Sam Raimi has always been firmly entrenched within the ranks of “geekdom”. The EVIL DEAD series has taken on legendary cult status, SPIDER MAN 1 & 2 were excellent – funny, we don’t seem to remember a THING about a third one of those – and DRAG ME TO HELL has found an audience all its own. It seems that they sci-fi/horror train keeps on rolling for Raimi as it was announced in Variety that he will be directing EARP: SAINTS FOR SINNERS for Radical Studios and Dreamworks.
Based on the graphic novel of the same name, SAINTS FOR SINNERS follows a “modern day” Wyatt Earp as he fights the lawless in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Some fears have arisen based upon the recent blight that was JONAH HEX, but with Raimi at the helm it seems that the Sci-fi/Western genre has no place left to go but up. The graphic novel itself has not been published yet but will be revealed at this week’s ComicCon.
JONAH HEX may not turn out to be the worst blockbuster that Hollywood inflicts upon us this summer, but it certainly seems likely to be the most disappointing. Not disappointing because it was filled with potential, but disappointing because it fails to deliver even the cheap thrills, over-hyped action heroics, and pre-fabricated melodrama that – at a bare minimum – passes for entertainment in this kind of film. This is one, dull ride across the range that will have viewers running home in search of HIGH-PLAINS DRIFTER, THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY, and even THE CROW – just as a reminder that there is a way to do this kind of genre piece right. The film starts with a clever opening cue – the Warner Brothers theme played on electric slide guitar, lending a Western feel to the familiar notes – but with a modern edge. This echo of Ennio Morricone (who scored Sergio Leone’s great Italian Westerns) is the first and last time we will feel any sense of anticipation in JONAH HEX, because anticipation requires a narrative confidence that this film utterly lacks. The pacing is weirdly schizophrenic – a fact that becomes evident in the opening prologue. The first problem is that the prologue should not even exist. Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) should be introduced as a man of mystery, but the film seems afraid of letting us figure out his back story along the way, so instead it is spelled out in an opening montage, with helpful voice over from the character.
Unfortunately, the sequence is oddly truncated, as if the filmmakers were even more afraid that we might be bummed out if Hex’s personal tragedy were actually allowed to register on an emotional level. So what we get is the telegraph version: Hex family killed stop Hex face branded stop Hex recovers from near death stop Hex now able to communicate with dead stop Hex becomes bounty hunter full stop. Consequently, the scene leaves us cold, and later flashbacks, filling in the missing details, comes a bit late to hit us with emotional impact – it’s a re-run of what we already know, and it’s too late to make us care.
If this opening miscalculation were just a matter of the film getting off to a shaky start, we could try to forget it and move on, but the sequence turns out to be symptomatic of the rest of JONAH HEX, which feels like an all-out assault on narrative coherency. It’s as if Nicolas Roeg got stuck with a boring work-for-hire assignment and decided to sabotage the production with his patented fee-association montage approach.
Or more likely, the film feels eerily reminiscent of THE INVASION (2007), the adaptation of Jack Finny’s The Body Snatchers that the Warner Brothers studio turned over to the Wachowski Brothers in post-production. JONA HEX features the same sort of editorial trickery, with different scenes intercut in a way that confuses the timeline in the hope of compressing exposition and visuals into one big – though not very finely threaded – knot.
TWO FILMS IN ONE
JONAH HEX is supposed to be two films in one: it’s a Western about a bounty hunter out for revenge, and it’s a horror- fantasy about a man who stopped just short of death’s door and now has some kind of connection with those on the other side, manifested in the ability to briefly resurrect the dead for interrogation purposes. But more than that JONAH HEX feels like a movie that was shot twice, and the editors could not decide which pieces to use, so they intercut both of them. JONAH HEX Take One was apparently about a loner cowboy whose only companions were a horse and a dog, and it ended with Hex and his enemy Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich) duking it out in the desert. JONAH HEX Take Two gives Hex a sometimes girlfriend, a hooker with a heart of gold named Lilah (Megan Fox) and ends with Hex and Turbull duking it out aboard an iron-clad vessel.
The two fight-to-the-death scenes with Hex and Turnbull are intercut, the justification (provided in voice over) being that the desert sequence is a near-death hallucination, to which Jonah is flashing back. As if that two-fer were not enough, there is also a double ending: in one, Jonah and Lilah walk away together, into a beautifully rendered cloudy blue sky; in the other, Jonah rides off into the desert, with his horse and dog, but without Lilah.
It is weirdly symptomatic of JONAH HEX’s mangled macho ethos that the scene with the dog – in fact Jonah’s relationship with the animal – is far more moving than the one with Lilah. In fact, the dog’s has a few good moments that leave us wanting more. The canine is introduced as if it will feature prominently: Hex evens the odds with some idiots who are tormenting the creature, which shows its gratitude by following him of its own accord. And then…nothing. The poor pup’s apparently abbreviated role suggests one of those old time co-stars whose best scenes were cut out to salvage the vanity of the headliner afraid of being upstaged.
Whether JONAH HEX was in fact largely reshot and recut, I cannot say, but I certainly hope it was – because I would hate to think that the film was designed from the ground up to be this way. For all the talk of CLASH OF THE TITANS being radically revised at the last minute, the seams that show are relatively forgivable. In JONAH HEX, however, the film feels stitched together like a bad mad scientist’s experiment.
For one thing, Fox’s character looks shoe-horned into the film at random intervals. At one point she kills a paying customer; the next time we see her, it’s as if the incident never happened. (Sure, we know the creep deserved it, but are we really supposed to believe the local sheriff, not to mention the guys’ family, would just give her a pass?) She’s a kick-ass girl except when the script needs her to be easily abducted by Burke (Michael Fassbender) so that Turnbull can use her as bait to lure Jonah Hex into a trap.
Weirdly, Turnbull doesn’t follow up on this plan; instead, Hex shows up of his own accord, leading to an unintentionally hilarious bit. Turnbull, who has been delivering his standard-issue evil-villain-victory-speech to his men on the deck of his iron-clad ship, suddenly produces Lilah out of nowhere, like a poker player revealing an ace up his sleeve. What the… did he have her hidden in his overcoat, or what? (And by the way, how did Burke know that Jonah loved Lilah? Should we even care, when the screenwriters plainly don’t?)
In time honored tradition of movie villains, Turbull doesn’t kill Jonah when he has the chance (even though he has ordered Hex’s death in the past). No, in a hilarious piece of lip-service screenwriting, Turnbull says he wants Hex to see his moment of triumph – and then locks up Hex and Lilah below decks, from which vantage point, Turbull’s triumph will not be visible (although it will of course, give Hex and Lilah ample opportunity to escape).
This leads to a lengthy but not particularly exciting climax filled with enough idiocy to make you wonder whether JONAH HEX isn’t some kind of extremely well-disguised self-parody. The U.S. government sends a boat to intercept Turnbull, but in a plot development that sounds like something out of THE WILD, WILD WEST, Turnbull is in possession of a super secret sci-fi type weapon. Said weapon was designed for but never built by the government; the U.S. government knows he has it and has seen the destruction it has wrought, but the U.S. officers sent to intercept him basically shrug when he opens fire, and simply wait to be obliterated. This leaves it up to Jonah and Lilah to save the day. Fortunately, the “nation-killer” weapon has been deliberately designed with a feature that gives the heroes time to stop it. For reasons that would occur only to a screenwriter, the multi-barrel cannon fires off half a dozen rounds that land harmlessly, until a final “trigger” round is fired – and of course, the trigger takes a long time to roll down the conveyor belt before being loaded. This is every bit as silly as it sounds.
This indifferent approach to even the semblance of continuity and common sense perfectly encapsulate the narrative strategy of JONAH HEX. It’s as if the filmmaker thought up some random scenes they wanted to see and simply stitched them altogether for their own – certainly not our – enjoyment.
WHO CARES ABOUT STORY? WHAT ABOUT ACTION?
Presumably no one is sidling up to JONAH HEX hoping to enjoy a sophisticated story. But the film fails to deliver even the basic popcorn entertainment. Jimmy Hayward cannot direct action. The big set-pieces just lie there. He is equally unable to capture that Sergio Leone feel of the calm before the storm, the delicious anticipation of violence, when the hero will finally deliver the payback so richly deserved.
Hayward doesn’t know how to modulate his effects to suit the ups and downs of the story; sure, his cinematographer captures some great outdoor scenery, but it’s never used to set a tone or establish a mood that will underline the drama. JONAH HEX feels shot-by-numbers, but Hayward seems to have used the same numbers over and over. For instance, footage of Hex riding across the open range exhibits a generic quality, as if it were all shot on a single day and intercut at random throughout the film. Whether Jonah is heading to meet Lilah or to track down Turnbull, he always rides at the same pace, and with the same expression.
In a desperate effort to enliven this leaden lack of exciting gunplay, Marco Beltrami’s dramatic score is intermixed with metaloid music by Mastadon. More and more we’re hearing this type of aural assault used to hype trailers (e.g., THE WOLF MAN), but this is one of the first times it has crept into the actual film, which should have stuck closer to the Morricone template.
WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR FACE?
Josh Brolin certainly looks the part of Jonah Hex. He gets off a good line here or there, responding to the oft-asked question, “What happened to your face?” And his awkward response to the unexpected loyalty of the dog he rescued (“I don’t know what to say to you”) is endearing. Unfortunately, the voice over robs him of the mystery that such a character should maintain; we should read his pain buried somewhere deep behind his eyes, not hear it spoken to us directly. And the makeup doesn’t work as well as it should. Not that it looks bad, but it never becomes a part of the performance the way that, for example, Heath Ledger made use of the Joker’s scarred mouth.
Malkovich is too good to phone it in, but this is as close as I ever want to see him get. The script’s one moderately interesting idea is making Turbull the 19th century equivalent of a terrorist (the word doesn’t even exist in English, forcing President Grant [a very sincere Aidan Quinn] to resort to a Spansish coinage adopted by Turnbull’s Mexican comrades). But Turnbull is under-motivated. He hates the North, but it’s not clear that he really wants to help the South (in one of those obligatory movie-villain scenes, he kills an ally for no other reason than to remind us that he is the villain). And Malkovich doesn’t bother trying to find anything underneath the man’s skin that will make him anything more than the cardboard character that the script has given him. In a development so unexpected it almost makes JONAH HEX worth seeing, Malkovich is overshadowed (even if only briefly) by Fox, who manages to show one decent glimmer of human warmth in a scene with Jonah, letting us know she really loves him (unlike her other clients). It’s almost enough to make you expect something interesting from her character, before she descends to being plot device. (Note to director Hayward: If you’re going to put Fox into that corset, you might as well try to generate a little heat with her character instead of presenting her with all the appeal of a barely noticed fashion accessory.)
The real scene-stealer is Michael Fassbender, as the crazy Irish, violence-loving henchmen to Turnbull. As much as we’re supposed to hate him for being a homicidal thrill killer, his joy de guerre is the film’s bright spot. You wonder if the filmmakers feel the same way, because they are absolutely unable to wring any satisfaction out of his death scene, which plays almost like something that was edited for television.
PROUD TO BE A REBEL – BUT WHAT IS YOUR CAUSE?
As scrambled as the narrative of JONAH HEX is, even more scrambled is the underlying attitude toward the character. Hex fought for the South, and turned against his comrades only when his commanding officer (Turnbull) ordered attacks on civilian targets, including a hospital. This led to a fatal shoot-out with Turnbull’s son, Jeb (an uncredited Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who has one of the best moments when Hex briefly resurrects him to get information on father Turnbull’s whereabouts). Jonah Hex’s change-of-heart regarding the righteousness of the war he was fighting could have been a powerful sequence; alas, it is not shown. It is simply referenced to allow Hex off the hook for fighting on the wrong side of the Civil War, without coming to terms with what the fight was about.
In case this sounds like over-interpretation, the closing credit crawl for JONAH HEX ends with a folk song whose chorus proclaims the singer is proud to be a rebel who fought the Union; he’s sorry only about losing. Is the singer speaking for Jonah Hex? If not, why put the song in at all, especially at the very end, when most viewers will have left the theatre? Is this a shout-out to anyone with lingering resentments over the Civil War?
Lest we conclude that JONAH HEX is endorsing racist sentiments, the filmmakers includes an official Hollywood disclaimer in the form of the token black man from whom Hex purchases weapons. In case the mere presence of this character were not enough to absolve Hex, our token character delivers dialogue insisting that Hex wasn’t for slavery and wasn’t for sessesion; he just didn’t like the government telling him what to do. This makes no sense (after all, the South had a government that told Hex to put on a uniform and fight the North). It’s just an embarrassing form of pandering to the tea-baggers in the audience: Sure I’m sorry the South lost the war that abolished slavery, and now that a black man is in the oval office, I’d like to secede, but that doesn’t mean I’m racist.
Once again, liberal Hollywood turns out not to be so liberal. JONAH HEX (June 18, 2010). Directed by Jimmy Hayward, Screenplay by Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor; story by William Farmer and Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor, based on the DC Comics character by John Albano and Tony Dezuniga. Cast: Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Michael Fassbender, Will Arnet, John Gallagher Jr., Tom Wopat, Michael Shannon, Wes Bentley, Julia Jones, Luke James Fleischmann, Rio Hackford, Aidan Quinn.
Actress Megan Fox discusses working with Josh Brolin on JONAH HEX. And she enjoys fight scenes because she “wants to brawl.”
Find more video trailers, clips, and interviews at CFQ’s new YouTube channel.
On THE TONIGHT SHOW Monday, Josh Brolin read from his journal, written while working on JONAH HEX with John Malkovich and Megan Fox. The plot has the U.S. government hiring the titular bounty hunter (Josh Brolin) to confront a terrorist (John Malkovich) who is threatening to a Hellish apocalypse. Megan Fox, Will Arnett, Aidan Quinn, and David Patrick Kelly co-star for director Jimmy Hayward, working from a script by Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor, based on a story developed with William Farmer, inspired by the DC comic book character created by John Albano and Tony Dezuniga. Warner Brothers releases the film this Friday, June 18.
The DC Weird Western anti-hero JONAH HEX opens Friday, June 18th. Here’s a new clip from Warner Brothers (via Superherohype). It’s a big gunfight, with a high-tech surprise (possible SPOILER), for those not familiar with the changes to the character for the film adaptation.
JONAH HEX (2010)
Starring Josh Brolin, Megan Fox, John Malkovich, and Will Arnett.
Screenplay by Mark Neveldine (CRANK) & Brian Taylor (GAMER)
Directed by Jimmy Hayward (HORTON HEARS A WHO!)
According to The Hollywood Reporter Sam Rockwell (IRON MAN 2, MOON) has signed on for Jon Favreau’s (IRON MAN 2, ZATHURA) upcoming sci-fi film, COWBOYS & ALIENS. He’ll be joining an already star studded cast which includes the likes of Harrison Ford (STAR WARS, INDIANA JONES) and Daniel Craig (THE GOLDEN COMPASS, THE INVASION).
Rockwell is to star in the upcoming superhero film, IRON MAN 2, which was also directed by Favreau, so the two must of hit if off pretty well. COWBOYS & ALIENS is a graphic novel adaptation in which a group of angry extraterrestrials invade the Old West. Writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof have had to work with Favreau to re-imagine the role of ‘Doc’, a bartender who helps our heroes battle the alien nasties, for Rockwell to boost his screen time and change his appearance from a heavy-set boozer.
I’m quietly anticipating this one and the addition of Rockwell to the cast can only be a good thing. COWBOYS & ALIENS is set to start shooting in June.
The folks over at Variety have the scoop that Noah Ringer has been cast in Jon Favreau’s (IRON MAN) next film; COWBOYS & ALIENS. Ringer is a relative unknown but after being given the lead role in AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER by M. Night Shyamalan he will be staring in Favreau’s upcoming sci-fi/western hybrid.
COWBOYS & ALIENS is being adapted from the comic book of the same name which implies a rather simple ‘cowboys defend Earth from aliens story’ but in fact is something much more interesting. In the comics the twist is that the aliens end up invading the Old West and colonising the area just as the real life settlers did to the Native Americans. It definitely sounds like an promising concept and one that’s in safe hands with Favreau on board to direct. It’s not clear what role Ringer will be playing yet but he’ll be joining a impressive cast that already includes Harrison Ford (INDIANA JONES, STAR WARS) and Daniel Craig (CASINO ROYALE, LAYER CAKE).
COWBOYS & ALIENS is set for release on the 29th of July, 2011.
Now that THE DARK KNIGHT has slowly slipped from the #1 slot in the weekly box office race, perhaps time has come to discuss the film as a cultural phenomenon rather than as a box office phenomenon. In truth, the discussion has already begun, but the level of discourse has been sophomoric, even juvenile. Some observers have accused the film of being confused or fascist; others insist that it paints a positive picture of the Bush Administration’s War on Terror; at least one thinks it is being over-rated simply because it is a macho action pic. The very fact that the film could ignite this kind of debate is, in itself, interesting; the dark, dense, and sprawling narrative is so loaded with details that are not wrapped up into a neat bow that active audience interpretation is almost required to make sense of it. From my perspective, the two keys to understanding the film are Film Noir and the Western genre, which provide a foundation upon which the film’s narrative rests.
Not that the nation’s critics have necessarily noticed this. In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Joanne Weintraub vaguely complains that the macho heroics of Batman outperformed the feel-good, feminine-friendly MAMA MIA; besides Heath Ledger’s justifiably praised performance as the Joker, she sees little difference in quality between the two films and seems to think DARK KNIGHT has earned unfairly high critical regard because “Guy Flicks” about men trying to save the world are perceived as being serious work, unlike frothy chick flicks such as MAMA MIA.
Weintraub is correct that THE DARK KNIGHT plays out its scenario in a male-dominated world, where the one significant female character (Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel) is reduced to the stereotypical female roles of emotional anchor and damsel in distress. However, Weintraub overlooks three important points: 1) action films do not typically earn critical kudos; 2) DARK KNIGHT has far outperformed most typical action films; 3) DARK KNIGHT is far from being a typical action film.
WESTERN MEETS FILM NOIR
Despite its superhero trappings, THE DARK KNIGHT is more a piece of film noir, a style that typically uses hard-boiled plot lines laced with machismo. The true aesthetics of macho movie-making, however, have less to do with explosions and car chases than with how a man defines himself in a hostile, usually corrupt world. It’s the old story of “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” but in hard-boiled plot, unlike the Western, what a man’s gotta do is often not nearly enough.
THE DARK KNIGHT is really about the failure of the hero. Batman strives mightily, but the Joker outplays him on almost every hand. Even apparent small victories lead to defeat. Batman may capture the Joker, but the effect is like trying to stuff a genie back into the bottle: the madness has already been unleashed, and it seems unstoppable. The large-scale goal of redeeming Gotham remains elusively out of reach.
This is not the sort of stuff we associate with summer blockbusters. It’s dark and pessimistic, but not outright cynical, and I suspect that this quality – rather than the guy flick designation – is what has embedded the film in the public consciousness. THE DARK KNIGHT celebrates the struggle – the effort against all odds – even when victory is at best partial. The film refuses to sell out with an easy happy ending; it captures the tenor of the times in which we live, when our institutions and government have failed us, but it refuses to trade in the cheap cynicism of junk like THE MIST – which mistook cynical irony for profundity.
Moving on to the political perspective, we have the usually astute Eric Alterman stating:
I saw The Dark Knight yesterday afternoon, and I think it pulled off the neat trick of being both libertarian and fascistic, which is to say it is damn confused … not bad, but not consistent either.
Responding to Alterman, Matthew Yglesias writes:
…a well-made film that, rather than being topical as such, instead chooses to deal with topical themes often doesn’t really have a political “point of view.” Instead, it makes everybody think about the present political situation but we’ll probably reach different conclusions about it just as we reach different conclusions about the real world.
That seems about right to me. THE DARK KNIGHT appears confused to Alterman because it is not designed to endorse a clear-cut agenda, in which the plot works out perfectly because a character adheres to a certain set of prinicples (unlike, say, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, in which the naive scientist is killed off by the alien while the military defeats the invader). DARK KNIGHT does not preach an easy moral: “Do this and everything will work out okay.” Instead, the screenplay takes its premise and plays it out wherever it leads, with the characters scrambling to deal with an antagonist who is too clever for them, whose very philosophy challenges their assumptions and tactics, rendering them impotent. “Fascism” and “Libertarianism” are not actually endorsed by the filmmakers; the ideas are dramatically embodied by the characters and their actions.
For example, Harvey Dent, when discussing his mission to clean up Gotham, cites Julius Cesare, approvingly, only to have Rachel remind him that Roman strong-arm tactics eventually led to military dictatorship. Likewise, Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon believe that heroes are needed to save Gotham – and if Batman is not the quite right pill for the prescription, then Harvey Dent is; their belief, however, is contradicted by the narrative itself, although they never seem to realize it.
Yglesias is also correct that different people will read different interpretations into the material. Washington Independent’s Spencer Ackerman believes that THE DARK KNIGHT reflects Dick Cheney’s approach to foreign policy, with the Caped Crusader seeing himself as a reluctant warrior forced into action by an inexplicable villain. The difference is that Batman worries over the moral and ethical dilemmas that face him, whereas Cheney and company never doubt their moral righteousness, believing that the ends justify any means, however despicable.
Ackerman’s view overlooks the Western element of THE DARK KNIGHT’s plot. Batman is a little bit like a gun-fighter in an old Western: his existence makes sense because he exists in a world where law and order do not keep violence at bay. The Western celebrates the exploits of brave men who shoot fast, but the Sheriff or Marshall who faces off with the Bad Guy in a showdown is ultimately trying to put himself out of business. The goal is to tame the Wild West, so that justice may be administered in the courtroom by a judge and jury, not in the middle of the street with guns blazing.
Batman is not a gun-slinger, but he serves a similar function; his actions are justified by his lawless environment. Gotham may not quite be a frontier town, but it is so corrupt that a legitimate lawman like Jim Gordon cannot successfully do his job. In this context, where organized crime has infiltrated institutions intended to protect citizens, it becomes necessary for Bruce Wayne to wear the cape and cowl, acting outside the law. Nevertheless, Batman ultimately serves the law: he works in close alliance with Gordon, counterbalancing the unfair disadvantages handicapping the policeman.
With the advent of Harvey Dent, however, Batman seems obsolete. Dent is not just out to catch low-level street thugs: he wants to prosecute the big fish; in doing so, he plans to wipe out the corruption undermining Gotham, and unlike Bruce Wayne, he can operate in daylight, with his face exposed to the public. In other words, Dent fits the role of traditional hero; he represents what Batman has been fighting to achieve – the rise of a more peaceful form of civil authority – a legal prosecutor who can replace the violent gunfighter. If Dent succeeds, Gordon and the rest of the police force will be able to do their jobs, and Batman can go back to being Bruce Wayne – the equivalent of the gunfighter hanging up his six-shooter.
That Batman would like to do this is in no doubt; rather than cling to power, Wayne is eager to retire. Unlike the Bush administration, it is clear that Wayne does not anticipate an unending war that will permanently justify an expansion of his powers. In fact, in a subplot that riffs off of the domestic spying issue, Batman deliberately puts his surveillance power in the hands of the one man who objects to it morally, and Batman also provides him with the code that will self-destruct the device when its purpose has been served. This is precisely the opposite of the Bush-Cheney approach, in which crisis and emergency are not only embraced but deliberately prolonged as a an excuse for maintaining a grip on power. (Have you seen George Bush trying to rescind his expanded wiretapping powers – without warrants -or trying to permanently codify them into law, along with the help of Congress?)
BATMAN = BUSH?
Going a step further – or more accurately, going off the deep end – the Wall Street Journal posted an opinion piece by mystery novelist Andrew Klavan entitled “What Bush and Batman Have in Common.” Klavan is so specious in his reasoning that he does not warrant a line-by-line take-down (in spite of its reportorial excellence, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page has long been a joke); however, it is interesting to see the simple-minded conservative arguments trotted out as if they were philosophical first principles to be accepted without debate. Klavan believes that THE DARK KNIGHT has made a fortune because it is a conservative film, but he offers a lament in the guise of a rhetorical question, asking why conservative values “like morality, faith, self-sacrifice, and the nobility of fighting for the right” appear only under the guise of fantasy.
The first part of the answer to the question is obvious: morality, faith, self-sacrifice and the nobility of fighting for the right are not conservative values by any stretch of the imagination. The second part of the answer is almost equally obvious: fantasy films offer a venue for artists to expound upon ideas that are open to interpretation, so that audiences with different viewpoints can read what they want into them; to a large extent, this is the essence of popular art – creating something that can be enjoyed by everyone. The third part of the answer may be less obvious, but it is equally important: if your world view makes sense only in the context of a movie about hobbits, fairies, or superheroes, you probably should not try to apply it to the real world.
Typically, Klavan’s distinction between moral relativism and moral absolutism is not well defined. What it amounts to is: if we do it, then it’s right, because we’re the Good Guys. Consequently, things that are wrong on some occasions may be right on other occasions (i.e., when we are doing them). This hardly qualifies as absolutism. In fact, it is almost a dictionary definition of relativism: it all depends on circumstances, and we’re willing to break a few rules and do a few bad things, because it’s not quite as bad as some of the consequences would be otherwise.
THE DARK KNIGHT plays with the idea of how far one is willing to bend the rules in times of emergency, but for the most part the film is a depiction of Batman’s failure to defeat the Joker with these “get tough” measures. The film invites us to cheer when Gordon, a police officer, allows Batman, a vigilante, to interrogate the Joker, because we know Batman can kick his ass in the way that the official police could not, but the effort proves a total failure. The audience may enjoy a vicarious thrill at Batman’s extra-legal measures, but taking off the velvet gloves is useless against the Joker’s brand of villainy; getting down and dirty only plays into his scheme, such as it is.
AGENT OF CHAOS
The problem is that Batman, Jim Gordon, and Harvey Dent underestimate and misunderstand their opponent, treating him like a conventional criminal – which he is not. The Joker does not have a conventional criminal agenda (the accumulation of wealth and power) because he knows these things are ephemeral. To the wounded Dent, he claims to be an Agent of Chaos, and I cannot help believing that this is a deliberate reference to Norman Spinrad’s science fiction novel of that title. Agent of Chaos is a sort of alternate spin on the dystopian novel as exemplified by Orwell’s 1984, in which the power of political oppression seemed undefeatable; Spinrad, unlike Orwell, tells us that chaos ultimately wins out over order. In the novel, the forces of chaos are represented by an anarchic organization (a contradiction in terms, perhaps) called the Brotherhood of Assassins, who seek to undermine the prevailing political establishment, which is corrupt and deserves to be destroyed.
Seen from this point of view, the Joker bears some similarity to the revolutionary title character in V FOR VENDETTA – another trickster outwitting powerful establishment forces. The difference is that in V FOR VENDETTA, the corrupt, Fascist establishment clearly deserved to be brought down by any means necessary. Gotham, on the other hand, is not so far gone that it is necessary to destroy it in order to save it. Batman, Dent, and Gordon all hope they can weed out the bad elements while leaving the essential structure intact: they do not want to destroy the existing order; they want to replace it with a new and improved version.
What the Joker seems to know (although he never states it outright) is the lesson that Spinrad taught in Agent of Chaos: the tendency toward entropy – toward chaos – will ultimately overwhelm any social order, which is always temporary in nature. Batman, Gordon, and Dent may fight to replace Gotham’s corrupt system, but their victories can be at best temporary.
What makes the Joker so dangerous is that he is not trying to create a social order of his own; there is no Master Plan to unravel because his only aim is to make things unravel. His agenda, if he has one at all, is to corrupt the forces that are trying to save Gotham.* This goal becomes most obvious in the character of Dent, the fair-haired golden boy who represents the legitimate, official counterpart to Batman’s vigilantism. Dent is the guy who theoretically can accomplish what Batman is trying to do. However, the Joker throws a monkey wrench into the works, turning Harvey toward evil – or at least destroying his sense of justice, so that nothing is left but a will toward revenge and a belief in the random, arbitrary nature of events – hence his reliance on a flipping a coin to decide who lives and dies.
The film forshadows Dent’s transformation into Two-Face with a scene where he threatens a helpless, mentally deficient suspect with a gun; the scene reminds the viewer that even the best of us has a dark side that can be dangerous if it goes unchecked. The message is that the world cannot depend on “heroes,” who are merely human and may fall from grace. We must depend upon principles. There is no force strong enough to police everyone all the time; people themselves – the public at large – are the ultimate source of a stable society. They don’t need to be saved so much as they need a fair shot at not being sand-bagged by evil forces, whether common criminals, uncommon criminals (like the Joker), or organized criminals.
The point is made quite dramatically in the the dilemma the Joker forces upon two boats in Gotham harbor, each rigged to blow up if the passengers do not blow up the other boat first. This is the Joker’s way of proving a point – that self-interest will override morality in a crisis – but it turns out to be the one genuine defeat he suffers in the film. The “heroes” who save the day are not Batman, Dent, or Gordon; they are two men on the boats who (for different reason) either refuse or simply cannot bring themselves to push the button. Batman doesn’t do it. Harvey Dent doesn’t do it. Jim Gordon doesn’t do it. Just two guys who find themselves in a bad situation but make the right decision.
A RAY OF SUNSHINE IN THE NOIR
It is here, only here, that THE DARK KNIGHT finds a small glimmer of hope. Yes, the Joker (who manifests an unspoken death-wish) concedes defeat in his attempt to force Batman to kill him, but the real victory belongs to the anonymous populace. The Joker – like another unidentified criminal mastermind, the pseudonymous John Smith in SEVEN – is trying to teach the world a lesson; like other examples of oracular evil (MANHUNTER’s Hannibal Lektor, MR FROST’s title character, the Gemini Killer in THE EXORCIST III), the Joker offers a dark but compelling philosophy filled with both cynicism and insight; the combination is designed to evoke despair, but inspite of all his best effort, a flicker of human decency defeats him.
That the victory belongs not to Batman is made clear in the key image of the film: while Batman dangles the Joker upside down from the side of of a building, the camera revolves 180-degrees until his face looks right-side-up in the frame. In effect, the camera has adopted the Joker’s frame of reference: Batman has not turned him upside down; the Joker has turned the Batman’s world upside down.
This is not the sort of resolution that yields an easily digestible “moral to the story.” And the film provides a final turn of the screw in the form of a plot twist regarding the demise of Two-Face, in which Batman and Gordon make an ill-fated decision in order to preserve Dent’s heroic image. Even after all they have seen and experienced, the two men still place their faith in a worldview that (they should now realize) has been rendered topsy-turvy. Like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, they refuse to render Dent “that justice which was his due,” instead perpetuating a comforting lie, allegedly for the public good.
If THE DARK KNIGHT has anything definite to say, it is that a handful of men working in secret and without accountability are not the answer to the world’s problems; however well intentioned, their efforts are doomed because the chaotic forces at work in the universe are too big to be controlled. Real hope rises from the bottom up, not from overlords who make decisions on our behalf. Moments of heroism may arrive in unexpected places, but the mantel of hero is no guarantee of success. Batman cannot save us; we can only hope to save ourselves. FOOTNOTES:
Judging from his actions if not his words, the Joker also hopes to commit “Suicide by Batman,” but this may be considered part of his agenda to corrupt the forces of good in the film.