The Dark Knight, and a Conflict: Realism vs. Escapism

You can’t have it both ways.

While I really fell into this movie as I was watching it, and I still appreciate Nolan’s amazing direction (and the effort and energy each actor brought to the film, from Bale’s goofy playboy, to Ledger’s darker and more twisted Joker) and the sharp cinematography and exciting action sequences, there’s a strange cinematic conflict at the heart of The Dark Knight. It wants to be a superhero movie, but it also wants to be a dark and realistic piece of art that critics and audiences take seriously.

But you can’t be both. If you make it a point to be a superhero movie, you can’t be realistic. You can be dark, sure, but not so dark that–as each character dies–we stop having fun. This is not a story intended to capture the dark spirit of our times. This is a movie based on a comic book. At its heart, there is a dude wearing a fucking costume.

In one scene, we’re expected to believe that Bruce Wayne has programmed every phone in a 20-million-person metro area to act as a sort of Bat sonar. We’re in the realm of the fantastic; we’re in a superhero movie, where anything is possible. In the next scene, though, cops are dying in bloody, gruesome, and overly realistic ways. In a movie where Batman can fly from a high-rise in Hong Kong, or can fall fifteen floors without so much as a scratch, we shouldn’t have such feelings of depression and despair. We can’t switch from escapism to realism and expect the viewer to take it all seriously.

Consider this: in a movie where the realism is sometimes so brutally tight, where characters are so very capable of dying, the entire city should not be exploding…the entire population should not be cowering indoors. Who, seriously, would ever live in Gotham City? Even the black tie galas, full of millionaires, are infiltrated by gun-toting thugs! Including the events from Batman Begins, there’s a 9/11-style terrorist act in this city every week! It’s just too much darkness, and the darkness is too realistic. And it’s unremitting, unbearable.

Like I said, I thought this was a well-made and exciting film. But it’s also deeply flawed. Call me crazy, but I found Iron Man and Spider-Man to be perfect superhero films…they realized that their subject material was anything but realistic, and they didn’t try to make it realistic. (In the process, also, I think both of those films even captured the spirit of the times much better, too!)

The Dark Knight, though, wants to enjoy the benefits of escapism and “suspended disbelief” that superhero films offer, while also enjoying the emotional benefits of dark, highly realistic crime and war movies. And sorry, you can’t do both. After it was all over, this movie just left me with a strange sort of hang-over: the realism is devalued by the escapism, and you just start to wonder what it was all hoping to accomplish.

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