2008’s The Dark Knight is the superhero movie we need, not the one we deserve

The Dark Knight

I’ve just been rewatching 2008’s The Dark Knight, the middle one of the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale Batman trilogy and featuring Heath Ledger as The Joker. And in the context of the last few superhero movies I’ve seen (Suicide Squad, Batman V Superman and yes even Civil War) all crude eye-popping popcorn-fodder, The Dark Knight is Citizen Kane meets The Godfather.

Let me explain.

Quite aside from its taught story-telling, efficient scripting, well-judged pacing, realistically-dour cinematic tones, fully-fleshed and empathy-worthy characters, shunning of clichéd posey and contrived movie-poster vignettes, absence of blatant trouser-tweaking eye-candy, complex and multi-twisting plot and a rising crescendo of seemingly never-ending climaxes that leave you emotionally and physically drained (and yet astonishingly finally ending with quite a sombre, low-key and un-‘super’ last sequence) is – deep breath – the overriding thought-provoking theme within this epic film.

And that is quite simply what all the best ‘hero’ movies try to explore: the theme of heroism. In this second instalment of the trilogy we find a mature Batman who, despite dipping into the murky depths of the underworld he battles each night, still nurtures a soul whose moral compass is intact. He is troubled though by what it means to be a hero and what it means to know the difference between doing the right thing and mere revenge/wrath/animal instinct etc.

This is a movie in which collateral damage is kept low – in a real-people-exist-in-this-universe kind of way, not we-just-CGI’d-in-an-evacuated-city-for-them-to-bash-the-shit-of-each-other-in. Batman risks life and limb to save innocents when he’s out in the Batsuit. And he struggles with how to inspire a city to be more noble, worthy and just, when he’s slumped, wounded and weary, in Bruce Wayne’s penthouse.

Being a hero is about pushing your personal envelope to bursting, overcoming apparently insurmountable obstacles, brushing off pain (both physical and emotional) and persisting in doing the right thing even when doing the wrong thing would be so much easier – and everyone would understand. All this even if it means making huge sacrifices.

Then seeing this estimable attitude permeate through the cynicism of the modern world into the psyche of masses who thus also are inspired to do the right thing – as illustrated in the dilemma of the scene in which The Joker challenges civilians and criminals in two separate boats to blow each other up. Sadly in our real world where there are no role models or heroes to inspire us, I fear they would have both hit the detonators before Heath Ledger even finished his grisly threat.

The Joker Heath Ledger

And The Joker himself – this Heath Ledger version, not the magazine-fashion-spread version from that Jared Leto fellow – is not a criminal or a gang boss, he is, a self-confessed Agent of Anarchy. He has no back-story because he does not need one. He is not a person, but we all recognise him. He is the darkness within us.

And his purpose is not to win the loot, takeover the world or to be a vicious terrorist, but more astoundingly to prove that as crazy as he is, in a world gone mad, he is the only truly sane one that really gets it all.

On this side of the Silver Screen (with all the terrible infliction of atrocity by man upon man, that we witness these days) I’m afraid he would be right. He reflects back in us all our own base instincts run riot. The reason Ledger’s Joker struck such a cord in cinema-goers wasn’t his ruthlessness or slimy persona, or indeed Ledger’s admittedly quite brilliant acting, but the fact that such crazy lives within us, latent and surpressed, yes even in the Batman. But like Master Bruce we strive to be greater than we can be. Or at least I hope we do.

This, you see, is what I look for in Superhero movies. This is why the 1978 Superman film starring Christopher Reeve (never has a man worn a blue leotard and red over-underpants plus a cape with so much elegance, grace, gravitas and dignity) remains the superhero movie template for me. A character so true, so right, so noble and yet so generous and humble that he inspires in all of us the sentiment to be, well, a ‘hero’.

Superman the Movie Christopher Reeve

Sadly this is precisely what all the current spate of superhero movies utterly lack – none of the modern characters inspire you to help an old person across the road or rescue a little girl’s cat out of a tree. Instead they’re just designed to inspire you to head over to Virgin Megastore and buy the T-shirt, the cap, the action figure, the special edition DVD etc (as you may gather it annoys me to see people wearing kit emblazoned with the Superman shield but not knowing what it represents – hope, truth, justice…). The movies are just all spectacular blow-em-ups that are a great two-hour distraction, but don’t dare to trouble your thoughts or emotions in anyway whatsoever.

In fact with films like Suicide Squad, they are having quite the opposite effect – that it’s cool to be a badass, that it’s okay to be a little evil if you do one good thing to redeem yourself (like killing a stereotypical witch with glowing wormhole in the sky sucking up the entire world) and if you have a little daughter that looks up to you and you can talk bullet trajectories with (no, that’s really NOT okay). If this is the messaging our movies are streaming into the masses’ psyche, it’s no wonder that people are happy to vote along with mean nasty-types such as Nigel Farage and Donald Trump – these villains are the new anti-heroes.

The media – from news media, to movies and even songs – is getting stupider, and as an inevitable consequence, so are we all. Sigh.

At this point I feel it’s appropriate to play out with Bonnie Tylers ‘Holding Out For A Hero’…

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