Is any cinematic genre as dull as the superhero movie? At the Spider-Man movies, for instance, I can never fool myself into pretending that I don’t know what’s going to happen next. When Peter Parker threw his spandex getup in the garbage in the paint-by-numbers Spider-Man 2, I groaned as I looked at my watch. The only point of suspense was, how long would it take before Peter Parker suited up again? In the meantime every person in the theater — every single one of us — would have to fake being invested in Parker’s phony little demons while we waited for him to don his super-Underoos.
And how many of us go to bed at night fearing tentacled octo-men who look like Alfred Molina, a guy who was much scarier as a frustrated lover watching his celebrated better half rise into stardom in Prick Up Your Ears? The way the Spider-Man movies stack the deck, the hero almost can’t lose; amid skyscrapers, he can effectively fly. So why not challenge him? Why not put him in Kansas?
Mary Jane keeps getting dangled above the city, Spidey rescues her while being attentive to the safety of the general populace and everyone leaves the theater cooing like freshly-swaddled infants. After sitting through the third go-round of Spider-Man, in which Spider-Man wrestles with a supposed “dark half” that literally fell out of the sky in an alien spaceship and which concludes with a 12-step session of overwrought bad guys apologizing for their misdeeds, I thought, can anything be called entertainment if it’s this boring?
What we fear is chaos, villains who love death more than life, violence for its own sake carried out by skilled and resourceful murderers. Acknowledging this, the current series of Batman films starring Christian Bale has built itself on a higher plane than any other superhero series, including the fatuous X-Men movies, whose allegorical touches are like stultifyingly obvious term papers written by sophomores begging us to notice that gays and blacks are people too.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies deliver as many engaging action set pieces as their competitors, but they also raise provocative, uncomfortable questions as compelling and important as those in There Will Be Blood.
The 2005 film Batman Begins existed in a harrowing world of a corrupt judicial system where dangerous criminals are set free because — not in spite of — their insanity. A terrorist attack threatens to poison an entire city’s water supply, and a chilling speech by one epic villain reassures us that such terrors always have been and always will be, because modernized societies invariably turn decadent, making them inviting targets to those enflamed by visions of another kind of civilization. That same decadence leaves us ill-defended. We are reminded that many another culture was at least as globally dominant as ours before catastrophe struck them down.
Like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight earns its dread, draws us into a world enough like our own that it can’t be dismissed as fantasy. It reaches into your bones and gives them a good rattle, and you may still feel the vibrations long after the house lights come up. (The Dark Knight, much more than Batman Begins, allows itself to slip into a few wildly artificial moments, such as when Aaron Eckhart’s D.A. Harvey Dent badgers a witness into pulling a gun on him in open court, then dispatches him without mussing his hair.) The Spider-Man movies can barely be endured once; Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies demand repeat viewings.
There is no pretending necessary to fear the Joker (Heath Ledger, in a role that is already a screen landmark). It is said of the Joker that “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
How to deal with such a figure? There is no easy answer, and here is where The Dark Knight strikes me as a conservative movie.
Liberals live in a world of “and.” Full security and full civil liberties. Universal health care and the best quality with no waiting. A dynamic economy and full welfare and unemployment benefits. Liberals, in other words, live in that scene in Spider-Man in which Spidey, forced to choose between saving a tram car full of innocent civilians and saving his girlfriend, chooses both. Liberals live in a fantasy.
Conservatives, though, live in a world of tradeoffs, of either/or. For having this relationship with reality, conservatives are caricatured as grumpy, stingy and negative. Surely all it takes is a bump in taxes on the wealthy and everything will be affordable? Where’s the Hope? Where’s the Dream? Yes, we can!
The Dark Knight lives on a razor edge of tradeoffs. In the coin flips of Harvey “Two-Face” Dent there is a message that not only can’t you choose both heads and tails, but sometimes you’re up against a trick coin that ensures you lose either way.
Innocents get killed, civil liberties are infringed, and Batman ardently defends lies over truth in the pursuit of propaganda. Extremism in the defense of liberty is Batman’s virtue, and he ventures much farther into the wilds of lawlessness than any politician would dare. Moreover, his Gotham is a place where some believe that chaos can be managed, that giving into a simple demand from the Joker that Batman turn himself in might be a workable alternative in the long run.
Despite his name, the Joker doesn’t really seem crazy. Perhaps listening to him is a better option than a war that will have untold costs for everyone. “I like this job,” the Joker says on one of his many missions of conflagration, reminding us why his type will always be around. The future looks like it may bring a lot more Jokers than Batmen. “I’m not a monster,” the Joker tells Batman. “I’m just ahead of the curve.”