Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Knight for Our Day

“The Dark Knight”, the latest installment in a fairly long and increasingly gloomy Batman cinema tradition, is a film that presses the bounds of its genre. It’s a movie whose grim images and unexpectedly solemn themes stay with you, especially if you exit the theater sometime after midnight onto quiet, drizzly streets, alone with your thoughts, as I did. While the film delivers on all the frenetic promise of its trailer, there's a weighty realism about the story and performances that, to me, was both haunting and weirdly topical. I came away with a sense that the movie’s pulpy alternate reality was not as insular as in many superhero films—as if more than a few dark alleys in director Christopher Nolan’s Gotham could lead out to the rain-slick streets where I was walking, and vice versa.

Often, it’s the visuals that get us. A fire truck barricading a highway, engulfed in ironic flames. A pair of sullen cops on a front stoop, announcing the death of a husband. The burning, twisted wreckage of a fallen building—and the Gotham skyline takes a particular beating in this film—with firefighters assessing the scene, a familiar, cowled silhouette in the foreground the only thing reminding us, it seems, that we’re sitting in a movie theater being entertained, not watching an old news clip. Images like these can stir the emotions of an audience in a way they probably couldn’t ten or twenty years ago. Partly because our day-to-day reality, with its ever-present tragedies and threats, has become more recognizably cinematic. It was no great leap to send Iron Man, in his recent big screen debut, to do battle with terrorists in the Afghan desert. Similarly, the Gotham of “The Dark Knight”, even with its backdrop of gunfire and explosions, looks very much like our New York (though apparently the film was shot in Chicago).

Movies have always relied on the drama of real life for material; but in recent years, it seems, they can’t help but struggle to keep up. It’s commonly suggested that people go to the movies to escape the mundanity of life, but in a world that is often frighteningly eventful, movies offer a brand of excitement that is comforting in the simple fact of its artificiality.

I don’t mean to suggest, with this analysis, that the newest Batman film isn’t exactly what it’s meant to be—a vehicle of mass entertainment, a blockbuster. It certainly is. It provides all the fisticuffs, free falls, and impossibly high-tech gadgets that any fan of the caped crusader could ask for. Vicious attack dogs are unleashed, semis overturned. The Bat-signal flares like a second moon against the evening sky. But the movie is also smarter and more thematically complex than your typical summer popcorn-fare, and the script seems to grapple with issues that are pointedly relevant to, if not consciously inspired by, the conditions of our world off the screen. Issues, too, that at the end of the day—or night, if you happen to be a nocturnal vigilante—are lofty enough to be essentially insoluble.

Unlike in many hero-centered tales, where the forces of good and evil are taken for granted, the characters in “The Dark Knight” are constantly explaining and qualifying their moral (or amoral) positions, so much so that they often seem to speak in aphorisms. The Joker, played with uncanny brilliance by Heath Ledger, spends as much time lecturing on madness and chaos as he does wielding knives and blowing things up. His acts of destruction are not crimes, according to him, but “messages” or “social experiments” that aim to blast the illusion of order and exploit the darkness in others. “When the chips are down,” he says, “these civilized people—they’ll eat each other.” Batman’s faith in Gotham’s citizenry notwithstanding, the Joker makes a compelling argument for the anarchic effects of human desperation. Harvey Dent, Gotham’s seemingly infallible district attorney (Aaron Eckhart), strides from one publicized ethical dilemma to the next, until his earnest—if somewhat cavalier—attempts to squeeze the city’s offenders prompt a harsh retaliation that brings him face to face, as it were, with the most savage depths of his psyche. “The only morality in a cruel world is chance,” he finally decides. And Batman himself (Christian Bale), as the title suggests, is not so much hero as anti-hero, the only apparent hope for a city whose criminal element, in their bat-wary exasperation, have given up on whatever scanty code of conduct they had previously observed.

Batman’s comic book world is under threat by agents who are increasingly unwilling to play by the rules, or whose rules, at least, are so at odds with the established ones that it takes a great deal of psychological dithering and damage control—about two hours and twenty minutes’ worth—before our hero can come up with a suitable response. It’s a predicament that hits somewhat close to home. In our own world, more and more it seems, we are called upon to navigate similarly dark and ambiguous moral waters.

All this is not to say that, in the end, Batman fails to gain an upper hand, though he does so in a decidedly ironic fashion. Along the way, he threatens to reveal his true identity and abandon his night job (or throw in the cowl, if you will), puts away his demented nemesis-of-the-hour, and rescues an impressive crop of hostages from unpleasant ends, as the conventions of the action genre would lead us to expect.

But there are also quite a few people—many of them very important people, to him and the city—that he is not able to save, and who are disposed of with a kind of unapologetic, next-scene swiftness in the context of the film. (In contrast, imagine Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale being snuffed out midway through the 1989 “Batman” movie; even in Tim Burton’s shadowy telling, it could never have happened.) Death in Gotham, it seems, is becoming more real, more indiscriminate, more like the way it comes to us, in war reports, in the news. At one point, the Joker even films the execution of a man with a handheld camera, a scene that quickly registers with a greater weight and discomfort when the audience calls to mind—and how could they not?—its many grisly, real-life parallels.

Ultimately, it’s hard to know whether a movie adaptation like “The Dark Knight” (from a popular comic book series and graphic novel) can be truly relevant to the real world, or whether we are simply apt to go looking for our world in such movies, especially in the midst or aftermath of moments when our civil or global reality seems to pitch violently toward something like dark fantasy. Inscrutable villains, moral obscurity and urban firestorms can bespeak our collective fears, but even the most clever screenwriter’s resolution is unlikely to do much to unravel or assuage them. Even so, I think it’s fair to say that this film is an evocative one, and the Batman at its center is, in many ways, a disturbed and thwarted hero—maybe the only kind our particular times can feasibly believe in.