Why So Serious? In Defense of a (Semi-) Campy Batman
July 23, 2008
About a third of the way into The Dark Knight, Ledger’s Joker, spinning himself an origin yarn, shouts menacingly, “Why so serious?” It’s an apt question to ask of a movie that’s likely the darkest Superhero movie ever and, coincidentally, one of the best. Why not a little bit of laughter and merriment in the midst of all this catastrophe? Isn’t that what the Joker’s promising, after all? Together with Batman’s remark during the denuement that he “can be whatever you want him to be,” Joker’s question is the film’s aesthetic statement. If dark times call for dark stories, then Batman can be just as dark as anyone else. Nolan’s first Batman movie offered hope and the possibility of progress–Vote for Batman and rebuild the monorail!–but his second movie questions the idea that a masked marvel is what the world needs. It’s not the first time that a film Batman’s had to deal with an antagonistic Gotham City (that would be Returns), but it’s Batman’s first existential crisis, and one that makes for interesting dramatic conflict.
The movie picks up on a theme prevalent in the comics: the line between hero and villain is slim to non-existent. For that matter, so is the line between order and chaos, another of the movie’s major themes. There’s nothing especially new about these themes (Face-Off, anyone?) but Batman’s existential crisis occurs during a turn in cinema towards darker, more serious movies. Twelve-years-ago, the Coen Brothers made Fargo, mixing a morality tale of crime gone wrong with gallows humor and a woodchipper; last year brought No Country for Old Men, in which evil is a force of nature and nothing’s worth joking about. Paul Thomas Anderson made his mark by blending drama with a lampoon of pornography before ominously striking Oil! in his neo-western; and corporate raider movies used to end with climactic boardroom scenes (think, The Secret of My Success or Working Girl) but now end with men in giant suits of armor pummeling each other on freeways (Iron Man). Ok, maybe that last one isn’t the greatest example.
Nowhere is this turn to darkness more apparent than in the characterization of the Joker. Burton’s Joker is a self-described “homicidal artist,” someone who considers the human body a canvas.
In flipping through Vicki Vale’s portfolio, he stops to admire her pictures of a Cambodia-like slaughter, comparing her work to his own. It’s a self-reflective moment on the part of the filmmaker. What is the director of an action movie if he doesn’t think of himself as a homicidal artist, someone who finds the beauty in violence and carnage? Burton’s Batman goes way beyond the typical action movie of the time precisely by playing up the artistry. The movie’s mis-en-scene is incredible, mixing in elements from different eras in urban history to make Gotham reek of decay. In contrast, the Gotham in the Dark Knight is a place of high-finance with gleaming offices, major cultural institutions, apartments with ample storage space and/or lake and river views.
Of course it’s also a more violent place. Both Jokers leave their victims with a smile, but Ledger’s does it by inflicting knife wounds. To his credit, Ledger is able to draw a little humor from the character as the film goes on, but for most of the movie, his Joker is only a murderer. One of the thing’s that’s always been truly terrifying about the Joker is that he can be either a killer, or a simple clown. Or both at the same time. It’s not a fact of different creators, but a character trait. The best Joker stories have known this. It’s the terror of not knowing which Joker will show up. If Nolan and Ledger err in their characterization, it’s here. Moore and Boland showed in The Killing Joke that there’s nothing more terrifying than a Joker that makes Batman laugh. The Joker at his corniest can be the most terrifying Joker of all.
Yet if Burton spoke through the Joker, Nolan speaks through Batman. At a time when most action movies have no respect for the laws of physics (see, or rather don’t see, Wanted and the brilliant “piss-take” that is Your Don’t Mess with the Zohan), Batman is a real person, albeit one far beyond you and I. Nolan filmed as much of the movie as was possible, avoiding CGI except where necessary, and the results show. The Dark Knight looks great and still should in ten years. The movie may be more action heavy than its precursor, but it does not do so at the expense of the psychological realism (or surrealism) that’s been his calling card since Memento. Nolan makes his Batman aware of both the internal and external darkness in this world, and the result is a more interesting movie, and an equally impressive statement on filmmaking.