It’s time, I’m afraid, to let loose the dogs of apocalyptic cultural complaint, this time upon the throat of The Dark Knight, which I was coerced into finally seeing despite my official moratorium on voluntarily watching superhero movies, or any film in which someone puts on a mask or has "special powers," the latter of which is all by itself a dead giveaway, as a narrative device, to the film-culture mess we find ourselves in. Superheroes are, essentially by definition, idiotic confections intended for children, and the fact that I can’t escape them as an adult so far this millennium makes my blood boil. I did my time as a kid loving X-Men and Spider-Man and The Avengers and Jack Kirby specials (and E.C. reprints and even Warren mags like Creepy and Eerie), and heaven knows I do not begrudge the American early-adolescent his or her time in the shade with comic books, or their afternoons in matinees watching Batman or Iron Man or whatever. But it’s gotten to the point that superheroes comprise the substantial percentage of movie options we have now, in one form or another, and to avoid them as a grown-up you’d have to avoid cinema. What’s more, adults are flocking, adults reviewers are treating the movies seriously, the filmmakers themselves apparently believe they’re making coherent and profound statements. Meanwhile, the digital whooshing and ultrasurroundsound noise are getting so assaultive it seems we’re not that far away from a movie somehow reaching out during an action scene and just hitting you in the head with three-pound piece of flying shrapnel, just to "make you feel" the chaos.
But that’s my beef in general; The Dark Knight epitomizes the problem specifically not by simply being a Caped Crusader trifle masquerading as Paradise Lost, but because it failed to do the simplest things movies have always done: tell a fucking story. The film is quite literally one violent set-piece followed by a 20-second snatch of exposition, to explain what significance the set-piece is supposed to have, repeated again and again and again, for over 2.5 interminable hours. Stories require character and incidents that happen to those characters and decisions those characters have to make, and us watching them make those decisions, and then the tragic/triumphant/ironic result of those decisions. The Dark Knight runs along literally like a series of disconnected cabaret acts, with what passes for narrative happening off-screen most of the time, and the ample screentime remaining filled up with chases and fights so haphazardly shot and cut you can’t tell where anybody is or what’s going on. We hardly see Bruce Wayne, the Joker (yes, Heath Ledger was fascinating) has no backstory or motivation, plot holes loomed like event horizons (sure, you evacuated that hospital), dialogue scenes never lasted more than a few seconds – in other words, anything that might substantiate the film as dramatic material fit for adults was almost completely elided. I’ll tell you the two moments I appreciated, both missable in the melee: Christian Bale’s dry, almost imperceptible chuckle at Michael Caine’s I-told-you-so mini-punchline as they walked away from the camera, and the way the hulking gangbanging convict played by Tommy Lister went back to his seat after tossing the detonator overboard, brooding over perhaps having sealed his own death by doing the right thing. You can see why: these tiny instances involved humans, reacting and revealing their history. That’s about it for the whole film.
We wouldn’t be having this conversation if the audience were only kids, however large that audience might be. Somehow the entirety of American culture, young and middle-yeared and old, is embracing the childish universe of superheroes – which is structured around the easily-distracted worldview of kids, not around the reasoned, complex worldview we would hope children would grow into. Does America need that badly a post-post-9/11 big Daddy to vanquish danger so we can slumber in our cradles? The much-lamented infantilization of the mass populace continues, and at what cost? How much public effort and energy and time is spent consuming this attenuated nonsense – watching it, watching PR stuff about it, ‘Net-surfing for it, blogging about it, texting about it, pursuing gossip about it, rewatching it, YouTubing it, ad infinitum – and not attending instead to a government that eats tax monies like a Moloch and kills people by the thousands? Movies can be art, and can connect us with human verities and empathies and experiences that might help us deal with the real world. That’s what stories have always been for. But instead we’re using film as the walls of a bubble we’re constructing around ourselves like the disturbed children of abusive parents. Old Hollywood movies have always had their fair share of bullshit, but they were about people, always (or until Star Wars). Not anymore.