Monday, July 28, 2008


Summer of 1989. I was taking Chemistry in summer school so I could take a History elective during the school year. Mr. Feighan's teaching method was to use his young son Keith as an example to every problem. That summer, Keith was obsessed with Batman.

He wasn't the only one. Every day Bill Leetch wore a different Batman T-Shirt to class (in summer school, there was no dress code, anything but a jacket and tie would get you immediately sent home in the regular year). So Mr. Feighan would rip on him for it, and so would all the other boys. We would all mock him, but really, the excitement we all a had for Batman was so thick that in the days leading up to the films release chemistry took a back seat to stories of Keith as Batman and speculation on how exciting the movie was going to be.

Even though I coolly feigned disinterest this whole time, I was there at midnight sitting between Dan Barry and Tom Palermo in a buzzing packed movie house. The anticipation was so great that even if Carly Simon popped out of the screen, pulled off her face to reveal Cthulu himself who in turn was destroyed by a flesh and blood Caped Crusader before our eyes we would have been disappointed.

Years later, I know its unfair to put those expectations on any work, least of all a men-in-tights chronicle. Tim Burton's film holds up as what it was meant to be -a good looking piece of fun, a piece for Jack Nicholson to chew the scenery, a vehicle for a soundtrack by Prince, and the kind of wholesome "Biff! Bang! Pow!" entertainment teenaged boys need on a hot summer night.

Now we've got Batman VI: The Dark Knight breaking box office records and turning critics to their thesauruses for superlatives. What is it about this picture that resonates with us at this moment?

The superhero movie should be a pretty easy thing to make. No explanation is necessary, not because of some Jungian collective or "hero with a thousand faces" that is wired into our thought systems -but because we've all seen it a thousand times. When we see Eastwood working his farm at the opening of "Unforgiven" we know his story, we know that he was a gunslinger and we know he's now an old man. We view this in the continuum of films and television we've seen thousand times. What makes "Unforgiven" extraordinary is how Eastwood uses that as a springboard to create not just one moving character in William Munney, but a whole cast of players who's parts elucidate dark corners of the human condition.

Beauty is a matter of size and order, and therefore impossible either (I) in a very minute creature, since our perception becomes indistinct as it approaches instantaneity; or (II) in a creature of vast size -one, say 1,000 miles long- as in that case, instead of the object being seen all at once, the unity and wholeness of it is lost to the the beholder.
Poetics, Chapter VII

Maybe it's unfair to critique a film whose middle 45 minutes were project while you were thinking "can I hold it much longer?". A film that you missed part of to take a hop into the men's room to prevent permanent bladder damage or a grown up version of first-grade public humiliation. This is why kid's films are 75 minutes -children have small bladders. Guys in tights = kid's film, right?

Apparently not.

In our cultural obsession with youth and childhood we have started to elevate the fantasies of childhood to the lingua franca of adult philosophies. Of course, teenage fantasies don't have the vocabulary to discuss the complex shadows of adult morality -everything is heroes and villains. It's a safe place for thinking, where it's easy to make a moral choice. The Dark Knight gestures towards these moral shadows but still portrays them with shining absolutes.

Its big screen adaptation of the Milgram Experiment shows that whatever choice you make, ultimately a masked man will save the day. That the choice between saving two people in jeopardy comes down to saving both as long as your team can get there fast enough. And ultimately, that the most righteous man alive will always be the most righteous man alive -until he isn't, then he's bad to the flesh burnt bone.

Maybe this is why the film is so critically and financially successful. We like these overt gestures towards moral ambiguity -that makes it seem adult, but love the essential dichotomy of right and wrong -that comforts us in our age of uncertainty and tumult. Maybe this is why Heath Ledger's Joker has been getting such well-deserved praised -he's a character that, for a time, stands outside the film's system of black and white. But even he, ultimately, is turned pure "bad". Chaos, it turns out, is public enemy number one in Gotham and that's what the Joker loves.

Chaos, it turns out, is what the audiences love too. It what we love as teenagers, turning up the stereo too loud, staying out past curfew, and sneaking wine coolers down to the railroad tracks.

1 comment:

Dan said...

My first suggestion, I know it's only a quarter more, but don't buy the large soda.

Next, I think to a certain extent you are oversimplifying the plot to make some of these points. The film isn't about some masked man coming to save the day. Look at what happened to the Batman imitators. They were left to be arrested in the beginning of the film and one ends up being tortured by The Joker later on. They are also a perfect example of some of the moral ambiguity of the film. They aren't bad, but no one is going to say they are good. I do like the point you make about people (the audience) being drawn to chaos, though. I think that is definitely true that as much as we strive for stability as we get older, we like to have reminders of the chaos of our youth.

Lastly, summer school to take a history elective? I don't know if anyone is buying that. Haha.