Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Movie Review: The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight was a very fine effort. Everything you've heard about it is probably true. The cast is great. Heath Ledger's Joker is one of the best performances I've ever seen. The movie is probably a bit long, though. Nolan and Goyer deserve a lot of credit on this one because it's the story that really makes the whole thing go.

There have been some efforts, mostly recent, to paint Batman as little more than a high-tech paranoid whackjob whose ethics are derived from a sort of cobbled-together personal code that he imposes upon himself, rather than a guy driven by a morality outside himself that he is subject to by nature. This former characterization is largely due to a botched attempt by modern writers to follow-up on Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.

Why does Batman refuse to kill? Because killing is wrong. Why is killing wrong? Is it because Bruce has simply concocted a moral code stating that he shouldn't do it? No. It's because he acknowledges rules higher than himself. No matter how much he might want to kill a given criminal, he will not do so, nor come up with a rationalization that would give him permission to do so, nor attempt to hold himself out as some sort of "higher law." He is not the Nietzschean overman, as so many attempt to claim.

The Dark Knight does a good job of bringing this forward. The crux of the story in TDK is that Bruce does submit to authoritative values that are above him. He expects others to follow those values as well and must adapt when confronted by a villain who doesn't just have a different set of values (like Ra's al Ghul in Batman Begins) but who has no values at all. The plot then takes the natural turn into a game of chicken between the three (yes, three) main characters who each take turns escalating the conflict to see who is going to flinch first. The Joker, of course, is not bound by any limits whatsoever and therefore will never flinch. Dent tries it Bruce's way, then flinches and takes the path that there is only value in the "fairness" of chance. He even admits this isn't really some sort of higher law, but rather all that he's left with. Only Bruce acknowledges a true higher moral order and consistently adheres to it.

The other significant element that TDK brings up but that has gone by the wayside in many modern Batman portrayals is the central role that sacrifice plays in what Bruce does. He lost his girlfriend in Batman Begins, sure, but he's faced with the reality in TDK that folks can still come after him personally even if they don't know who he really is. How do they do that? By picking apart his soul which is so devoted to the higher cause he has pledged himself to. Batman's sacrifice is therefore not strictly limited to the "I'll never live a normal life" sort of whining that is so often bandied about as the real burden he must bear. The real sacrifice is carrying the cross of his virtue. His choices get people killed all the time, and he has to live with it. Alfred's takes on this throughout the movie are excellent. It would be easy for Bruce to become The Punisher, but then he wouldn't be Batman. It would be even easier for him simply to seek self-justification and acknowledgment of his goodness. Instead, we have his sacrifice at the close of the film. Simply marvelous stuff and highly recommended for all over the age of, say, 15.

Coming soon: Why Batman is Catholic and an exploration of the religious faith of other super-heroes.

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