you either die the hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain

The Dark Knight: This is not a fun movie. This is not a campy romp through colorful villains, exotic plots and spherical bombs with sparkling fuses. This is not a thinly veiled commercial for a hot new line of action figures. This is not a toy.

The Dark Knight is no more a comic book movie than The Brothers Karamazov is a whodunit. This is a good thing; this is the best possible thing. What we have instead is a dark meditation on the nature of Civilization and the Outcast – a story as old as Beowulf but better told here – coupled with horror movie tension, heartwrenching melodrama and nail-biting action.

Let’s hit those points one at a time:

Civilization and the Outcast: The social order creates a lot of laws and customs that keep people safe. These laws, however, also shield crafty manipulators who prey on the weak – the politician who profits off graft, the mobster who cannot be compelled to incriminate himself, etc. Superhero stories arose from the fantasy of some sort of Nietszchean Overman – a man bigger than the social order – who could act outside the law and bring these assholes to justice. The superhero cannot be of society and still protect it as well as he does. That’s why he wears a mask.

The problem, as expounded by Miller in The Dark Knight Returns and Moore in The Killing Joke: if we admit we’re playing outside the rules, then what limits us? Why should this masked man who believes he’s above the law follow any limits at all? What happens when he meets a man who genuinely has no limits? And what does it say of the social order that we not only idolize, but seem to need, these sorts of outcasts?

The Joker presents Batman with that rare and perfect dilemma. He cannot be reasoned with, intimidated or threatened with death. It requires exceptional effort to even outthink him – the man is a twisted genius. The only plausible response is to beat him to death with your bare hands, and that’s the one thing the Batman will not do. So how does Civilization deal with the Outcast – especially when it’s grown so accustomed to another Outcast doing its dirty work?

Most action movies lay a thin veneer of philosophy over a slapdash of unconnected setpieces. The Dark Knight, on the other hand, starts with its philosophy. The abstract concepts of Reason, Chaos and Law put on colorful masks and duke it out with bare fists.

Horror Movie Tension: This is, as I said, not a fun movie. Once it becomes clear that the Joker’s capable of the craziest and most fatal things, you never sit comfortable once he’s on screen. This is, sadly, Heath Ledger’s finest performance – a complete disappearance into an alchemical compound of rage, caprice and vulgarity. And Nolan builds the tension whenever it becomes clear that the Joker is plotting something, working like an absolute master.

Heartwrenching Melodrama: The essence of the superhero story, of course, is that it allows authors to explore the subtle choices that define civilized life – between career and love, between freedom and security, between nostalgia and ambition – on a grand and gaudy scale. Simply put a big, colorful villain on screen with his hand on a detonator and force the hero to choose. The movie throws our heroes – Batman, Gordon, Dent, Dawes – through a series of choices in this vein.

I thought, at first, that this movie could have saved about 20 minutes by excising one subplot about a disgruntled Wayne Enterprises employee – does it really advance the storyline? could the final climax be reached in no other way? – but only later did I realize what it does. It’s comic relief. For that I’m grateful, because otherwise this movie would just chew you up.

Nail-Biting Action: Once again, the fight scenes are shot very dimly and with jarring cuts. Okay: that’s not great. Everything else is. The car chases, the death-defying escapes, the ridiculous stunts. It’s not all dark meditations on the soul and sanity; it’s also good summer movie spectacle.

Final Thoughts: Todd Alcott stole all the good points I wanted to make, such that my sophomoric little spiel on Civilization and the Outcast above is my attempt at carving out a different niche. His two big points, which I’ll echo here:

  • Yes, Batman’s a little gravelly. But you have to make a conscious effort to remind yourself that Captain James Gordon is played by Gary friggin’ Oldman, of all people. You know, the guy who played Beethoven? Dracula? Sid Vicious? Holy hell, what an amazing talent. Better than Johnny Depp, for my money.

  • The Dark Knight should serve to remind directors and producers that the comic book movie doesn’t have to be shallow, formulaic and predictable. Justifying a summer movie as “mindless fun” doesn’t fly anymore. You can have drama, tension, redemptive moments and character growth. The Dark Knight may not be as good as The Godfather II (a comparison Alcott heard often enough to call it “silly”), but it marks the same watershed moment: it shows that a movie is capable of transcending its stereotypes. A genre which is capable of this, to quote Raymond Chandler, is not by definition incapable of anything.
Recommended without qualification. See it soonest.

Spoilers in the comments.

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