Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Dark Knight Generation

On the eve of what is arguably the most historic Presidential inauguration in the history of the United States, I find myself contemplating what it means to be a hero in today's world.  Here in North America, our collective definition of heroism has often found its purest expression in comic books -- particularly in difficult times.  Our sense of good and evil rarely gets a better literary workout than we find in the pages of the comics, because comic books deal in archetypes.  The earliest heroes (Superman, Batman, The Phantom) were created during the Second World War, at a time when innocent people were being slaughtered in a battle more devastating than anything the world had seen.  At times like these it brought comfort to the masses to believe that someone larger than life would sacrifice their personal freedom to act as a guardian of justice.  

It can be no coincidence that we see so many comic book movies being produced at Hollywood studios, considering the current climate.  Whether we are talking about the recession, the war in Iraq, the terrorist attack on India, the slaughter of Tibetans in China, the genocide in Darfur, or our current environmental crisis, everywhere we look there is cause to lose heart. There is cause to lose heart and yet this is also a year in which the seemingly impossible became a reality.  A year in which one man inspired his country to rise above a lifetime of racism and intolerance to embrace a positive message.  His inaugural speech as President reflected these difficult times with a message that was measured, sobering, yet hopeful.  If his victory address had been positive without reflecting these realities, it might have been impossible for us to surrender to his message.  

I'm sure the link is not immediately apparent, but in light of today's events, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight from a script by Nolan and his brother Jonathan strikes me as uniquely relevant.  The Dark Knight is the second biggest box-office hit of all time, featuring arguably the most popular comic book superhero of all time, but it isn't a movie designed exclusively as an escape.  It has loftier ambitions and it wants to sell a message, while acknowledging today's realities.  In its own way it is as uniquely layered a pop-entertainment as The Godfather was in its day.  Devoid of kitsch and frivolity, this is a film that favors social commentary and psychological realism over cartoon thrills -- while at the same time remaining faithful to the excitement and razzle-dazzle of the source material.  

In life we often ignore the larger ethical questions raised by the power that our leaders wield. Nolan however confronts these questions head-on.  In his Gotham, Batman's heroism comes at a price.     Here, Batman's emergence has spawned a string of vigilante copycats, dressed like him under the auspices of serving justice, but unwittingly endangering the population and themselves.  Born out of the wreckage of Batman's crusade for justice comes a master criminal who uniquely personifies the kind of evil we are faced with today.  The Joker is a true anarchist without recognizable motives or purpose.   He refers to himself as an "agent of chaos" and his cycle of evil is so pervasive, so relentless, that Batman is ultimately forced to put his reputation on the line in order to beat him.  What makes the Joker scary and relevant is his senselessness.  He even mockingly delivers two faux backstories explaining how he got his scars.  Against such an adversary Batman's heroism comes tinged with the bittersweet tang of compromise, because unlike the Joker he has rules.  

In the most shocking death scene of any Hollywood movie this year, Batman is forced to lose somebody close to him.  The Joker gives him the addresses of two warehouses -- both wired with explosives.  One holds the love of his life, Rachel Dawes and the other holds Harvey Dent, Gotham's "White Knight" and crusading district attorney.  When Batman receives the information, he immediately flees the police station, telling the authorities that he is going after Rachel but when he arrives he finds Dent instead...It's unclear in this moment whether Batman is one step ahead of the Joker and making the difficult choice to save Dent, or whether he's been tricked.  His brief hesitation in the doorway suggests that he's been taken by surprise and that he was willing to offer up Harvey -- and Gotham's morale, for Rachel.    Later we discover this isn't true, when he claims responsibility for a string of murders he didn't commit in order to protect Harvey's symbolic place in Gotham's heart.  The film builds to a primal battle between good and evil (Batman and the Joker) with Harvey stuck directly in the middle and poised for a fall.  What's fascinating is how the story's themes are also reflected in the form of the film.  

Nolan has carved out a cinematic niche for himself with films that use non-linear editing to tell a story.  Memento, the film that put him on the map, told an entire story backwards, in alternating flashbacks and present tense scenes, before circling around on itself.  His other films (Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige) also use cross-cutting to great effect, but The Dark Knight uses a triangular cutting pattern as a motif that I can't recollect ever having seen before.  In several key sequences, Nolan alternates between not two but three unfolding stories, lending the movie an incredible amount of momentum and elegantly reflecting the three corners of morality that the film explores.  

Some think The Dark Knight is too dark.  Some think it goes too far.  Others say it doesn't favor Batman enough -- this is because of Heath's overpowering performance, Batman actually gets more screen time.  The film isn't perfect.   Harvey's spiritual descent is not entirely convincing -- the coin flipping conceit is the one device that fails to raise the bar on the comics.  We also never find out where the Joker goes after he throws Rachel out of Bruce Wayne's penthouse and Batman steps in to save her.  The concluding scene where Dent confronts Batman completes the theme of the story and offers closure without being fully satisfying.  Still, this is a movie brimming with ideas and questions that have the unique capacity to speak to today's generation.  A generation in which redemption is preceded by an acknowledgment of sin and an awareness that happiness often comes at a price.  The Dark Knight gets my vote as the best movie of the year.  It is a benchmark in both the comic book movie genre and the crime thriller genre that is destined to be studied and appreciated for years to come.