By Alex Breeze
With a great deal of excitement, and trepidation, I entered screen 14 of the Odeon to watch The Dark Knight. The film has generated a huge amount of buzz with a groundbreaking online marketing campaign, and massive media frenzy. Could it live up to the hype?
The Dark Knight is one of the best films I’ve seen for some years. Intelligent, challenging, complex. It’s rightly earned high plaudits from most critics for its maturity and basis in reality. But what struck me most was that a popcorn superhero movie engaged with political debates with a surprising degree of aptitude and sophistication.
Take the Joker, a million miles from the camp, yet fun, character from the 1960’s. Instead he’s a terrifying modern urban terrorist in a city of gleaming skyscrapers, economic power and crippling social decay. The opening aerial shot that introduces us to the Joker evokes memories of 9/11. We’re being told from the beginning what this film’s main concern is.
Heath Ledger’s performance is blackly comic in places, but also terrifying – it’s as if The Joker has spent a weekend with Osama Bin Laden. He sends video messages of hostages to news networks; he ransoms and gleefully destroys hospitals; he takes a whole roomful of Gotham’s great and good hostage. His namelessness is much like the 7/7 bombers, men who were unremarkable before that infamous day. The police are unable to trace him or stop him. The director, Christopher Nolan, has given a startling interpretation of the Joker, turning him into a terrorist. He causes mayhem because, as Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred (Michael Caine) says ‘Some men just want to watch the world burn’. It seems that terrorists – clown or otherwise - get some sort of delight from the mayhem they wreak. The anarchy in which the Joker thrives is the same that real-world terrorists have flourished.
So we have the Joker spreading Al-Qaeda themed mayhem, and the combined forces of Batman (Christian Bale) and the Gotham City Police Department, led by the commendable Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). As the Joker becomes more ingenious and fearsome Batman and the police become more desperate. Batman finds that his ‘rule’, never kill, is challenged by the Joker and the gangsters. They’ve wised up to his boundaries, and the audience is left wondering in the final confrontation with his nemesis, will Batman take that last step?
In a tense scene, the Joker goads Batman into running him over, saying ‘Come on, I want you to do it.’ We realise that victory for the Joker would death at the hands of Batman, bringing our hero down to his level. Destroying Batman by forcing him to break his one rule…
You can probably see where I’m going with this…Batman’s fundamental morality is challenged by the unstoppable force and ingenuity of the Joker. Could he turn into that which he despises to stop the bloodshed? If he steps over that mark, he becomes like the Joker, living his life without rules. What we see is the debate surrounding civil liberties enacted before us.
I can see that some may think I’m forcing this political reading onto the film. I’m always wary of stating that films are analogies for certain issues. But Nolan is an intelligent and philosophical director, and a man who is engaged with the world around him. So it doesn’t seem impossible to think that, even on an unconscious level, The Dark Knight is dealing with fundamental issues that face the world today, all within a blockbuster, populist movie.
Which brings me round to why I think this film is so significant. Think about the audience who would go to see a Batman film, and then think about how many of those people would willingly sit through a speech by Gordon Brown or David Cameron on national security. Whilst it may sound condescending, I don’t suspect that much of the audience for this film would think of themselves as politically active. Politicians certainly don’t ingratiate themselves with my generation, which leads to disillusionment with politics, and ultimately a total lack of interest in it.
This is why it is crucial that Hollywood continues to make films like The Dark Knight – films which tackle fundamental issues of the day, without being preachy. Certainly not all films need to tackle ‘ishoos’. There is an appetite, and a need, for escapist entertainment like Mamma Mia! in the multiplex, it is also crucial that pop culture addresses the time in which we live. Otherwise, what’s the point?