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Batman vs. the zeitgeist

Has "The Dark Knight" signaled a change in the way superhero movies are perceived by the mainstream? Will it "legitimize" a so-called "disreputable genre" (if comic-book superhero movies can be said to comprise a genre)? Has it become to signify a desire for larger acceptance by comic fans, or a crossover hit that aficionados feel can only be fully understood by those well-versed in Batman mythology?

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In his indispensable new essay, "Superheroes for sale," David Bordwell takes on the new (tidal) wave of comic-book and superhero movies, examines their historical reputation, their development, reasons for their popularity, critical attitudes and misconceptions, comic-book acting styles...

First -- well, first go read it. DB says he came away from both "Iron Man" and "The Dark Knight" "bored and depressed. I'm also asking questions":

Christopher Nolan showed himself a clever director in "Memento" and a promising one in "The Prestige." So how did he manage to make "The Dark Knight" such a portentously hollow movie? Apart from enjoying seeing Hong Kong in Imax, I was struck by the repetition of gimmicky situations-disguises, hostage-taking, ticking bombs, characters dangling over a skyscraper abyss, who's dead really once and for all? The fights and chases were as unintelligible as most such sequences are nowadays, and the usual roaming-camera formulas were applied without much variety. Shoot lots of singles, track slowly in on everybody who's speaking, spin a circle around characters now and then, and transition to a new scene with a quick airborne shot of a cityscape...

I share DB's reservations about "TDK"'s screenplay: "I cant resist feeling that some weighty lines were doing duty for extended dramatic development, trying to convince me that enormous issues were churning underneath all the heists, fights, and chases. Know your limits, Master Wayne. Or: Some men just want to watch the world burn. Or: In their last moments people show you who they really are...."

(And yet, not in this movie. The Joker hasn't seen any such thing and neither have we. We certainly don't see his last moment, if he has one. We just know he doesn't much care if he's left hanging.)

The relentless/monotonous style of "The Dark Knight" also left me unimpressed. The 360 camera move is repeated, but not to memorable effect. What bothered me most was Nolan's predictable strategy of quick-cutting to anonymous bystanders (or by-drivers) in mid-action-sequence, just so he can cut back to them when the "action" arrives where they are: Anonymous extra, back to action, effect of action on anonymous characters. Set-up, punch-line, reaction shot. Yet the movie fails to supply these extras notable characteristics or bits of business, except for the kids playing in the car. Nolan seems to be trying to imitate the funny little bystander bits from other action movies, but he can't pull 'em off. His timing is flat and he doesn't know how to make an impression before he moves on.

I began to think of director Nolan as Seth Rogen's character in "Knocked Up," overdoing his dice-rolling dance move because that's pretty much all he's got.

But stylistic questions aside, DB expresses his skepticism of reading too much political or philosophical significance into the ill-defined mechanisms of some "zeitgeist movies," as he calls them:

Nolan and his collaborators have strewn the film with references to post-9/11 policies about torture and surveillance. What, though, is the film saying about those policies? The blogosphere is already ablaze with discussions of whether the film supports or criticizes Bush's White House. And the Editorial Board of the good, gray Times has noticed:

It does not take a lot of imagination to see the new Batman movie that is setting box office records, "The Dark Knight," as something of a commentary on the war on terror.

You said it! Takes no imagination at all. But what is the commentary? [...]

I remember walking out of "Patton" (1970) with a hippie friend who loved it. He claimed that it showed how vicious the military was, by portraying a hero as an egotistical nutcase. That wasn't the reading offered by a veteran I once talked to, who considered the film a tribute to a great warrior.

It was then I began to suspect that Hollywood movies are usually strategically ambiguous about politics. You can read them in a lot of different ways, and that ambivalence is more or less deliberate.

This is the principle I attempted to illustrate in "The 'World Trade Center' litmus test," contrasting various critical interpretations and evaluations of Oliver Stone's movie:

One of my friends (also a film critic) who was favorably impressed said she thought the portrayal of the heroic Marine at the end [Michael Shannon] was sad, because he was deluded into thinking the war in Iraq was about avenging 9/11. I don't know if that's what Stone intended. I didn't see it that way. But it's a legitimate interpretation of what's up there on the screen. And make no mistake, this is a political movie. It makes choices about what to show and what not to show (including worldwide reactions on television), and in 2006 those choices in a film about 9/11 can't help but be political as well as dramatic or cinematic.

That movie was explicitly political... but in what way? The choices Stone made were deliberate, whatever his reasons, but to what end? As DB clarifies, movies do sometimes make intentional statements:

More often, I think, filmmakers pluck out bits of cultural flotsam opportunistically, stirring it all together to see if we like the taste. It's in the filmmakers' interests to push a lot of our buttons without worrying whether what comes out is a coherent intellectual position. "Patton" grabbed people and got them talking, and that was enough to create a cultural event. Ditto "The Dark Knight."

As I noted about the Toronto Film Festival either last year or the year before, after a while it became difficult to find any movies that could not be interpreted as political metaphors or commentaries about 9/11 or the invasion of Iraq.

Years from now, will these movies still be interpreted the same way? As I am uncommonly fond of repeating, movies always reflect the times in which they're made. They have to, because they're made then. But, for example, Don Siegel's 1956 horror/science-fiction film "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" has been interpreted both as a nightmare about the dangers of soulless Communism and a warning about the Red Scare witch-hunt tactics of McCarthyism. Choose your nightmare metaphor.

It all depends on how you see the pod people.

I wonder if "The Dark Knight" is internally sophisticated enough to hold up beyond its current "phenom" context. Does it explore its arguments about order vs. chaos, heroes vs. villains, or does it just bounce these things off one another, alternating black and white until it looks like gray? You can't take the zeitgeist out of the movie, but what happens when times change and the movie becomes detached from the zeitgeist that spawned it? We can't know to a certainty, but we can make our own arguments...

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