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Of Batman, Heroism and Identity

The Dark Knight Ascends

by WAJAHAT ALI

The Dark Knight boldly deconstructs and resurrects the superhero movie, confidently allowing the comic book genre to soar beyond superficial assumptions and transcend new heights as a legitimate, epic, philosophical narrative. The highly anticipated sequel to Batman Begins is surely not without its faults and not quite a “masterpiece,” but nonetheless it rightfully breaks new ground in tackling the much derided and mocked “comic” culture with a mature, intense sophistication; one that refuses to carelessly disavow the question, “What if a billionaire really did fight crime dressed like a giant bat?” Talented and intelligent filmmaker Christopher Nolan answers the question as philosophical meditation on morality, with an ethical code and moral boundaries as defining the nature of heroism and identity all amidst the vast backdrop of an old fashioned crime “epic” – oh, and with tons of massive explosions and excellent special effects, too.

It’s precisely the cast and filmmakers’ intense dedication in sculpting the movie into something “more” than just “pulp” that makes The Dark Knight successful on so many different levels. In lesser hands [Joel Schumacher, for example], the production would resemble a garish, cartoonish parade blowing millions on a formulaic “good hero vs. colorful villain” narrative, which would be easily digested and just as easily forgotten by the time the audience walked to their cars. Wisely, the filmmakers acknowledge and celebrate the comic medium as a landscape of the fantastic that can embody and personify very real human idealizations of heroism, bravery, tyranny and sacrifice.

Indeed, some suggest that comic books have become the pop culture equivalent of modern day “mythology.”

As illustrated in Joseph Campbell’s seminal work, Hero of a Thousand Faces, each culture, regardless of its religion or government, defines for itself an archetypal hero: an embodiment of those virtuous characteristics that make him a “super man,” an ideal, yet unattainable, model; a symbol; a legend. The hero, however, truly defines himself only when juxtaposed to his opposite – the Manichean duplicate whose existence, behavior and ideology is his complete antithesis. Thus, we witness the emergence of the “super villain:” the yin to the hero’s yang, the other face of the same coin, a terrifying reflection of what the hero could become if he abandons his code and virtue. One needs the other to define itself, and society, ultimately, needs both as archetypes existing at opposite ends of the “moral” gamut.

With this construct in play, we are introduced to Batman’s foil, his arch nemesis The Joker, inhabited brilliantly by the late Heath Ledger who literally channels the spirit of comic’s most terrifying, anarchic, murderous sociopath. After having successfully created the “legend” and symbol of “The Batman” in Batman Begins, the brothers Nolan, Director Christopher and co-writer Jonathan, introduce The Joker as a literal agent of “chaos” and deconstruction, whose existence is disorder personified. At the end of this Joker’s “dance of death” with Gotham City and its inhabitants, the legend of Batman that was systematically and carefully created to inspire hope and heroism is all but shattered.

Like Nero – only with a knife and handgun instead of a fiddle – the Joker desires to see the world burn, especially those sanctimonious, goody two shoes arbitrators of morality and “justice,” personified by Commissioner Gordon (Played to subtle perfection by Gary Oldman), Assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gylenhall replacing Katie Holmes), and specifically District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the square jawed “White Knight” who represents the City’s best hope in legitimately and successfully fighting crime. The introduction of Dent allows Nolan to play with a symbolic “triptych” that he frequently uses throughout the movie: the love triangle between Bruce Wayne-Rachel Dawes-Harvey Dent; The Icons of Order represented by Batman-Lt. Gordon- DA Harvey Dent; and, finally, The Model of Hero and Villain personified by the superego (good) of Batman – the raging id (bad) of the Joker – and the duplicitous ego of Two Face (the ugly.)

In fact, Nolan has stressed in interviews that Harvey Dent is the thematic core of The Dark Knight, whereas the more colorful Joker zig zags throughout the movie like the shark from Jaws, a boogeyman, agent of chaos. Eckhart does a commendable job in his transformation from the idealistic, brazen Harvey Dent to the tortured and tragically demented Two-Face. If Batman and Joker represent opposite sides of the spectrum, Two-Face is their unholy bastard child forever torn between each “parent.” Towards the end of the movie, The Joker himself acknowledges that his legacy is “Two Face” – his “avenging angel.”

It’s precisely this agonizing, brooding theme of “identity” and nuanced morality that makes Nolan perfect for this job. The Nolan brothers are, quite simply, obsessed with “obsession” and the tragic sacrifices it requires and the toilsome burden it reaps. The obsession is usually mirrored by an opposite, a similarly placed individual who usually “oversteps” the boundaries. Nolan examined this most recently in the highly entertaining The Prestige, starring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as dueling magicians, whose near insane rivalry wreaks havoc on all who enter their lives. Ultimately, the “heroes,” if you can call them that, are defined not by what they do, but what they aren’t willing to do: murder and kidnap In Insomnia, Nolan examined the gray fog that barely separates the line between hero (Al Pacino’s well intentioned but corrupt cop) and villain (Robin Williams’ unassuming murderer.) In Nolan’s most celebrated movie Memento, the amnesia afflicted protagonist knowingly makes a decision to believe a lie in order to “exist” with a righteous purpose; namely, to destroy his foil, the corrupt cop, played by Joey Pantoliano, who uses the protagonist’s amnesia for selfish, criminal purposes.

How does a hero define himself amidst a world gone mad? Does he crack and join the ranks of the madmen? Or, does he endure and rise above it? That’s Batman’s test, as scripted by the Joker, in a series of elaborate “games” throughout the movie, and his difficult choices result in him being symbolically labeled “The Dark Knight,” which, by the way, doesn’t occur until the final moments. The Joker, through his seemingly impulsive and psychotic, yet quite deliberate, actions, believes that in an insane world only the insane man is the truly sane. His disdain for order is only outmatched by his love for anarchy. Ledger with his hollow eyes, maniacal grin and cheap, cracked face paint deserves accolades – and an Oscar nomination – for creating one of the most memorable villains of the 21st century. He’s a magnetic presence, one that is equally charismatic and fascinating, but also oppressive and frightening as an assured harbinger of chaos and death. In fact, Ledger’s role finally brings to life the true depravity and villainy of The Joker known only to comic fans; this is not an amusing, flamboyant clown as portrayed by Jack Nicholson (which I enjoyed); in fact, if you’re laughing at or with the Joker, it’s a sure sign that either you should be admitted to Arkham Asylum or the actor and director has truly f’d up in the execution [no pun intended.]. Although the Joker makes significant appearances in the film’s first act, it isn’t until the second act that his true mayhem is unleashed, and not surprisingly, this tightened focus represents the high point of The Dark Knight.
           
The movie itself is 2 hours and 32 minutes and in equal measures a variation of an epic crime drama in the vein of Heat and The Departed, a solid police procedural reminiscent of Law and Order, and a big budget, Summer E-ticket experience. Nolan, in a determined effort to make Batman as “real” as possible, substitutes Chicago as Gotham City, a wise move that cements his fantasy in the grit, dirt and modern sheen of a modern day, metropolitan city. Batman even goes global, making a daredevil crash landing into a Hong Kong skyscraper to retrieve a villain. Again, this is executed on an ambitious narrative landscape, where dozens of characters and stories are inevitably intertwined with the fate of the city in the hands of a methodically deranged villain.

Nolan admits to being influenced by Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween graphic novel and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, both excellent and highly influential works greatly expanding the Batman mythology. Halloween’s labyrinthine, gangster narrative is used to by Nolan to create a Gotham as a city whose mobster criminals are forced to go “underground” with the emergence of “Batman.” It also uses the novel’s introduction and transformation of Harvey Dent as Two Face: a passionate and honest cop, whose zeal barely conceals a simmering demon waiting to be unleashed. Moore’s work, The Killing Joke, is used to establish the endless “dance” between Batman and The Joker, two foils who realize their “relationship” can only end with the other’s inevitable death. During a fantastic jail cell confrontation scene, Ledger’s Joker tells Batman with utmost sincerity: “You complete me.” Towards the end, he remarks, “Why would I ever kill you? You’re too much fun!” Frank Miller, author of the landmark “The Dark Knight Returns,” hit the nail on the head in characterizing The Joker. In his dystopian vision, the Joker becomes comatose after the alleged death of “The Batman.” Only after Batman re-emerges from several years of exile does Joker also “awaken,” again enticing the now renegade and unhinged Batman to a final duel: challenging the Batman by forcing him to “break” his golden rule of never committing murder. Knowing Bats will never break, the Joker subsequently mocks him, reminding him of how many innocents he could have saved and still save – since it’s inevitable the Joker will only escape from jail – if only Batman had killed him. [Batman does “break” in Miller’s version and in the process breaks The Joker’s spine.]

It’s that same taunt and game that Ledger’s Joker decides to play against Bale’s Batman. The movie, which is perhaps one of the most relentlessly intense exercises since James Cameron’s Aliens, personifies “escalation”: the warning given by Lt. Gordon at the end of Batman Begins suggesting Batman’s arrival can only ensure the emergence of an equally fantastic but ultimately depraved villain. After taking its time to establish its vast universe, filled with subplots, minor characters and thematic arcs, the movie explodes after the 75-minute mark and never relents. In fact, Nolan and company, especially Ledger, should be commended for creating such a sustained momentum steeped in pressure and tension, constantly confounding audience expectations, tightening the screws in our heroes’ dilemmas, and adding tragedy upon tragedy right up until the final credits. Major characters die, heroes turn into villains, and the body count rises – this is dark, mature and glorious terrain for the genre. After the movie is over, you’ll most likely feel exhausted; absolutely drained, which is both a sign of the film’s unrelenting tension and brutality, but also a testament to the high craftsmanship and skill of a truly cinematic experience. [Which, by the way, deserves to be seen on IMAX since 6 key action sequences were filmed, for the first time ever, on IMAX cameras.]

The movie is not perfect, however. The final twenty minutes seem unable to contain the numerous themes and characters in a suitably elegant fashion, and one can sense the seams bursting – but just a bit. One feels that Nolan had another ten minutes or so to nicely wrap the narrative arc, but the studios pressured him into a 2.5 hour time frame and forced some edits. I, for one, could’ve easily tolerated the extra 10 minutes, and the movie, as a whole, would have ended with a thunderous knockout instead of a series of frenetic jabs.

The ending suffers from that infectious malady known as “superhero narrative syndrome” where the audience knows the climactic battle will be between the “good guy” and “the bad guy,” and the action sequence involving sonar and the “dueling ferries,” although effective, lack the immediacy of earlier scenes. However, even though Nolan and all other directors of the genre are saddled with such a narrative anvil (Iron Man’s last perfunctory and formulaic 20 minutes come to mind), The Dark Knight is able to ascend the limitations precisely due to heavy consequences that each character bears as a result of their heroic, and costly, actions. The movie doesn’t give the audience a much-needed catharsis, allowing us to release the relentless death, gloom and unfairness of it all, but instead zooms (literally) ahead – paving the road for the final chapter in the (fingers crossed) trilogy. If Batman Begins created the symbol and legend of Batman, then The Dark Knight brilliantly smashes it into a million broken pieces. Even if they never make a third one, I have to thank the filmmakers’ vision in allowing me to dream and ask, “What if a billionaire really did fight crime dressed like a giant bat?”

WAJAHAT ALI is a Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/. He can be reached at wajahatmali@gmail.com