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The Dark Knight (2008)

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To prepare for The Dark Knight Rises release this week, I've finally gotten around to trying to explain and pen my very deep antipathy towards the second film (I liked Begins okay) and explain why, although I really am prepared to and hoping to like it, I'm approaching the third film bracing for more disappointment.

In what is the most telling exchange of the film for me, the Joker challenges, “You have these rules…and you think they will save you.” Indeed, the Batman of my youth, of the 70s and early 80s, did have rules, a code, which he lived by, and did expect that they would save him. The Batman of The Dark Knight is willing to be a sacrifice to necessity, because nothing less than a sacrifice will be effective. The rules, the code certainly will not save him, or Rachel, or Harvey.

It’s worth asking, though, save him from what?

That’s not an idle question. I fancy now as I fancied back in my naive adolescence when I was inspired by Batman comic books, that it is and was a rather important question. The Joker is surely right that the rules will not same him or those he loves from harm or death. Bad things happen to good people. God does not always intervene. Is that all there is to be saved from, however? Are there not some fates worse than death, some outcomes more tragic or lamentable than being defeated? A good friend and colleague of mine called The Dark Knight “nihilistic.” I don’t think that's not a stretch because the Joker wins the fight (he doesn’t) or because he wins the argument (he actually does) but rather because while the film shows Batman (and many civilians) fighting him, no one attempts to or actually succeeds in answering his arguments. Nobody even tries. That silence speaks volumes about Batman and about the generation that has remade him in its image.

Edited by kenmorefield

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FWIW, I've read quite a lot about THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and from what I've read, it addresses some of your concerns about THE DARK KNIGHT, so I'll be quite interested to see what you have to say about things once you've seen it. But just a few comments:

I think you place a bit too much emphasis on the common ground between Nolan and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. I think Nolan's Batman is more influenced by Miller's BATMAN: YEAR ONE, as well as much of the post-Miller Batman lit. What you accuse Nolan of doing to the character--making the "existential pain" of Miller's "old Batman" part of Batman's perpetual existence from the early stages--is something that the comics have already done over the past twenty years, something that began with Miller's revised origin story in YEAR ONE and continued on through the works that really got Nolan going, THE LONG HALLOWEEN and DARK VICTORY.

You write that, "In Batman Begins, once the training is complete Batman refuses to be executioner, but one always gets the sense, at least I did, that the moral lines he drew were somewhat arbitrary, based on ideals of how the system was supposed to work rather than convictions of how he was supposed to be. Once the system was exposed to be broken, there was no reason for him to continue to hold onto the broken ideals." Having just re-watched BEGINS, I'm not sure that's true. That film is driven by Wayne's struggle between his desire for personal vengeance and his desire for something more than personal gratification. That rule is the one thing that keeps him from releasing his more monstrous instincts, and he knows it (this, I think, is actually the "salvation" of which the Joker speaks in THE DARK KNIGHT; the Joker is chiding Batman for thinking Batman could be anything other than a monster). Furthermore, the sense that the line Batman draws depends only on the system functioning also doesn't seem quite right, given that Batman comes into existance because the system isn't functioning. As such, that rule is important both because it upholds his understanding of who Batman should be and his symbolic function--Batman should never replace the law and become judge, jury, and executioner--and because it holds back his own inner demons.

That Batman is a compromise between what-should-be and what-is lies at the heart of the post-Frank Miller Batman (Nolan noted recently that Batman is an embodiment of "ends justifying the means"). In the comic lore post-Miller, Batman has had a lot of difficulty navigating the gray area of this compromise, and it has often resulted in alienation from his friends. He has often been controlling and paranoid. In one story, JLA: TOWER OF BABEL, it is revealed that Batman has take-down plans for all the other superheroes in the Justice League, just in case they were to become a threat. This is revealed when the villain uses Batman's take-down plans to incapacitate the league in a devastating strike. Batman is subsequently kicked out of the Justice League.

Of course, this tendency to explore Batman's moral compromises and failures is not just a function of the foundation of the current Batman character, but a function of post-WATCHMEN comic book writing, which often challenges the concentration of power inherent in superheroes. Superman has received his fair share of pushback, too. One particularly neat comic, KINGDOM COME, which is a take on the future of the DC universe, shows both Superman and Batman giving themselves over to an inner totalitarian streak, albeit in very different ways with quite different rationales.

And it's interesting that you say this: "I’m not a parent, never have been one, but surely Thomas and Martha Wayne would want something for their son other than a life of angry futility, an erasure of his identity." In the Batman comic, BATMAN: DEATH AND THE MAIDENS, Batman meets his parents again (thanks to a potion from Ra's al Ghul which allows him to speak with the dead) and they tell him precisely that. It's a great moment.

Edited by Ryan H.

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I think you place a bit too much emphasis on the common ground between Nolan and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. I think Nolan's Batman is more influenced by Miller's BATMAN: YEAR ONE, as well as much of the post-Miller Batman lit. What you accuse Nolan of doing to the character--making the "existential pain" of Miller's "old Batman" part of Batman's perpetual existence from the early stages--is something that the comics have already done over the past twenty years, something that began with Miller's revised origin story in YEAR ONE and continued on through the works that really got Nolan going, THE LONG HALLOWEEN and DARK VICTORY.

Fair enough, though I think your examples mostly flesh out and reinforce my points, saying that TDK is part of a larger more total revision of Batman for this generation rather than something that jumped straight from Miller to Nolan.

Perhaps it was not too effective to speak of Nolan in auteurist terms, speaking of him and what he does (or participates in) rather than what the film does, though Nolan does take both a screenplay (partial) credit and a story (partial) credit. The "too large debt" to Miller may be easier to talk about in metaphorical terms as an inheritance rather than a debt, but I see nothing in the film that makes me think he is riffing at or at odds with the postmodern Batman, though the film's ideological incoherence speaks more to the problematic baggage that is attached to the reimagining of the character than I suspect the author (or auteur) realizes.

Not sure where the Tower of Babel comes relative to the pain of the gods and erasing Dr. Light's (and Batman's) memory but, yeah, the JLA arcs seem to me to be attempts to reintegrate that stubborn principled streak back into Batman. I certainly don't see the hero who quit the JLA and refused to give quarter to the arguments of necessity agreeing to a well meaning fiction about who killed who. But that's more (imo) part of the problem with reading TDKR back into the earlier character...it has all sorts of contradictions and problems that the comics are struggling to work out and gloss over just by saying, "well, he's conflicted."

Has anyone other than me seen it yet?

Aside--Steven, the movie came out in 2008, so yes, I imagine there are several people on the boards besides you who have seen it. whistling2.gif

Edited by kenmorefield

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Not sure where the Tower of Babel comes relative to the pain of the gods and erasing Dr. Light's (and Batman's) memory but, yeah, the JLA arcs seem to me to be attempts to reintegrate that stubborn principled streak back into Batman. I certainly don't see the hero who quit the JLA and refused to give quarter to the arguments of necessity agreeing to a well meaning fiction about who killed who. But that's more (imo) part of the problem with reading TDKR back into the earlier character...it has all sorts of contradictions and problems that the comics are struggling to work out and gloss over just by saying, "well, he's conflicted."

Given some of the comments made above regarding these different Batmen, I thought you would get a kick out of what boingboing posted today from a 1966 Life issue.

lZhQ3.jpg

The boom in bedlam springs, of course, from man’s old love of the bizarre and the fantastic. But it also reflects today’s restless, volatile spirit. Pop art and the cut of camp have turned Superman and Batman into members of the intellectual community, and what the kids used to devour in comics books has become a staple in avant-garde art. Any way you slice it, the new super madness is breaking the laws both of gravity and logic ad providing a useful escape hatch from the booby hatch. In a world that often looms confused and loony, it helps clear the air to see it portrayed that way.
Edited by M. Leary

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Perhaps it was not too effective to speak of Nolan in auteurist terms, speaking of him and what he does (or participates in) rather than what the film does, though Nolan does take both a screenplay (partial) credit and a story (partial) credit. The "too large debt" to Miller may be easier to talk about in metaphorical terms as an inheritance rather than a debt, but I see nothing in the film that makes me think he is riffing at or at odds with the postmodern Batman, though the film's ideological incoherence speaks more to the problematic baggage that is attached to the reimagining of the character than I suspect the author (or auteur) realizes.

Well, I'm not necessarily with you when you say that Nolan's Batman films are characterized by ideological incoherence, but we'll deal with that after we've both seen THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.

I do think Nolan has added a considerable amount of his own touch to Batman/Bruce Wayne, which is to say that Nolan's Bruce Wayne is infinitely less clear-minded and focused than his comic book counterpart. The Batman of the comics--even Miller's--knows from the moment of his parent's death that he wants to fight crime, and dedicates himself to it. Nolan allows him an adolescence and young adulthood of pure emotional confusion (to the point of seeking revenge against his parents' killer), and even after Batman has been established, he is continually seeking a way out of being Batman (despite Rachel's comments, which I think would be wrong to read as any kind of definitive statement on the nature of Nolan's Wayne/Batman, there seems to be continual evidence to support that Wayne desires to his crusade come to a very definite end). The Batman of the comics is perpetually in danger of becoming too much Batman and not enough Bruce Wayne, but the Batman of Nolan's films is seemingly in danger of being too little Batman, being a little too reluctant to embrace his crusade and its consequences.

I certainly don't see the hero who quit the JLA and refused to give quarter to the arguments of necessity agreeing to a well meaning fiction about who killed who. But that's more (imo) part of the problem with reading TDKR back into the earlier character...it has all sorts of contradictions and problems that the comics are struggling to work out and gloss over just by saying, "well, he's conflicted."

I don't see the Batman of JLA: TOWER OF BABEL or the Batman of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS doing what Batman does at the end of THE DARK KNIGHT, either. That choice has so much to do with what Gotham needs as a city, and I'm not sure any incarnation of Batman has ever been so concerned with the well-being of the normal people of Gotham as Nolan's Batman (the comic-book Batman tends to focus more on controlling the criminal element rather than inspiring a populace to rise up against crime themselves). This is one aspect in which Nolan's Batman films further distinguishes themselves from any prior comic incarnation of the character.

Edited by Ryan H.

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I've finally gotten around to trying to explain and pen my very deep antipathy towards the second film ...

In what is the most telling exchange of the film for me, the Joker challenges, “You have these rules…and you think they will save you.” Indeed, the Batman of my youth, of the 70s and early 80s, did have rules, a code, which he lived by, and did expect that they would save him. The Batman of The Dark Knight is willing to be a sacrifice to necessity, because nothing less than a sacrifice will be effective. The rules, the code certainly will not save him, or Rachel, or Harvey.

It’s worth asking, though, save him from what? ... The Joker is surely right that the rules will not same him or those he loves from harm or death. Bad things happen to good people. God does not always intervene. Is that all there is to be saved from, however? Are there not some fates worse than death, some outcomes more tragic or lamentable than being defeated? A good friend and colleague of mine called The Dark Knight “nihilistic.” I don’t think that's not a stretch because the Joker wins the fight (he doesn’t) or because he wins the argument (he actually does) but rather because while the film shows Batman (and many civilians) fighting him, no one attempts to or actually succeeds in answering his arguments. Nobody even tries. That silence speaks volumes about Batman and about the generation that has remade him in its image.

You should read Lauren Wilford's essay, if you haven't already (and, for anyone living under a rock, it has spoilers):

... The Joker is more than a villain—he is a force of nature, “a dog chasing cars,” nihilism embodied. Batman is repeatedly characterized as a shadowy symbol, as “more than a hero.” When they face off, ideas hang in the balance, and we can feel the urgency. Batman deals blows to a Joker who merely laughs; it’s justice versus chaos, Batman’s unstoppable force meeting the Joker’s immovable object.

But The Dark Knight resists moralizing. It is not a mere allegory or clash of the ideological titans. There are archetypes here, ethical puzzles, downfall, and sacrifice; there is no doubt that Nolan has created a deeply moral film, forcing us to contend with evil in every scene. By the end, though, it doesn’t seem that the film has answered its own questions, at least not consistently. From where does evil come? How can we fight it without surrendering to it? Why must one, as more than one character in The Dark Knight pronounces, “die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”?

The filmleaves us with a captured villain, a fallen saint, and a Dark Knight—“the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs,” as Commissioner Gordon calls Batman in the film’s final lines. The first few times I watched Batman ride off into the fray, taking on the sins of another and living out his noble lie, I felt a tension in my gut: the urge to cheer coupled with an unfinished, haunted feeling ...

In The Dark Knight, the Joker also expresses this belief in human depravity: “Their morals, their code . . . it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.” He spends the film bringing chaos to Gotham in an effort to break the city’s spirit. In many ways, it seems he succeeds. He claims he’ll blow up a hospital if a certain man isn’t dead within the hour; citizens make attempts on his life, though Batman sees that he is spared. Batman counts the ferry scene as a victory for human nature, but he doesn’t know what really happened in that half hour. And then there is the case of Harvey Dent.

Nolan has described Harvey Dent, Gotham’s District Attorney and “White Knight,” as forming “the emotional arc of the story.” For the first half of the film, Harvey serves as a clean counterpart to Batman’s vigilante, White Knight to his Dark. He shares Batman’s commitment to justice and rounds up criminals with fervor—and despite his wholesomeness, he also shares a bit of Batman’s vindictive streak. At one point, he even claims Batman’s identity so that he might be arrested in Bruce’s place, taking the fall for Bruce’s dangerous anonymity. But when the Joker takes away the person he loves most, Harvey’s anguish quickly transforms him into an avenger. Like Ra’s al Ghul, he now sees justice as balance: a life for a life.

“You thought we could be decent men in an indecent time,” barks Harvey in his pain, giving voice to one of Nolan’s recurring quandaries. When the chips are down, Harvey—Gotham’s symbol of hope—falls into corruption, violence, and finally to his death. As Commissioner Gordon looks down on Harvey’s body at the end of the film, he moans, “The Joker won.” Batman replies, “The Joker can’t win.” At first, it seems like denial. But in a moment of morally ambiguous sacrifice, Batman makes it true. He places the sins of Harvey, the man, on Batman, the symbol, by claiming Harvey’s crimes of revenge as his own. Because of this atonement, the Joker cannot truly succeed in his mission to take down Harvey the hero. While the moment is darkened by Batman’s lie and the threat of the dogs sent to hunt him, Nolan ends his film with a grand moral gesture so that we know we are meant to hope ...

Edited by Persiflage

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The Batman of the comics is more in danger of becoming too much Batman, not too little, but the Batman of Nolan's films is seemingly in danger of being too little Batman, being a little too reluctant to accept his crusade and its consequences.

Yes. I'm actually watching through the two earlier films in anticipation of the midnight premiere which I'll be watching with a few family members. While watching the Dark Knight last night, my father actually remarked that he didn't consider the Nolan Batman films to be comic book movies, but rather epic crime dramas in the vein of The Godfather or The Departed. Perhaps a little far afield of those particular films, but not by much.

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A good friend and colleague of mine called The Dark Knight “nihilistic.” I don’t think that's not a stretch because the Joker wins the fight (he doesn’t) or because he wins the argument (he actually does) but rather because while the film shows Batman (and many civilians) fighting him, no one attempts to or actually succeeds in answering his arguments. Nobody even tries. That silence speaks volumes about Batman and about the generation that has remade him in its image.

I've been thinking about this. It's certainly easy to see the Joker as nihilistic. He is nihilistic - there is no rhyme or reason to the destruction that he causes. Early on, Alfred tells Bruce Wayne that he doesn't understand the Joker. Some men just want to see the world burn for no good or self-aggrandizing reason. The joker thinks morality is meaningless and considers Batman weaker because he has rules. But I don't think that makes the film itself nihilistic. It was made clear, by the end of Batman Begins, that Batman speaks or answers, not necessarily with words or good intentions, but with action. It's what he does that stands for what he believes. By the end, it seems pretty clear that there is something Wayne and Gordon believe in that is meaningful. Lost and corrupt human beings may not be worth saving, Harvey Dent may not deserve the reputation and praise they are about to give him - but they think that Dent stands for an idea. Whatever that idea is, they think it's worth saving at whatever the cost - and it is precisely the idea that the Joker was trying to destroy. So Batman does something.

The next film will be so interesting because it looks like it is going to intentionally explore the consequences of this. What Gordon and Batman are trying to do does, at the end of The Dark Knight, still seem like a last line of defense. Darkness and nihilism are naturally engulfing Gotham. They are trying to stop it.

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Hey gang. This is my first post!

For years I hated the Dark Knight but after debating with a couple of PhDs and reading Chesterton's St. Francis of Assisi, I think I understand it now. I wrote up a post about it called: 

Mr. Two Face Dark Knight :
Meeting Jongluers and Troubadours in my Dark Knight Rewatch

Would love your thoughts here or there. Excited to start discussing with you guys.

 

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