Batman – popcorn summer action hero or a spotlight on contemporary America? Having recently seen the movie, an obvious resonance comes to mind already discussed back and forth from the New York Times to Fox News. Batman/Bruce Wayne struggle to determine what the true path of righteousness really is when it comes to keeping Gotham safe from the Joker; we see visual and plot references to rendition, torture, and a smoking Ground Zero. Christopher Nolan presents us with a superhero all too human: susceptible to blind rage, vengeance and fear. As well as enjoying compelling stunts and special effects, we as viewers become participants in moral questioning – how would we keep Gotham safe?
Nolan makes this film more relevant to post 9-11 events by shooting Gotham as definitively New York, not some gothic fantasy city. It’s a complete jolt to the senses; expecting only coded references to the Big Apple, we see a cinematic version of New York at its’ most beautiful since ‘Manhattan’. When bombs start going off and the Joker unleashes hell, it is more terrifying for having this immediately recognisable glinting glass and steel panorama attacked; scenes of smouldering rubble remind all but the most blinded cinema goer of the Twin Towers destruction. The Joker’s terrorism (or anarchism as observed by some commentators) feels more real as a result; abstractions of a writers pen seem very far away as the city burns.
The Director takes us further down paths of moral consideration. Giving the Devil the best tunes has been a motif in art since we sat around by fire and told tales of good and evil. Heath Ledger’s performance is stunning but full credit to the writers/director for providing the Joker with such compelling dialogue. His villainous charisma makes him a seductive character; we should abhor him and all his works yet he manages to manipulate our emotions as we swing between loathing and sympathy for his pathetic failings.
We ask ourselves if the good guys are entitled to use any and all means necessary against the Joker; ultimately the answer appears to be no. Batman beats him up when there’s a ticking bomb scenario being played out, (in a powerful scene with Ledger, Christian Bale and the ever excellent Gary Oldman), but there is a personification of the perils of such a modus vivendi in D.A. gone bad Harvey Dent/’Twoface’. Dent loses all sense of the dividing line between right and wrong and this question is considered in a pivotal scene between Batman and the D.A. Batman has to swing back to being a morally less ambiguous figure and less willing to blur the lines as the audience compares and contrasts him to Dent. The message is ‘Battle ye not with monsters lest ye become one’.
This is a dark and brilliant movie; go to be entertained, critically engaged and intellectually stimulated. And as Nolan, Dent, and Wayne all ask – consider whether and why we need a ‘Dark Knight’ to protect us. The ‘Dark Knight’ challenges us to define what our own hopes and fears are about civil society.