I originally posted this months ago. Over the course of that day I pared it down and then down again, chopping off piece after piece until it became disfigured and unrecognisable. Ashamed, I took it down. Here it is again. It’s much less topical, but I think it’s worth it.
A response to Batman: The Dark Knight
Hope dies. It withers. It gets shot at. It was never really there in the first place.
In the city of Gotham, there is very little worth saving. There isn’t much to like about the shotgun wielding ‘good Samaritan’ in the bank; the death-threatening ‘angel-of-life’ convict on the boat; the crooked cops; the weak, helpless, and inert. Our one moment of real humour, our collective (and early) sigh of relief, is a hockey-pad wearing vigilante, a Batman imposter, admonished and tied-up by the genuine article. It isn’t long before this ‘weekend warrior’ is unmasked, torn to pieces on the TV news, and dropped from a tether during a scene that seemed (until that instant) to be leaning on the hopeful end of bleak. It’s a telling moment: there’s little time for reflection in a city where every lunch break turns into a car chase, gunfight, or bombing.
The Joker is not a man. The feats that he performs are not possible from any creature that is not supernatural. He’s a ghost that haunts the end of every corridor, with a bomb rigged underneath every mailbox, car, and counter. He’s—what? What’s he supposed to be, exactly? The depressing, unarticulated death wish of every audience member? The oppressive, omniscient god of modern culture? Because he’s everywhere, because he can’t be controlled, tamed, or touched—there is menace in every moment, beyond what seems acceptable. Death hangs around every corner, not tempered by the frequent (and frequently pathetic) talk of hope. “The world is going to end,” says the movie, “there is nothing good about the world, there is nothing you can do to change it,” and then it shows you, shows you, shows you.
It’s such an obvious device that I wasn’t surprised to hear, on exiting the theatre, a young woman who’d seen the same movie express pretty much exactly what I was thinking: “Heath Ledger was God”, she said, in awed tones to her friend, who quickly assented. Yes, I thought, and not one of a world I’d want to live in, not even for the short length of time that I did.
It was only later that my wife revealed that the woman behind me in the line-up to get out hadn’t said ‘God’ but ‘hot’: as in attractive, sexy, desirable. She wasn’t the only one. Most of the laughs the Joker earned during our showing were in the midst of threatened violence, violence, and unabashed death. A brutal pencil through the eye gag. A one-liner during a bank heist or a district attorney fundraiser.
It’s fine to love a bad guy, but an evil one? There are few real questions in The Dark Knight, and there is at least one that doesn’t have to be answered or asked: the joker is an evil man, and there is nothing redeemable in his insanity. What that woman was attracted to was not Heath Ledger’s inherent ‘hotness’ (his props in the movie are garish makeup, active death, and scars), but power in its ugliest and rawest form. Power. Pure, angry, and hard.
It was only afterwards (for reasons that are obvious) that it occurred to me that I wasn’t watching the movie. It happened to me. To what extent can someone be said to be ‘watching’ when presented with a laundry list of emotional and physical torture? I do not use that word lightly. At a certain point in the movie (I can’t say exactly where) your critical reasoning turns off. You lose your sense of time. You die, only to wake at carefully chosen points, and only to wonder why you are still there. Do not expect to relax. Do not expect to think.