Saturday, July 26, 2008

Batman's Allegory

The second most striking thing about "The Dark Knight" is it's combination of hype and operatic entertainment. As the bat insignia moves through the blue flames that open the film, the audience in Irvine Wednesday was entirely silent, the only sound the white noise that permeates the film. Then, the film began, and never before have I been to a movie in which the audience cheers at the mere sight of a building. The IMAX audience of "The Dark Knight," though, were loyally excited and cheer they did, at the sheer size of the screen, at the size of their expectations, and their excitement (rightfully so) to have those expectations fulfilled and, for many, exceeded.

There is much to be said for this kind of hype, the kind of anticipation that can make the audience erupt at the mere possibility of the movie beginning, finally, after so much talk and time. This hype, though, is in a sense built in. Tim Burton's original "Batman" became the first film to break 100 Million $ in its first ten days of release, was the biggest grossing film of 1989, and was, until that time, the biggest film Warner Brothers had ever produced. After the cultural phenomenon of the first two films, the franchise then flopped horribly with the next two attempts, "Batman Forever" and "Batman & Robin." The re-ignition of the franchise with Christopher Nolan's first intallation was a welcome return to darkness, but as of July 18 it is hard to see the years since "Batman Returns" as anything but a giant set-up for the overwhelming sucess of this film. The combination of nostalgia and newness is built into the franchise, the possibility of resurrecting the quality the material, a return to form after years of a poorly treated source that looms with potential. All of these things have combined with the injection of an A-list cast, two deaths (both horrible, one overshadowing the other) and a level of artistic sincerity to affirm the notion that, yes, this material has potential; you just have to do it right.

And do it right they have. Nolan's film is currently a week and one day old, and rushing toward the possible record of 300 Million $ in it's first ten days. It has already moved more quickly than any other film to the 200 mark, making it in five days.

These factors, while impressive, are only second string. The most striking thing about the film is the depth to which it engages the current cultural and political climate in the states. The script, written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, has threads of a vast political allegory that explores the imagery and the governmental policies the United States has been exposed to in the past 8 years. The allusion is sometimes too obvious: Batman perched above the burning rubble of a building was so much a 9/11 reference that it got a few chuckles from the audience; Batman wire-tapping the entirety of Gotham Cities population has a bit too happy of an ending to line up with the reality of our government's illegal actions.

That being said, though, the film is most enjoyable when it deals with the struggle to find the balance between the polarization we have been so subjected to since the turn of the century. In this case, the ideology behind the split parties, the torture, the habeus corpus, the Abu Ghraib, the terror and the hope are personified in, of course, The Joker and Batman. As Ledger's Joker so aptly puts it, "This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets and immovable object." And this struggle, in many ways, is what the country has been navigating for what seems like so long.

Although the allegory is alternately flimsy and nimble, the film spends a brisk-but-necessary amount of time declaring its reality, separating itself as much as it can from the camp of Adam West, the bizarre misfires of Joel Schumacher, and even Nolan's first attempt at the story in 2006. When Batman swiftly ties up and leaves behind The Scarecrow and his hoodlums, and the film seems to be declaring "Enough with the comic book aspects, this is a different film." Gone are the mountain-top, ninja teachers who return to seek revenge. Instead they are bank robbers, drug dealers, and at the center a man trying to do good but instead costing life after life. What is interesting, though, is what happens after Batman puts away Scarecrow: he upgrades his costume.

Around the time of "Spiderman," a new era of comic book films were ushered in. This is an era that needs to walk the line between reality and fantasy, and apparently that has been translated into a new rule of comic films: Watch the Hero Build the Costume. Burton's Batman offers no costume explanation, but by the time we arrive at "Spiderman" we see Peter Parker draw out his costume design then magically knit it off screen. This new rule seems to have culminated earlier this summer with "Iron Man," which fills at least half of its running time with Robert Downey, Jr. assembling, explaining, welding, and testing his metallic suit. As entertaining as that may be to watch, it is vaguely silly that twenty minutes into the second of this new wave of Batman movies we are still watching Christian Bale build a new costume. Morgan Freeman's Lucious Fox says, "So you want to be able to turn your head," and this ends up being a nice metaphor for the rest of the film. Yes, Batman is turning his head now, looking at a more real world with more real villains, and attempting to deal with more personal (but even more grand) problems. And it is the struggle to balance those two opposites that the film hinges on. Nolan comes so close to grounding Batman in our world, but inherent in the material is an escapism that contends with its own goal, and it is very emotional to watch that dichotomy played out on screen.

To return to "Batman & Robin" after witnessing the always graceful, sometimes touching, not-quite coherent mythology of "Dark Knight" is to understand how inadequate the past decade is to deal with our present. It is strange to realize that Schumacher's film is only ten years old, and wonder how much we have seen our heroes and leaders exposed to the point of shock, then disrespect, then finally anti-heroism. This duality is apparent in nearly every film of this type lately: Tony Stark is the alcoholic millionaire non-hero; Hellboy is destined to be the apocolypse to the very people he would like acceptance from; Batman wants so much to do good but can only, it seems, be responsible for more horror.

At the close of the film, Batman tells Commissioner Gordon that he must be what Gotham needs him to be, whether that is a praised vigalante or a hunted criminal. This is an especially poignant line of dialogue, not only because of Gary Oldman's consistently wonderful performance, but because it is the point when the allegory finally breaks down. If Batman is representative of the US Government, and Gotham of our populace, Batman cannot simply be what we need him to be. We need him to be something new, something better, something that we can be proud of again, not merely a changable entity. The thread that ties all of these characters together is delusion and lies, and the two greatest delusions fall on Batman himself: he thinks the city is "full of people ready to see" the good and hope of the future, and he thinks he would have gotten the girl. Neither of these are quite true, and the audience must then ask, "Are we like them?"

1 comment:

Shawn said...

While I think most of the criticism (and praise) over The Dark Knight's politics excessively magnifies the importance of the parallels between Nolan's fantasy and our reality I also think that politics should never be manipulated, influenced, or even mentioned in fantasy. I've said this before. Even with the best intentions all the artist can do is complicate further the actual, tangible force of the political message. For example: the chore of decoding what, if any, message is to be found in The Dark Knight. I'd say the danger is in confusing morality and politics, and/or in simplifying what is complex. The real world, and its politics, will always be infinitely more subtle than what is required from fantasy.

So I think Nolan should have avoided drawing out any similarities between the basically moronic Batman legacy and contemporary politics. I mean moronic historically, as in the idea of a costumed superhero has taken a long while to earn its now semi-esteemed reputation, and if the genre wishes to move forward, as it appears to be doing this year, it should remember of course that its films are inhabited by literal mask wearers, exaggerated and identifiable villains, and its cities are much more curious, fantastic, and imaginative than real cities. Or least until as a people we can pay as much attention to politics as we do fantasy. I wish there were as many people paying as close attention to this years' elections as this fucking Dark Knight film. I'm saying that when my kid wants to learn about politics, he better not learn those politics from films like this.

That said, I repeat that I think the criticisms (and praises) amplify what is there. Nolan, in my opinion, should have separated his story from civics, but clearly the film's themes overlap into the present political climate. The politics are hardwired into this story. Difficult to avoid. Because some of the themes are further reaching than what we're used to from superhero movies it's natural to react defensive (or enthusiastic) about the idea. What I don't see a lot of people saying is that Nolan didn't have to distend the story out into politics. That's where his characters were headed. Harvey Dent is a politician, the film is very much about the politics of Gotham city, politics are naturally contradicting, the film is about the dark doubles of its characters, and in realistic terms actually exploring all this Nolan drew upon a very real, very immediate example of conflicting intentions within a political organization. So politics influence The Dark Knight, but in no way do I think Nolan is meaning The Dark Knight to influence politics.

Politics, politics. Just hint at them, just allude to them in a blockbuster and everyone goes berserk. Very big deal. I thought there was an hour of great filmmaking in The Dark Knight, and an extra hour or so of the film open for terrific debate. Scenes like the SWAT/Semi truck chase and the boats rigged to blow were pulse quickening. The first hour was sluggish and lame. Ledger is amazing. The Nolan brothers' writing of the Joker character is amazing. He's a force that pushes the whole film forward, and when you're wondering why the fuck you have to see another superhero costume designed, when you're so sick of superhero costume designs being an integral part of the structure of these films, there's always the Joker lurking in the scenes. Someone was saying that it's jarring and kind of lousy filmmaking the way The Dark Knight is edited together and scenes seem unlinked and unmotivated. I agree with that person. The unintentional effect this had on me was that I begin to wonder when the Joker was going to appear next. I began to anticipate nervously his next arrival, just like the city in the film. Because I didn't know when the hell he's going to pop up next.

I thought the movie was pretty good overall. This year's We Own the Night.