July 29, 2008

A Darker Knight

During the course of recording Episode 6a, our review of the previous few weeks' comics movies, I said something to the effect of "Maybe we shouldn't have done this the second we got home from seeing The Dark Knight." At the time, our thinking was that we lost our Hellboy II momentum by waiting on it, and ended up incorporating that into this podcast because we never got around to doing it the way we had originally wanted to.

And from a productivity/output standpoint, it worked like a charm. Episode 6a went up, chock full of ideas and opinions and criticisms and observations. But as I stated in my reservation (at least I think I articulated this as the reason for my reservation - it's wholly possible that I did not.) my ideas and opinions and criticisms an observations were not fully formed.

Now, a week and a few days removed, I can look back on my statements of the time and recognize them as what they were; a larval critique. With the benefits of time and research and conversation on my side now, I would like to offer up a fully-formed version of whatever it was I said or was trying to say about The Dark Knight in episode 6a.

Looking back on The Dark Knight, I find instead a Darker Knight ... but a much more impressive film.

I still do have problems with many aspects of the Joker's capers existing outside the realms of believability. If he's going to plant enough explosives to destroy a massive hospital, I want to see how he does it without alerting any of the staff. If he's going to get bombs and several hundred drums of oil into the bottoms of a couple of ferryboats, I want to see how he gets away with it. If he's got cops on the take, I want to see money change hands.

This is all a byproduct of the film being so grounded in realism, and it's all subjects that I touched on in episode 6a. But what I hadn't touched on - or even realized at the time - is there's another, more allegorical byproduct of the film's insistence on realism.

Two quotes now - one from a comics writer I highly respect and whose work I enjoy thoroughly ... the other from a tooly douchebag. First, here's Caleb from the often brilliant Every Day is Like Wednesday.

4.) I reeeaaalllly wasn’t expecting to see Batman-as-the-Bush-administration in this movie, and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that.

Regarding Caleb's thoughts - at the time we recorded episode 6a, I didn't know how I felt about that either, because I hadn't even noticed it. But you are absolutely right, it is there, and it needs to be recognized, and it goes a long way towards explaining my "why can't they just get this fucking guy!" frustration with the Joker. It is an absolute testament to the skill of Christopher Nolan, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhardt, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Christian Bale that they were able to pull me into a world where I was capable of feeling such feelings. It is a testament to their brilliance that they were able to do so without me even noticing.

Here's another take, from Andrew Klavan in the Lexcorp-owned Wall Street Journal.

There seems to me no question that the Batman film "The Dark Knight," currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.
There have been several points over the course of the last seven and a half years where I've seen something subtle in something bombastic - something I'm probably not supposed to see, and something that worries me greatly. Back in January of 2002, when President Bush coined the term "Axis of Evil" to describe the unholy trinity of North Korea, Iraq and Iran, I cringed. Not because it was proof that we'd get little other than cowboy diplomacy out of this man, but because of the imagery conjured by that phrase.

The first incarnation of the "Axis of Evil" fought against the Invaders and the All-Winners Squad during World War II. The team consisted of the winged "Airyan" his best friend "Reich and Roll," his beloved partner "Luftwife" and their kid sidekick "The Little Baron." They drove the Volkshammer.

The second incarnation was formed by the Red Skull and Ultron and included Whirlwind, Moonstone, and probably Egghead. They fought the Avengers on several occasions, and the Champions once.

The third Axis of Evil was Kim Jong Il from North Korea, and his pompadour of destiny - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "The unpronounceable man" and of course Saddam Hussein, who we all know was really Kang.

By using what could only be described as comic book terminology to talk about the men being described as the three greatest threats to our nation, it seemed as though we were doing ourselves a great disservice, and one that we might not even see the ramifications of for years, maybe decades. Cowboy diplomacy was to be replaced with Comic Book diplomacy. And anyone who's ever read a team-up book from the 70's knows that even superheroes can't meet without kicking the snot out of each other while incurring thousands of dollars in collateral damage and putting innocents in harm's way.

Klavan says "Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past." In the world of comic books, this is acceptable for two reasons.

1.) these are not real lives we're dealing with. If Batman tortures random vaguely-russian-looking dockworker A for a few minutes, breaking several ribs in the process, and vaguely-russian-looking dockworker A genuinely doesn't have the information he's looking for, Batman can just toss vaguely-russian-looking dockworker A into that large stack of curiously empty crates that's always standing just a few feet away from these scenes. No harm, no foul, Bats goes on to find his next potential informant, and vaguely-russian-looking dockworker A is forgotten about forever. In the real world however, there are dozens upon dozens of "vaguely-russian-looking dockworker A"s in Guanatanamo. Except they're goat herders. Or Arab media trainees. Or college students. Or regular shiftworkers who were turned in by their neighbors for the $10,000 bounty we offered. We've been waterboarding and sleep-depriving them for years without a lick of credible evidence that any of them would have ever even been exposed to information we need. Except we can't just toss them into some crates and forget about them. These are human beings. For the most part, completely innocent human beings.

2.) We are certain that Batman will re-establish the boundaries when the danger is past, because Batman is a one-dimensional, fictional hero. Batman has nothing to gain from exploiting the moving of the boundaries, and if he did, he'd ignore it because he'd know it's the wrong thing to do. The Bush Administration and its friends, on the other hand, have all benefitted greatly through the relaxing of certain regulations, and the strict enforcement of others. Blackwater. Halliburton. "if you see something, say somethinig" and now Richard Perle. Batman can be trusted to destroy his little cell phone surveilance outfit. George W. Bush could not.

Klavan goes on.

When heroes arise who take those difficult duties on themselves, it is tempting for the rest of us to turn our backs on them, to vilify them in order to protect our own appearance of righteousness. We prosecute and execrate the violent soldier or the cruel interrogator in order to parade ourselves as paragons of the peaceful values they preserve. As Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon says of the hated and hunted Batman, "He has to run away -- because we have to chase him."

That's real moral complexity. And when our artistic community is ready to show that sometimes men must kill in order to preserve life; that sometimes they must violate their values in order to maintain those values; and that while movie stars may strut in the bright light of our adulation for pretending to be heroes, true heroes often must slink in the shadows, slump-shouldered and despised -- then and only then will we be able to pay President Bush his due and make good and true films about the war on terror.

Here's where the Dark Knight truly shined in hindsight - and where Klavan makes me sick to my stomach. The Dark Knight is unquestionably one of the most morally complex and murky films of the last several decades. But even with all of its moral complexities, it is an infinitely simpler and more appealing world than the reality we live in. Unfortunately for too many people including our friend Klavan here, they understand this fictional world far more than they understand their own, and desire for it to be real, because it would be so much easier (and let's face it, more fun) to live in.

Here's Slate.com's Dahlia Lithwick from this past weekend:

According to British lawyer and writer Philippe Sands, Jack Bauer—played by Kiefer Sutherland—was an inspiration at early "brainstorming meetings" of military officials at Guantanamo in September of 2002. Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate general who gave legal approval to 18 controversial new interrogation techniques including water-boarding, sexual humiliation, and terrorizing prisoners with dogs, told Sands that Bauer "gave people lots of ideas." Michael Chertoff, the homeland-security chief, once gushed in a panel discussion on 24 organized by the Heritage Foundation that the show "reflects real life."

John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who produced the so-called torture memos—simultaneously redefining both the laws of torture and logic—cites Bauer in his book War by Other Means. "What if, as the popular Fox television program '24' recently portrayed, a high-level terrorist leader is caught who knows the location of a nuclear weapon?" Even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, speaking in Canada last summer, shows a gift for this casual toggling between television and the Constitution. "Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives," Scalia said. "Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?"

Except on TV and in comic book movies, you know the person being ruthlessly interrogated is a bad guy. You know he either a) has the information you need or b) doesn't, but deserves the beating he's getting anyway. In real life, you end up with Canadian engineer Maher Arar, who was detained and sent to Syria where he was tortured for 374 days. Because he bought a printer cartridge with a guy who knew a guy who allegedly knew Osama Bin Laden.

The "real" Joker.

What I hadn't realized the film had done to me, was that it had taken me out of my world, where I read scores of foreign newspapers and accounts from watchdog groups to try to develop a sense of what's right and what's wrong. This film then dropped me squarely into another world, which tangentially resembled mine enough that I could get my moral bearings somewhat - but had taken out all the light grey area and replaced it with dark grey. Not a huge difference, but big enough.

For the two and a half hours I was in that theatre, I would have given up any of my rights to catch the Joker. I would have gladly submitted myself to that cell phone 3d-mappy thing. I'd allow myself to be wiretapped. I'd probably stand up and sing God Bless Gotham, even though I'm a Buddhist and I don't believe in "God" proper. I'd let them put religion back into public schools, if only to help the kids make some sense out of this awful, awful world. For the two and a half hours I spent watching this movie, I was a victim of desperation.

This film gave me a better understanding of why some desperate morons don't understand that Batman and Jack Bauer aren't real, and that their bullshit wouldn't fly here in the real world. And for that, I applaud you, The Dark Knight.

Just please stay the fuck out of Washington.


Evie said...

Spectacular post, A.

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