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July 01, 2008

Uh-Oh: "The Dark Knight" a September 11 Parable, Warning Against the Dangers of Terrorism Escalating the Cycle of Violence?

Using the Joker as a metaphor for terrorism makes sense. He's a psychopathic murderer, without any real motivation -- except, perhaps, to commit acts so lunatic and vile that the world will become deranged just by witnessing them, and thereby join him in his maniacal worldview.

But it seems to me there is a response to that, and the answer is an easy one, not a difficult one fraught with all sorts of moral ambiguities: You put something like that down like diseased animal, or (in the Batman universe) beat the hell out of him and quarantine his viral insanity from all of humanity by locking him in the deepest dungeon of Arkham Asylum.

This is just one guy's review, bringing with him his own interpretations, but by his reading "The Dark Knight" takes a decidedly nuanced stance on fighting an urban terrorist like the Joker:

With THE DARK KNIGHT, for example, Chris Nolan accomplishes something that both WAR OF THE WORLDS and CLOVERFIELD tried to do, and with more grace and insight. Those films both used 9/11 imagery to resonate with viewers, and in both cases, the imagery is certainly arresting and upsetting, but to what end? Just to remind us? Just to tap into the fear we felt that day? Here, Nolan invokes 9/11, but he pushes past it to also deal with the fear that has stayed with us as a culture since that moment, and also the way it forced the world around us to change. This is the first mainstream movie to fully digest the events of September 11th and to deal with them in a way that starts to sort out who we are now as a result. Heady stuff for a movie about a dude wearing a bat suit who beats the shit out of criminals, but then... isnít that the point?


The Greeks used gods as their storytelling archetypes, while we use superheroes instead. It's understandable, since superhero stories allow us to explore shades of gray using characters who are either all good or all bad. When you set up polar extremes like that and then you put them into moral positions where there are no easy answers, itís a great way to deal with provocative or challenging material in a way thatís more palatable for many audiences. They may not even realize that youíre tackling the subtext... they just absorb the surface level, and everything else works on them in more subtle ways.

The script the Nolans wrote (based on a story they worked out with David Goyer, who told me today ďI canít believe my name is on a movie this goodĒ) uses the last scene of BATMAN BEGINS as a jumping-off point. This movieís entire thematic subtext was established in that last great moment on the rooftop when Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) handed the playing card to Batman (Christian Bale) and talked to him about the notion of escalation. Here, every scene plays to that idea, and itís obvious that the Nolans believe that a world of people living by the credo of ďan eye for an eyeĒ will quickly go blind. No one escapes this movie without fresh scars. No one gets out without losing something dear to them. If Warner Bros. wanted to title this like the first film, they could have called it BATMAN FAILS, because no matter what he does in this film, he finds himself unable to stem the overflow of shit that threatens his city. He canít fly around the world to turn back time when something goes wrong. He canít erase memories or do magic or just magically reset everything and try again. Each time things get worse, all he can do is adjust and try to move on from there, until it finally reaches a point where he isnít sure thereís any way to adjust anymore. What do you do when every good effort has failed and every good man has been cut down? When chaos and darkness overwhelm you, and even a clear-cut hero can be corrupted, is there any point in even continuing the fight?

The Nolans might have been more subtle and left the film open to more interpretations -- such as the politically-unobjectionable one that when fighting evil, all sorts of bad things are likely to happen despite your best intentions. War is hell, of course, and that is beyond question; the only question is whether the hell of war is worse in a particular case than the hell of, say, permitting Al Qaeda to continue to murder us without military consequences.

In fact, based on that snippet, there's nothing that proves the movie is anything other than an unobjectionable parable of the War on Terrorism-- psychopaths attack, they keep attacking, you attack back, they attack again, more people die. But then, not fighting back would hardly help your cause either, as the psychopath wants to kill regardless of what response you take to him. It might just be a realistic depiction of how damnably hard it is to stop a killer who views murder as something nearing a religious obligation.

And certainly the crisis of confidence -- "Should I keep on doing this if it seems futile?" is a good dramatic turn for late Act II of a movie like this.

As long as Act III resolves that question satisfactorily.

If that's all it is, it's a grown-up message I actually approve of: Stop being petulant children, people, defeating Pure Evil isn't easy, and it's not something that can be completed quickly enough so as not to tax your short attention spans and shorter memories.*

But if they're really selling the idea that the best defense against evil is passivity cloaked in the "ideal" of pacifism, I'm going to be seriously pissed off.

Not just because the message is nonsense, but because they'd have ruined a movie I'd been looking forward to for a good while.

The Nolans are savvy guys, and I hope they haven't elevated their personal leftist politics (if indeed they are of that bent) above even the simple pecuniary interest in not making a $200 million pop anti-war message movie. And, given their past work, and Warner Bros. strong interest in not killing the Batman franchise a second time, I don't think they'd be so partisan to have done that.

But, as Jim Gordon says in Batman Begins, "I've been wrong before."

* Wiser and craftier, I guess, is to just "raise questions" and leave the viewer to answer them, which is (I hope) what they've done. I don't require political affirmation in popcorn movies myself, but I do object to political affirmations for the all the sundry shibboleths of the transnational progressive left.

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