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But I think that the movie pays a terrible price for its exploitation of comic book conventions in order to give itself this peculiar, unworldly appearance. For when the movie attempts to turn serious and make the transition from fantasy-land back to reality in order to proclaim a moral, I find it impossible to take it seriously. Of course it doesn’t help that the moral is such a feeble and familiar one — in fact, a comic-book moral to go along with the rest of the comic-book trappings — namely, yet another iteration of that favorite Hollywood trope about how the hero and the villain are really just two sides of the same coin. Only the fact that intelligent people still, unaccountably in my view, regard this as a profundity can account for either the critical reception or the box office success of the movie. Those wishing to read more about my critique of this notion as a moral or political judgment are welcome to consult my review of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, but here I’d only like to point out that anyone who finds it unbelievable when exemplified in a relatively real-looking scenario can hardly be expected to find it any more persuasive when the hero and villain are two such comic-book grotesques as Batman and the Joker.
Of course, the movie’s admirers won’t mind the comic book trappings, and that is their right, but even they must see that its attempts at seriousness are that much less serious for them. If everything else in the movie is unreal and belongs to the comic book world, how can we believe that the moral alone belongs to the real world? And such a moral! I have heard the convergence of Batman and the Joker compared to that between John Wayne and Lee Marvin in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But Ford was telling us that people want to believe heroism grows out of reason and law and civilization but that it really doesn’t. Instead, it is a throwback to the most primitive honor cultures before there were any law or civilization, which are things that cannot be contracted for. The Dark Knight tells us the opposite: that both heroism and villainy grow out of reason and law and civilization and that, therefore, these things are mere shams and subterfuges masking a Hobbesian reality devoid even of honor, in which man is a wolf to man and there is nothing to believe in but the individual Nietzschean will, either to good or evil. It’s the sort of thing that you have to be an emotional adolescent, steeped in his own anti-social fantasies, in order to believe.
I have also heard the superhero movie in general and Batman in particular compared to the Homeric epics, because they deal with larger than life figures and even immortals. But the reality of the Homeric epic is conveyed by the fact that those who are its heroes do die — and that the tragedy of their deaths is played out against the backdrop of the comic soap opera of the immortal gods. The Dark Knight once again puts things the other way around. It’s the heroes who are the immortals. Not only Batman himself but those who apparently “die,” including the Joker and the other supervillains, are always sure to be back in yet another sequel or “rebooting” of the franchise. Meanwhile, the mortals are of no interest except insofar as they can give us a comic or spectacular death. The only people who die in movies like this one, which depend on our sense that there will always be another life for any character who matters, are virtually — often literally — faceless, anonymous. They’re just there to contribute to the body count, which is an aspect of the spectacle. They are treated with as much contempt as the Joker treats his hapless henchmen. The measure of the seriousness of any dramatic work is whether it takes death seriously. By that measure, The Dark Knight is not only fundamentally unserious; it is a travesty.
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