Too Dark a Knight…?

SPOILER INFERNO!!!! Can the hard moral quandaries of The Dark Knight be read in more than one way...?

Batman. Possibly quite tired.

WARNING: THIS COLUMN WILL TOTALLY SPOIL THE DARK KNIGHT FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T SEEN IT! Since I’m always banging on about terrorism, torture and human rights, I thought I’d explain why my review of The Dark Knight didn’t join the small chorus of critics who address the morality of a lot of the action in the film; doubly surprising since I leapt on the ‘torture’ aspect of Batman’s interrogation scene in one of the gazillion Dark Knight trailers a week or so back.

The truth is that my main commentary on the use of torture in Dark Knight is coloured by the audience with whom I saw it, who were all journalists. Apart from reading their opinions later, I know relatively little of what they thought of the film – we laughed at the outrageous ‘make a pencil disappear’ scene with which Heath Ledger’s Joker establishes the tone of his character; we laughed a lot at the Morgan Freeman scene where he suggests to the scheming lawyer exactly why it might be a poor idea to blackmail Batman; and we winced as it seemed Christopher Nolan was about to unleash something very gory on us in Joker’s more violent moments (though it is pretty much all left to the imagination in the UK theatrical cut).

But I could discern no particular reaction at the point where a desperate Batman has the taunting nemesis at his mercy in Lt. Gordon’s holding cell, and has only minutes to get information from him about where Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes are being held.

Batman, being watched through two-way mirrors by Gordon and Co., jambs up the door with a chair and lays into Joker with a will. Gordon rushes to intervene, but can’t get through the door. The Joker spills all and off goes the caped crusader on a tragic mercy mission…

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My reading of the scene is that Joker clearly had every intention of telling Batman where the hostages were, but not so early that they might both be saved; and that he had the additional agenda of using this unexpected chat opportunistically, to turn the noble Batman into a squalid torturer, of muddying the moral waters until you really could not tell who the villains were. Defaming Batman’s reputation is a very old obsession for his opponents, as is presenting him with torturous moral choices (as Green Goblin did in Spiderman), but I have never seen the corruption of Batman handled so adroitly as in The Dark Knight.

Is that too sophisticated a reading, or too dumb? I said in my review that there are few ‘cheer moments’ in Knight, but I wonder if there are screenings where the audience whoops and hollers when their hero goes ‘Guantanamo’ on The Joker? Where they view the attempted intervention of Gordon as demonstrating the same type of bureaucratically hobbled do-gooding that leaves ‘The Good Guys’ hamstrung in the middle-east – and at home – against opponents who have no such hesitation in applying major force…?

The Nolan brothers are very clever writers, and there’s some fairly solid evidence in Dark Knight that they leave themselves narrative and ethical back-alleys out of which to scupper if reaction should prove harsh. For one thing, the strain of Saw-like psychological and ethical torture – as evidenced by the flight to save Rachel and/or Harvey and in the ‘two-boats’ conundrum – is not only very trendy in this period but happens to fit delightfully into the Batman back-catalogue of dastardly deeds, albeit amplified to a far higher level in Dark Knight .

Films like AVPR, Mother Of Tears and Funny Games – together with the pretty-unexpected sacrifice of Rachel – lead the Brothers Nolan into the territory of the Brothers Strausse at the finale with Two-Face and Gordon’s family; will Nolan make a Batman film so dark that he coldly lets Two-Face blow away a child after a sustained period of tension? I can’t argue that Nolan is profiting here from our sudden realisation that mainstream film-makers are willing to ‘waste’ kids now, since this rash of child-murder seems to be a product of the last 18 months…but on the other hand, the scripts which progenitated them have been in casual circulation for years, and that particular murderous sensibility was foreseeable.

But then there’s the ‘obituary scene’ preceding Batman’s voluntary ‘moral crucifixion’, where Batman and Gordon realise that their ‘holy trinity’ with Harvey Dent has fallen prey to their own weakness, vice and selfishness in the face of unthinkable evil. Here, then, the torture, the hard choices, the anger and frustration that led to harsh actions, are all expiated in some kind of confessional; but for me the feeling remains that this is a bit of a tacked-on group-hug for a film that wants to play in all states.

I stand by my review – but I wonder how different my experience of The Dark Knight might have been if that screening had taken place amongst a crowd who wanted to see things differently…?

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Martin reviews The Dark Knight And so does Ron.And Russell.

Martin writes his (mostly) sci-fi column (almost) every Friday at Den Of Geek.