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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Dark Knights

Do Batman and his villain antagonists reflect their times? If so, what is the latest "Dark Knight" film trying to say about post-9/11 America? I've been thinking about that since last night, when I finally caught the latest film.

In the "self-reflexive" campy 1966 "Batman" movie and TV series, Batman was a good guy and Joker was a criminal, but both seemed fairly harmless. The "clown prince of crime" declared
A joke a day, keeps the gloom away!
Batman always saved the day and stopped the Joker and his criminal pals, but he was typically captured first and was almost always dependent upon some chemical antidote to a poison or some other modern invention.

Why was Joker a comical character and why did Batman depend upon what then passed for high tech? Well, the entire "Batman" TV series and movie was a parody of the era:
Batman incorporated the expressive art and fashion of the period in its sets and costumes. It also relied excessively on technological gadgetry transforming the show into a parody of contemporary life.
Remember the scene in "The Graduate" when young Benjamin is offered one word of advice? "Plastics."

That was essentially what "Batman" was saying about America in the mid-1960s. I'd add fake. Cheap. Disposable. Oil-based.

In the 1989 "Batman," by contrast, both Batman and the Joker were far more serious. Joker made modern life unlivable for the residents of Gotham City, but that's because he threatened individual lifestyles. Joker invented and distributed a toxic chemical additive that convinced people to give up their hair gel, deodorant, and makeup. Indeed, this Joker was born from a vat of toxins. His crime revealed the colorless and unappealing reality beneath the veneer of 1980's opulence and chemical dependence.

Batman was needed to clean up the mess. He was like Rudy Giuliani prosecuting high-profile mafia dons and insider traders -- and later closing down porn shops and graffiti artists. This is a line spoken by Joker, from IMDB:
Now, I can be theatrical, and maybe even a little rough - but one thing I am not, is a *killer*. I am an artist. I *love* a good party. So, truce. Commence au festival!
Batman closed down Joker's party and made it safe for citizens to enjoy their city's adornments.

Today, in the latest "Dark Knight," Batman is deadly serious and the joker is a Über-terrorist. Joker is not motivated by money; he sets fire to millions of dollars even after he has stolen from the mob. He wants to disrupt and destroy the fabric of modern civilization -- not merely expose its underbelly. The results are predictably loud and explosive. Some innocent people are casualties, but there's nothing especially personal about those deaths.

IMDB has this choice Joker monologue to bed-ridden and badly burned district attorney Harvey Dent:
You know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just, do things. The mob has plans, the cops have plans, [Police Commissioner] Gordon's got plans. You know, they're schemers. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I'm not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how, pathetic, their attempts to control things really are. So, when I say, ah, come here, when I say that you and your girlfriend was nothing personal, you know that I'm telling the truth.

It's the schemers that put you where you are. You were a schemer, you had plans, and uh, look where that got you. I just did what I do best. I took your plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did, to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hm? You know what, you know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gang banger, will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all, part of the plan. But when I say that one, little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!

Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos.
The most unsettling aspect of the movie comes in the resolution of the story. Batman can only stop the Joker by employing secrecy, extrajudicial means, and rendition of foreign nationals. An important public servant becomes an outright criminal and the public is tempted to tolerate mass killing to preserve their own safety.

In the end, however, director Christopher Nolan seems to be at least somewhat hopeful. An oversized convict in an orange jumper seizes a bomb detonator away from a jail warden and tosses it out a window before the public official can kill 100s of innocent people to save his own skin.

That's something you should have done 10 minutes ago, the prisoner tells the warden.

Batman is still around at the end of the movie to continue his personal "war on terror," but his reputation is scarred. Presumably, neither his high tech toys nor his strong personal will can restore his public standing.

Presumably, the sequel will reveal how he seeks redemption.

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