Saturday, January 15, 2011

Movies: Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

When The Dark Knight came out and everyone was talking about it, I refused to see it. It was a sequel, and I hadn't seen the first movie. In fact, I had never seen a Batman movie, or any comic book movie at all, for that matter. I had no context by which to judge it, so I recused myself.

But I was recently coerced to watch both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight on a living room couch on a big flat screen television (something I'm not so familiar with, having neither a couch nor a tv). For all of their expense, the films struck me (Begins more so, but DK as well), as having been filmed by a couple of eight-year-olds for two dollars. This is an exaggeration. But there is something about the digital video, the depth of field, and its affect on the camera's quick pan during action scenes, that gave me vertigo. If I wanted to describe this effect in a positive light, I would say that it captured the flattened, stylized cartoons of a comic book, but I don't want to be positive. For reasons incredibly shallow and profoundly deep, I feel that they failed their audience.

Let's be shallow. Katie Holmes, Rachel in Begins, is hot. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rachel in DK, is not. How am I supposed to accept that Katie, ripe-of-lip-and-breast, with her wet eyes and luminous skin, suddenly has become the dried-up, burnt-out, smoker's-skin Maggie? Maggie has her own kind of indie sex appeal in, say, the Agent Provacateur catalogue, but has no business here, in this pulpy fantasy of urban decay.

Let's be deep. A number of the Joker's monologues are deeply troubling. I watched this movie with two boys: one twelve and one seventeen. They are normal American boys, if a bit precocious, subjected to demonstrations of meaningless violence through video games, movies like this, and the suppressed rage in arguments between their divorced parents. And yet, the Joker's discussion of his father holding a knife to his face, asking "why so serious" before slashing a false and permanent smile onto it, is too much. There is pain of that depth in the world, but I don't want my little brothers inducted into it—particularly in this way, where it is not discussed, contextualized, or countered. What is the Joker, but the uncontrollable force of chaos? He is driven by untreated pain, which becomes rage. Batman is intended to be an inspiration, fighting entropy's evil, but the Joker (as we see) cannot be contained or killed; he must be held, accepted, loved. Batman, still struggling to accept himself, is the wrong hero for this task.

I know that I'm risking sounding like a mother, psychologist, or radical Christian in saying this, but it's clear as we watch Joker poison Harvey Dent in his hospital bed, taking advantage of this moment of pain and isolation to turn an idealist into an evil-doer. Harvey can be saved by love, but instead is condemned by unsupported anguish. I wasn't one of Ledger's many mourners, but I think nevertheless that his death was the culmination of the same unsupported anguish, turned inward like Harvey's rather than out like Joker's.

I am not proposing that Christopher Nolan should have inserted Gandhi as Batman's sidekick (or given him vedic training in Begins); plots are problematized and often driven by the hero's own weaknesses and subconscious sympathies with his enemy. But I worry that audiences, skipping along the surface of entertainment without penetrating critically into its depths, are being wounded, unawares. Chaos is by definition uncontrollable; I worry that the Joker's potency seeps out of the film, and that Batman does not protect us. I worry that we are allowing our hearts to crumble like Gotham.

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