Our Own Private Gotham, by John Ostrander
The newest Batman movie, The Dark Knight, is doing a nice bit of smackdown with all kinds of records, as well it should. It’s taking in money hand over fist. There are even whispers that it could wind up outgrossing Titanic, although I don’t think that will happen myself. The film will probably be up for several Oscars next year including, among others, Best Picture and possibly Best Actor for the late Heath Ledger’s incendiary portrayal of the Joker.
I’ve seen it, I loved it, I was stunned by it like everyone else. Best Batman movie ever. Possibly the best superhero movie ever. What really interests me, however, are the reports on the demographics of just who is going to see this film. It’s not just we comic geeks. It’s not just young males looking for adrenaline and excitement and explosions (although the film also has plenty of those). It’s everybody. Young and old, male and female, all colors, all races. That makes me ask a different question.
What is our reaction to this movie telling us about ourselves?
There’s a zeitgeist going on. You see this every once in a while – a film or a book or some music taps into the national psyche and expresses something that we, as a people, are feeling. I think the response to The Dark Knight shows it’s happening again.
Yes, the pre-opening buzz for the film was really positive. Heath Ledger’s death added a morbid curiosity. It had a terrific PR push. Anticipation was high. The response, however, is phenomenal. It’s doing better than the studio even hoped. So, again, I ask what is going on here?
Exploring this is going to involve talking freely about the film. If you haven’t seen the movie, go see it first. Experience it for yourself. This column will still be here when you’re done. In other words, Spoilers Ahead!
The central driving figure of The Dark Knight is the Joker as embodied by Heath Ledger. Some, including the film’s director Christopher Nolan, have described the Joker as a terrorist or an anarchist but there are political connotations to both those words that I think don’t fit. As Alfred says at one point, “There are some people who just want to see the world burn.”
The Joker is one those, becoming in this film more than even a mere psychopath. He’s an elemental force. He has no origin, no explanation in the film. He’s like Hurricane Katrina. Even Batman seems helpless before him. In a confrontation between the two in a jail cell, none of Batman’s theatrics work. The Joker’s not afraid of the Batman’s menace. Physical violence just gets him excited. He has no pity nor, from the way he uses his own henchmen, any loyalty.
The Joker plans for every eventuality, it seems. His appetite and ability for destruction is enormous. He explodes an entire hospital so that all is left is a gaping crater, eerily – and probably deliberately by the filmmaker – reminiscent of the holes in the ground that followed the attacks of 9/11, that still scar New York City, the original Gotham.
The Joker creates other monsters. He’s responsible for the scarring of Gotham City’s “White Knight,” crusading DA Harvey Dent, and then seduces him, bringing “Two-Face” around to the Joker’s way of thinking, making him another agent of chaos and terror. The Joker does this all with a terrible, maniacal glee. He has a definite worldview – we’re all freaks, deep inside, and he’s going to make us confront it. How far are we – how far is the Batman – willing to go to stop the Joker? What rules will we abandon to be free of the Joker?
According to Jungian psychology, we all have a shadow self, a darker version of ourselves. The Joker, far more than the Batman, is the ultimate expression of that. In this film, we get to confront that shadow self, even vicariously to live through it, to see it expressed in the safe version of a story being told. At least, that’s one way of looking at it, one explanation for the attraction of the film.
I think, however, that we are Gotham and the Joker represents the times we live in. It all seems so chaotic and so out of our control. The war in Iraq, the faltering economy, the price of oil, the fear of foreclosure, the cost of healthcare, the growing environmental disasters, growing religious fanaticism, the threat of terrorism – taken all together, it feels like chaos. It doesn’t matter who gets elected President in November; no one is going to clean all this up any time soon. It’s too big. Maybe it’s never going to get that much better.
That’s how it feels and that’s the Gotham City in this movie. It’s a victory when we don’t blow one another up.
The Batman doesn’t escape, either. He is pummeled physically, psychologically, and emotionally in the film. He cannot save the person for whom he most cares. The only way he sees to defeat the Joker’s plans at the end is to take Two-Face’s crimes – Harvey Dent’s sins – on himself. Doing so cuts Batman off from his allies – the Batsignal is smashed – and makes him a hunted outlaw. He does what he regards as necessary, as right, despite what others will think of him.
Sounds a lot like current American foreign policy.
I doubt, based on interviews given, if that was the director’s intent. I think, however, it is an underlying feeling for a lot – not all – of America and we respond to it in the film. We try to do the honorable thing, the right thing as we understand it, and many others are not going to understand it. Maybe we feel it as individuals; you do what you have to in order to keep a bad situation from getting worse.
In Gotham City, people will now believe that Batman has killed, including some cops. As Dent remarks in the movie’s now most quoted line, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” It may make his reputation more effective among the criminals the Batman hunts but it cuts him off from the rest of society. For them, it must make him a monster as much as the Joker is. The hero always pays a price; doing what is right is not easy or simple. Characters like the Batman simply tells us that sacrifice is necessary.
Maybe that’s the film’s final message and the secret of its allure. It tells us, shows us, that the times are hard and dangerous and that fixing them, maybe just surviving them, will cost us something. And that doing it is necessary. It defines our fears, confines them into two and a half hours, and lets us go back into the world encouraging us to do right.
Not bad for a film about a guy who dresses up as a bat to fight crime. Not bad at all.
John Ostrander has been known to write at least his fair share of Batman stories.