'Dark Knight' Batman bad for Comic Book Literacy

Even though I spend plenty of time wallowing in thoroughly respectable literature, I'm usually just itching to talk about comic books.

With "The Dark Knight" not only making box office records, but also being praised as an insightful, deep, and complex adaptation of Batman comics, it seems that now is the time for comics to really cement their place in mainstream society and gain some wider acceptance as, dare I say it, art.

Maybe. But, like a cheap Spiderman toy, I doubt it'll stick.

What's being touted as depth and maturity in the new Batman film is still being presented in opposition to the source material; critic Roger Ebert presumptuously states that the film "leaps beyond its origins and becomes an engrossing tragedy".

Personally, I still remember being enthralled by Shakespeare and Sophocles as a young teenager – not because I knew of their place in the canon, but because their characters, driven by abstract ideals, bound by tragic compulsion, and driven towards principled and introspective annihilation, resonated with my earlier love for Frank Miller's epic 1986 Batman story "The Dark Knight Returns"; and even now, I still think of the great canonical tragic figures in terms of Miller's fleshy and gnarled grotesques.

Sure, this might just suggest that comics are a 'gateway drug' to the real thing, but it's funny how little of the vibrancy, audacity and resonance that spurred me on in comics is captured in Christopher Nolan's widely praised adaptation.

In fact, much of the film's spontaneous intellectual cred seems to derive from the pre-release hype, which is now clever enough to realise that audiences like to feel intelligent when they trot off to the latest blockbuster.

Isolated from the hype celebrating its depth and profundity, "The Dark Knight" is a typically cowardly blockbuster, too afraid of overly-literal audiences and too bound by market expectations to revel in the richness of its source.

All the film's depth seems to be prepackaged and neatly delivered to the popcorn audiences who can then be proud of themselves for picking up angsty buzzwords and recognising emotional turmoil in Christian Bale's ludicrous Batman vewy-scawy-voice (somebody give that man a throat lozenge). Sadly, the idea that 'darkness' equals 'depth' didn't die out with Trent Reznor in the 90s.

With all those overly-literal speeches about character motivation, it's too busy analysing itself to provide anything worth analysing. Whenever the (clumsy) action stops, the characters start angsting to the camera about whatever profound turmoil it is they're struggling through this time.
Even the irrelevant characters, like Morgan Freeman's Bat-tech-support provider, and some accountant guy who discovers Batman's secret identity, have random faux-dilemmas forced on them in the few moments they actually appear on screen. There's so many mini-morality plays shoved in there that there's no time to dwell on the actual problems they claim to present.

Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon faking his own death (usually Homer Simpson's backup plan) has no real narrative value - it's just there so that his wife and family can be upset and Gordon can appear torn between his family and his duty (oh, the angst of it all!). His death and resurrection get one scene each and then we're done with the whole idea. Same with Freeman's threats to quit over Batman's misuse of technology - it comes out of nowhere and is more or less resolved in the same scene (um, are we supposed to be surprised when the "vague and mysterious"(tm) clue Batman gives to Freeman ends up destroying the unethical technology?)

Every extra seems to have been cast based on their ability to portray a slack-jawed look of befuddlement (we literally get a boatload of 'em), and I keep waiting for one of them to turn to the camera, point out of the screen, and ask, like some old high school education film: "what would YOU do??"

The film is so reverent to its own stature that it might as well be an 1950s Biblical epic where every single moment is a major event. In fact, I'm surprised Nolan didn't film a personal introduction, like Cecil B DeMille did for "The Ten Commandments", to remind us just how important his film is. It seems to be the next logical step. God forbid audiences should forget that they're watching a real honest-to-goodness work of capital-A Art.

The result is high camp, drenched in emo sensibilities, and far beyond anything provided by the 1960s Batman TV series. The campy series is generally considered to have done some of the worst damage to the mainstream Batman image, but at least it knew it was joking when its characters made self-important speeches and nodded seriously at each other.

All this seriousness would be fine, of course, if the film could find a substantial core beneath the buzzwords.
With all its supposed darkness, grittiness and violence, "The Dark Knight" is ludicrously clean and bloodless thanks to its cowardly PG (US) approach: aside from a couple of deaths tied directly to the plot, the only people killed are villains or jerks. Most deaths happen bloodlessly or offscreen, and we're asked to assume that nobody's hurt when Batman goes smashing his tank through buildings or gives a spine shattering kick to some perp's head.

As always, the audiences cheer the random destruction, then nod sagely at the vague 'Batman doesn't kill' moments.

Most laughable of all is the scene where the Joker blows up a hospital. After this 'anarchic' explosion, there's a ludicrous cut to Commissioner Gordon who more or less says: 'Phew, good thing we already evacuated that building and nobody was hurt and all the local birds flew away and all the local animals instinctively left the area'.

Even when a young child is threatened with death based on the flip of a coin, the film races to assure us that he was never in any danger. Batman saves him at the last minute, of course (Bats was shot but we already know he's bullet proof, don't we?), but the film goes out of its was to show us the coin coming down on the 'good' side.

Memories of Joel Schumacher's kiddie-compromised Bat-sequels come flooding back with this carefully diluted and non-confrontational violence, not to mention the action scenes that are designed to showcase marketable toys and inspire computer game levels (Batman saving bound hostages with some computer-vision gimmick looks like level 7 of every Batman computer game ever made and ever to be made).

But since Batman doesn't really seem to do anything at all in the film but run about and look troubled, there's not much point worrying about him. It's The Joker that everyone cares about, and who has held an exciting and dominant place in comics history for the last sevety years or so.

For a film that seems to think it has anarchy (ooh!) as one of its profound ideas, there's not a trace of resonant anarchy to be found in Heath Ledger's Joker. Oh, he talks about it all right, and explains to everyone over and over just how much he's blowing their conservative little minds when he burns money (take that, society!) or tells people that the world is a horrible place (wow, deep). But the moment you start explaining that you're an anarchist, you're not really an anarchist anymore – you're just an emo teenager or a deluded rock star.

Nolan is so scared of not being taken seriously that the Joker doesn't really laugh or, y'know, joke. He snickers, and makes a smarmy comment or cuh-razy gesture every now and then, but that's standard psycho-villain schtick now, chums. What's always been exciting about the Joker is not teenage babble about anarchy, but the sense that, behind that immovable grin, there's no sense of distinction at all between the most ridiculous and the most horrific.

While Ledger's Joker is always trying to make a profound point with vague cliches, Jack Nicholson's Joker from Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman" (itself far from perfect) is ready to kill, maim and mutilate any number of people for an intentionally idiotic motivation like having his face on the one-dollar bill.

Ledger's Joker keeps giving us young-anarchist-society lectures in a self-important effort to avoid silliness; Nicholson's Joker will kill horribly and violently for silliness itself.

It's an odd horror of psychological evacuation and irrelevance that Ledger's Joker never really approaches in Nolan's clutter of strained self-analysis and standard chimeras of psychological depth. Even Ledger's grin is made up of emo scars representing the nasty ol' world we live in, rather than that classic blank and unanalysable grin which, oblivious to humanity, evokes more than it merely 'means'.

Nolan's fear of abstract elements means he can't really have the Joker be more than a ranting real-world crim. Take a look at a couple of similar moments in the two films:

Burton's film has a great (but often dismissed) scene in which the Joker faces down Batman's speeding Batplane. The Joker reaches into his pants and grabs the handle of a small handgun. He pulls it out and the gun barrel keeps coming, and coming, and coming, like a clown pulling out an endless string of tied-scarves, until he's left with a tiny gun handle with a ridiculously long barrel. It's amusing enough in itself, a great joke as the Joker's own uber-phallic symbol, and gets the narrative where it needs to go. It's not really worth ruining the fun by wondering how he'd walk properly with that in his pants.

There's a similar 'big gun' moment in "The Dark Knight". Ledger's Joker is trying to blow up a car. He isn't having much luck. Inside the car they say something like, 'he'll need a bigger gun to get us'. The Joker then gets a bigger gun, but still has no luck. Inside thecar they say something like, 'he'll need a really big gun like a bazooka to get us'. The Joker then gets a bigger gun. It's a bazooka. 'He's got a bazooka' one of the characters helpfully points out as though we're supposed to be impressed by the audacity. There's no joke, nothing of interest, no audacity, and no content. It's just a bazooka, with a long set-up for another boring explosion.

In the rush to praise this kind of dull "realism" and Ledger's method-acting James Dean twitchiness, Burton's focus on style and impact, as well as Jack Nicholson's exciting combination of death and idiocy, are generally derided by new "Dark Knight" fans. They roll their eyes at Nicholson's death-dealing hand buzzer which leaves him laughing with a burnt and charred corpse in his hand, even though it's more chaotic and iconic than anything Ledger's Joker does (including Ledger's okay but perfunctory death-by-pencil trick - a scene clearly compromised to get that PG-13 rating).

Nicholson's acid-squirting-flower is similarly a combination of death and idiocy, and Burton gives the silliness serious impact when he lets us see the half-melted face of one of the Joker's sad victims. Just as disturbing is the way that the Joker's victims die with their faces twisted (defaced) into a horrible death-grin as a final desecration of their humanity. Nicholson's victims don't even get to die with a little human dignity.
But being so careful to avoid seeming ridiculous just shows that Nolan's modern approach still can't grasp the idea that recurring motifs of the ridiculous often have an indelible psychological resonance that can't be expressed by literal realism and psychological sermons.

So, if "The Dark Knight" is supposed to be bringing new depth to comics, then it looks like we've got a long way to go before we lose out affectations and get around to taking comics seriously. For this Bat-fan, "The Dark Knight" is closer to the camp 60s TV series than anyone seems to want to admit.

It's too afraid of its audience to offer them anything they won't immediately recognise, and peddles its faux-insights by stroking the egos of its mainstream audiences. It captures nothing of what can be a vibrant, resonant, personal, and evocatively non-literal medium - and, when the hype dies down, will probably leave comics in a worse position than ever.

Being seen as ridiculously self-important isn't really any better than being seen as just ridiculous.