Should the Dark Knight really have got a 12A?

News Sarah Dobbs 27 Jul 2008 - 22:50
So cool it hurts - the new poster for the Dark Knight

The Dark Knight is, as the name suggests, a very dark film... and a very violent one. So how come it only got a 12A from the BBFC?

WARNING – THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS.

The Dark Knight is being hailed as a new kind of superhero movie – one with no trace of camp or playfulness whatsoever but, instead, an ultra-realistic depiction of a world gone bad and one man, dressed as a bat, dedicated to making things better. At its centre are three men trying to make things better in their own way – Harvey Dent by politics and a squeaky-clean version of the legal system; Commissioner Gordon by hard work and second chances; and Batman by expensive gadgets, ultra-intrusive surveillance, and hubris. All of them are thwarted by chaos and a psychopath who “just wants to watch the world burn.” Its political message isn't entirely coherent, since it says that giving into terrorists, trying to sink to their level, is dangerous and can corrupt even the best of men, but also that if you're in a position of power, lying to someone for their own good is all fine and dandy, but make no mistake – this is a Batman film for grown-ups.

And as such, it contains rather a lot of violence. Most of it is off-screen, or shot carefully enough that you don't actually see any blood, but jamming a pencil into someone's skull (presumably through the eyeball?) is pretty grim anyway. I covered my eyes every time the Joker inserted a razor blade into someone's mouth, anticipating a cheek-slicing that never quite arrived.

Then there's Harvey Dent's half-burned-off face. It's totally gross. Unfortunately, Dent's crispy face, with its exposed jaw and gaping eye, looks quite a lot like the barrel zombie from Return of the Living Dead, which means it looked rather more comical than I suspect anyone intended. I'm also not convinced that it would move in the way it does (particularly his half a lip) but that's beside the point. We're told that Dent is in chronic pain and – well, it looks like it. The make-up is tipped ever so slightly in the direction of the ridiculous, possibly deliberately in order to make it less scary – or is that because I'm an adult? I remember being terrified, as a child, by films that look totally goofy to my grown-up eyes, so I'm not sure how a 12-year-old (or under!) would take it.

Because according to the BBFC, this film is suitable for anyone over the age of 12, and anyone under the age of 12 if accompanied by an adult. The idea of a 12A rated movie is that the responsible adult would see the movie ahead of time and judge for themselves whether or not it's suitable for their child, but given the price of cinema tickets nowadays, how many people actually do that? Instead, I'd imagine most people rely on the BBFC's recommendations to gauge how suitable a movie is. So let's see what they said about The Dark Knight:

THE DARK KNIGHT tells the story of Batman’s continuing war on crime and in particular his personal battle with the psychotic Joker. It was passed ‘12A’ for moderate violence and sustained threat.

The BBFC Guidelines at ‘12A’ state that ‘violence must not dwell on detail’ and that ‘there should be no emphasis on injuries or blood’ and whilst THE DARK KNIGHT does contain a good deal of violence, all of it fits within that definition. For example, in one of the stronger scenes, Batman repeatedly beats the Joker during an interrogation. The blows however are all masked from the camera and despite both their weight and force; the Joker shows no sign of injury. There are also scenes in which the Joker threatens first a man and then a woman with a knife and whilst these do have a significant degree of menace, without any actual violence shown they were also acceptably placed at ‘12A’. In the final analysis, THE DARK KNIGHT is a superhero movie and the violence it contains exists within that context, with both Batman and the Joker apparently indestructible no matter what is thrown at them.

THE DARK KNIGHT also contains some special make up effects that whilst clearly not real, have the potential to be moderately frightening.

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Does something seem slightly ... off about that summary, to you? Like, say, the lack of mention of the scene where we see Harvey's face engulfed by flames? (And the accompanying horror that Rachel is being entirely burned alive at the same time?) Or how about the scene where Harvey threatens a schizophrenic with a gun – doesn't that could as sustained threat? Or when Harvey-as-Two-Face menaces the Gordon family, specifically a young boy, with a gun, for a really long time?

Maybe those are covered by the line where it says that The Dark Knight “does contain a good deal of violence”, but mentioning the Joker threatening people with a knife seems a bit strange if you're not going to mention that there's also a lot of threatening that goes on using guns. The final line about special make up effects presumably covers both the Joker's scars and Two-Face's crispy features, but it's odd that the BBFC never mention anything other than the Joker fighting Batman.

I looked up the full details of what classifies as a 12A, and I'm still not convinced The Dark Knight falls into this category. There's no swearing in the film, no drug-taking and no sex scenes, so the guidance in those areas doesn't apply; the BBFC contends that “mature themes are acceptable, but their treatment must be suitable for young teenagers”, which is arguable; but it's the bit about violence and horror that's most interesting. For a 12A, “violence must not dwell on detail. There should be no emphasis on injuries or blood”. The Dark Knight passes with flying colours there, then. “Dangerous techniques (e.g. Combat, hanging, suicide and self-harming) should not dwell on imitable detail or appear pain or harm free. Easily accessible weapons should not be glamorised.” But in the actual rating for The Dark Knight, the fact that Batman and the Joker seem indestructible despite taking heavy blows is mentioned as a positive thing. And how about that little speech the Joker gave about how cheap it is to set fire to things? (Obviously, it's part of the film's positioning of the Joker as Batman's opposite; where Batman has all the gadgets money can buy, the Joker needs only a container of petrol to wreak havoc... but I digress.)

As far as horror goes for a 12A rating, “sustained moderate threat and menace are permitted.” Compare that with the 15 rating: “strong threat and menace are permitted.” There's an argument to be had, perhaps, about the difference between strong and moderate threat; perhaps the argument would be little more than academic if The Dark Knight was rated at a solid 12, but the 12A rating is even milder than that. I guess I just think it's odd that the BBFC's justification didn't seem to take into account any of Harvey's threats – which were, to me, a lot more disturbing than the Joker's. Possibly because he was the hero, the White Knight, and then morphed into a monster you could entirely believe was capable of blowing a young child's head off.

Ultimately, I'm not a parent, and I realise that children all mature at different rates, so it's entirely possible that some 10 year olds would enjoy this immensely and there wouldn't be a problem at all. Except... there is just one more little thing to consider when taking a child – or anyone, really! - to see The Dark Knight.

It's 152 minutes long. You might want to reconsider that extra large Diet Coke.

Read Den of Geek's reviews of The Dark Knight: 1, 2, 3.

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