"The Dark Knight" (Batman) represents something more than the mere triumph of good over evil.
Caped crusaders fight their way to the mainstream and reflect America's post-9/11 personality
At the risk of sounding like a two-bit blurbist, it has been a super summer for comic-book superheroes. What with a back-from-the-dead "The Incredible Hulk," an amusing "Hellboy II," the wannabe "Hancock," the incredible success of "Iron Man" and now the bone-rattling angst of "The Dark Knight," superheroes are no longer the moist province of fanboys. No. They've stepped up to the front ranks of cheesy pop culture, that mirror that turns grim reality into palatable entertainment.
"The Dark Knight" doesn't even have "Batman" in the title, that's how serious it is. Writer-director Christopher Nolan has used the superhero motif to create a parable about the shifting sands of public responsibility, in an urban setting that is unsettlingly gray, and asks a multitude of questions of the audience: Where do you draw the line in an escalation? What is permissible in fighting evil? What is the nature of anarchy? Is the capacity for good and evil within us all? At what point does a public hero become a public enemy? When the rules fall away, who's left standing - and does that count as victory?
And dozens more. Clearly, "Dark Knight" is after bigger game than selling popcorn. Even more clearly, superhero movies aren't being made just because digital effects now make them possible. It's something in the air.
Parallels to the current fight against terrorism are pretty obvious - that undercurrent informs all the summer superhero movies, actually - and the tale benefits mightily from a truly frightening performance from the late Heath Ledger as the Joker, an urban nightmare all the more scary because his goal is chaos, not money or political power. There's no reasoning with a drive like that. And with his affected, lizardlike mannerisms and blasted face - a villain as drawn by Francis Bacon - Joker is every bit as iconic a personality as, say, Osama Bin Laden.
This might be the first superhero movie with a PG-13 rating, and thoroughly deserves it. Batman is also the scariest of "heroes," a guy driven by rage and revenge, with the financial resources to indulge himself. How different is he from Joker? Or Blackwater USA's Erik Prince? (Now, THERE's a comic-book name!)
That PG-13 rating is one small signal that superheroes have entered the world of adult-oriented films. Although the concept of superheroes goes back as far as tales of Zoroaster and Gilgamesh, the idea that such a being can, and will, protect the downtrodden is a concept that arises mostly in outcast communities. Many of the creative personalities behind the rise of comics as a storytelling medium in the '50s and '60s were Jewish, for example, and the whole concept rides on the trope that human beings are essentially victims and that belief in a higher power is a good thing.
That feeling of persecution, of victimization, is powerfully embedded in the American consciousness these days, particularly since Sept. 11, 2001. Americans have also seen their innate power and good standing among nations squandered by greed and stupidity, and that contributes to a "Zeitgeist" of powerlessness and anomie.
Hollywood follows public needs, it doesn't create them.
Except as parody, you're not seeing superhero films being made in other nations. It's a peculiarly American notion to think of ourselves as both victim and hero, and the world is making us blur any distinction between the two.