The Dark Knight is the most entertaining blockbuster of the summer, which still doesn’t mean it’s any good. OK, that’s hyperbole (it’s a lot of good, the most start-to-finish aesthetically pleasurable comic-book blow-up I’ve seen in god knows how long), but still a justifiable description given the film’s freakishly ardent advocates. I can’t recall, of recent, a smoother, more all-encompassing tent pole that makes fuller use of its budget: duplicitous, psuedo-hits like Zodiac (which no sane person would expect to be a box-office sensation, hunky Jake Gyllenhaal or no) or Miami Vice (unbeatable franchise value defeated by terminal artiness—that’s an endorsement, by the way) don’t count. Nor does Spiderman-2, my none-too-idiosyncratic pick of the comic-book litter: big, obvious themes done with absolute skill, sincerity and narrative smarts.
The Dark Knight is a seductive film, easily the most technically adept movie Christopher Nolan’s ever made, but it’s as unsettled and uneasy thematically as a latter-day work by Lars von Trier. That it can be argued over so angrily is both its strength and its weakness. Action sequences aside (everyone seems to agree they’re shit), this is one hypnotic piece of craft. But means and ends don’t add up.
Let’s set aside unavoidable compromises. The first presentation of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) as Two-Face is as contrived as possible: our big-jawed, blond-haired hero transformed into a ravening monster, presented in the most distancing ways. Obviously Two-Face isn’t going to be some gory bogeyman horrifying you with bloody combat veins in evidence: Christopher Nolan may have gotten away with a lot for (approx.) $200 million, but he plays by the rules. No R rating here: once his head rolls from one side of the hospital pillow to the other, Two-Face is a cartoonish creation, half-WASP/half-Jolly Green Giant. These are the compromises of commercial filmmaking, and though I wish Nolan hadn’t kept the presumable revelation of Dent’s true face in such phony suspense (similar to the script’s big herring re: Commissioner Gordon), there’s no way out of it. I also can’t be much bothered by complaints that much of the film is about the brute, visceral sadism of the impulse for revenge, the consequences of which are neatly kept off-screen; bloody reprisal is simply not an option.
My problem with The Dark Knight is a variant of my objections to Dogville and Manderlay (whether through praise or damnation, except I’m not on either side in this case because I enjoy thorny problematics). Von Trier makes it easy on you: he presents blatantly allegorical situations where the conclusion is grimly, deterministically pre-ordained, then drops his condemnation of human nature (exposed as vile, opportunistic, fundamentally self-preserving and—more importantly—self-justifying in ways that are, to the privileged viewer, blatantly hypocritical). He never abandons his blatant viewpoint; the situation is manipulated, but the viewer isn’t. I don’t buy what he’s saying, but at least von Trier makes it clear that everything’s artificial.
What Nolan does is trickier. First, he presents a Gotham City that seems real: whenever I saw a Gotham City police vehicle, I had to scan the side carefully to make sure it wasn’t just an NYPD squad car I was misidentifying. The Dark Knight presents its CGI/helicopter shots as overt, dazzling trickery, separate elements distanced from the rest of the film; puncturing of verisimilitude is never really an issue, and most of the film is by far the grittiest, most live-action superhero movie I’ve ever seen. But as far as plot, Nolan wraps himself in a cloth of graphic novel excuses: whatever’s implausible is a convention of comic books, and hence above criticism. Complaints about plausibility can be deflected as complaints about genre convention, which obviously the critic hasn’t bothered to engage with, doesn’t understand the background of, is too much of a snob to admit liking, etc. Then Nolan makes his final move: he tries to wrap a statement about real human behavior, deterministically set-up through comic conventions, around the whole.
This is what I think of as the <em>Lord of the Flies</em> fallacy (if you like that book, you may want to stop reading now): set up a series of fundamentally fantastic circumstances that force the worst out of people, then claim it’s a universal truth. In essence, The Dark Knight is a moral duel between Batman (who, like Anne Frank, fundamentally believes in mankind’s better instincts) and the Joker (who believes human morality is a social construct that falls away whenever anonymity and a chance to evade shame is available). In the battle between the two, Batman wins against seemingly insurmountable odds. With every Death Wish instinct telling the conservative, non-criminal refugees to blow away the criminals in the battle of the boats, they blanch out; someone has stood up for their better soul, proving mankind’s fundamental goodness asserts itself no matter what.
The Dark Knight strives to keep Batman in the most ambivalent light possible until the very end, when it’s clear that he’s made the best possible choices: not perfect ones (Nolan is canny enough to insinuate that there’s no perfect moral outcome where all casualties are avoided), but the ones with minimal collateral damage. At film’s end, Batman has preserved the maximum number of lives, given the circumstances. And Batman isn’t equivalent—and definitely hasn’t “led”—to the Joker; in any case the Joker was set up, unequivocally, at the ending of Batman Begins. Here he’s basically Anton Chigurh by other means—except where Chigurh offers each of his individual victims a chance at self-definition and appreciation of life, the Joker likes to perform mass social experiments. But they’re both uncontrollable, motivationless agents of entropy, walking metaphors for whatever.
And that’s my problem: The Dark Knight pretends to offer up real human problems, but it’s just a clunky allegory, and not a particularly sophisticated one at that. Nolan—though taking great strides behind the camera—simply must stop making his characters say things like “Sometimes the truth isn’t enough.” Is this an action movie or a big-budget remake of Memento? Nolan’s movies (all of them, aside from The Prestige, too complicated to be blatant about anything) revel in the simplistic appropriation of philosophical problems recycled as trite dialogue; they should give audiences a suggested reading list on the way out. Ironically, for a film touted by fanboys, this is easily Nolan’s most Nolan-like film yet.
[And yes, it’s extremely entertaining. Crazy fanboys give me a break, huh?]
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.