"The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness."
Batman has come a long way from the ill-fitting tights and buttoned-up beer gut of Adam West. In live-action, Gotham’s own has enjoyed a recent and memorable renaissance since Tim Burton rebirthed Batman in 1989. In Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, concluding this month with The Dark Knight Rises, we have a Batman for the millennial era - brooding, dark, and loaded with smart weapons and angst.
Due to the immense success of The Dark Knight (by most reports the film grossed over a billion dollars worldwide) it would seem that we have a new template for our superheroes in general, one in which pathos is doled out in equal measure with punches. Our mass-market popular film language is now wrestling with the truth of absolute evil.
We should expect nothing less from Nolan, who has mastered the art of transforming dark subject matter and packaging it in Hollywood fuzz. He tackled dreams and the subconscious in Inception, memory in Memento, and illusion/sacrifice in The Prestige, a fantastically dark and creepy film which somehow went surprisingly unnoticed.
While Nolan possesses nowhere near the weirdness of some of our best-loved directors who poke at the borders of our psyches (Lynch, Aronofsky, etc.) he has found a way to deliver broad, challenging themes to the popular culture on a grand scale, and the culture itself may not even know what it’s watching.
The best example of this is The Dark Knight (2008) - a Batman franchise movie to be sure, but in essence a film that deals with the problem of absolute evil. Our hero, Bruce Wayne, whose parents were murdered at gunpoint years before, inherits his father's fortune, and avenges the depraved city of Gotham at night wearing a complex battle suit outfitted with bulletproof alloys, rubber ears, military-grade weapons, and a radiation-resistant codpiece. Yes, Batman started as a comic book in 1938, but this is not your grandfather's Bruce Wayne. This one has studied tae kwon do with Liam Neeson upon the far eastern tundra. This one plays the stock market and enacts multilateral international business to finance his nocturnal ass-kicking. This one drops into parties via helicopter with TWO women.
Yet the real star of the film is, of course, The Joker. Here we have the ultimate figure of evil, who as a result (we think) of a scarred childhood (literal and figurative) is a true anarchist, sycophant, and psychopath, gleefully adept at unleashing terror of every variety, and unprejudiced malice and injury upon anyone in striking distance. Why? Just because, that's why. He blows up hospitals, he kills members of his own gang, and implants cell phone bombs in the torsos of unlucky simpletons. The real question, put to Bruce Wayne in a heart to heart with Alfred, his butler/tailor/valet/grandfather/obi-wan figure, is how to march out against an evil that has no motivation other than to enact evil. How to beat the devil at the very game he invented?
The answer given in the film is incomplete, because there is always next summer, the sequel. Alfred suggests burning down the forest where the devil lays his head at night, because for some men a sinister motivation doesn't satisfy their hunger, it only creates a desire for more evil and violence. The answer for Bruce Wayne is to become the monster that so easily kills without prejudice. Batman, a creature of the night anyway, becomes now 'the dark knight,' assuming the blame for the evil unleashed upon Gotham by The Joker, in order that faith be restored in a criminal justice system, and the fear that grips those who walk home in the dark can at least be alleviated by knowing that the police are back in power, and are now chasing the bizarro Batman/savior figure for his crime of turning against those he had sworn to protect.
On the one hand this is very basic superhero plot logic of good and evil duking it out in the streets. On the other hand, the villain, in the most subtle, brilliant moment of the film, actually begs to be put out of his misery by Batman - a scene perhaps missed by most viewers due to the skidding presence of the very-radical-bat-motorcycle. The Joker, having a shred of a soul, has nary a shred of hope, and thus nothing to lose - the most desperate of men, the most dangerous of villains. We've all seen the movie where the bad guy has a gun to the head of the love interest, and counts to three, or she's dead. The Dark Knight asks, why bother counting to three? If you have the capacity to kill, then be done with it. This is the new bad guy, a new villain for a new millennium. There is no weakness, there is no mercy, no soft, smooth underbelly, like the whimpering Vader with his helmet off in The Return Of The Jedi, looking like someone's balding uncle Frank who just fell down the stairs.
But, so what? The Dark Knight is hardly the darkest American film in recent memory, and surely not the first to address absolute evil (The Exorcist, anyone?). Yet, The Dark Knight was a summer blockbuster, and one that by some reports is number four on the all-time domestic gross list, which is (for better or worse) a barometer of how well the film industry is entertaining its American audience. This was not an action movie co-branded with Taco Bell and cheap plastic toys over-marketed down the gullet. It was a grown-up film with grown-up themes, and its success was massive.
Most filmmakers will admit that audiences are smart, so we should always expect their esteem and their best efforts. But in a recession, we often want to be entertained at the multiplex, not challenged. We want The Avengers, not The Dark Knight. Could it be that the summer American audience is ready for a new blockbuster film language - a dialect unafraid of difficult themes?
The Coen brothers’ masterful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, released the year before The Dark Knight, may have paved the way. No Country is Cormac McCarthy's most accessible novel by a long shot. On the surface it’s a rather straightforward tale of a drug deal gone wrong, a regular joe stumbling upon the bloodbath, and a psychotic hitman sniffing his trail. Enter the ailing sheriff Ed Tom Bell, nearly retired, who (like Batman) marches out against supreme unmitigated evil armed with not much more than his polyester police slacks and a 1978 Ford Crown Victoria.
Chigurth, the hitman, the embodiment of evil in No Country, kills not without prejudice, but rather because he possesses a perverted logic of evil that drives his every move. Again, taking the bad guy that counts to three to task, Chigurth vows to not only kill the man that crosses him, but extends that vengeance to family, wives, pets, employers, even mothers-in-law. Why? This is the central question for 'the good guys,' who in this movie happen to be aging country cops and Vietnam vets living in trailer parks in rural Texas. Who will win? Here's a hint - it's not the guys on horseback.
No Country for Old Men won the Oscar for Best Picture. While it’s not uncommon for our Oscar stable to be piled high with dark and difficult themes, here again was a film dealing with an unbound evil, one that seemed to defy earthly physics and ask cosmic questions that resonate throughout scripture, and are now resonating through popular culture. It doesn’t seem to be a fad either. The Spider-Man franchise is being run through The Dark Knight Marketing Treatment, and if rumors are to be believed, none other than Zack Snyder* will direct a new, darker, creepier Superman project, Man of Steel, with a story by our man Christopher Nolan.
This brings us to this summer, and the release of The Dark Knight Rises. The trailers suggest that Batman may finally have to lay down his life like you-know-who, to save Gotham and wrestle it back from the new evil that is bigger than the superhero and his tights and his plastic utility belt. Evil, in all it's perplexing costumes, is a theme we now wrestle with in the culture at large, and like our real lives after the explosions have died down, there is no easy answer, no deus ex machina, no miracle weapon to march out with into the forest.
There is only next summer.
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly asserted that Darren Aronofsky would be directing the new Superman movie. Conscientious reader dg caught the mistake.