Sunday, August 03, 2008

959-Word Movie Review: The Dark Knight

I realize I’m doing one of the single-most boring things a person can do with a personal blog: review a film. But I just got back from The Dark Knight and I wanted to share my impressions, because films often change in my mind and I want to record exactly what I’m thinking now.

I loved it. Absolutely fucking loved it. It’s been a long, long time since I sat in a movie theater and thought, yes, I’m glad I’m seeing this in a theater because I’m having a great time. And it’s been a long, long time since I walked out of a movie theater and though that was an incredible experience.

The Beautiful Competition and I were discussing the film afterwards and I said that I liked it better than Batman Begins and probably better than any superhero movie before. True (at least, as of right now, give me a while and I’ll probably get lost in the film’s flaws.) It wasn’t a perfect movie, but is there such a thing? It was a fantastic Batman movie. I had to check to see if Jeph Loeb had anything to do with it (he didn’t.) It was a great superhero movie, and it was a fantastic film.

One of the things I like to explore both as a reader and as a writer is the way moral codes and philosophies survive at extreme conditions. Oddly enough, the best to cite about this is Elie Wiesel’s Night, a book I did not particularly enjoy but the crux of which was the very absolutist view that no morality can survive in the most extreme of conditions – in that case, the Holocaust. I’ve never thought that thesis was particularly true, except perhaps on a meta level, but lives are not lived and decisions are never made on the meta level. They are individual things. And that is exactly what The Dark Knight addresses, head on.

Spoiler Alert

Heath’s Joker is probably my favorite villain in a comic book movie, because his crusade forces Batman’s hand. At first, it seems he’s playing the same game as the rest of the mobsters that Batman’s been fighting: why else would he want to work with them, to ask for their money? But it eventually becomes clear his motivation really is, well, utterly unmotivated by anything except a desire for absolute anarchy. There’s a brilliant scene where Bruce Wayne and Alfred discuss The Joker’s motivations and how to get in his head and stop him. Bruce says that it’s easy for Batman to stop the other villains because in the end, they are motivated by money and fear. Even dyed-in-the-wool psychopaths like the Scarecrow (who makes an awesome cameo, by the way) are motivated on some level by these same sorts of things. But how does Batman deal with a criminal who is only interested in causing chaos and destruction? Something that’s more of a force of nature than a motivated human being? And is it possible to deal with someone like that in a way that allows you not to compromise your moral principles?

There’s a brilliant bit of foreshadowing, where the characters discuss the Romans and their practice of handing over power to a dictator in times of crisis. In all instances but one, the dictator (eventually, the historian in me says!) resigned his position and returned power to the Senate and People. But it only took one - Caesar – to annihilate the Republic and create the Empire. Batman cannot win his battle without a compromise, and the one he decides to make is just as interesting as the other moral situations in the film. Even better is the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which is ripped straight from Game Theory (and, I should note, Matt Mason at The Pirate’s Dilemma covered quite eloquently.) As Mason notes, that scene is where The Joker slips and where The Dark Knight truly shines as an exploration of morality in extreme conditions. The outcome of the situation (I won’t spoil the particulars) actually left me quite stunned, but in a pleasant way. And it did give Batman the chance to beat The Joker, after all!

But this complexity is the greatest pleasure I can take from a film or a book. It’s simply an abstract form of what I like so much about horror movies, specifically zombie films – which are in and of themselves just the next iteration of post-apocalypse films. It is being forced to make decisions when confronted with the absurd. The day-to-day decisions aren’t so important: decisions made when faced with the most absurd and extreme of conditions – a ferry full of prisoners and a ferry full of normal people, with each holding the other detonator; a motivationless psychopath who won’t stop killing; the dead returning to life to feast on the living – these are all things that remove a person from the norm and force them to look at things in a new way. I use the word ‘absurd’ in a loaded fashion, because it’s exactly how Neitzsche, Heidegger and specifically Camus refer to what life and meaning are in the first place: ways to deal with these extreme conditions that, in the end, are something we must make and be responsible for on our own.

[Note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Harvey Dent / Two-Face actually progresses from being responsible for his decisions to his infamous coin-flipping, leaving choice and more importantly responsibility up to fate as the movie progresses. Which is really an entirely different essay, but adds a good deal of flavor and another layer of depth to the film.]

So there I am: The Dark Knight impressions. Holy freaking crap it was a good movie.

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