Wednesday 27 August 2008


Be warned! Great big bat-spoilers ahead!
(NB Such is the popularity of this film that it’s still showing at the flicks – meaning this review counts as current. Fear not good citizens - normal service will shortly be resumed.)

1. A Different Bat Time, A Different Bat Channel

Before the feature started, the cinema played the old Batman TV theme. (You know, the one where his Bat-mum calls him in for his dinner.) Surely a calculated piece of cheek, for this is preannounced to be not Batman but Dark Knight! Even if you’re not enough of a comics fan to know the Frank Miller associations of the term, you’ll have seen the trailer where the Joker talks about killing “the Batman”. That pronoun alone is enough to tell us this is Batman for grown-ups, the creature cursed to wander the night battling its monsters. The TV show Bats was always too weighted down by the contents of his utility belt to find use for a pronoun.

...none of which is good news. Its a peculiarity of superhero films that they’ve become stuck in the same trap as were comics in the Eighties. “Finally”, the argument goes, “we have the sophistication to give these characters the gravitas they always deserved.” Perhaps it’s just me, but I tend to reserve the term ‘gravitas’ for those who keep their underwear inside their trousers. To quote from the film, “why so serious?”

Christopher Nolan’s earlier Batman Begins, though popular among many, seemed to me a classic example of such folly. It spent its time building up a credible case for how a man might take up pointy ears in order to frighten off the Mob... in short it set itself up to fail. But others who had reacted to Begins in the same way seemed to take to Dark Knight (for example PatrickMM), so I tried it out. And found it genuinely was from a different Bat Time and different Bat Channel.

There’s an early clue that we’re in for a different take. Lieutenant (not yet Comissioner) Gordon has made a pin-board of ‘Batman sightings’, with pictures of the Sasquatch, Loch Ness Monster and the like pinned to it. Though the film has almost no plot overlap with the Miller comic whose name it borrows, in this way it picks up something Miller did which was missed by many of his imitators. Miller was never interested in the mundane details of how superheroes might function, whether they changed into their costumes on rooftops or in phone boxes. His fascination was with them as beings larger than life. He used them as symbols rather than bearers of supposed psychological depth.

2. Join the Laugh Side

So to start on a high note and go out on a limb, let’s praise Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker – which brings out this approach to a tee.This icky, feral monster, smeared in peeling make-up, is the film’s centrepiece. Compared to Ledger, Jack Nicholson now seems a gurneying cabaret turn.

Super-villains tend to be more interesting than the straightlaced heroes. But this is the Joker’s film to the point where even the makers aren’t working very hard to pretend otherwise– some of the film posters feature only the Joker. “Ledger has a weird collection of tics and twitches, kinks and quirks” comments The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. Ironically, this is the sort of Hollywood ‘method acting’ that’s normally so irritating, assembling a bag of mannerisms and calling that a character. (Check out Meryl Streep in just about anything.) But it so happens for the Joker this is absolutely perfect.

Origins tend to take a special place in superhero films. Comics often saw them only as an excuse to get going. Films, conversely, fixate upon them. Partly this is for formal reasons. Unlike comics, films aren’t ongoing but are one-off events, and so require a starting point. But also, films often aspire to supply a psychological dimension missing from the flat paper. Characters in the comics just are, they’re described by their appearance. In film, as in the first rule of drama workshops, they always need a motivation. (In the comics, Batman himself waited six months to get given one.) In Batman Begins, Tim Burton’s Batman , or for that matter Spider-Man or Daredevil, their origins continue to define them through the films.

In the very inverse of the Batman from Begins, the Joker has no backstory. When he’s caught, he can’t even be pinned to a set of fingerprints. (Gordon grumbles “No matches on prints, DNA, dental... Nothing in his pockets but knives and lint. No name, no other alias.”) He taunts his victims with supposed origin stories, each a bedtime story tailored to terrify that victim the most. Taking his origin out is a powerful a statement as putting something in. As K-Punk points out “What Ledger does... is play the make-up... evacuating the Joker of all interiority, by refusing anything which would contain the Joker's wildness or compromise the autonomy of his facepainted persona.”

Partly as a consequence, you’re never quite sure how crazy he really is. One moment he’s looking like he can’t reach the end of his next sentence, the next he’s pulling off the most audacious masterplan. Is it all an act, calculated to induce fear? Or is he really limitlessly malevolent? It even feels possible he could be completely crazy and entirely calculating. This serves to keep the Joker unsettling and unknowable. You can neither reason with him nor even give in to what he wants – for you don’t even know what he wants.

Though he commits crimes, the Joker is entirely unmotivated by personal gain. When he ends up with the money, he does with it what he’d do with anything else – he burns it. As K-Punk comments “The Joker is free in the same way that the death drive is free: he acts with indifference to consequences, glorying instead in a kind of ungrounded unbinding of orderly causal sequences.” Hence the scene where he is brought in ‘dead’ for a mobster who’s taken a contract on him. Of course it’s a ruse, but the point is he’s unbound by mortal fears - he’s living as if already dead.

Yet despite his fully indulged pyromaniac tendencies, what he really loves to take apart is people. He sees the law and the mob equally as his opponents, and devises elaborate and sadistic schemes purely to disrupt their schemes. “The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon's got plans,” he complains. “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.... Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos.” The really scary thing about the Joker is that he thinks he’s doing what’s best for us. When he dresses as a Nurse, he’s administering us a short for what ails us – no matter how much it stings.

The Joker is what Rogan Taylor labelled a Demon Clown in his study of shamanism The Death and Resurrection Show. Demon Clowns, though themselves part of tribal societies, would recklessly disrupt the most sacred ceremonies and provocatively break the most deeprooted taboos. Taylor associated them with the immaterial underworld demons who tore apart the astral shaman. Both were about assaulting and stripping the psyche, reducing all that’s false and extraneous to leave us with what we’re really about. When we have all our illusions torn from us, how will we see the world then?

The character’s propensity for knives and (in one case) pencils comes in here as a counter-weight. He may be an agent of an abstract, but these serve to make him feel immediate and in your face, not some phantasm of boogeyman. He’s half-whispered-legend, half-feral monster.

But like all good updates on a theme, all this also harks back to the original Joker from 1940. To quote K-Punk again the film “manages a feat that is near impossible: it reinvents The Joker look whilst also maintaining fidelity to the comics.” His schemes are often the same as in his very first appearance, audaciously announcing his crimes in advance purely to trounce the authorities, declaring war on the criminals as well as the cops. The original, more dandyish Joker look may simply have come from being easier to draw than all those cracks in that make-up. (Wikipedia states the film’s also based on a more recent comic I haven’t read – The Long Halloween.)

3. The Two Faced Contagion

If it’s significant that one film poster features a solo Joker, it’s as significant that another manages to combine a signifier for himself and Batman. “You complete me”, the Joker tells pointy-head exultantly, professing them to be eternal forces who will “do this forever.” But it’s not just a matter of the laughing Joker against the scowling Bats. The one thing Batman Begins did get right was to find parallels between its heroes and villains. If we only see a contrast between them, we’re watching a fixed system, with no movement, no interplay. The Joker’s scheme to bring down Batman is not to kill him after all, but to make the two of them more alike. And in a sense they are alike, both operating outside of society to force their vision upon it. There is always the paradox that Batman does to criminals what they would do to their victims – terrify and intimidate them. He’s not big on due process. Batman’s chief differentiator from crime, that he doesn’t work for personal gain, is struck out here – neither does his adversary. The Joker would agree with Batman that criminals are superstitious and cowardly. He’d just say the same about everybody else.

But they are not the only parallels in town. Notably, Rick Norwood complains “every other character [bar the Joker] is one-dimensional... None have any of the complexity of real human beings. Even Harvey Dent {Two-Face] switches between all good and all bad at the flip of a coin.” This criticism isn't wrong, at least in the sense of being inaccurate. But it misses what the film is trying to do.

The characters are big and bold as primary colours, but we get our shades and patterns from watching their interplay.There’s a key scene where the camera circles Batman, Gordon and Dent on the police station rooftop. (A scene echoed in the film’s finale.) Dent is the sun to Batman’s moon, the public face of good. He’s endlessly referred to as “the shining light” or (still less subtly) “the white knight.” He will clean up Gotham by legal and public means, by rallying the people behind him. But Gordon contrasts the others too. He’s more anonymous than the crusading Dent, low-key and pragmatic. While Dent wants to focus on cleaning up the Police Department, Gordon would rather see it imperfect but functioning. At one point Gordon ‘dies’ to go undercover. Meanwhile Dent publicly takes the rap for something he didn’t do, to a roomful of flashbulbs.

Moreover, characters are often contrasts with themselves. This is most obvious in Harvey Dent’s transformation into Two Face, but is also true for Batman. Of course, we know that, ike Dent, he wears two faces. But here, when Bruce Wayne, he’s given to talk about Batman in the third person. There’s a repeated scene where he faces his Batsuit on a stand, as if it were somebody else.

To get here, something of a leap is made. After a film which concentrated entirely on Batman’s origin, it’s never mentioned here at all. This isn’t akin to the Joker’s tauntingly with-held backstory, this film is a continuation and we assume it’s there. But it is pushed into the background, and for a solid reason. When Wikipedia claim “a main component that defines Batman as a character is his origin story” we might quibble about those first six months, but when they add “Batman is...driven to fight crime” it seems unarguable.
However, a major plot element rests upon the conceit that Bruce Wayne is not similarly driven. He imagines that Gotham will one day be cleaned up, at which point he can retire Batman and marry his fiancee. Wayne’s will for this can even make Batman more fanatical, more intent upon his mission.

All of which are smart ideas... which don’t quite come off. Dark Knight is part explosive action film and part cop thriller, and manages this join. It’s also part slam-bang superhero story and part polyphonic psychodrama...and here it gets itself into more trouble.

Which isn’t to say such a thing couldn’t work. But transcending genre conventions is like transcending the rules of grammar. You have to understand those rules before you can go breaking them, or the results become messy and incomprehensible. Here the whole three-way thing tends to vie with Batman as the titular hero. It’s not that genre has limits which preclude anything morally ambiguous happening. It’s that its conventions stack so high that we need it telegraphed when something morally ambiguous is incoming. Perhaps his bat-vices need to be more telegraphed, like the Dalek episode of Doctor Who.

And it doesn’t help that the Joker’s star shines so brightly no-one else really competes. Batman has unfortunately come across as something of a stiff in all his films. He doesn’t look action-figure ready, he looks like he’s already the action figure. What can be rendered sinewy on paper merely looks blocky and lumpen on screen. They implicitly acknowledge this during the film and give the costume a redesign, to ill effect. Batman looks great as a shadowy figure, hovering on the corner of events. But when the spotlight falls on him he looks uninteresting.

Neither can Two Face match the Joker for villainy. His make-up, the very thing that so sells the Joker, seems something of a mash-up - like they couldn’t quite decide whether to make him frightening or cartoony. This is never more evident in the um... eccentric decision to leave the Joker out of the finale. You realize at that point that the whole emotional triangle only really works as a supporting act. Asked to carry the show, it limps home. Bereft of the Joker, none of the film’s other themes really adhere. They’re just.... you know... plans.

4.Torture Porn For Neo Cons?

Perhaps as a measure of the way we’re supposed to take this sort of stuff seriously nowadays, the political ramifications of this film seem to have sent the hens a-clutter. Some liberal commentators have seen in it a dangerously right-wing agenda, such as Spencer Ackerman’s review ‘Dark Knight Reflects Cheney Policy’:

"The Dark Knight" weighs in strongly on the side of the Bush administration. Confronting the Joker, a nihilistic enemy whose motives are both unexplained and beside the point, the Batman faces his biggest dilemma yet: whether to abuse his power in order to save Gotham City.”

Needless to say, Conservative sites have been lining up in agreement, such as SouthCon:

“Chris Nolan's Batman is basically Dick Cheney, forty years younger, in a black ninja suit. How cool is that?”

(Meanwhile, check out the mailing comments here)

Of course as I noted in my Spider-Man 2 review (from Lucid Frenzy’s Olde Printe Days), this partly just par for the course. Superheroes are big broad symbols, not tight and focused ones. We imagine what lies under the mask, and we imagine what we want to see. Picture a superhero appearing in an editorial cartoon, and you already picture him getting cramped and diminished, pinned to a position. And, as with Spider-Man 2, just because someone’s interpreted a film doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re right. The Neo Cons were presumably busy counting up all their foreign policy victories all the times the Joker manipulates his enemies into torture, including the occasion this leads directly to his escape. This is clearly not built to be a pro-Cheney treatise.

Nevertheless, the liberal critics are tapping into something, for there is something problematic going on here. Ultimately, Dark Knight trips over its own genre roots and fails to reach anything a genuine anti-conservatism would entail. Part of the problem is putting the larger-than-life characters in a ‘realistic’ (please note inverted commas) city setting. There’s a gulf between the main characters and the troubled populace which cuts as deep as any Shakespeare. The vigilante Bat-men seem to be there purely to make it clear we should be cheering his Bat-deeds rather than aping them – don’t try this one at home, kids. K-Punk is correct to dismiss the Neo-Con reading, but still see in this the shadow of Leo Strauss and his “noble lies and deadly truths” doctrine. Perhaps the conceit is that these main characters decide to give the populace what they consider them to need, but then just morph into their own roles.

The classic example of this is what everyone is calling the Deux ex Nokia finale. Batman’s collective eavesdropping on all the City’s mobile phone conversations is a brick-subtle analogy of the infamous Patriot Act. It’s openly questioned within the film, by the Bat-sidekick Lucius Fox. However, we also seem supposed to associate it with an earlier conversation about Caesar. With the barbarians at the gates of Rome, the populace decide to grant Caesar absolute but temporary power. Except... surprise!.. when its time for Caesar to give up these powers he seems less than keen to. But why is this analogy raised? Is it all a red herring? For having won his battle Batman merely torches his own device. Is his sheer ‘goodness’ supposed to stem from the fact that, if he can’t hang up his cape, at least he’s always wanting to? Or is it, as seems equally likely, that he’s our hero so is ipso facto untempted by such apples? It’s like Frodo slips the Ring on anyway, luckily finds there to be no adverse results and everybody can just go home. As an answer to the problem of granting others supreme power it isn’t one.

Superhero films do not naturally offer us the concept of collective responsibility. The one time the populace do rise above the status of a bewildered herd is in the twin boat/prisoner’s dilemma scene. Here they are only partly rescued by Batman, and they do much to resolve the situation themselves. However, it should be noted that the implications raised are themselves literally anti-social. Society is merely a kind of mob, inside which we feel safe to bay for blood. Everyone votes for the other boat to be blown up over theirs, but when asked as an individual to be the one to press the button we then assume responsibility. But even granting this conservatism, the scene rings false. You’re simply not convinced they would have acted the way they did, either in reality or the world the film has conjured up. Like the scene in the first Spider-Man where the crowd turn on the Goblin, you can’t help but feel the makers baulked at the implications of their own logic and bottled it.

In some ways this scene feels a microcosm of the film. The whole structure can’t withstand the presence the Demon Clown it itself releases, he corrodes what it is trying to create. If all we have to hold us together is these noble lies, this mask of bogus heroism, isn’t he the one actually telling us the truth? Isn’t his shock therapy actually setting us free after all, while Batman merely offers us the blue pill? The film can never quite raise itself up above its own genre conventions, indeed it often seems to fail to understand them, so is riddled with fault-lies for him to exploit.

Of course you can argue this doesn’t matter much. With the twin boat scene as perhaps a glaring exception, and unlike the characterisation problems raised earlier, none of this is likely to disrupt our ride too much. These are politico-philosophical questions that might not occur to too many popcorn-munchers. And as Savanaroloa puts it, commenting to K-Punk’s Bat Mailbag: “The real political ‘problem’ with the also a political insight... It is a sign of the times that the people is simply a fickle opinionated multitude (with) never a collective in sight.” A film can be more expected to encapsulate its era than fix it. In which case it is only too appropriate for the poster to be given over to the Joker.

Monday 11 August 2008


Yes, but this is the last Doctor Who episode for Andrew Rilstone to write about, and consequently for me to comment on.

So next will have to be me saying something myself...

Monday 4 August 2008


More Who-related stuff will appear here, for those who like that sort of thing.

But for now all I've managed is some jibes from the cheap seats as Andrew Rilstone discusses Silence in the Library.

It's worth reading.