Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Dark Knight

So we saw The Dark Knight last night—this is the kind of thing that gets to Japan right away (although we’re still waiting for Iron Man). In fact, one of my most vivid memories of arriving in Japan for the first time in August of ’89 is seeing Batman stuff everywhere, for the first Tim Burton film. Went to my first traditional Japanese summer festival, and they were passing out paper fans with the Batman logo on them. (Couldn’t find an image of one of those, but I found one for fans for the second Burton Batman.) Some kind of cultural commentary, I guess.

On the train on the way home, Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki and I had a conversation that I’ll try to summarize, because it gets at something I’ve been trying to articulate to myself about superhero movies for a long time.

We were talking about Harvey Dent/Two-Face, specifically his transition from one to the other. It’s finding the coin by his bedside that triggers his final psychotic break and turns him into Two-Face, right? The coin, which he had previously given to Rachel, reminds him in a graphic way that she was burned to death. But it means more than just that his fiancee is dead.

It was a two-headed coin, but now one side is defaced; before, it was a symbol of how he left nothing to chance, now it’s a symbol of how chance has asserted itself in his life. Up to this point, he’s been an operator, a manipulator, someone who’s understood the rules of the game and made them work for him—he’s fooled himself into thinking that he’s in control of his destiny. Now Joker—who self-identifies as Chaos (do we believe him?)—has intervened, and shown Dent once and for all that he’s not in control, that luck rules us all. It’s this that causes his break: not simply losing his girlfriend, not even just losing his looks, but losing his certainty about the world and his place in it.

Sure, Sgt. Mrs. Tanuki says, but is that really enough to turn him into this supervillain? I mean, come on. To which I reply, essentially: yeah, but it’s just a comic-book superhero movie.

There’s something wrong with this response. Right now there’s a big debate going on among cinephiles about whether or not the comic-book superhero genre is worth taking seriously (there’s a good summary of it here). Myself, I come down squarely on the side of taking it seriously: I think there’s a great potential within the genre for thoughtful, artistic, adult movies. But if this is true, then it’s hypocritical to give them a pass for flaws because “they’re comic book movies,” with the implication that we shouldn’t judge them too rigorously.

But I do think that comic-book superhero movies should be given a pass on questions of realism. Not because they shouldn’t be taken seriously, though: rather, because they should be taken seriously in a different way.

I think of superhero movies as working like a kind of surrealist art. Events in them happen solely because the artist has chosen to make them happen. Events may be presented in a realistic way, but that just means the artist has chosen to gesture toward realism as part of his/her surrealism, not that he/she is accepting a realistic framework overall. Think of Magritte’s Time Transfixed: the artist is employing realism within the painting (the look of the locomotive, the carefully rendered shadow it casts on the fireplace), but only in the service of a surreal image. It’s kind of pointless to judge the total image according to realism (“hey, a train’t can’t come out through somebody’s fireplace like that, at least not without tracks!”). The artist is up to something else.

With comic-book superhero movies, that something else, a lot of the time, is the presentation of an inherited end-result. This is one of the features of the genre that most intrigues me, and that I think is responsible for most of the really great stuff that’s happened in it. This is where the genre takes on the dimensions of myth, or rather of interpretation of myth. You’re making a Batman movie: you’ve got a ready-made set of attributes for Batman. Suit, night, bat imagery, gadgets, no actual super powers, Bruce Wayne identity, etc. You can modify these, but only to a certain degree: basically, what you’re doing is trying to figure out how you want to present these attributes. What you want to say with them, about them. What the myth means to you.

You can employ realism, gesture toward it, as part of your presentation of these attributes, but it will never change the fundamentally unrealistic nature of the attributes. This is what Nolan is doing with Dent: he’s given us a very careful portrait of the character, whereby (if we’re the kind of moviegoer who thinks about these things way too much) (hi!) we can figure out the kind of person he is, what drives him, how he sees himself. He’s a pretty realistic character. And to a certain point, we can understand his transformation in realistic terms. But in the end that’s never going to be quite sufficient—because dude, he turns into Two-Face! Nolan leads us logically from A to B to C, but that’s only going to take you so far when the endpoint is not Z but a fish.

And that’s okay because, like Magritte, the comic-book superhero movie, no matter how much it may employ realism, is not fundamentally realist. Nolan (if I might presume to speak for him) is not trying to say that if you’re a guy like Dent, and you go through the things Dent goes through, you’ll end up Two-Face. He’s trying to give us a picture of Two-Face—that’s the starting point, that set of attributes—and then connect it to certain recognizable, real-world ideas (illusion of control), using realism as a tool.

So: it’s not that we’re not supposed to take it seriously because it’s a comic-book superhero movie, but that we’re not supposed to take it realistically. Sure, all the stuff Dent goes through is insufficient, in realistic terms, to turn a guy into Two-Face. But for me, that’s not the point. The point is that we have Two-Face, and through the way he introduces and explains Two-Face’s mythical attributes, Nolan has helped us see them as relating to the illusion that we control our destiny. For example.

Anyway, that’s the best I can do with it right now. I’m sure I’ll revisit this, because I actually think the comic-book superhero genre is the most interesting one going in movies today. And this despite not being a comic-book fanboy—I’ve never read a single Batman comic.


Cat said...

Your description of the realistic means used to present a surreal end (or mythos) actually makes me think of an incident in my childhood. Children can be stunningly literal and devoid of irony, and I loved this book The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, which is a funny book about a giant chicken running around in, you guessed it, Hoboken, and while my literal-mindedness didn't hurt my enjoyment of the silliness of the book, when I wrote a fan letter to the author, I wrote something along the lines of "You know, it's impossible for there to be a 6 foot tall chicken." (Children are so proud of their reality testing!) The kind of misreading you describe (faulting the comic book movie genre for not being realistic) seems to me to be very much in line with my childhood need to point out the parameters of normal, every day existence. Those rules just don't apply in a Hoboken Chicken Emergency! (which is not to compare Mrs. Tanuki to a child by any stretch of the imagination -- just to think about suspension of disbelief in its different forms)

I was so disturbed by this movie (in a good way -- I think the movie was extremely well done and powerful) because of how strongly the surreal and realistic elements of the movie put me in mind of our own world. One of the friends I went to see it with felt that Nolan underlined this too much with the Joker's monologues, but for me, the subtext (well, pretty much text really) of terrorism was everywhere and truly distressing. (In the way that powerful films about disturbing things should distress you!)

But the fact that I found the movie such a strong commentary on our world and our Gotham meant that I was curious about how summer audiences are receiving this film. No one I went to see the movie with was as upset by it as I was (which, admittedly, says a lot more about my temperament than about the movie), though Paul also felt the resonances I did and took the movie very seriously (as I did). But I wonder if the surreal elements, the mythos, the Big Super Hero Movie atmosphere help audiences to disconnect from that impact. Because I didn't find the movie easily diverting in a blockbuster kind of way. It didn't divert my attention from the things that trouble me in the world; it drew my attention to them. ("That train is coming through the fireplace, but that's a real damn fireplace and a real damn train!")

Powerful stuff.

Tanuki said...

Yeah, the realism quotient of this movie made it pretty heady, pretty hard to stomach at times. I noticed this with regard to the city: I loved Tim Burton's Batmans (Batmen?) maybe mostly because of his vision of Gotham City. The Joel Schumacher sequels, as bad as they were in other respects, at least continued with awesome Gothams. Nolan's first crack at Gotham made it look a lot more normal, but still with elements of exaggeration.

In all of these cases the idea is that these visions of Gotham City are takes on the modern American city, exaggerating certain aspects to make a point, whether aesthetic or sociopolitical. In addition to which, of course, they're locating the story at the appropriate place on the real-mythic continuum, right? The Gotham City of Dark Knight simply was Chicago: no exaggeration, no disguise. Which placed the story as squarely in the real world as the DC Comics logo will allow.

That made everything hit, as you say, really close to home. I'm still mulling what the movie had to say about things like Bush administration torture policies, FISA wiretaps, Blackwater, etc. But that's the deal with this particular superhero movie: you don't have to feel silly typing sentences like that last one in connection with it.

What about the impact on audiences? I don't know. Do they get it? Is the movie cagey enough about its politics that everybody simply thinks it agrees with them? Are people tuning the real-world connections out, or pumping their fists in agreement? Dunno. Not sure I wanna know. And what does that say about the film?