THE DARK KNIGHT (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2008, 9)
Before going into THE DARK KNIGHT for the first time, I texted Michael Gerardi and referred to the film we were both going in to see, Thursday-Midnight show on opening-weekend, as “Christopher Nolan Makes a Lot of Money.” I wasn’t terribly impressed with BATMAN BEGINS and think Nolan’s MEMENTO and THE PRESTIGE among the decade’s very best films. So I went into THE DARK KNIGHT knowing the buzz was high but seeing it as a money-spinning project that would allow one of the best writer-directors working in English the cred to make more of *his* films. And my high grade mystified Mike, prompting him to belatedly prompt me about it last night.
And my answer is that I was wrong in my expectations. THE DARK KNIGHT *is* a Christopher Nolan film down to the very bottom and thus probably my favorite comic-book movie ever. Nolan is a moralist, but one pitilessly without illusion. His three great movies are all, in different ways, critiques of truth and the relationship of truth and vocation. To speak somewhat vaguely about the earlier two films: MEMENTO is about a man who chooses a lie that gives his life meaning over a truth that doesn’t set him free; and THE PRESTIGE is about two men who take their relationship to truth to the graves — one man accepts a recurring nightly death in pursuit of scientific truth, another man accepts death rather than publicly admit the lie he has built his life around;
In THE DARK KNIGHT, Nolan makes it explicit, indeed impossible to miss via the last scene, both (1) that Batman accedes to a Socratic noble lie a la MEMENTO about Harvey Dent (and it’s not the only one in the movie — consider the burning of a letter, a public assassination, Batman turning himself in — and contrast it with an explicitly demanded lie: the “it’ll be all right, son” scene) and (2) that Batman’s vocation — like Leonard’s crime investigation, like Borden’s magic act, like Angier’s scientific investigation — will ultimately destroy him, or at a minimum cast him as the eternal despised outsider. He even has to give up his position as Bruce Wayne and destroy stately Wayne Manor.
Indeed, the best analogy I can think to the Batman character is from “The St. Petersburg Diaries,” a work by Count Joseph De Maistre — an anti-Revolution French philosopher hardly known (unjustly so) outside the circle of right-Catholic reaction. In that work, among the lather of ironies and paradoxes De Maistre has endless fun with, he describes the executioner as the man on whom society’s order relies but whom society despises. In this day and age, we’re so squeamish about the death penalty that we try to make as euphemize it as much as possible in our method and go to elaborate measures to remove the responsibility away from any given man — multiple switches on the drug machine, blanks in some firing squad guns, etc. As the man who gets his hands dirty, Batman has to be an outsider for the sake of the rest of our self-images.
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