Every generation has a right to its own Batman. Every generation also has the right—no, obligation—to question a pop-entertainment that diminishes universal ideas of good, evil, social purpose and pleasure. And Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, is a highly questionable pop enterprise. Forty-two-year-old movie lovers can’t tell 21-year-old movie lovers why; 21 can only know by getting to be 42. But I’ll try.
After announcing his new comics interpretation with 2005’s oppressively grim Batman Begins, Nolan continues the intellectual squalor popularized in his pseudo-existential hit Memento. Appealing to adolescent jadedness and boredom, Nolan revamps millionaire Bruce Wayne’s transformation into the crime-fighter Batman (played by indie-zombie Christian Bale), by making him a twisted icon, what the kids call “sick.” The Dark Knight is not an adventure movie with a driven protagonist; it’s a goddamn psychodrama in which Batman/Bruce Wayne’s neuroses compete with two alter-egos: Gotham City’s law-and-order District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and master criminal The Joker (Heath Ledger)—all three personifying the contemporary distrust of virtue.
We’re way beyond film noir here. The Dark Knight has no black-and-white moral shading. Everything is dark, the tone glibly nihilistic (hip) due to The Joker’s rampage that brings Gotham City to its knees—exhausting the D.A. and nearly wearing-out Batman’s arsenal of expensive gizmos. Nolan isn’t interested in providing James Bond–style gadgetry for its own ingenious wonder; rather, these crime battle accoutrements evoke Zodiac-style “process” (part of the futility and dread exemplified by the constantly outwitted police). This pessimism links Batman to our post-9/11 anxiety by escalating the violence quotient, evoking terrorist threat and urban helplessness. And though the film’s violence is hard, loud and constant, it is never realistic—it fabricates disaster simply to tease millennial death wish and psychosis.
Watching psychic volleys between Batman, Dent and The Joker (there’s even a love quadrangle that includes Maggie Gyllenhaal’s slouchy Assistant D.A., Rachel Dawes) is as fraught and unpleasurable as There Will Be Blood with bat wings. This sociological bloodsport shouldn’t be acceptable to any thinking generation.
There hasn’t been so much pressure to like a Batman movie since street vendors were selling bootleg Batman T-shirts in 1989. If blurbs like “The Dark Knight creates a place where good and evil—expected to do battle—decide instead to get it on and dance” sound desperate, it’s due to the awful tendency to convert criticism into ad copy—constantly pandering to Hollywood’s teen demographic. This not only revamps ideas of escapist entertainment; like Nolan, it corrupts them.
Remember how Tim Burton’s 1989 interpretation of the comics superhero wasn’t quite good enough? Yet Burton attempted something dazzling: a balance of scary/satirical mood (which he nearly perfected in the 1992 Batman Returns) that gave substance to a pop-culture totem, enhancing it without sacrificing its delight. Burton didn’t need to repeat the tongue-in-cheek 1960s TV series; being romantically in touch with Catwoman, Bruce Wayne and The Penguin’s loneliness was richer. Burton’s pop-geek specialty is to humorously explicate childhood nightmare. But Nolan’s The Dark Knight has one note: gloom. For Nolan, making Batman somber is the same as making it serious. This is not a triumph of comics culture commanding the mainstream: It’s giving in to bleakness. Ever since Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic-novel reinvention, The Dark Knight Returns, pop consumers have rejected traditional moral verities as corny. That might be the ultimate capitalist deception.
A bleak Batman entraps us in a commercial mechanism, not art. There’s none of Burton’s satirical detachment from the crime-and-punishment theme. In Nolan’s view, crime is never punished or expunged. (“I am an agent of chaos!” boasts The Joker.) The generation of consumers who swallow this pessimistic sentiment can’t see past the product to its debased morality. Instead, their excitement about The Dark Knight’s dread (that teenage thrall with subversion) inspires their fealty to product.
Ironically, Nolan’s aggressive style won’t be slagged “manipulative” because it doesn’t require viewers to feel those discredited virtues, “hope” and “faith.” Like Hellboy II, this kind of sci-fi or horror or comics-whatever obviates morality. It trashes belief systems and encourages childish fantasies of absurd macho potency and fabulous grotesqueries. That’s how Nolan could take the fun out of Batman and still be acclaimed hip. As in Memento, Nolan shows rudimentary craft; his zeitgeist filmmaking—morose, obsessive, fussily executed yet emotionally unsatisfying—will only impress anyone who hasn’t seen De Palma’s genuinely, politically serious crime-fighter movie, The Black Dahlia.
Aaron Eckhart’s cop role in The Black Dahlia humanized the complexity of crime and morality. But as Harvey Dent, sorrow transforms him into the vengeful Two-Face, another Armageddon freak in Nolan’s sideshow. The idea is that Dent proves heroism is improbable or unlikely in this life. Dent says, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” What kind of crap is that to teach our children, or swallow ourselves? Such illogic sums up hipster nihilism, just like Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World. Putting that crap in a Batman movie panders to the naiveté of those who have not outgrown the moral simplifications of old comics but relish cynicism as smartness. That’s the point of The Joker telling Batman, “You complete me.” Tim Burton might have ridiculed that Jerry Maguire canard, but Nolan means it—his hero is as sick as his villain.
Man’s struggle to be good isn’t news. The difficulty only scares children—which was the original, sophisticated point of Jack Nicholson’s ’89 Joker. Nicholson’s disfigurement abstracted psychosis, being sufficiently hideous without confusing our sympathy. Ledger’s Joker (sweaty clown’s make-up to cover his Black Dahlia–style facial scar) descends from the serial killer clichés of Hannibal Lecter and Anton Chigurh—fashionable icons of modern irrational fear. The Joker’s escalation of urban chaos and destruction is accompanied by booming sound effects and sirens—to spook excitable kids. Ledger’s already-overrated performance consists of a Ratso Rizzo voice and lots of lip-licking. But how great of an actor was Ledger to accept this trite material in the first place?
Unlike Nicholson’s multileveled characterization, Ledger reduces The Joker to one-note ham-acting and trite symbolism. If you fell for the evil-versus-evil antagonism of There Will Be Blood, then The Dark Knight should be the movie of your wretched dreams. Nolan’s unvaried direction drives home the depressing similarities between Batman and his nemeses. Nolan’s single trick is to torment viewers with relentless action montages; distracting ellipses that create narrative frustration and paranoia. Delayed resolution. Fake tension. Such effects used to be called cheap. Cheap like The Joker’s psychobabble: “Madness, as you know, is like gravity—all it takes is a little push.” The Dark Knight is the sentinel of our cultural abyss. All it takes is a push.