Batman Gets His (Psychological) Wings

Like everyone else on these here Internets, I feel like I definitely need to say something about The Dark Knight. If you’re one of the five people in America who didn’t see it this past weekend (it had the biggest opening of all time), be forewarned: mild spoilers ahead.

I, like most of the audience, left my screening of Dark Knight in a bit of a grim mood. In fact, I was rather grateful that there was going to be an afterparty for the film, because I was sorely in need of a drink. Some people claim that this was to be expected (one of Tantek’s friends noted that “after all, it isn’t titled The Mildly Ominous Knight,”) and I didn’t mind the film’s sacrificing some of the zip that characterized Batman Begins. Christopher Nolan did the best he could by introducing a lot of humor in the first half of the film– I was almost blown away by how funny it was in places, which is a rare thing in a superhero film. Ultimately, however, endings stay with you, and I think Nolan did realize that the audience was going to be walking out with a pretty grim view of the world. To paraphrase Commissioner Gordon, it wasn’t the ending we wanted, it was the ending we deserved.

What’s even more interesting about that ending, and Dark Knight in general, is that it’s one of the only pieces in the movie that prominently features Batman. Most of the Batman films are about Batman and his problems, from the mythmaking in the original and rebooted origin stories to the juvenile pop psychology of Batman Forever (with none other than Nicole Kidman flashing her Rorshachs at Mr. Wayne). It’s an understandable impulse at first: especially at the beginning of a story, we want to know why this character is making the drastic decisions he’s making, want to feel the effect of his inner moral turmoil. The original Batman, as well as Batman Begins, accomplished that task ably.

But in sequels, I think it’s just as, if not more, important to spread the psychological wealth a little. If we’re three movies in with our old pal Batman and still hearing about how his parents were murdered, he has poor impulse control, et al, the films start to become like therapy sessions peppered with car chases and explosions– and the supporting characters, many of whom have equally interesting tales, stay completely flat. The paper-thin development of Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face in Forever is a great example: he appears from nowhere in the beginning of the film, starts pouring some acid on people in a bank vault, and sneaks in a little bit of exposition about how Batman is somehow responsible for his mangled visage. It’s like Insta-Villain: ten seconds in the microwave, a poorly thought-out motive for revenge, now let’s just go blow stuff up real good.

Contrast this with Aaron Eckhart’s Two-Face in the new film. Frankly, I was surprised that Nolan chose to do both the Two-Face and Joker arcs in one film; I figured we might see a set-up for a Two-Face-centric third film (a la James Franco’s New Goblin at the end of Spider-Man), but not the entire Harvey Dent saga in one go. That being said, however, what a fucking brilliant piece of character development. Not only does Dent work on the symbolic level, he works on the real one as well: we can understand his history, his affection, his pain, and a real motive for revenge– this is no namby-pamby I’m-gonna-get-you-sucka setup.

And the supporting character buck doesn’t stop there: Gary Oldman gets in a very nice backstory as Gordon, there’s a little more clarity on Alfred’s history, and while Maggie Gyllenhaal may still be more of a token skirt than a real person, she acts the hell out of what little she’s given. I’m deducting some points here for Morgan Freeman’s performance as “Magical Black Man #467,” but overall, some pretty solid character development.

And then, of course, there’s the Joker. His character, in some ways, really defines what worked about the film for me. We watch him caper and connive, pressure and squirm, and eventually bite the dust, but through all of this, we know nothing about him. We don’t know why he does what he does. We don’t know if he’s genuinely crazy, or just a little mad. What little backstory he has (brought out in his myriad knifepoint speeches) is constantly changing; it might be the truth, it might not. And yet, none of it matters. He’s still totally riveting and compelling, right up until the last frame. Some of this is owed to Heath Ledger’s excellent performance, but just as much of it might be owed to the release of a burden: the constant focus on the minutiae of hero/villain psychology. It turns out that all you really need to build a superhero or supervillain is enough to get by: no Tommy Lee Jones-style cop-outs, but no endless digressions into Batman’s childhood and what he ate for breakfast last Tuesday, either. Give us what we need to know to make it comprehensible and believable, and let the actions (and acting) do the rest.

The long-held trope about horror movies is that what you can’t see is always much scarier than what you can. Batman’s power over his enemies (and the Joker’s as well) is exactly that: he’s mysterious and unknowable, and for that reason, he’s all the more frightening. I think Nolan and his comrades were really able to take a big leap for Batman, and for superhero films in general, by embracing the unknown and the unknowable. Just as the adage predicted, the results were scary. And scarily good.

(Thanks to Tantek and Cyan at Zivity for the opportunity to see the film a day early. You guys rock.)


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