Monday, July 28, 2008

Why So Serious? The Dark Knight, the Joker and the Comic Book Movie

An Cleasaí - cén fáth dáiríre, a mhic?SPOILERS ahoy. You have been warned.

No cultural event in the West this year will have as much impact as The Dark Knight, this summer’s blockbuster Batman movie. And what An Spailpín Fánach is pondering this morning is whether or not that’s a good or a bad thing.

The Dark Knight is certainly the most enjoyable movie of the summer, if not the year. It is unlikely to win any Oscars, but then the best movies seldom do. What it does guarantee is over two hours of high-octane incandescent thrills, the kind of thrills you can only get at the movies. When the final credits roll it’s hard not to feel worn out by the movie, by the kinetic energy of the thing, and by the weight of its different storylines.

Everything you read about Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker is true too. It’s clear now that Ledger was under-estimated in life, but if a legacy is worth anything in the Hereafter, Ledger will always be remembered for his Joker as a crowning achievement. This is a Joker as you’ve never seen him before, or as you’ve never seen a comic book villain before.

There is no mwaugh-hah-hah laughing or moustache twirling from Ledger's Joker; unlike Nicholson, there is no hint of winking at the camera, and saying “don’t worry, it’s me all the time! See you at the Laker game!” With his fidgeting and twitching, the mouldy makeup and strange sibilant lisping voice, reminiscent of no-one so much as Sylvester J Pussycat of the Looney Tunes fame, Ledger takes the Joker from high camp to that odd guy sitting next to you on the bus last Tuesday, that kept talking to himself and smelt kind of funny. You wonder what sort of home he was going back to, and what he did when he got there.

The fact that the Joker is an out and out loon is the key to The Dark Knight, but also its undoing. The movie is eager to draw parallels between the Joker’s attacks on Gotham City and the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11 on New York – note how often the Joker is referred to as a terrorist in the movie – but the parallel is not the same. Osama Bin Laden might be mad, but he’s not crazy. The Joker is distant from society, but Bin Laden simply comes from a different society, one at odds with the US. If the US is looking for an explanation of what happened in New York seven years ago, they’ll have to search further than The Dark Knight.

Is director Christopher Nolan trying to invest the movie with more meaning than the story can hold? Nolan is English, and it is a fundemental rule of British film criticism that Hollywood blockbusters are infra dig, that Derek Jarman’s Blue will always be a better Saturday night at the movies than the latest Spielberg. And they wonder why the industry is collapsing.

One of the more depresssing moments in recent western culture was when the 9/11 report was published in comic book form. It meant that the US Government recognised that there is a significant tranche of US society that can only understand the real world when it’s explained to them through the biff! bang! kapow! of the comic book world. Because the comic book has become so mainstream, the comic books themselves and the comic book movies that are based on them are trying to support themes and issues that are far more complex than the genre can hold.

The Tim Burton Batman movie of 1989 portrayed the Joker as just another mobster who’s had an accident that’s lead to a murderous psychosis. But now, in the post 9/11 world, when America feels herself at bay from threats overseas, the Joker is the avatar for all that unseen and inexplicable danger. And that’s too much for a comic book character to hold. For instance: If the Joker is such a nut, why do people take orders from him?

The question exists in the movie itself. When Harvey Dent and Sal Maroni are having their little chat in the final act of the movie, and Maroni asks Dent why he’s not going after the Joker, Dent says “the Joker’s a mad dog! I want the men that let the mad dog loose!”

Up to a point, Lord Copper. If the boys that let the Joker off the leash are the boys that are really pulling the strings, why does everything else in the movie point to the Joker as the fons et origo of all evil in Gotham City? While the Joker himself might want to see everything burn, as Sir Michael Caine’s butler points out, most people don’t see it that way. Most people are in it for the money. Especially those people in the criminal henchmen community.

Comic book movies, like the opera, do not do subtle. The opera has the saving grace of the music, of course, which exists beyond – if not above - the rational plane, but the super hero movie has no such respite. The tortured super hero of The Dark Knight and of Superman Returns two years ago do not represent the age; the fact of people looking to comic book characters to find an answer to real world problems is the real story of the age, and one of the more troubling aspects of the culture as the century approach its teens.

The Dark Knight is the movie of the summer and the year so far, and it would be remiss not to note how well the great American city of Chicago looks as Gotham – Midwestern mud in your eye to the hated New Yorkers. But to say that it represents a brave new world in the comic book movie genre is something we’ll be hearing less of as the years go by. That leap has already been made eight years ago, when the first X-Men went on general release.

The miserable third instalment of the franchise has sullied the first film’s legacy, but that first X-Men’s themes of what it’s like to be an outsider in society are perhaps more lasting than anything to be gained from The Dark Knight. Enjoy it for Heath Ledger’s Joker, but if you’re looking for anything else then I’m afraid the joke’s on you.

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