July 27, 2008

Halfway through my sophomore year of high school I was overwhelmed by an impulse to become more traditionally feminine, which I satisfied by getting a job in the children’s section of the public library.  I remember presiding over a storytime circle of elementary schoolers in which I tried to guide them towards an appreciation of modern art—“It’s a kind of picture book” was my logic at the time—and I had finally coaxed them into admitting that Kandinsky’s Woman V was a successful expression of complex emotion when I looked down at the page and realized it was upside down.

The Dark Knight is a successful expression of complex ideas, held upside-down.  Without betraying too many plot details (Jeff Michaels of Akron, OH: you are the last person in America not to have seen this movie; please do so at your earliest convenience), the film gets a lot of mileage out of the distinction between Batman, the outcast who fights crime from behind a mask, and DA Harvey Dent, the fight’s public face.  Batman is an outcast and a vigilante rather than a hero, which leaves him free to “make the choice that no one else will face—the right choice.”

Americans have regarded printing the legend as a national sport ever since George Washington didn’t chop down a cherry tree. We can be brutal to our celebrities, but public figures who have been dead long enough to lapse into legend get the royal treatment, their shortcomings papered over for the sake of giving us something to believe in.

If it sounds like I object to this kind of dishonesty, I don’t.  Batman and Commissioner Gordon lie, Dent comes out looking like a saint, and everyone in Gotham is better off.  The perversity of Dark Knight‘s moral is in not in its endorsement of deception but in its insistence that we deceive only in order to sanitize.

To put it in more concrete terms: Gotham needed a face to put on the fight for justice, and Batman and Dent were the city’s only two options.  The film seems to take it for granted that Batman’s outlaw tactics and unwillingness to reveal his identity make him ineligible.  But why should this be so?  There as many outlaws as saints in the American canon of heroes.  To pretend that the Gothamite rank-and-file will only accept a whitewashed hero suggests that Christopher Nolan deeply misunderstands how this country goes about its myth-making, or at least that he’s never heard of Pretty Boy Floyd.

The movie begins with two henchmen discussing the Joker’s make-up (“To scare people, you know? War paint”), and the first conversation we see between Bruce Wayne and Alfred begins with Bruce’s scars: “Every time you stitch yourself up you do make a bloody mess.”  “It forces me to learn from my mistakes.”  This is clearly a film interested in the strange alchemy by which outward signs don’t just symbolize invisible truths but make them real.  For Nolan to turn around and suggest that all good masks make heroes look like choir boys is a betrayal of everything about masks and myths that the rest of the movie suggests he should understand better.  Why is Abe Lincoln’s honesty de facto more legitimate than Davy Crockett’s bear-killing precocity?  (To put it another, less prudent way, do we really like it better when Obama trades on his personal myth than when McCain does?)

About an hour into the film, Alfred says something that the film’s ending ratifies: “They’ll hate you for it, but that’s the point with Batman.”  With all due respect to Michael Caine’s confidence-inspiring British accent, that’s the coward’s way out.  Far better that the honest outlaws of the world should feel a responsibility to inspire their public’s confidence, and far better that the public should be willing to accept a hero who is something less than harmless.


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