“Why So Serious?”

The language of critical theory, the words that describe what art does to its audience is largely taken up with the idea of movement. Good and great art can move us, transports us, beyond ourselves and into the work. Not to exaggerate or get too high-minded here but after watching The Dark Knight on the IMAX-sized screen, it took me a while to collect myself and readjust to reality. During the car ride home I had a hard time describing how glad I was that such a profoundly bleak film was made at all. I’m sure that part of it was the sensory experience of having six stories of Gotham city projected into my consciousness (in 12k watts of surround sound no less,) but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t genuinely transported out of my seat and into the movie drawn both from the Batman of my childhood and more recent comic storylines in spin-off series like Gotham Central* cast large.

Comics have had a spotty history of mostly mediocre film adaptations, despite the fact that on a more fundamental cognitive and interpretive level they actually have a lot in common compared to other mediums. Reading comics is based on the idea of interpreting the action both in and between panels, and movies are a trick of the light in which we read multiple independent frames into a moving cohesive whole. Suspension of disbelief in the static image, whether fooled by our synapses or imagination (and who’s to say the difference?) are fundamental to both, which perhaps makes it all the more disappointing when mediocre movies are made of what our imaginations made so vivid.

In watching The Dark Knight, I was taken with how American cinema, mainstream American cinema has rediscovered the bleak, nihilism, and a sense of the sublime–  an appreciation for a force that can destroy oneself separate of morality or rationality. A world without a God, or worse an indifferent one. I think about movies like No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, where despite the best efforts of its protagonists something fundamental and primal, some force natural and singular can’t be fought off, and it will ultimately overwhelm and consume the individuals in its path.

***More after the jump….

It’s the promise of hope, even a sliver of such in light of overwhelming entropy that is at center of The Dark Knight. Every character has made compromises to preserve a greater good, and each in turn has increasingly murky answers as to where exactly the ends justify the means. Each of the heroes draw their moral and ethical lines just outside of the roles that define them. And wherever they’ve been drawn, those lines are drawn to their furthest end with Heath Ledger’s Joker, for whom all the crime and terror is in service to the idea that it’s perhaps just one bad day that separates the average individual from becoming the sort of monster that he or the Batman embodies. (Thanks Alan Moore.)

And Ledger’s performance is terrifying at times, moreso for the moments when you believe there is an explanation and justification for the Joker, that there may be something to sympathize with. Ultimately what’s more frightening is that there isn’t and that his character defies justification or analysis. In talking about Ledger’s Joker, others have mentioned Marlon Brando and riffs on Nicholson’s Joker, but to me the echoes of Robert Mitchum in Night Of The Hunter and the seductive quality of Mitchum’s silky, maniacal pastor in one scene and absurd Daffy Duck-ish killer in the next is closest to the character Ledger brought to life.

And truly, the character is Ledger’s own. I had my doubts when I first heard of Ledger’s casting and many of the film stills of the Joker’s mutilated smile didn’t really assuage the doubts I had about director Christopher Nolan’s choice for the iconic villain. But despite the parallels between comics and cinema there’s a big difference between what I saw in static set photos preceding the film and seeing Ledger move and breathe as the Joker. The voice and his inflections shifting quicksilver between glee and threat, the playfully stilted gait, and so much about his presence is singularly familiar and alien in its menace.

In slagging Tim Burton’s Batman films, a lot of fanboys and critics have said that Burton spent too much time on the villains rather than Batman himself. To me, Batman is so clearly defined that it’s hard to imagine any need for him to be better explained in Burton’s films. While Bale’s presence as Batman and Bruce Wayne are much more notable and nuanced than in the first film, TDK belongs to its villains or rather the choices its villains force Batman, Gordon, and Dent to confront.

*Check out the storyline “Soft Targets,” hell check out all the Gotham Central trades, it’s like Law & Order: Special Batman Unit, but better.

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