system. And he's out to do something more.

** The Forces of Order Escalate. As the Joker anticipates, Dent, Gordon and Wayne escalate in their efforts to bring him in, going further over the line as they become more frantic.

** Batman Embraces Torture. Finally, Batman embraces torture, something he'd urged against earlier. But unlike on, say, 24, where Jack Bauer always quickly learns the truth from his swift torture sessions, what Batman thinks he learns isn't quite right. Tragically.

** The Joker Rolls Back The Plans. In fact, the Joker has anticipated their moves. He has baited them into doing what he wants.

Kind of like Al Qaeda embroiling the US in the Middle East.

** Batman Creates The Surveillance State. As Bruce Wayne realizes that the Joker is playing them perfectly, he uses his corporation's technowizardry to turn Gotham into a surveillance state. All geared to finding the Joker.

Which prompts Wayne Enterprise's CEO, unlike the CEOs of our telecom giants after 9/11, to balk at this intrusion into private lives.

"Beautiful. Unethical. Dangerous ... This is WRONG," intones Lucius Fox, played by the great Morgan Freeman, as he examines Wayne's program.

And unlike Bush and Cheney, Wayne insists that the surveillance will be for one purpose only, time limited.

In the end ... well, I'm not going to give away the ending. Some of you have undoubtedly not yet seen the movie, which I highly recommend.

In the end, Batman wins. And he loses. The Joker loses. And he wins.

Let's give the final quote to the Joker, as he runs it down for Batman. "You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push."

Does this really sound like a movie extolling the greatness of the Bush/Cheney White House in its war on terror?

Obviously not.

So the new Batman picture, for all its material success, ends in the same place as the current America, with the latter in rather less spectacular fashion.

Actually, without giving away the ending, The Dark Knight ends up in much the same place we find ourselves today.

Bereft of a clearcut hero. Having narrowly survived a fundamental assault against our essential selves. And wondering what comes next.

Both in terms of our attempts to protect ourselves against a threatening world. And in terms of our attempts to protect ourselves against our own worst instincts to protect ourselves.