Dark Knight

by John Holbo on August 21, 2008

Man, what if McCain gets elected? (Also, I listened to a Jonah Goldberg bloggingheads thing and it was terrible.) Oh, but I a had great idea for a superhero duo. There’s a terrible accident – a tornado rips through a trailer park – and this is, for some strange reason, the origin story for Double-wide (he’s a bruiser type) and Airstream (his sexy, flying partner). They fight crime in a small town in Georgia. Who should their arch-enemy be?

Right. The Dark Knight. My Valve colleague, Bill B., points me to David Bordwell grousing about superhero films, and generally saying smart things. Oddly enough, given my love of superheroes, I agree almost right down the line. Oh, I enjoyed Dark Knight well enough. But the ending was dumb, the Harvey Dent subplot handled clumsily. The only reason it made sense to me that he was Two-Face was that he was clearly named Harvey Dent and had half his face melted off. Other than that, I didn’t see the resemblance. Ledger’s Joker was, as all sensitive souls agree, vastly entertaining. I would have watched him read the phonebook. Well, for a few minutes anyway. But, while I doubt anyone else would have been better for the role, I don’t actually think it was such a tremendously impressive outing. it isn’t that hard to prance around in clown make-up, barking mad. Insane clowns could be the new Rain Man prestige role. Oh, it takes physical presence and a certain bone structure and face-to-lip ratio. I’m glad someone finally decided to put Frank Miller’s joker up there on the screen. And, of course, the Dark Knight is Miller’s, too.

Everyone knows that. But certain things follow which, it seems to me, have not been noted. First, the praise of Nolan has been a bit off-target. He does deserve praise for doing a lot right. A lot of other stuff was sort of by-the-numbers, as Bordwell says. But the way a lot of these reviews read … well, it would be like praising Frank Peter Jackson for inventing hobbits. How does he think of these things? And that’s a very apt analogy, actually. Because not only is the Dark Knight a quarter-century old aesthetic, it’s an aesthetic that was pretty much done to death – run straight into the ground in the 90’s. We all loved Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, at least I did, but the vein was quickly exhausted. An evolutionary dead-end, really. (‘Good soldier, good soldier.’) And so all this excitement? This sense that Dark Knight opens up new possibilities? To complete my analogy: it would be like coming out of Frank Peter Jackson’s trilogy and saying ‘now we can see that it would be great if lots more people told stories about elves on quests.’

It’s this damn confusion that somehow gritty, grim superhero pics are more ‘realistic’ – hence more morally relevant, more able to engage our moral imaginations in the post-9/11, GWOT era. (It’s like someone said: finally, a realistic round-square. They made it grim and gritty. So it must be realistic.) Superhero stories are not just physically unrealistic, in lots of impossible-to-miss ways. They are inherently morally unrealistic. Somehow it is ‘good’ to do things that, in the real world, would be morally idiotic: like dress up like a bat and fight crime. There just isn’t any way to comment ‘realistically’ on issues of terror and crime via stories about Batman. Well, that’s not quite right. It is highly relevant that we are drawn to such stories, find them compelling. (Wouldn’t it be awesome if it made sense to wear your underwear on the outside and punch people in clown make-up all night long? Wouldn’t it be great if that were a tough, but noble – with a touch of personal tragedy – moral decision?)

So, frankly, the answer to David Bordwell’s question – “Why so serious?” – is: no reason. The only superhero stories with any right to take themselves seriously are the reflexive, comic books about comic books ones. This doesn’t preclude them being ironic as well, obvously. This hurts the odds for the films. Because it is harder to make a good film that gets the right sort of self-reflexivity about the comics medium. But not impossible: The Incredibles is good that way. As is Unbreakable, in my considered opinion. (And, of course, only the latter takes itself seriously.)

There was actually a pretty good bloggingheads episode a couple weeks ago, between Yglesias and Douthat, in which they hashed out Dark Knight stuff. One thing Yglesias said which is wrong is that it’s a mistake for comics to get stuck in the comics-about-comics rut. Because that will lame itself out in some Nostalgpalypse Now fanboy-style. To the contrary, the comics-about-comics genre is surprisingly resilient, for fascinating reasons I won’t go into right now.

Anyway, I agree with Bordwell that Hellboy is a much more promising franchise than Batman, at this point. Even if Golden Army was not quite what it could have been. That’s enough comics for now.

{ 36 comments }

1

Peter 08.21.08 at 2:40 pm

You mean “Peter Jackson”, right? ; )

2

Alejandro 08.21.08 at 2:59 pm

If Frank Jackson had directed the LOTR trilogy instead of Peter Jackson we might have seen the Fellowship sitting for the whole movie at Rivendel, discussing whether they could deduce or not how Mount Doom looked like without having ever seen it.

3

John Holbo 08.21.08 at 3:01 pm

Good point.

4

Brock 08.21.08 at 3:13 pm

I’m glad someone finally decided to put Frank Miller’s joker up there on the screen.

Miller’s Joker? It’s been a while since I read The Dark Knight Returns, but I thought the Joker in the movie was much more based on Alan Moore’s Joker from The Killing Joke.

5

John Holbo 08.21.08 at 3:17 pm

Well, I guess that’s debatable, Brock. There is a certain similarity between the two, so it’s not like you can rule either out. But I guess I’d go for Miller as the inspiration here, yeah. (I actually haven’t read Killing Joke for a long time.)

6

Katherine F. 08.21.08 at 3:35 pm

Superhero stories are not just physically unrealistic, in lots of impossible-to-miss ways. They are inherently morally unrealistic.

I am working on a blog post about this very topic (it’s already pretty long and I’m nowhere near finished, so it could be a while). It’s interesting to look at the various dodges and sleights-of-hand that superhero writers engage in to distract the audience from the simple fact that vigilantes in costumes are a bad idea, both ethically and pragmatically. Some of my favourite superhero stories are the ones where the superhero is meant to be read as either wrong or crazy, because that seems to me the most morally realistic approach. (This is why I love Moon Knight. The difference between Moon Knight and Batman is not that Batman is sane and Moon Knight is crazy, but that Batman’s craziness is an artefact of the genre that we’re supposed to politely ignore, whereas Moon Knight’s craziness is entirely intentional.)

On superhero-comics-about-superhero-comics: if you haven’t read Abhay Khosla on Doctor 13, you should.

7

Righteous Bubba 08.21.08 at 3:40 pm

So, frankly, the answer to David Bordwell’s question – “Why so serious?” – is: no reason.

How powerful is a myth if you spend all your time laughing at it?

8

untravel 08.21.08 at 3:45 pm

I figure Double-wide and Airstream could have one of several arch-nemesises:
Methfiend: His evil Methgas gives you a rapid heartbeat, keeps you awake for days straight, rots your teeth out of your head and makes your money mysteriously vanish.
Klanbot: His malevolent Segregator Ray wrecks havoc on the community. Mostly, they fought in the 60′s, but the Klanky Monstrosity is still out there, somewhere. Probably rusting.
–and/or possibly–
The Elitist: A fellow crimefighter, but from New York City. More of a rival than an archnemesis, really. Power: He’s better at everything than you. (‘What a jerk.’)

9

Lisa 08.21.08 at 3:47 pm

After I saw LOTR I really did want to see more movies of elves going on quests.

I can’t quite figure out what I liked about “The Dark Knight.” I liked that I had no idea why the people did what they did but that somehow, in the logic of the movie, it made sense that they did it. They never explain the Joker. They don’t fill in all the blanks in the traditional comic book way. I vaguely remember the comic book series and my comic book friends being into it and perhaps it is all taken from that but for someone who only read one of those 10 years ago or whatever, the movie was more powerful than I thought it would be.

10

Peter 08.21.08 at 4:42 pm

On #4 and 5 — Ledger’s Joker seemed pretty much driven by the desire to prove that everyone would act like he does if given the right push — which is a big part of the plot of The Killing Joke. I’d go with Moore, here, myself. Miller’s Joker would have more transsexual Nazis hanging around….

11

noen 08.21.08 at 4:49 pm

The most interesting thing to me about the Dark Knight is how it all hung on the fantasy that “We are the good and moral ones. We are not as the Joker claims merely individuals pursuing our own self interest. When the chips are down we will make the morally correct choice even though it is not in our interest to do so.”

And that of course is a lie, in real life the Joker wins his bet.

12

Michael Drake 08.21.08 at 4:54 pm

“The only reason it made sense to me that he was Two-Face was that he was clearly named Harvey Dent and had half his face melted off.”

A name, an occupational history and an unusual facial deformation — that’s a pretty decent set of property ascriptions; I wouldn’t say the transtextual identity here is any less secure for “Harvey” than it is for “Socrates” in Plato’s dialogues. Or, for that matter, for us in real life. (Then again, ask me tomorrow and I might have a completely different opinion.)

13

richard 08.21.08 at 5:12 pm

Somewhat OT, I’d like Jim Webb a whole lot more if he’d written The Incredibles rather than Rules of Engagement. The self-aware superhero flick would be a much better growing up sequel to Women Can’t Fight.

14

Andrew R. 08.21.08 at 7:12 pm

The notion of masked crime fighters not unrealistic. In fact, there was a time when we had masked crime fighters. Like the Batman, they wore masks to protect their identity, and like the Batman, they had the tacit approval of law enforcement as they beat the crap out of those people whose misdeeds the law wasn’t sufficiently addressing.

Of course, people look askance on the masked crime fighters of the Klu Klux Klan these days…

15

Mrs Tilton 08.21.08 at 8:33 pm

I liked TDK just fine. There’s a lot to complain about to be sure, but the complaints fade against the background of so much good clean preposterous fun.

My major critique is about a major failure in editing judgement. Not only could the film have been made a good bit shorter and less stupid had certain things been done differently — things that all involve the cutting-room rather than actors and cameras — but on top of that Nolan would have rendered moot the huge question hanging over the franchise. Namely, how does he make a third one when the actor who played the central character of the second one is dead?

And I disagree with John. I don’t think it’s that easy to do the Joker. Anybody can do a Joker. (Jack Nicholson did a Joker FFS. Is that what you’d want to see in the page margin next to the dictionary entry for “Joker”? I wouldn’t either.) But it has always been obvious that there are only two ways to do the Joker properly, and Cesar Romero answered the question about one of those ways decades ago. I’ll admit being surprised that Ledger is the actor who took ownership of the other way. But holy cow, did he own it. What bit did you like best? Was it his magic trick? What is the way he got his scars? Those were both great, but for me, it was his body language from the time he bade adieu to Harvey Dent at the hospital and the time he got on the bus. Jeepers. I’d known Ledger was good, but never suspected he was that good. Truly, ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann.

16

Matthew Kuzma 08.21.08 at 8:36 pm

I do think it’s dumb to equate gritty with relevant, but there is an element of down-to-earthedness in these films that was completely lacking from, say, the Burton films. In these films, villains are shunned and feared by pragmatic criminals just as heroes are shunned and feared by real law enforcement. The world surrounding the heroes and villains is more realistic and it makes the stories, not more relevant, but more viscerally engaging. The real truth is that the more believable the silly comic movie is, the more fully you let yourself get engaged in it rather than distancing yourself and laughing at it.

On an unrelated note, I must be a moral idiot, since I don’t see how fighting crime is morally idiotic. I can see many ways in which it’s pragmatically idiotic, but not morally.

17

Shelby 08.21.08 at 8:38 pm

How is it possible that nobody has mentioned The Watchmen? Certainly it’s the foremost comic-about-comics in the superhero genre, and it brutally dismantles the notion of putting on a funny costume and beating up bad guys. And hey, it’s coming soon to a theater near you!

18

bianca steele 08.21.08 at 10:32 pm

I think Unbreakable would have been a better movie if it had been made by a person who thought The Incredibles took itself as seriously as his own films did. Meaning, one big problem with Shyamalan’s recent films is that he seems to be the only guy in the industry taking himself seriously — as if everybody clearly agreed with him, on some level, but they weren’t serious enough to say so. So, he has to say it for them. (Though I’m not a huge fan of Shyamalan generally — I liked The Village more than most people seem to have — but (except for The Sixth Sense, obviously) he was brought to my attention by some people who struck me as jerks with horrible taste.)

I think Batman Begins has held up well so far (with the exception of the first part, the one set in the martial arts academy). We’ll see about The Dark Knight. I have questions: for example, certain elements common to both movies seemed lacking in the continuity department. But I don’t read comics, so I have no basis for comparison there.

19

novakant 08.22.08 at 1:08 am

The Dark Knight is sinply a bad movie, a jumbled mess: no rhythm, no style, hammy acting, a director who couldn’t frame an action sequence if his life depended on it and all that sprinkled with tedious civics lessons.

20

Wax Banks 08.22.08 at 2:42 am

My, novakant, aren’t you brave.

21

salientdowns 08.22.08 at 3:31 am

Of course, people look askance on the masked crime fighters of the Klu Klux Klan these days…

One of those attempts at being cute/clever/post-ironic that you wish you could take back immediately after submitting?

22

Righteous Bubba 08.22.08 at 4:03 am

I’m with novakant but I’m not nearly so brave. Pretty stupid movie.

23

Jonathan Burns 08.22.08 at 4:23 am

There’s a terrible accident – a tornado rips through a trailer park – and this is, for some strange reason, the origin story for Double-wide (he’s a bruiser type) and Airstream (his sexy, flying partner). They fight crime in a small town in Georgia. Who should their arch-enemy be?

It seems as if we should be able simply to read this off from your classic Some Versions of Mock-Pastoral, Part I.

I.e. trailer park people are a microcosm of the nation, with all its potential communal strength but also its actual brainlessness. But even the brainlessness is endearing, in fact indispensable. While the communal victory is authorial sleight of hand, disguised as the right people being there at the right time and pulling out all their personal stops.

And it’s got to be fun; so it absolutely must be well-supplied with things for DW to whack, and things for Airstream to dodge and catch, while looking really good, in an artless sort of way.

I think the model you want is Tremors. Fight crime? What serious kinds of crime are there? Plain open murder? Murder concealed? Robbery? What do these people have that’s worth the trouble of stealing on a conspicuous scale? Criminal plots require so much contrivance and special-casing that the consistency overwhelms the appeal – and then your bastard readers take their sweet time picking it all apart.

Whereas, if you just straight-out make it that the town is under siege by prehistoric fauna and flying kachina-monsters, the heroes get all the righteous targets they need, and you can contrive away freely.

24

Walt 08.22.08 at 5:33 am

Andrew R.’s comment is objectively funny. Objectively.

25

Roy Belmont 08.22.08 at 6:52 am

8 untravel 08.21.08 at 3:45 pm :
The super-hero narrative needs villains from an opposite world, not from home. Otherwise we’re looking at a microcosm with its own rules. We don’t want that, it’s underwhelming.
We want the cosmos, the thrill of seeing the real rules play out in dramatic contrast.

Trailer park heroes need opponents whose scorn and antipathy for common (white) people are carried to entertaining caricature.
In a better more honest world he could be a black man, scarred and made demented by racists in a vicious act that also took his family.
Trying to give himself superhuman strength in order to get revenge, he goes too far, becomes mad, retains super-powers. Work with a ‘roid analogy here.

In this lesser world though it’ll have to be one of the elite. Someone from say, the academy, mutated into a fanged and drooling fiend. A hard transition to write effectively.
Make him an intellectually gifted freak whose rationality has turned back on its master and eaten his soul. A math genius who figured out how to transcend space-time with the act of writing certain formulae in exactly the right order.

Goes into the future looking for untold wealth and power in the form of cross-temporal knowledge and comes back insane. He boomerangs off some singularity of forward momentum straight back to the very beginning, has to work his way forward life by life all the way from the primordial bacterial to get back to where he started, the near-future present. But it alters the world he’s born into. Billions of years of crawling. Picking up extra DNA. Mutating.
Reborn as himself in alternate universes, but each time through a little more Other. Develop something here about him trying to annihilate the world to get out of the loop he’s in, something like that. In this world the heroes have been told by mysterious presences he might succeed, causing great havoc in the universe. Earth as arena, again.

Professor Something.
Occupies a college campus that’s a front maintained by his worldwide financial empire, a fortress with invisible walls where he can experiment to his heart’s content. On students.
Tweed or a tweed pattern should figure in his costume.
Hates barbecue, canned beer, cheap tight clothes on good-looking women. The anarchy of fecund poverty. Country music gives him fits, actual convulsions and foaming at the mouth. Can be used as a weapon if he’s taken by surprise.
From the urban East Coast maybe. With an accent.

26

john holbo 08.22.08 at 8:12 am

Hey Jonathan, you are exactly right. I am trying to pick up that old mock-pastoral post and rework it. (I’m flattered that you remember it.)

27

Josh in Philly 08.22.08 at 8:36 am

That movie’s elicited lots of great commentary, including (pardon me if I’ve written this in this venue before) SEK’s. Sure it’s Moore’s Joker, but it’s Miller’s Gordon, which makes for an interesting combination and shows how tenuous the credibility of Miller’s fascism is when you just add a couple of elements not indigenous to the Millerverse. The juxtapostion of a liberal father-figure (Lucius) and a conservative mother-figure (Alfred) for Bruce also has interesting results.

Looking forward to the new version of pastoral, JH!

28

Buck Theorem 08.22.08 at 11:01 am

I think superhero films – which, y’know, aren’t representantive of the comics MEDIUM as a whole – are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

29

michael d 08.22.08 at 12:27 pm

To the contrary, the comics-about-comics genre is surprisingly resilient, for fascinating reasons I won’t go into right now.

During one long lazy discussion about the unfilmability of Don Quijote, I decided that probably the only way to make it work is to reinvent it as a superhero joint: Comic Book Guy cracks, ties a towel around his neck, and starts sucker-punching every villain he can find, while Christopher Nolan Benengeli follows him around with a steadycam and posts these sallies, the film itself, on YouTube. Now that’s comics-about-comics we can believe in!

30

novakant 08.22.08 at 4:14 pm

Btw, as it happens I bought three books by Bordwell just last weekend (Film Art, Film History, Poetics of Cinema), because I want to brush up my knowledge of all things film and I can highly recommend at least the first two (haven’t gotten around to the third one yet).

31

Flippanter 08.22.08 at 7:42 pm

Wouldn’t it be awesome if it made sense to wear your underwear on the outside and punch people in clown make-up all night long? Wouldn’t it be great if that were a tough, but noble – with a touch of personal tragedy – moral decision?

Yes. So awesome. So great.

More to the point, the other day I explained to a friend that if you have been reading about Batman since your father bought you your first issue of Detective Comics when you were six years old, watching Batman Begins and, especially, The Dark Knight is a tricky business of adjusting the solitary, hiding-in-the-attic hermeneutic of reading comics created by two or three craftsmen ranging from journeymen to mad artists to address a complicated machine assembled by an army of skilled professionals.

32

Jeff Rubard 08.22.08 at 7:53 pm

You know what, John, you remember this show, right?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dukes_of_Hazzard

Consider foreign-language near-homophones for “Hazzard”, and the line from the Waylon Jennings theme song:
“Someday the mountain might get them, but the law never will.”

As for The Dark Knight, I’m making plans never to see it since I first heard of it.

33

Jeff Rubard 08.22.08 at 8:05 pm

Note: I am not saying Bo and Luke are French nobility, though it is true ain’t no Gironde like the one I got. (Though, ladies, if you are mad about Catherine Bach the person to write is the still-living Fred Silverman.)

34

Righteous Bubba 08.22.08 at 8:07 pm

“Someday the mountain might get them, but the law never will.”

That there really ruined the suspense.

35

Jeff Rubard 08.23.08 at 12:06 am

Yeah, I know, it’s a little scattershot. I’ve been spending most of my time today on pgh.general:

http://groups.google.com/group/pgh.general/topics

36

Jeff Rubard 08.23.08 at 12:06 am

Yeah, I know, it’s a little scattershot. I’ve been spending most of my time today on pgh.general.

Comments on this entry are closed.