The Dark Knight Redux
Whence This Perfect Storm?

Okay… It’s official. The Dark Knight is a certifiable cultural phenomenon. Dedicated fans are flocking to the theaters in droves. Everyone’s talking about it. We’re running a second article here at PtP…

And yet, in the true spirit of the business, no one—including the studio—seems to understand the “recipe” behind this Perfect Cinematic Storm. At least if they do know, no one’s spilling the beans. My theory—given that it’s been ten years since Titanic—is that we won’t be seeing another film event like this for a decade or so; and that will be proof enough that the Secret Ingredients remain a mystery.

After having had a couple of weeks to mull things over, though (a rare gift of about two weeks’ more time than I had to actually write my review!) I came up with a few observations that might shed some light on why this film has become an overnight sensation.

Morgan Freeman as Lucius FoxFirst and foremost, the vast majority of this summer’s “blockbusters” have been just plain silly—and by contrast, The Dark Knight is far more serious-minded. When Indiana Jones fails to fascinate; when the Wachowski Brothers disappoint; when an animated film like WALL-E proves divisive; and when even a Will Smith 4th-of-July flick wanders off into the metaphysical weeds, a growling appetite grows that craves something which seems to take the real world—and the audience’s intelligence—seriously. With The Dark Knight, such an appetite is now being sated in a major way.

Second—and I think this is the first case where I misread the design of the film at first blush—it appears that the film’s success is due in part to the very way in which the film takes the audience seriously. I’m still inclined to question director Christopher Nolan’s “free-wheeling penchant for short-shrifting admittedly throw-away scenes,” as I put it. But letting the audience fill in the gaps on their own—say, for instance, after Batman puts his bike on the street instead of running over The Joker, and the Caped Crusader is left lying there with nary a detail provided about what actually happened to him—seems to be rather more satisfying than distracting. Nolan’s attitude seems to be: “Audiences are smart enough to figure out some of this stuff. They don’t need to be spoon-fed, and they’re more interested in what happens next than in wrapping up intermediate set-pieces with tidy, useless little bows.” And he appears to be right.

Third—and this is where my first read was almost completely wrong—the film’s politics are not as cut-and-dried as I tried to paint them when I attempted to argue that The Dark Knight endorses (or at least excuses) “unconstitutional wiretapping and torture.”

It’s probably worth pointing out that my language regarding the film’s politics was imprecise enough to have angered a number of readers. One blogger cited my review as literally the worst that she’d read, complaining that I’d pulled political commentary out of thin air… and that my clear “Bush-bashing” agenda had gotten the better of me.

Another reader sent me the following message:

Just stumbled across your movie-review site and was immediately disappointed to see you throw in some totally unneeded political commentary in your review of The Dark Knight. Why would you do this? Are you purposely trying to alienate half of your potential audience, as you’ve alienated me? It’s a shame, but luckily there are many other film critics to whom I can turn who do not flavor their reviews with political commentary. Goodbye. I hardly knew ye.

Now, Ken—a military veteran—and I ended up having a very worthwhile exchange of messages about how he and I read the film somewhat differently; but I think I’ve at least been vindicated on one front. The very same day that my review ran, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed piece which offered a detailed explication of my review’s thesis. Said Andrew Klavan in “What Bush and Batman Have in Common,”

Why is it, indeed, that the conservative values that power our defense — values like morality, faith, self-sacrifice and the nobility of fighting for the right — only appear in fantasy or comic-inspired films like “300,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Narnia,” “Spiderman 3” and now “The Dark Knight”?

Further, the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly published the following exchange with director Christopher Nolan:

EW: You and your co-writers put a lot of what many people take to be political metaphors into your Batman movies. Are these deliberate?

NOLAN: Well, the simple answer is yes. That’s not to say that we’re trying to make political stories. That’s not the case. We just write from the perspective of the world we live in, what interests us and frightens us.

Now, my response to Ken (in part) encouraged him to

look through my reviews, [and] I think you’ll find that I bring up politics—or religion, or…—only when I feel that the movies themselves bring those issues up. I care about what the filmmakers care about; and it really strikes me that Nolan cares about these political issues, and has made a fairly strong political statement in an election year in which President Bush’s anti-terrorism policies are going to be a major issue.

So in this respect, at least, it appears that I am neither alone nor mistaken.

I did, however, misread Nolan’s artistic statement, initially making the following assessment:

The Dark Knight is a sober-minded and pragmatic examination of what’s happened to America under the current Bush Administration… and it’s not going to offer any warm fuzzies to starry-eyed optimists hoping that either McCain or Obama are going to “change things.” … I just wonder what the movie-going public will make of all of this. If The Dark Knight resonates with audiences in a big way, the film could be a harbinger of bad news for Obama in the fall… particularly given how poorly anti-Bush films have fared at the boxoffice. Movies are bellwethers for public sentiment, and this is one that politicos on either side of the aisle would do well to watch closely.

My evidently too-subtle implications were that: first, I read the film as pro-Bush (unlike anti-Bush boxoffice disasters such as War, Inc., Stop-Loss, and CSNY Déjà Vu); and second, I’m sympathetic, in fact, to such a reading—far from lining up as a Bush-basher.  I supposed that I was somewhat swayed by the way in which the film’s hero disagreed with God (Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox)… and won the argument!

But as I noted in comments about the film over at Hollywood Jesus,

The more I think about this, the less I think that the film is a defense of shady governmental policies justified in the name of fighting evil.

In the case of the interrogation, The Joker would have given Batman the same information, at the same time, even if Batman had shared afternoon tea with him rather than roughing him up. And Batman’s illegal interrogation didn’t yield any useful information at all; instead, it led to the creation of yet another villain—“Two Face”—and a blown-up police precinct. Perhaps the outcome would have been better if Harvey Dent had died, too.

In the case of the ferries, the cell phone surveillance stopped nothing; it was human nature that won the day, not Bruce Wayne’s flouting of the law.

From my perspective, the film is sympathetic to Batman’s decisions, but ultimately argues that his choices remain not only wrong, but fruitless and even destructive.

And this, I think, accounts for the broad appeal of The Dark Knight: it is complex, as I noted in my review, yet still remains balanced. It can see our pragmatically-fueled political reality for what it is—without having to come down squarely on one rhetorical side or the other, allowing plenty of room for an audience (and individuals) to react, to think, and to reflect.

Such room for thought exceeds whatever biased clap-trap our other sources of political commentary are offering these days. In an election year when major media outlets are turning news into mere entertainment and talking-head blather, mere Hollywood entertainment is offering up one of most meaty analyses of “what interests us and frightens us” that we’ve yet seen… even if audiences are not responding to the film’s politics on an overt or conscious level.

It is there, though, and resonating with audiences on a subconscious level at least. And I stand by my summation, even if I recant certain of my details: “Movies are bellwethers for public sentiment, and this is one that politicos on either side of the aisle would do well to watch closely.”