Scott Sommers’ Taiwan Blog

What I Think about Dark Knight


Thank God for Ironman. If we had to rely on Bruce Wayne and not Tony Stark for our action, this season’s superhero comic book movies would be a disaster.

The Dark Knight has won over everyone. Fans flock in unbelievable numbers to see this year’s version of Batman and for once, in-line with popular opinion, the critics seem to agree. Dark Knight is “fabulous” and “the superhero of superhero films“. Even the Guardian tells us that it’s nothing short of breathtaking. But they are wrong. Dark Knight is the movie that shows all that’s wrong with the superhero comic book genre of movies. Dark Knight is not boring or bad. It’s just plain stupid. It’s so stupid that in spite of what the critics or even the rest of world have to say, you should stay home and save your money.

Dark Knight wants you to ask deep questions. It tries to probe into the soul of humanity and ask what we would be do if the threads of order that hold our civilized society together were suddenly broken. In this case, it doesn’t mean what we would do if technology failed us, as humanity was asked in Water World. It’s not about the world we would fall into if aliens took over our souls, as happened in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s not even a chaos like the George Bush and the USA have brought to Afghanistan or Iraq. Instead, the chaos that Dark Knight asks us to imagine is a world where the police and justice system have been neutered and there are killers in our midst striking at random. It is a world where citizens have nowhere to turn to except their own inner strength and even that isn’t enough because the villains in this case are…well you guessed it…super villains.

So in The Dark Knight the Joker runs amok through the heartland of urban civilization. He robs banks that launder organized crime money. He deliberately chooses as his victims those unconnected to his goals. He bombs hospitals and convicts and the rich. He threatens policeman, judges, and politicians and kills them without any sense of fear. There is no victim beyond his reach and no force strong enough to stop him.

But wait. Hasn’t this all happened for real? Was it all so long ago that no one remembers? In 1992, Pablo Escobar, on the run from the Columbian police, offered rewards for the bodies of the police and US soldiers hunting for him, turned the streets into a battlefield. At its height, Escobar was responsible for the killing of 20 policeman and judges a day – that’s right a day – and this lasted for 2 months. In total, 30 judges and 457 policemen were killed. It is estimated that Escobar is responsible for the killing of thousands. The real numbers are so huge that they reduce to almost meaninglessness the 6 police victims cited by the Joker as he taunts a Gotham policeman. But it doesn’t stop there. During the 1980s, the Italian Mafia killed judges and other law enforcement officials before they began bombing tourist spots. Even Canada has had its share of lawlessness. In 1980’s Montreal, a war between the Hell’s Angels and the Rock Machine motorcycle gangs began targeting peace officers and journalists. In the end, it left more than 150 people dead, including a child and several prison guards.

Dark Knight doesn’t ask you to imagine lawlessness in the streets. That happens all the time all over the world. Dark Knight asks you to imagine lawlessness in the city streets of the United States of America.

What makes Dark Knight different from Medellin or a film about the Italian Mafia is that the forces of darkness are so powerful that even Delta Force and the US military could barely dent its will. It is a world of superheros and their counterpoint – the super villain. The amazing thing is that the Joker seems to have crafted this world-bending will from a gang of mental patients. Henri Ducard and the League of Shadows may have powered the dark world of Batman Begins, but the Joker and his gang end up back in the age-old comic book movie problem that I pointed to here – where did their gang learn to fight like that? This was never really an issue for Joel Schumacher because who would take him seriously? But Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale are supposed to be serious. So tell me, how did the Joker craft a bunch of mental patients into an unstoppable crime gang?

And it’s this that drives me nuts. Batman and the Joker aren’t just superheros. They don’t just defy physics and do things that are impossible. They do things that defy the imagination. You might as well call him the invisible man. The Joker can load up a hospital with enough explosives to level the structure without ever being noticed. His gang of paranoid schizophrenics can carry hundreds of barrels of oil or something like that on to, not just one, but two public ferries – and never be seen by the crew. The Joker seems to be invulnerable to concussion when he survives and walks away to fight from the now well-known end-to-end flipping of a semi-trailer, even though Batman falls off his bike and can’t get up. This is not the kind of suspended belief that makes movies possible. I’m an expert at accepting at face value the logic of Movie Magic World. It’s the suspended belief allowing Superman’s ability to fly that makes watching the movie so much fun. Tony Stark is a superhero because he can build an arc reactor from a bunch of scraps while he’s trapped in a cave. But it’s not just suspension of belief that makes it possible to watch Dark Knight, it’s idiocy.

It’s true that Dark Knight has its jewels. There’s Michael Caine recounting his experience as a British peace officer in Burma. There’s Michael Caine explaining why Batman has become a target for all the crazies of the world. There’s Bruce Wayne’s pontification about what he has to do to fight someone who is not moved by money or power but merely by a wish “to see everything burn”, but wait, that’s Michael Caine again. In fact, the dialog itself is very good. It’s sharp, witty, and sometimes profound. It’s just that something about the movie, perhaps the way the is put into the film, has completely lost the brilliance of the message if the story. All of this is what left me asking, is there something intrinsic about the movie that makes it impossible to tell this story properly?

Of course there is. Superhero comic books are a genre that developed for decades. They are not novels. They are not movies. They are stories done in graphic pictures that appear frame by frame. As a result, there’s a certain kind of story that can be told well. These stories do not necessarily translate onto film anymore than film could be translated into comic book or graphic novel form and still convey all the subtleties of the genre. Why would it? So while the masses and the critics may be swooning from the imagery and the profound message they hear in the script, the film itself can not convey the story without descending into a ridiculous world where idiotic things happen as a matter of daily course. Sure you can ignore this and get on with the fun of the movie, but why would you want to? If you can’t watch the movie without completely suspending everything you’ve learned in your lifetime, what’s the point of watching? Is it just to be able to ask yourself about the limits of humanity? But then why ask the audience to take the movie so seriously? If the whole point of a movie is to do this with film-based images and a plot that captures your feelings, then Dark Knight is doing no less than asking you to suspend all sense of anything you have ever known.

Dark Knight asks you to accept that utterly unimaginable things happen on such a regular basis that it’s just no longer Earth. Every scene is filled with some impossible fact until it hits you – this has nothing to do with anything that could happen in your world. It’s a parallel planet that resembles Earth, but it’s not our Earth. But should this come as any surprise to me? After all, it’s not New York City; it’s Gotham. And what’s the difference between the world of the Dark Knight and the world of Ironman or The Hulk?

Actually, a whole lot. Ironman doesn’t ask you to ponder its deep moral message, so it doesn’t matter what Phil Coulson does. It doesn’t make the movie one bit less fun if Ironman routinely demands a stretch of reality because it’s not meant to have a deep moral lesson for our world. If the Joker’s gang is as meaningful to us as the aliens from Mars Attacks!, then who cares about what choices and problems and decisions the people of Gotham end up with?

And when all this is said and done, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – in The Dark Knight that I haven’t seen before. Watching boat loads of prisoners and socialites choose between blowing up others or saving themselves made me feel like it had all happened before. Was the feeling of revulsion any different from when I was coerced into watching Saw? You know – the horror series where our villain kidnaps people and forces them to choose between saving themselves or doing something horrible to another person. Where have I seen an action hero have to choose between saving others and the beautiful girl he loves? Could it have been the finale of Spiderman? Even the idea of bugging all the phones in Gotham so that Batman could locate the Joker was stolen from the US Delta Force search for Pablo Escobar. Except that when Batman did it to the good citizens of Gotham, General Lucius was mortified. When Delta Force did it to the Colombians, it all seemed in the interest of America. I’m even plagued by this nagging feeling of familiarity when I recall Michael Caine’s wonderful story about burning down the forest to find the jewel thief. It could be my memory of the nameless US military officer at Ben Tre in Vietnam who stated that it “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” In fact, I think I have heard the exact same story somewhere else, but even with the help of the World Wide Web I have not been able to find out where.

So don’t get drawn in by the hype. There is nothing in Dark Knight (other than Michael Caine) that’s worth the effort of watching if only because you have to stand up and go to the theater. To warp film into telling a story that was better left for the graphic comics, it’s had to rely on a trail of images and ideas stolen from various places. To string these together in any semblance of a plot, Dark Knight has had to suspend logic and reasoning to such an extent that its characters are no longer human. And that’s where the fun stops. It’s a movie with a story that has nothing to do with anything that could happen to you or to me or to any other human being on this planet. It’s a fragmented story hidden inside special effects that we’ve been tricked into thinking have an important moral message for us.

Don’t waste your time and money. Avoid Dark Knight as if it were the bubonic plague.

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