MONDAY, AUG. 18, 2008

The ‘Dark Knight’ we deserve

Like anybody who goes to summer movies, I’m very fond of watching things blow up. I still have warm memories of the gold standard, “Independence Day,” which destroyed all of Earth’s major cities before blowing up a massive spacecraft that apparently contained an entire extraterrestrial civilization.

It was the kind of thing that really took your mind off the humidity.

So it’s absolutely fine with me that “The Dark Knight” blows up much of Gotham City, leaving it with an urban renewal challenge that’s going to be a real problem with the current mortgage crunch. It’s summer, and we’ll get back to urban planning issues after Labor Day.

And I absolutely join the universal admiration for Heath Ledger’s final performance as the Joker, which has a skin-crawling creepiness that reminded me of why I stopped watching politicians on Sunday morning talk shows. His combination of smudgy makeup and unfathomable waywardness lifted him right out of the comic book pages, possibly to a policy position with a Bush administration.

I just had a kind of problem with the message.

Admittedly, complaining about the message in a summer blow-it-up movie is like objecting to the prize in your Cracker Jack box. But “The Dark Knight” – unlike, say, “Iron Man,” whose deepest message was Gwyneth Paltrow’s backless dress – thinks it has something to say, and at least we can try to listen.

This Joker, it’s made clear, is not just a criminal, or even a master criminal, but a terrorist. He doesn’t want money, he doesn’t want power, he just wants to create chaos.

As Michael Caine as Alfred the butler explains, some people just like to watch things burn. This movie’s Joker shouldn’t end up in a maximum security prison, he should be tried for crimes against humanity at The Hague.

Asked how such people could be dealt with, Caine recalls a bandit he encountered while in the British army in Burma. (If Caine is recalling this in 2008 Gotham City, he must be about 116, but never mind.) The way the British finally dealt with him, explains Caine, was, “We burned down the forest.”

(This passage requires no spoiler alert, because it’s in the movie’s trailers. That’s how you know it’s the message.)

And that does seem the only strategy possibly of any use against the Joker, who – as in our most fevered dreams of terrorists – has apparently unlimited resources, secret forces in unsuspected places and the capacity to make our most basic institutions collapse suddenly.

The advice, “Be afraid. Be very afraid” seems spectacularly insufficient. “The Dark Knight” envisions a world where the only rational response is panic.

No wonder it’s heading toward a box office of $400 million. It catches the summer of our discontent.

Against the forces loose in “The Dark Knight,” even waterboarding would be insufficient. You’d probably have to flood the city.

Or burn down the forest.

Assuming you don’t go around wearing a high-tech armored Batsuit, this outlook can cause you all kinds of concerns. And just as that suit must be awfully hot in summer – at least Iron Man’s outfit seems to be air-conditioned – this image of our society creates an awful lot of August angst.

It seems that every era gets the Batman it deserves, from the cheerful, hyperscientific World’s Greatest Detective of the 1950s to the campy Caped Crusader of the ’60s to today’s pathological nightcrawler wrestling with unimaginable, all-powerful evil.

What characterizes us – the summer movie-going audience of 2008 – is not just our interest in being excited, but our underlying fear. “The Dark Knight” is about summer escapism, but it also warns us that we can’t escape.

But we’ve been living in this new era for almost seven years now – and six summer movie seasons – and we’ve learned that we’re not that helpless or that fragile, and that in fact we don’t have to burn down the forest.

And that the greatest danger we face is from the people, hiding behind smudgy masks, who warn us that we do.

David Sarasohn is an associate editor at the Oregonian of Portland. His e-mail address is davidsarasohn@news.oregonian.com.

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