18 July 2008

The Dark Knight

DC comics never really grew up. Its had a few high points since the golden age, but I contend that it never really had the introspection of Marvel. Superman was an remains a boring boring character. Wonder Woman a little less so. The Flash? Nope. When the 1960s hit Marvel, they simply passed DC by. And aside from few non-continuity titles DC is still back there in the forties and fifties.

There is one exception to this trend. That exception is the Batman. Of all the DC tights clad characters he remains the hero of the most profound psychological depth. While Frank Miller's work, The Dark Knight Returns has got to be given credit for reacquainting authors to this depth, it has really always been there. (Miller's take on Gotham's Dark Knight detective was and remains a land mark in comic book creativity. However it did more than get readers back in touch with the central problem of Batman's mind it took comic books into noir and realism at the same time. Perhaps Miller channelled Kurasawa's Rashamon or he hit upon the narrative conciet himself, but he was deeply concerned with how the public reacted to the caped crusader. It was a new direction. Miller's hand infuses and inspires along with another author, Jeff Loeb the entirity of the new Batman films.)

The new films, while owing much to Miller and Loeb, are also the creation of Chris Nolan. I'm not sure there was ever a more perfect union of material and director than Nolan, to Batman. His obsession with psychology, motivation and illusion are a perfect match to the material. This brings me to his Batman installment, The Dark Knight.

Occasionally you watch a comic book movie and something funny happens. You forget that it is a comic book movie. Suddenly you are simply watching some drama, or great action movie. Both the recent Batman movies do this. Somehow, while capturing (perfectly I might add) the essential mythos of the characters, Batman in Christopher Nolan's hands becomes more than a caped crusader, more than a guy in a cool suit, and the Joker becomes more than a funny guy giving Batman and Gotham a hard time. They become studies on the nature of motivation, morality and the nature of justice.

The Joker has always been the most troubling of Batman's villains. Nolan understands the character vastly better than Tim Burton did. And he allows Alfred to explain why based on his own peculiar experience of such men. When Wayne suggests all they need to do is figure out what the Joker wants it is Alfred, not the Batman, who understands the situation.
"It may not be that simple, some men can't be bought, bargained or reasoned with, some men Master Bruce, just want to watch the world burn."

Heath Ledger's Joker is easily the most mesmerizing screen villain since Anthony Hopkins first addressed Clarice Starling. If his turn in the role is compared to Jack Nicholson's at all, it will only be to demonstrate how shallow Tim Burton's vision really was. It isn't to say that Nicholson was bad, its just that the direction of the original Batman was. Ledger captures the Joker, and his zeal for anarchy, chaos, perfectly. Another aspect of the comic book Joker captured in this film is the fact that Joker is no coward. He is as fearless as the Batman and as smart.

The film essentially pits to views of human nature against each other. No, that isn't quite right. The views of Batman and Joker maybe closer than we suspect. Perhaps they just weight the proportions differently. One of them thinks that good people are truly rarem, the other that they are more common. When the chips are really down, Joker thinks everyone is essentially dog eat dog. As Allan Moore had Joker say in his phenomenal Batman: The Killing Joke "One bad day is all that seperates them from me. That is the Joker's vision. Batman and Gordon and to a lesser extent Harvey Dent hope, whether they believe it, for a different vision. They think that people are more often good than not. At least they think people are good more often than the Joker.

The Joker's schemes are essentially pschology experiments writ large and without ethical considerations. And what they reveal about people is often a surprise, even to him. What lines are you willing to cross in an impossible situaiton? What do you chose to do when all the choices are bad? This is a side concern of the Joker's next to his general need to cause pain, and chaos. And this enthusiasm is built into his work.

Keep it in mind when the Joker offers Batman one these ethical conundrums. What does Batman's choice say about him?