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Or, That which does not kill me makes me strange: Thoughts on “The Dark Knight”

Marc Olmsted

Last summer everyone was digging the Joker and the reason is obvious.  America’s love affair with Satan has always been based on the Dark Lord’s willingness to have a good time.  Beyond that, the attraction for any Satanist (of which I am not) is the suspicion that the Dark Lord knows a thing or two about a thing or two.  The Garden of Eden story always hinted at this – a kabbalistic riddle where moderns lost the key.  Sinister wisdom, my dear.  As William Blake said of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Joker is the secret hero of The Dark Knight.

Heath Ledger said he partly based his interpretation of the Joker on Johnny Rotten’s persona, but in some ways he's really the mahasiddha of the piece...the enlightened master with virtual omniscience, so out of control he's in total control, no attachment to money, no fear of pain or's the old Apocalypse Now Kurtz-as-crazy-wisdom routine...meaning our culture still hasn’t figured out the difference between the divine and ordinary madman. Tibetan Buddhism’s term “crazy wisdom” or “wild wisdom, ” like Blake’s poetry does not have this duality of God and Satan.

As for the all the flawed and strange so-called good guys that abound in The Dark Knight, I definitely prefer John Ford's final humanistic bitterness and the genuine heroes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  This isn’t just some old school film geek nostalgia – there are actual parallels between these films.  John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon is the actual good guy and killer of Liberty Valance, while Jimmy Stewart’s Ranse Stoddard is the apparent shooter of Valance, and goes onto to a successful political career, literally becoming a senator based on this misperception.  “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” says a newspaper editor who decides to surpress the facts after he gets the true story.  Lee Marvin is the flamboyant villain, but unlike the Joker, he is not the secret hero. 

Imagine how perverse Liberty Valance would be if Valance had been the secret hero!  This may say more about The Dark Knight as a mirror of our current culture than anything else.

The biggest piece missing from Knight is the enlightenment to the Joker's anti-enlightenment – even if the Joker also shows that sinister wisdom like Kurtz in Apocalypse -but he's hardly a realistic character, i.e. a Hitler or Manson or even L. Ron he gets to have a kind of omniscience and says some of the film's greatest truths... But he is not real, anymore than Satan is.

In Knight, the leaders inevitably must make grey decisions...I was struck how the only person who can handle the truth in the movie is Alfred the butler - the public can't handle Dent being a nut, Batman can't handle that his girlfriend dumped him, the Joker can't connect with anyone, the commissioner has to painfully trick his family for the greater good.  Michael Caine, the Alfred of this version, said off-camera that America sees itself as Superman, and the rest of the world sees it as Batman.  But a further wrinkle is offered by Barack Obama choosing Spider-Man as his favorite movie superhero, while John McCain chose Batman according to a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly.

As for Batman himself, director Chris Nolan is like the liberal Don Siegal making Dirty's the same self-deceptive presentation because being beyond the law looks fine if you don't make mistakes - even the endless collateral damage around Batman is sanitized - no one appears to die no matter how impossible that would be...if you haven’t seen it, you've undoubtedly heard that he tracks the Joker in the end with an ultimate phone surveillance technique "just this once" – somehow justified because Morgan Freeman says he'll resign if Batman "makes" him do it – and then does. "It's too much power for one man," opines the intelligent black servant. Oh, is that why it's not o.k.?  As Orson Welles wrote for Chuck Heston’s narcotics officer to say in Touch of Evil: “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.”   I never really investigated the Frank Miller-reinvigorated Dark Knight series, except that I know we get a seriously unhinged superhero.  Miller himself is some sort of Ayn Rand-libertarian, but it mostly just seems some variation of Mike Hammer without the Robert Aldrich irony of his Kiss Me Deadly.

Probably the greatest false note in the movie for me is the decision to show the inability of the two boats to blow each other up as a metaphor of human basic goodness. Though I believe in human basic goodness, this sequence seems to be unsupported by any psychological research or personal experience – I'm thinking of that test where the participants believe they are delivering painful electric shocks to subjects on the orders of an authority figure ... in short, such a situation would probably NOT get the result the movie suggests, certainly not from the convicts, which seems to suggest that the inability to handle the truth extends to the film-makers themselves. Having conjured such a Satanic and all-accomplishing force as the Joker, they try to balance it with humanism.  The Joker is the Dark Night, the Abyss.

If there’s one thing America can’t handle, it’s the Abyss.  This summer we dressed it up as a psycho clown and pretend to root against it even as we privately embrace it as the only safety we can now imagine.