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Word of the Day

Tenuous (adj., TEN-you-us)

Insubstantial and weak, like this definition or the Mets' grasp on being a functional organization.

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The Dark Knight

I remember going to see The Dark Knight on its opening day ten years ago. I was unemployed, having been summarily used and discarded as a temp by a local bank a week earlier. My dad was also off from work, and he suggested going to see the movie. We went to a 10:30am showing.

From the first scene onward, the movie had a mythic feel that matched the press coverage. The introduction of the Joker is one of the best introductions to any character in cinematic history, working brilliantly from a technical, storytelling, homage, editing, and character perspective. From the minute he takes his mask off in close-up and the unsettling hum of the score drops out, we know we are not in control of the movie. The pencil trick doesn’t even need to happen. This character is in charge.

The Dark Knight came out in 2008. It’s unquestionably a product of its era, the waning days of the Bush Administration. It’s also not a superhero movie. It’s a drama about how terrorism affects societies and the choices that people have to make. This may seem like a bit of revisionist history; I assure you it’s not. The Joker is a terrorist. He is an agent of chaos who apparated—no consistent origin story is provided—cares nothing for anyone, and seeks to constantly make people break the rules that keep society together. “Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even when the plan is horrifying,” he states. “You know the thing about chaos? It’s fair.” He is less the villain than evil personified. And the characters in the film have to figure out what to do with him.

Every character in The Dark Knight has difficult moral choices to make over the course of the film. It is like a perverse “Choose Your Own Adventure” game, where every decision feels like a tourniquet. Save your escape route or society’s hope? Kill the wannabe whistleblower or let the Joker blow up a hospital? Kill the Joker or break your rule of not killing anyone? Give Bruce the letter or let him hold onto the one hope of a normal life he’s clinging to by selectively withholding information? Blame the hero for the fallen hero’s evil or reveal the fallen hero and destroy the city’s confidence? All these are viciously hard decisions.

Christoper Nolan’s film is great not just because it foists these decisions on its characters but because Nolan recognizes that these are not external decisions alone. They are internal ones. Even if they are choices between lesser of two evils, they can only be made with an awareness that there is darkness inside each of us. The prisoners’ dilemma on the boats and the self-destructing of the sonar surveillance device demonstrate this clearly. In the first one, the people on each boat choose to not condemn the other boat to death after much deliberation and wrestling. In the second, Batman and Lucius Fox both understand what the sonar system is—an invasion of privacy—but also why it is a necessity—a war measure to stop a greater evil—and that it is too dangerous for anyone to use later. When Batman presents it to Fox, he steps haltingly from behind the screen. He knows what he is doing, and he wouldn’t be doing it if he didn’t have to. But is it right?

The fulcrum of The Dark Knight is Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent. For all the justified acclaim Heath Ledger got as the Joker, Eckhart is equally potent in portraying the fall of an ideal. There are shades of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance here. Batman is John Wayne’s cowboy. He is needed in times of lawlessness, when forceful effort must be taken. Dent is Jimmy Stewart’s lawyer. He is needed for the society to not be lawless all the time, and he represents the necessity of due process and rule of law. For those of you who haven’t seen Liberty Valance (spoilers for a 50-year-old movie to follow), the cowboy’s time ends. He loses the girl to the lawyer, bitterly, even though he was the man who shot the outlaw. His noble, silent action sets up his own demise. In The Dark Knight, both the cowboy and the lawyer end the movie in a terrible place. For the cowboy, this is sad but understandable. For the lawyer, it is heartbreaking. “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent time. But you were wrong,” he states after becoming Two-Face. “The world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance.” If the all-American, heroic ideal of a mythic city cannot endure without turning to evil himself, can anyone endure? Or are we just puppets about to fall when the right lever is pulled?

Dent’s story establishes this movie, ultimately, as an epic tragedy. It is not a superhero movie. The villain wins. The hero has to go into hiding. The movie ends on an occluded note, leaving just to wrestle with its meaning.

This, I think, is why The Dark Knight still feels so fresh ten years later. It’s a movie about big things featuring superheroes, not a movie about superheroes trying to do big things. It’s especially interesting to compare this movie to Iron Man, the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film, which came out two months prior. Iron Man felt like a breath of fresh air (Lord knows we didn’t need more Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer movies) but the MCU movies, even at their best, are still slight. Captain America: The Winter Soldier hits many of the same themes but lacks the gravitas of Nolan’s epic. The other DC comics movies go the opposite way, trying to match the gravitas but confuse banal gloom for profundity. The Dark Knight remains the anomaly. It tells the story of a city, of heroes and villains, of humanity, of confronting evil outside and inside, and of making the hard choices even to our own hurt, even when alone. It forces us to wrestle with what we want our society to look like and when it’s right to take actions that may be morally compromised. It holds up the mirror for us to realize that we must make those decisions each day. None of us may never be a dark knight, but the decisions we make in the daytime build character that will be tested in the dark nights of the soul. Those decisions are not random. They never are.

TagsMoviesThe Dark KnightChoicesYou either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villainChaos