'The Dark Knight' gets shock therapy
It's an old marketing maxim in Hollywood that you can tell that a movie is really a pop culture phenomenon when the buzz migrates to the op-ed pages. This has happened to "The Dark Knight" in spades. We know from today's Times story that the latest installment in Warners' Batman franchise has been racking up box-office milestones at a record pace, but it has also been inspiring an unlikely array of opinion pieces, especially from conservative commentators, who have been on something of a desperate search for new heroes lately.
The most provocative of the pieces, an essay by mystery writer Andrew Klavan that ran in the Wall Street Journal the other day, positions the film as a conservative movie about the war on terror, with Batman as--gasp!--George W. Bush. As Klavan puts it: The film is "at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand...."
The most playful of the pieces, by New York Post film critic Kyle Smith, proposes that Batman is--double gasp!--a dead ringer for the current administration's vice president. Once you relax and stifle your gag reflex--and if you're a liberal, this requires some serious yoga-style gag reflex contortions--you have to admit that Smith is on to something:
"Batman is not charming. He isn't popular, partly because he's a zealot and partly because he doesn't bother to explain himself to the press. He is independently wealthy, having spent years as the head of an industrial company. His methods are disturbing, his operations bathed in darkness. He is misunderstood, mistrusted, endlessly pursued by the attack dogs of the night.... And he lives in an undisclosed location. Isn't it obvious? Batman is Dick Cheney with hair."
Where does it end? Will Larry David soon surface on the op-ed page of the New York Times, claiming that the Dark Knight is really a nice Jewish boy simply in need of some serious psychoanalysis? Or will Arianna Huffington weigh in, arguing that the movie is a metaphor for the limits on American power and influence in the world? Is there anyone out there who is actually making sense? Actually, amazingly, we've stumbled onto someone with a surprisingly sane point of view:
Julia Keller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Chicago Tribune, contends that Batman, like so many of this summer's comic-book-based superheroes, is ill at ease in our frenetic world. Making the argument last night in her role as a guest essayist on "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," Keller contends that virtually all of our favorite superheroes are lonely guys. Even Will Smith's Hancock, for all his boozy brashness, has a remote retreat in a squalid trailer on a mountaintop. Everyone needs to get away, as we did when we were kids, in our secret hideouts. As Keller puts it:
"Superheroes are lonely. They are singular, unique. Because of their marvelous and astonishing powers, they don't fit in anywhere. Those who know Superman's biography know that the only place in which he feels truly comfortable is his fortress of solitude. Most love affairs with comic book characters begin in adolescence. And has there ever been a teenager who did not crave, deep in her or his hormone-roiled and massively misunderstood soul, a place such as Superman's fortress of solitude, a place well beyond the world's grubby reach, a place such as Batman's bat cave, a monastic cell that vibrates not with a Gregorian chant, but with the steady hum from a sleek array of computers?"
Keller ends her piece with an apt snippet of dialogue from the film. Michael Caine, as Alfred the butler, tells Batman: "Know your limits, Master Wayne." When Christian Bale responds, "Batman has no limits," Caine replies: "Well, you do, sir."
"The Dark Knight" photo by Stephen Vaughan / Warner Bros.