Sunday, August 31, 2008

Dark Knight, the Anarchist is King

I've always been a fan of Batman since I saw the first Tim Burton Batman movie in 1989. I was 9 years old, and this was my first presentation of what Batman was really supposed to be, something that exists somewhere between myth and a legitimate threat. You know it's likely he's real but you don't exactly understand how so. Is it a guy with a cape, is it a demon no one knows.

My main exposure to Batman prior to this was in the form of the Adam West Batman series and the Superfriends cartoon. Seeing these formats left little impression on me, and what impression they did leave was negative. An overweight stupid Adam West bumbling his way through a case, or a paper thin Jim Gordon who just showed up to catch the viewer up to speed and point out the ridiculousness of the situation (a police officer calling in a masked vigilante for help). And the icing on the cake, the “master detective” being outsmarted by his teenage sidekick.

Seeing a real man using everything at his disposal to manipulate the fears and superstitions of those who victimize others for the first time made a major impression on me. After the movie I finally understood what Batman was supposed to be. I became a fan of the comics. Since then I've been a major fan of the character and his better stories. A man who is highly skilled who would excel at anything he tried given the motivation to restore order to a lawless city, as well as physically enact vengeance on a few criminals personally. That person having nearly limitless means. A city where the only men more corrupt than the criminals are those charged with fighting them, the politicians and the police. One honest cop who's faced with the choice to trust in the corrupt police, or in a lawless vigilante.

There are a number of great Batman stories from the comic. There’s a death in the family, where the democraticly decided execution of the second Robin was carried out. Knightfall through Knight’s end which follows the events of Batman being paralyzed by a villain and chosing an ultraviolent successor and ultimately reclaiming the mantle for himself after training himself back from paralysis. And two of the stories which serve as inspiration for the current movie, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s “The Long Halloween” and Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s “The Killing Joke.”

But two of the most famous stories are Frank Miller’s stories which bookend Batman’s very life, Year one and the Dark Knight Returns, the first covering the beginning of his career, and the latter his return from retirement. I'm in the minority in that I actually prefer Year One to the Dark Knight returns. But as I get older and I try to break in to writing superhero comics myself I've noticed a marked tendency towards naturalism on my part. Not on the whole mind you, just as a counterbalance to flights of fancy.

That being said, what I liked about year one is that it seemed like the first story to genuinely examine the idea of what it would mean to be someone like Bruce Wayne/Batman. There have been numerous stories over the years to simply dismiss the concept as absurd but this seemed like the first one to really look at a set of people and a situation that would necessitate an event like the birth of Batman.

In the past when I told people how great many of these stories were and I tried to tell them that x character had done something, and I knew what they were thinking of. They were thinking of how silly the idea of a man dressed as a bat to fight crime would be. That was the rule for far too long and the strides in the right direction often seemed to get undercut by others action. The Dark Knight was the first time where I truly saw a film and thought to myself that's Jim Gordon," that's Two Face, that's Bruce Wayne, that's Alfred, that's the Joker. This was the Batman I always pictured.

Though Christopher Nolan and company didn't directly adapt any story, they adapted the themes correctly. When you can't trust the law to enforce justice, you must act outside of the law to do so. Bruce Wayne is willing to do so, and by the end of the story Jim Gordon is ready to.Beyond that there are just layers and layers to every character. I was always unsatisfied with earlier versions of Batman in how they really glossed over the supporting cast, Commissioner Gordon specifically. He's a deep character who gets placed in many unenviable positions and has to make a lot of decisions most people wouldn't want to make. In some of the other films he just shows up to give exposition and then leaves. In this film he's a real character who affects the story and is affected by it. This of course goes double for the rest of this film's outstanding ensemble cast.

The Dark Knight starts with the feeling that both Batman and Gordon have to some degree realized that their alliance with each other may have actually been a deal with the devil. Batman is the most trusted symbol of justice in the city, and that symbol is a lawless vigilante who answers to no authority.No one seems to have any more trust in the police than before, with a few rare exceptions (most notably Gordon). The euphoria of "making a difference" and "working outside the box" has worn off. Batman is no longer a larger than life myth, he's a daily reality to the criminals of Gotham. The police aren't substantially less corrupt, and most of the achievements they've made are thanks mostly to Batman.

Batman realizes this. He knows that Batman is like a band aid on the cancer that is crime in Gotham. What Gotham really needs is someone who can do something better than what he's doing, someone who can work within the system and be incorruptible there. Gotham needs someone who doesn't have to rely on fear and intimidation who is not living the contradiction of bringing law through lawlessness. Enter Harvy Dent. I'd imagine the Obama comparisons are hard to ignore but I don't think they're intentional. He's a new district attorney who's willing to take the chances no one has been willing to take in the past. Someone who agrees with the spirt of the Batman, if not the method. Most of the film on the hero’s end deals with Gordon and Batman trying to clear the way for who they see as their natural successor, the person who will make their unholy alliance obsolete.

However this is complicated by the Joker, who in this story is little more than an agent of chaos. He simply comes in and does the single thing that is least expected at numerous times during the movie. The whole principle behind the Joker is that he sees order as unnatural and his goal is to prove that at their core, all people are just as messed up as he is, and all that keeps the illusion going is the fact that they haven't faced the situation that brings this out in them.

I honestly have to say Heath Ledger saved his best performance for last, the only other thing he did you could even compare this to was his work in "Brokeback Mountain." The man just embodies the idea of pure anarchy and chaos, you never have any idea what he'll do at any given moment. When Charlieze Theron played Eileen Wurmos for "Monster," sure they got the make-up perfect, she dressed exactly the way the real woman did, but what made the performance so amazing was how she just lived the character, the big smiles at inappropriate moments, followed by the blistering rages which seemed to come from nowhere. Ledger gives that type of performance. He put everything he had into that character and it shows.

With this in mind he creates lifeboat situation after lifeboat situation. On the whole though most of the people subjected to these situations come through pointing out just how good they actually are and pointing out how most people would never be like the Joker no matter what they faced. But that's what I like. Never once are these lifeboat situations treated like the way life actually is. They are single exceptional cases that most people would never actually encounter and they are not what people should base their view of the world on... no matter how many are forced on them.

And to be honest the story really makes it work. There's a running theme that in order to deal with criminals you have to become in some ways worse than they are, and that in some ways the criminals themselves are the most noble men in the city because they never try to hide what they are while the normal "good guys" shamelessly play both sides as it suits them.

On a moral level, the film is often centered around lifeboat situations. You might think this is abhorrent to an Objectivist, but it really works. It plays off the defining idea of the Joker. The idea is that, once the chips are down, and any person is dealing with the worst thing they can imagine, they are just as weak, and petty and mean and crazy as the Joker himself is. Ultimately the city of Gotham proves that even a town as corrupt as it is, there are some lines it cannot cross, and its soul can be redeemed.

The thing that I liked the most about this movie is that it seemed to point to the fact that "there probably is a legitimate answer to the actual questions this film brings up, and the characters in this film are likely aware of this fact. They are aware that they have made the wrong decision but a correct one is possible."

More importantly the Joker points something out. Once you've chosen lawlessness as the standard of value, the anarchist is king. Unlike something like "Spider-Man," "the Dark Knight" never seems to expect me to take on the morality and the logic of the characters involved. It never tries to deny thefact that I might be coming at these problems with a completely different set of morals, it possibly even encourages me to do so.

This is what I liked about the movie/book "Fight Club." The story almost flatly states "the characters are wrong in their decisions and actions" and it invites you to figure out what would actually be a correct course of action. Often times this is simply a cop out on the writer's part, but the idea of the superhero is built on a very flawed premise and it is refreshing to see a film actually address that in a manner other than simple mockery.

A common complaint about this story is about how it takes the old Peter David argument to the extreme. The Joker is the hero not Batman. And the Joker’s triumph is complete when he proves that his situations cannot be dealt with unless Batman breaks his only chosen rule. I say it goes back to needing accountability. In all the previous films (save Batman begins) the villain dies at the end so it's not a story or financial perpetuation thing. If a character dies in the movie it doesn't affect the comic and vice versa. In fact it almost makes more sense because a film is a much bigger production than a monthly comic, to reuse the same villain (no matter how good) often seems cheap so they're better off killing. So it’s not a business decision no matter how you look at it. It simply is a philosophic point whether you agree with it or not.

My main objection comes from the fact that people would be cheering if Batman had murdered the Joker in a police station after he had been arrested. I can't get away from anarchy/minarchy/accountability when analyzing stories like this. It's good that Batman has a rule, I'd hate a world where police, soldiers etc didn't have rules I especially don't want someone self appointed not having rules. There is a section about this danger in Dark Knight Returns. There is a section of the story with man on the street interviews where people either deride Batman entirely and wonder why the city is going to hell or you get comments like "Batman is great the way he's cleaned up the city. He's taken on the muggers, maybe next he can take on the fags." There was also a comic from the 90's called Shadowhawk which did a storyline where the hero spawned a copycat who once caught by his inspiration said to him "Hey why are you against me, I only take on the people you fight... NIGGERS." At which point the hero unmasked for the first time in series history revealing himself as a black man.

The strength of what makes a character like Steve Ditko’s Objectivist heroes Mr. A or the Question so moral is the fact that they make all their decisions in context, there aren't arbitrary absolutes like "Never kill" (Batman Spider-man ad infinitum) or "Kill em all let god sort em out" (The Punisher et al) or even Shadowhawk's unique method of "Break their spine paralyze them for life, but don't kill." The Question and Mr. A were both reporters, so they discovered instances of corruption far before others. They investigated, and if necessary took it upon themselves to bring the people they found to justice. If placed in a situation where killing is necessary, he doesn't hesitate, but he also doesn't seek it out each time. He wants to be held accountable to the laws others are held accountable to. These heroes are more about finding the perfect piece of evidence rather than simply beating an opponent into submission.

The whole concept of the movie was to me, the idea of the initial rush of taking an unexpected (and unlawful action) to rid the city of crime and corruption wearing off and in the cold light of day Bruce Wayne realizing that he's embezzling from his company in order to go out and pick fights with criminals and commissioner Gordon realizing that the only thing he's done to help the city is to let a masked vigilante run wild (a masked vigilante that he'd be helpless without). The reality of the situation has set in for everyone. It's somewhat like the old campy Joel Schumacher films or Adam West Batman show, which pointed out the "Absurdity" of the situation, Nolan points out the "flawed nature" of the situation. The city's answer to lawlessness was simply more lawlessness. And in a city where this is true, The Joker is the hero, he is the person following the laws set by the town's nature better than anyone.

That being said another complaint people have is that Batman’s final act in the film of taking the wrap for a murder he didn’t commit so that he will be seen as a criminal rather than the city’s “White Knight” was a sacrifice. I did not. I see him as paying for sins, HIS OWN. It’s a situation inherent to our times that in situations like this you need to know when a person is being ripped apart for his virtues or his vices. Many people still see Batman as a net good at the end of the film, but Batman himself realizes that he's taken things in a direction which they never should've been taken.

Vigilantism can be a very legitimate response to genuine gaps in law enforcement, like back in the old west before the U.S. Marshalls made it onto the frontier. But what makes a system of justice work is an accountability of every person enforcing justice to a system of law, and to each person who respects and follows that system of law. Every soldier needs his rules of engagement with the threat of a court marshall if he violates them. And this goes all the way up and down the line from the police, to the courts to the president.

In the end Bruce Wayne knows that the city needed and still needs honorable men of the law, not simply another criminal.

---Landon Erp