Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Dark Knight's Dark Night of the Soul

Somewhere along the way, Comic Books became serious, and started calling themselves Graphic Novels. This was well after my senior high years when I stopped reading them for the most part, except on summer vacation. For those of us who grew up with the early DC and Marvel Comics, and then the high camp, low evil Batman TV show starring Adam West, the recent twist in the tale of Batman, starting with 'Batman Begins', and accelerating in 'The Dark Knight' takes some mental adjustment, not to mention a paradigm shift. This movie is sort of Batman meets Greek tragedy, and it is played with all the seriousness of Greek tragedy as well Indeed, this movie brings in the heavy hitters--- Morgan Freeman, and (once more) Michael Caine, and Gary Oldman (Lt. Gordon never was this serious and smart before), Aaron Eckhart and of course Christian Bale and the late lamented Heath Ledger. Once you see this performance of Ledger's you will not only think it is Oscar worthy, you will wonder if playing this demonic role pushed Ledger over the edge. In this movie you get to look directly into the heart of darkness, and the one in whom that heart beats is the Joker. Ledger plays the Joker as sadistic, whilst Jack Nicholson played him more as sarcastic and just a tad too mean. Ledger's portrayal blows away Nicholson's, and is in a whole nother league. Nicholson's Joker actually had friends, Ledger's only has fiends.

One of the problems in doing a movie like this, where we have the titantic struggle between good and evil, is that it is so much easier for fallen human beings to play evil well, than to play good without appearing sappy, maudlin, 'too good to be real', and other epithets. Yet Christian Bale does a good job of being good, without pretending to be letter perfect. The Batman, as he is frequently dubbed in this movie, is alone in this film, not having his trusty side kick Robin, but thank goodness Alfred and Lucius Fox (the sort of CEO of Wayne Enterprises) are there to help. And as it turns out, he needs all the help he can get, because the Joker is not joking around. Indeed, he seems to be able to do 10 hard things before breakfast including making the Chicago mob do his bidding.

So what should we think of this 2 hour and 30 minute attempt at an epic? First of all, this is not the filming of a comic book, and it is not played like a comic book. Erase that image from your minds and by no means go to this movie if you are looking for a family film that is light popcorn type entertainment--- another bit of summer lint to add to the American navel whilst lying on a beach. Indeed, I would definitely NOT recommend you take any young children to this movie. One mother in front of me had a small child with her who ended up howling and having to be removed. This movie is not for the young, the squeamish, or the faint of heart. It has graphic images worthy of a 'graphic' novel. It also is mostly dark, since bats come out at night, as does evil.

The movie is immaculately filmed, though it could have stood to be a bit shorter, and some of the lines could have been delivered a little more slowly to allow them to sink in. There is in addition the stretching of credulity to the breaking point at various junctures (how exactly had the Joker managed to wire both a whole hospital and all the ferries in Chicago for explosion without anyone noticing anyway, and how exactly did he manage to extricate himself from that Chicago jail cell?). Batman is not played in this movie as an anti-hero, but like Hancock, one could say he is a reluctant hero, who would rather have a normal life instead engaging in daring do. Yet he does have an ethical geiger counter, unlike the Joker who is not motivated by either love or money or any sort of twisted Mafia-like principles. He is the kind of person who simply likes to watch the world burn, by his own hands, as Lucius Fox warns Batman. It is hard to catch or trap someone who has no normal vulnerabilities or predictabilities.

I must say that on the whole this movie has more Oscar potential than any other drama from the summer season, but I liked Ironman better as a movie. It had more redeeming qualities, and was not unrelentingly dark, and the dialogue was better as well.

But this movie has gravity, a very specific gravity, and it forces one to face the heart of darkness, and realize that evil is not just being 'not nice'-- it is depravity, it is the destruction of all that is good and true and beautiful, and even a small measure of good is better than none in a fallen world. In the battle between good and evil, this movie insists, we must take sides, but beware when your heroes have not merely feet of clay, but wear gravity boots as well. That brings the subject matter right back down to earth, for only God is truly and inherently good.


Loren Rosson III said...

Nice review, Ben. But this film is definitely the best superhero film of all time. Take it from one who generally loathes superheroes (but for whatever masochistic reasons insists on seeing them to enjoy being exasperated). I reviewed it here: The Dark, Dark Knight.

Oscar T. G. said...

Ben, welcome back after so long an absence! I am a faithful reader but not a poster, but you made a few great observations.One particular snippet is worth quoting: "...but beware when your heroes have not merely feet of clay, but wear gravity boots as well. That brings the subject matter right back down to earth, for only God is truly and inherently good.

To often, I find, bloggers and other internet posters jump on any imperfection that they see in public figures and make that the center of their comments. Not only is this not fair it is also unrealistic.

Christians also seem to fall prey to this tactic, so your point about feet of clay should be taken advisedly by ALL.

MY observation is that many suffer from disappointed high expectations from those they may look up to, whether they be a friend, a pastor, or any other garden variety public person. If we would just heed Jesus' admonition on the mote in the eye BEFORE we comment then grace and truth would be the norm rather than judgment.

By the way, thanks for the review. I plan on viewing it myself and posting a review on a site that I moderate. Keep on commenting on popular culture! It is a discussion Christians NEED to encourage.

Unknown said...

I really liked this movie due to the portrayal of the irrationality of sin. Heath Ledger played that part really well.

Anonymous said...

It seems that none of the mainstream reviewers have picked up on the thoroughly messianic conclusion to the movie (SPOILERS AHEAD). At the end, Batman literally 'takes upon himself the sins of the world' and allows himself to be hunted and abused, accused of crimes he didn't commit. All in order to maintain intact the one symbol of Gotham's hope for a better future, an immaculate Harvey Dent. Sure, some of the parallels are stretched but ultimately the solution to the dilemma the film represents (how can good people fight evil without succumbing to it?) is messianic: self-sacrifice is the only way for the Joker's evil not to win.

Ben Sternke said...


Ben, I wondered if you saw any "messianic" overtones in the fact that Batman takes the blame and goes on the run for those killings at the end, in order to "save" Harvey Dent's reputation.

I find it interesting that so many movies now are exploring depravity (No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, The Dark Knight)... most of the movies seem confused by it, but finally aware that it exists.

Carrie Allen said...

I have been waiting for your review ever since I posted mine! Your review was so great, especially the part about delivering their lines slower at times...so true. Thanks Ben!

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Ben:

I didn't think running away at the end of the movie was particularly messianic-- how about stand and deliver or at least take it instead?


Ben Witherington said...

Loren I liked the movie as well, but found it overloaded on the evil side of things, and totally lacking in real romance like some of the best moments in Spiderman. And furthermore, it totally lacks the repartee of Ironman... so my response to your response is--- "missed it by that much."


Loren Rosson III said...


I think being heavy on the darkness is much the point, and what we need more of in these films. And though I'm not Christian, wouldn't that square with the Christian message anyway -- that without a messianic redemmer (which Batman clearly isn't) good can't hope to prevail against evil? That's what Tolkien was conveying in Lord of the Rings, by Frodo's failure at the Cracks of Doom (Middle-Earth shows the need for Christianity; it's neither an allegory nor metaphor for its themes.)

BTW, I notice the link I posted to my review doesn't work. Let's try again.

JohnO said...


I definitely can see substitution overtones there at the end. Batman falls and lies next to Twoface. Dent being all that was good in Gotham, has already fallen sway to evil. Batman, to save Gotham, substitutes with Dent, allowing Dent to remain the salvific figure, while Batman can take the brunt of the blame - seeing as he is the outcast already. Perhaps not messianic, but salvific. And Gordon's lines at the end of the movie indicate just that.

I thought there were soo many good overarching themes in this movie. In a way, Joker represents postmodernism/deconstruction. Break the schemers by introducing chaos. Instead of soldiers who are allowed to die, threaten the mayor and hopsitals who are not. Turn it on its head and question it all.

There also seems to be a general statement about people - they won't do anything unless pushed into action. And once that happens there are only two kinds of people. This is exemplified when the Joker is recruiting Gambler's henchmen, and gives the three of them a broken pool cue, and of course the ferry boat scene. In each case the people involved must decide who they are going to be, the "civilized" convict who won't kill, or the "barbaric" businessman who will take all the blood on his hands (but of course can't).

This certainly was not a movie about Batman - it was about the Joker and so many other themes.

Ben Witherington said...

Loren thanks for the further comments. And yes, you are right enough that the message is that humans are insufficient to copy with such evil. But you see that's the whole point of super hero stories-- to say that they as exceptional or even freakish humans can cope for us. In a sense it is a messiah substitute message, with the hero being a bit more approachable and sometimes all too human, rather like the Greek gods.


Ben Witherington said...

Err, I meant cope not copy.


C.P.O. said...

I thought it also raised good questions specifically about sanctioning violence and torture when attempting to restrain evil. When dealing with people who appear as madmen to us, how far is too far in trying to protect others? What means of interrogation are appropriate? That seemed to come through loud and clear in the movie, and is obviously a pertinent question today. Also, regarding violence in general, Batman eschews the use of firearms, but he has no problem being incredibly violent in other ways ("non-lethal" force I guess). The entire movie theater gasped at one point because of something he did. What level of force is justified in stopping madmen?

Michael Bridgman said...

Hi Ben. Nice review! I was quite impressed by the movie myself, although I came out of the theatre feeling sad and angry (more about the world than the movie itself). If Batman Begins was about discovering the importance of the ideal of justice, then The Dark Knight is about the ideal being put to the test. As noted, this movie is darker and more tragic than the first, and the good guys sustain casualties fighting for what is right as we watch in dismay.

Like Batman Begins, both the heroes and the villians embody particular theories of justice that guide their actions. Batman's views are thoroughly explored in the first movie, and I won't go into them here. Joker takes the anarchist view, arguing that every rule, authority, and institution is inherently unjust, and that true justice can only be found in the state of nature. His greatest delight is not simply to watch the world burn, but to show up the people who place their confidence in the system for being two-faced when their ideals come into conflict with their livelihood. On that note, the disillusioned Two-Face takes the view that men are weak and fate is cruel, and that only pure unbiased chance can give a just verdict. Seeing the rise and fall of Harvey Dent reminded me of the charismatic Barrack Obama, who seems to have a talent for igniting people's ideals in such a disillusioned time. A man like that is both promising and terrifying, because he looks like the type who can lead Americans anywhere he desires. It seems that now we should take particular care to pray for our leaders, as we stand at the crossroads, and a great deal is at stake.

James Garth said...

I felt this movie was phenomenal, a cinematic tour de force. But as my mate sitting beside me commented, it may not be something I want to see again too soon. Never has true vicious nihilism been so chillingly portrayed; I could feel the audience shake at times when confronted with the Joker's malevolence. And yet, the film made no attempt to disguise what's at the end of the nihilistic rainbow.

Did you notice the unconventional score that composer Hans Zimmer used for the Joker? Just a single, dissonant, incoherent note. No melody. No meaning. Just noise, chaos, indeed 'nothing but blind pitiless indifference.'

The Dark Knight prods us to consider what this generation should turn to for redemption. Surely not more nihilism, more scepticism, more dark images from the bowels of the internet? This movie succeeds because of how it makes you yearn for the simple, pure and powerful good, and ingnites with in us a desire to move back into its embrace.

For me, the most emotional and defining moment of the film was the prisoner's dilemma, when the people of Gotham show what they're really made of. THAT was powerful stuff.

Ben Sternke said...

@james garth:

It's a great point about the two boats of people who, in the end, decide not to blow the other boat up to save themselves.

Of course, the people of Gotham are showing they are better than the Joker thinks they are, but perhaps they are also better than Batman and Commissioner Gordon thinks they are. The more I think about this movie, the more impressed I am with it. Summer blockbusters aren't usually filled with this much philosophical meat to chew on.

James said...

Thank you so much for this review! Finally someone who agrees with me.
I liked Dark Night but Iron Man was my movie for the summer. It is just a great comic book movie! These new Batman movies are trying too hard to be realistic. Don't get me wrong, well made film, great acting but i like my comic book movies to be like...the comics!