Monday, September 1, 2008

The Answer to Chaos is NOT the Dark Knight

(Originally posted on, reposted here as "point-counterpoint" to Landon's article. We agree on the destination, but not always the road! Having said that, I find Landon's take intelligent and persuasive, and in the end, I agree with his overall view; it's almost as if we were watching two different movies, like those gestalt illusions of the face in profile/vase variety. :) ) There were many good posts in response, too many to reprint here, but you can read them at "The Answer to Chaos is Not the Dark Knight" and "Dark Knight-Another Take" -JM)

I finally got to see THE DARK KNIGHT tonight. Not only did I have the hype of the media building up my anticipation, but the hype of friends who saw it before me and assured me that it lived up to the hype. Batman, incidentally, is considered a superior hero by many an Objectivist: he's not alien, but a man; no powers, just a keenly honed body and intellect. But long-time readers of the comics know the many different treatments of Batman throughout the years: Caped crusader, Dark Knight, Boy Plunderer...ahem...anyway....
I hated it.
I'm a comics fan, so I could criticize it on artistic merits, storytelling, etc. I could complain about the "naturalistic" feel imposed on an exaggerated art form, but I won't. I could even chalk it up to the fact that I got there too early, and after a never-ending preview showing combined with a two and a half-hour run time, I simply had to piss so bad my back teeth were chattering (but didn't, because I was smack in the middle and didn't want to disturb others or miss a minute), but I won't. I endured it (barely) to the bitter end. I wish I had gotten up to relieve myself earlier in the movie, but hindsight is twenty-twenty. Maybe I should have flipped a coin...But since I couldn't piss on this movie in there, I'll do it here.
My problem with this movie, of course, is philosophic. "Oh, here we go, another Objectivist who can't sit back and enjoy a movie. It's a comic book, it's entertainment." NO, IT'S NOT. It's a statement of our culture. To get to the core of this story, all one needs to know is that it's nothing but one big, sinking lifeboat situation. Literally. Actually, it's several lifeboat situations. The hero has a choice in these type of superhero situations, save the girl, save the world, etc. This movie takes it to the extreme, its hero claiming that there is no answer to the lifeboat situation, and sets out to prove it.
Something sound a bit off there? Did I say the hero? Didn't I mean the villain? No, I meant the hero. For the Joker is the hero of this movie, in the sense of being the protaganist. Let me explain. As comics writer Peter David explains, good guys have only one purpose: TO STOP THE BAD GUYS. Once upon a time, the hero was the protaganist, while the villain got in his way. That's not the case in superhero comics (though it is with Scrooge McDuck, but hey, he's an evil capitalist, right?). No, the Batman, like the cops in this movie, exist to stop the bad guys. The bad guys in this movie are the shakers, some mafia types, some evil businessmen (of course, Bruce Wayne just PRETENDS to be an evil businessman...)
But the Joker...see, he "gets it." The "joke," that is. (By the way, imagine I'm licking my lips a lot as I say this; somehow, that makes it more psychotic...). Anyway, he gets it, that order and goodness are only a front, a sham, you see...that the good are only a disaster away from being JUST LIKE HIM. You see, he's not a freak..."he's just ahead of the curve." He sets out to prove this...and does, under the influence of his best comic scripter, Alan Moore (just you wait 'til WATCHMEN, then you'll see how silly superheroes are. Batman's got nuttin' on those "heroes...").
So the Joker , you see, gets it. (Lickin' my lips...) He's not out for money. He's out to prove a point. So he sets up lifeboat after lifeboat, all leaky and overcrowded, to prove that people are cannibals. The "Good guy", the shining white knight, is overcome by duality, while a criminal shows us the light by sacrificing himself.
Ah, the Christ symbol. I bet you knew it was coming. Superheroes comics are full of "strange visitors from another planet." Well, Batman is a man, you see. Just a man, equally corruptible. Just like Jim Gordon. Oh wait, can it be...a glimmer of hope? In the darkest hour, will our hero rise? To quote [Bladerunner's] Roy Batty, "YOU'D BETTER GET IT UP!" (Hehehe...get it...BATTY? I'm such a joker...) ZAP! POW!
BUT WAIT! Christopher Nolan is here to save the day! He's got a secret's not in his bat utility belt, or the glove compartment of his Batmobile. And it's certainly not bat shark repellent...
It's...THE CROSS! No, it's not that blatant, as in Superman. Superman is the messiah complex, Batman the angel in devil horns. But we do get the point. Turn the other cheek, don't give in to the dark side. Heroes don't kill. They are better than that. Black, white, grey, etc. The difference is, in the Batman mythos we are treated to psychoanalytic explanations: heroes are just dark reflections of their enemies (thank you Carl Jung.) Batman is neurotic over the death of his parents, so he donned a cape and cowl and a scary name because he is just as crazy as the Joker. That is the interpretation that was solidified by writers like Alan Moore, and taken up as gospel by Tim Burton. No more campy Adam West and crotch-bulging Burt Ward (which hasn't been the case for decades now, btw...I mean the campiness, not the crotch-bulging...I haven't followed his career that closely to know his career post-tights...). The Batman is now grim and gritty and psycho. So, what happens with this cross? Does the Batman use it to beat the Joker to death before he can kill any more people (a la Frank Miller)?
No, of course not. He lets the Joker live. I should mention at this point that this is not Caeser Romero with his painted mustache, or even Jack Nicholson. This is Heath Ledger's defining roleas a purely psychotic killer. The role that killed him, and proved why the Joker is the hero of this movie. The hype is not "how heroic Batman is!" or "How good can conquer evil!" No, the buzz is "how evil and twisted and sick this Joker is! Heath Ledger did a killer job!" Literally. It's only my theory, but based on his own claims that the role got to him. I bet it did; he really got into not just the role, but the mindset of the Joker's philosophy, that chaos and anarchy really ARE stronger than order and reason. If his only answer was from the church, that this world is just a test through suffering, that life in Gotham is hell on Earth, and that we must wait for justice in the Heavenly Metropolis, well... at any rate, it's the Joker having the last laugh. Think about that when the next time you hear someone say "it's only a movie..."
No, the moral of this story is: as long as Christianity has a grip on our culture, as long as it claims a moral superiority over life on this earth, as long as it requires good people to accept selfless sacrifice over self-defense, should that defense require killing your enemy, as long as it presents lifeboat situations as the standard, the norm, then the Joker truly has won. The Joker, for all his madness, had a reason for his actions. We know this because he shared them with us constantly throughout the movie. But the good guys have nothing but altruism, an unnamed, but present secularized Judeo-Christian altruism. Which is why I say the Joker is the hero as protaganist; he's the only one able to pursue and achieve his goals of disintegration, while the "good guys" can't even articulate theirs. Good does not conquer evil here; it never had a chance. (In this regards, the theme is similar to Oscar-winning NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, where "evil just keeps on coming..."). This is not the Objectivist Batman, elevating reason and achievement as an absolute. All his gadgets and batmobiles are impotent and useless in the presence of a clown with a knife. The one character who claims to take control of his own fate is shown that is not the case, that life is as random as a turn of the cards, or the flip of a coin. No, this Batman leaves the Batcave wide open to nihilism. As Lindsay Perigo writes elsewhere, "The Catechism is not the answer to Death Metal." And neither is the Dark Knight." One thing is certain: this Batman does not inspire heroism. Let's hope that the Joker doesn't, either.