OUR LATTER-DAY DARK KNIGHT
By Stephane Dunn
Friday, July 25, 2008.
I exercise my deepest hero longings by escaping into the fantasy ones on the big screen. Unsurprisingly then, I am especially drawn to Marvel’s unlimited vault of superheroes whose mission is to save the world or at least their city from hopelessness or the bad guys.
So I braved the crowded parking lots and lines and dragged along a reluctant, anti-Batman lover to see Dark Knight. It would be too easy to get sidetracked by the tragic aura surrounding this newest Batman flick. Heath Leger’s tragic death at 28 has naturally stirred up more hype than Marvel’s big budget superhero flicks usually already do.
Before his death, word was already circulating around Hollywood that Ledger had turned in a stunningly brilliant turn as ‘the Joker’ - a role imbued with more of the dark psychotic edge of the original comic strip’s character. The hype about that performance is true so much so much that the fact of his death adds pathos amid the bleak, edgy undertones of the character, but does not overshadow the fact that Ledger makes the Joker alone stand out.
Yet, there’s more to appreciate about Dark Knight beyond, even, the record breaking $166 million plus that it took in at the box office during this first weekend out. The action sequences, character complexity and fine performances all around from Christian Bale (Batman), Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart (Harvey Dent) and of course Ledger’s movie stealing Joker performance, are but a few more reasons why this latest Batman film is a stand out.
Sitting at the movie last Saturday night, I alternately cringed, laughed, and became just plain enthralled by the sophisticated treatment of that almost clichéd good versus evil staple that defines superhero comics and films.
In these scary economic and cultural times, and this very historic but volatile political year, the inspiration that the Obama ‘Change’ and unifying "yes, we can", spirit stirred finds an unlikely but perfect parallel in Gotham city’s need for a hero who will stand strong against corruption and evil, and prove worthy of the people’s hope.
Dark Knight is more than a literal reference to the Batman; the film turns on the shadowy darkness that frames Batman, the best scenes, and the creepy Joker, utterly freakish in the distorted white clown paint masking his face. The title also signifies on the dark times as Gotham is overrun by murder, mayhem, fear, and inhumanity - the Joker’s areas of specialization.
In this second film, director and co-screen writer Christopher Nolan, offers a powerful meditation on the responsibility of superhero, political leaders, and somebody else - the people themselves - to stand firm in the good they yearn for, and to actively participate in challenging evil and corruption.
While the film’s good political guy - Harvey Dent - is transformed by the Joker’s evil machinations into the bitter, two faced man at the end; one scene dramatically emphasizes two very compelling ideas - no hero can truly bear the weight of fighting for the good and carrying the people’s hope all the time. In the end, the people too must prove worthy of the sacrifices the good guys and the hero make.
The Joker’s whole demonic project revolves around corrupting what he firmly believes is that rare courageous goodness, which political newcomer, DA Harvey Dent, and of course Batman represent. Two questions hovers over the film, the first even for Batman early on: Is good guy Harvey Dent for real and will he and Batman hold to their integrity and courage under the Joker’s onslaught and the people’s growing fear?
The same questions were asked about Obama and continue to be both in numerous political analyses in the media and in private. Not a few folks, and I admit now me too, have pondered these questions while hoping that Obama will indeed prove a hero worthy of the hope and the hype. The film could have left it at those questions but instead it dramatizes how we hope-mongers must also embody the hopefulness we want our heroes to live up to. Thus, the people of Gotham are tested as well.
The ever creative Joker gets on a role having turned the good Harvey Dent into a vengeful murderer. Two groups of people-one a boat full of inmates –and another, a crowded boat of Gotham’s citizens must decide to pull the key out of the detonator and doom the other boat in just the few minutes left before .
The camera cuts back and forth between the two boats of people arguing over whether to do it or not. The loudmouths among the ‘civilized’ people argue that the others are “thieves and murders” and thus their lives are not as important as Gotham’s ‘good’ citizens.
The inmates on their boat are held back only by the guard’s guns. The camera repeatedly closes in on the silent figure of one inmate in particular - a huge, menacing looking bald headed black man (Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister in usual form), who does what the director knows he’ll do: make us very sure that he’s gonna start throwing folk around and be the one turn the key.
Before too long he steps to the puny looking administrative guy and coolly suggests that he give him the detonator so he can do what must be done. He picks up the ticking device. At the same time, on the other boat, an obnoxious middle aged white man, one of the loudmouths, declares that he’ll do what no one has the guts to do: turn that key.
He picks it up and holds it in his hand as the other passengers stare at him, still afraid that the other folk might still blown them all to, well, hell, in the minute left until midnight. If you’re like Batman, ultimately a believer in folks’ enduring humanity you know what happens. If you’re the Machiavellian Joker, well, your conclusion has a 50-50 possibility too.
What does this fantasy movie have to do with a real possible ‘Dark Knight’ –no pun intended- and a much hyped real life political year?
The catch words are eerily similar - positive change, hope and dream. We are like the people of Gotham: We know there’s no Batman but we desperately want a Harvey Dent-an attractive, skilled, courageous, noble, smart, smooth talker who can stare corruption down and make us believe that positive change is possible.
The movie ends in about two and half hours, but we can take the message out of the theatre. It’s not enough to want heroes or heroic figures' cause, as much as we are inspired by them, we also must inspire and support them. That’s the only way their noble intentions actually have a chance to stand strong when the nay saying, ‘agents of chaos’ as the Joker calls himself, come up against them.
Stephane Dunn is a writer and author of "Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films" (August 2008). She is also an assistant professor at Morehouse College.
Special thanks to Mark Anthony Neal at New Black Man .
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