“Either you die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

As hoped for in a previous post, I did finally see The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008), but I haven’t been able to write about it yet. I think I need to see it a few more times before I can unravel my thoughts. Here are a few of my confused musings.

First, let me point you to an op-ed by Jonathan Lethem in this week’s New York Times. I really liked Lethem’s comment that “a morbid incoherence was the movie’s real takeaway, chaotic form its ultimate content”. That’s exactly the theme I discussed in an academic paper on the philosophy of Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005). I think the movie is intentionally incoherent, pointing to a puzzle in the American soul, a deep ambivalence we have about the nature of violence, justice, and heroism.

This ambivalence is dialectically expressed in a debate between commentators: witness Andrew Klavan’s article in The Wall Street Journal and the response by David Cohen in Variety. Klavan argues that The Dark Knight sets Batman up as a symbol of George W. Bush in order to show us that Bush is a misunderstood hero. Cohen agrees with the Bush bit, but sees the movie as a criticism of the president’s view of heroism. Lethem seems closer to the target when he says that the movie is playing both points of view off each other.

Both of Nolan’s Batman movies have two endings: an ending in which Batman’s method is praised and an ending in which it is vilified. In Batman Begins Rachel Dawes visits Bruce Wayne at the site of the burned-down Wayne Manor and says that Bruce was right to have created Batman, that Gotham City needs him. This seems like the end of the movie, but it is followed by a scene in which Lt. Jim Gordon points out that Bruce’s method has resulted in “escalation” by giving grandiose ideas to the Joker. In The Dark Knight this theme is elaborated upon: the Joker and Batman are shown to be “two faces” of the same coin. But here we have two endings, too. First Harvey Dent points out that both he and Bruce share the blame for Rachel’s death — only Jim Gordon comes out looking innocent — and then Gordon goes on to repeat Rachel’s idea that Gotham needs Batman. (Actually he says we “deserve” Batman, the dark knight, but that we “need” Harvey Dent, the white knight. I’m not yet clear on what’s going on here.)

The philosopher in me keeps hoping for a coherent message. I dream that writer-director Christopher Nolan is working on a trilogy in which Batman finally and unambiguously realizes that his vigilantism was a mistake, thereby affirming Cohen’s reading. (It seems sigificant along these lines that, before she dies, Rachel recants her speech from the first ending of Batman Begins.) But, artistically, I suppose I have to admit that the film is a better text for being open to multiple readings.

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