I saw The Dark Knight the other day.
Don't worry. I won't spoil it for the handful of moviegoers who haven't turned out for what's already being called one of the best films of the year. Suffice to say that it lives up to the hype. From beginning to end, the conflict between Christian Bale's Batman and Heath Ledger's Joker is engrossing. It's a plot- and character-driven flick that still manages to crank out some of the most compelling action scenes of any recent release from Tinseltown.
It's also brutal. Very brutal. The American PG-13 rating for "intense sequences of violence and some menace," and the British 12A rating for "moderate violence and sustained threat," are a bit misleading.
Some menace? Moderate violence?
A gangster gets a pencil jammed in his skull. A main character's face catches on fire, leaving a charred hunk of flesh. Multiple cops get dispatched via shotgun and handgun, and a few courtesy of the sadistic Joker and his collection of cutlery. Nary a scene goes by where somebody doesn't have a gun to his head or knife to his jugular. Even Batman himself, viewed by kids the world over as a staunch defender of truth and justice, shrugs off the shining knight mantle and breaks a few legs (literally) to get the information he wants.
Simply put, this is not your granddaddy's comic book.
That's why I was surprised to see so many kids in the theatre. And when I say kids, I mean kids -- three or four year-olds, little pups who still can't tie their shoes. By the end of the film's first hour (during which the Joker racks up quite a few kills), I had to wonder why these parents hadn't escorted their children out, maybe to see Pixar's Wall-E on the neighboring screen.
Then I realized the kids were there because the moviemakers wanted them there, and the parents were only too willing to oblige. Following in the turbid tradition of advertising violent movies to youth, the toy stores are full of Dark Knight paraphernalia, much of it recommended for children as young as two. Families walk right into the marketing trap, buying the toys and tickets without bothering to check the content of the film.
Too few critics have picked up on the macabre violence in The Dark Knight and its impact on childhood, choosing instead to focus on the film's record-breaking earnings (it grossed $158.4 million its opening weekend) and on Ledger's performance. They've also glossed over the film's grisly nature to fixate on Bale's own. But there are a few voices in the wilderness calling attention to the issue.
"The danger with a film like this is its history in the Batman comic book series and cartoons. People think of this hero as fun and entertaining, so parents may even take very young children to see what they believe is a family film," Glenn Sparks, a Purdue University professor who studies violent movies, told one newspaper.
Another article, published in USA Today, describes several parents who said they regretted taking their kids. "There has to be a way to tell parents that someone is going to get a pencil in the skull," said one.
There is, but you have to do your homework. This isn't Adam West's campy rendition of the caped crusader, nor is it the tame cartoon incarnation from the 1990s. It's parents' responsibility to find that out. Producers and marketers who target violent films to kids should be recognized for the scum they are, but parents have the final say. They set the media standard for the household.
It's not child abuse to tell your kids they can't see that movie about the psychopathic clown who likes to knife people. No, kids are not resilient. Yes, they are impressionable. They'll remember that nightmarish man with the caked-on makeup long after The Dark Knight is reduced to the bargain bin at Wal-Mart.
Maybe parents should think about that before buying tickets.
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