dark knight of the soul

dark knight of the soul

"The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness." 

-Joseph Conrad

Batman on film has come a long way since the ill-fitting tights and beer gut of Adam West. The Batman franchise has been dragged into the piazza of public consumption numerous times over the past  70 years or so. In live-action, The Batman has enjoyed a recent and memorable renaissance, since Tim Burton's Batman of 1989. But, leave it to Hollywood to beat a good idea into near-death. 

Here's a quick recap for those of you who haven't attended a summer blockbuster in the past 20 years:

Batman: Directed by Tim Burton, starring the unlikely Michael Keaton as our hero, and the very likely (at the time) Kim Bassinger as the love interest. Oh, and Jack Nicholson as The Joker.

Batman Returns: Clever title, Tim Burton again, Michael Keaton again. Michelle Pfieffer as Catwoman, and inexplicably, Danny DeVito as something.

Batman Forever: Ah, the Val Kilmer era begins. Jim Carrey, and his green jammies, as The Riddler. Directed by Joel Schumacher.

Batman & Robin: Ah-ha, the George Clooney era begins, before he went all 'art.' Featuring California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as 'Mr. Freeze.'

(then, a well-deserved eight year break from Batman on film, which brings us to...)

Batman Begins: Now, the Christian Bale era - a pretty solid film which is actually a martial arts movie in the first act. Then, there is a scarecrow guy who blows hallucinogenic bad breath...

(and finally....)

The Dark Knight: More Christian Bale, more Morgan Freeman, the late Heath Ledger as The Joker, and a Batman motorcycle with really really fat tires. 

So who cares, right? Since 1978's Superman: The Movie, American films have returned often to mine the deep vein that is the superhero genre. The themes are often the same (good vs. evil), the budgets large, and the audiences ripe for pickpocketing. The Dark Knight, should have been just another summer blockbuster and done what big superhero movies do; sucked in a bunch of cash, cross-marketed some plastic crap at Taco Bell, and disappeared from memory entirely, like Halle Berry's performance in Catwoman.

What's startling, however, is that The Dark Knight is ultimately a film about absolute evil, much like 2007's No Country For Old Men which happened to win the Oscar for best picture. Perhaps not startling in itself, but let's consider how many people went to see The Dark Knight.

To date, the film has made $949 million in returns. For those of you keeping score at home, that's almost A BILLION DOLLARS. Let me unleash my junior college math skills on you now. Let's assume that most people payed $10 to see Christian Bale and Michael Caine rap about absolute evil and which Kevlar suit to wear to best beat up on it. That means that nearly 100 million people worldwide have watched The Dark Knight. It's success, more so than with usual summer blockbusters since this was not 'a kids' movie' and wasn't rammed down the throats of parents via the usual kid marketing channels, was based largely on word of mouth and person to person recommendations. So, filmgoers en masse saw this rather disturbing film about evil and then mentioned to their friends that they should check it out.

NOTE: The Dark Knight  is still about $100 million shy of Titanic, which represents a problem with the arguments here, but I digress...

So, usually I hate it when people talk about box office returns for films. Nobody did this before Jaws and Star Wars, but now we seem to be addicted to what a film makes, especially on the ever-sacred 'opening weekend.' Who really really really gives a crap? What are we supposed to do with this information? Jump up and down for the lead actor who got two points on the gross? Art should never be quantified by money, but it often is, especially since the films that make it to your local multiplex take millions of dollars to get there.

Yet, let's look at the storyline of The Dark Knight. Our hero, Bruce Wayne, who's parents were murdered at gunpoint when he was a boy, inherits his father's fortune, and avenges the depraved city of Gotham at night wearing a complex battle suit outfitted with bulletproof alloys, rubber ears, smart weapons, and a radiation-resistant codpiece. Yes, Batman started as a comic book in 1938, but this is not your grandfather's Bruce Wayne. This one has studied tae kwon do with Liam Neeson upon the far eastern tundra. This one plays the stock market and enacts multilateral international business to finance his nocturnal ass-kicking. This one drops into parties via helicopter with TWO women.

The real star of the film is, of course, The Joker. Here we have the ultimate figure of evil, who as a result (we think) of a scarred childhood (literal and figurative) is a true anarchist, sycophant, and psychopath, gleefully adept at unleashing terror of every variety and unprejudiced malice and injury upon anyone in striking distance. Why? Just because, that's why. He blows up hospitals, he kills members of his own gang, and implants cell phone bombs in the torsos of unlucky simpletons. The real question, put to Bruce Wayne in a heart to heart with Arthur, his butler / tailor / valet / grandfather / obi-wan figure, is how to march out against an evil that has no motivation other than to enact evil. How to beat the devil at the very game he invented?

The answer given in the film is incomplete, because there is always next summer; the sequel, but Arthur suggests to burn down the forest where the devil lays his head at night, because for some men, a sinister motivation doesn't satisfy their hunger, it only creates a desire for more evil and violence. The answer for Bruce Wayne is to become the monster that so easily kills without prejudice. Batman, a creature of the night anyway, becomes now 'the dark knight,' assuming the blame for the evil unleashed upon Gotham by The Joker, in order that faith be restored, and the fear that grips those who walk home in the dark can at least be alleviated by knowing that the police are back in power, and are now chasing the bizarro Batman / savior figure for his crime of turning against those he had sworn to protect. 

On the one hand this is very basic superhero plot logic of good and evil duking it out in the streets. On the other hand, the villain, in the most subtle, brilliant moment of the film, actually begs to put out of his misery by Batman--a moment perhaps missed by most viewers due to the skidding presence of the very-radical-bat-motorcycle. The Joker, having a shred of a soul, has nary a shred of hope, and thus nothing to lose--the most desperate of men, the most dangerous of villains. We've all seen the movie where the bad guy has a gun to the head of the love interest, and counts to three, or she's dead. The Dark Knight asks, why bother counting to three? If you have the capacity to kill, then be done with it. This is the new bad guy, a new villain for a new millennium. There is no weakness, there is no mercy, no soft, smooth underbelly, like the whimpering Vader with his helmet off in Return Of The Jedi, looking like someone's balding uncle Frank who just fell down the stairs.

This is the biggest film of the summer, then. This is the film that has grossed nearly a billion dollars. This is the film friends are telling friends to go see. Have you met anyone who hasn't said The Dark Knight  was 'awesome?' Why are we gravitated to it? Why does a largely unresolved story of evil and the largely unsuccessful attempt to stop it resonate with us, and with mass culture? How is it that this very serious, very adult subject matter crept into what is usually the most vapid, dumbed-down season of film in the country? What does it say about our times, living amidst banking collapse, ongoing war, energy crisis, and the Bush doctrine that we suddenly identify, en masse, with the idea that there may be a force of evil among us bigger than the monster under the bed? Are we coming to grips that our collective achievement has made us no safer from calamity?

Don't answer yet, first let's rewind to last year's Coen brothers adaptation of No Country For Old Men.

dark knight of the soul

No Country is Cormac McCarthy's most accessible novel by a long shot. On the surface a rather straightforward tale of a drug deal gone wrong, a regular joe stumbling upon the bloodbath, and the psychotic hitman sniffing his trail. Enter the ailing sheriff Ed Tom Bell, nearly retired, who (like Batman) marches out against supreme unmitigated evil armed with not much more than his polyester police slacks and a 1980's Ford Crown Victoria.

Chigurth, the hitman, the embodiment of evil in No Country, kills not without prejudice, but rather because he possesses a perverted logic of evil that drives his every move. Again, taking the bad guy that counts to three to task, Chigurth vows to not only kill the man that crosses him, but extends that vengeance to family, wives, pets, employers, even mothers-in-law. Why? This is the central question for 'the good guys,' who in this movie happen to be aging country cops and vietnam vets living in trailer parks in rural Texas. Who will win? Here's a hint; not the guys on horseback.

No Country For Old Men  is surely McCarthy's tale of his own displacement as an aging white male, watching the growing weirdness rise in the east, wondering how any coming generation will be able to stomach, much less survive, the growing tide of perversion and evil that seems to bubble to the surface with each passing homicide and newspaper article. The Coen brothers have always had a healthy respect for the logic of violence, and how it translates not only into engrossing drama, but how it serves as a signpost to what filmgoers are comfortable with at any given time in their cultural context. The human foot sticking out of the woodchipper in Fargo had an incredulous, overdone black humor to it. In No Country for Old Men, no one is laughing.

Evil as theme in film is of course nothing new. Evil as summer blockbuster is not even new. Griffith's 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation, arguably the first-ever Hollywood blockbuster, focused on the Lincoln assassination and portrayed the Ku Klux Klan in a positive light. Try turning that into a kids' cheese-wrap-sodium-log Whopper meal at Burger King.

This summer, though, the good guys aren't winning, and the lines between what's good and what's a weirdo in a jeans jacket killing everyone in sight with a cattle plunger, are blurring. These are, without irony, desperate times. Javier Bardem's haircut is perhaps all the proof we need. Evil, in all it's perplexing costumes, is a theme we now wrestle with in the culture at large, and like our real lives after the explosions have died down, there is no easy answer, no deus ex machina, no miracle weapon to march out into the forest with. There is only next summer.

One billion dollars and counting. No Happy Meal, no Happy Ending in sight.