This article is part of the really wonderful Christopher Nolan Blogathon, which is being run by Bryce over at Things That Don’t Suck. It’s a week of Nolan-related madness in the run-up to the release of Inception this weekend. Pop on over you daily fix.
Christopher Nolan’s new film Inception is being released this week, and I’m pretty excited, I’m not going to lie to you. Anyway, I figured that the release of Nolan’s latest summer blockbuster justified a retrospective look back at his earlier summer success story, the rather wonderful The Dark Knight. In particular whether, whether the film, which stands as perhaps the most defining example of the superhero in cinema. However, is it a successful deconstruction of the genre, or an attempted reconstruction of the superhero on film?
Before we jump into the discussion, it’s worth discussing exactly what deconstruction and reconstruction are, as concepts. That ever reliable cross-section of pop culture, TV Tropes, describes it thus:
Deconstruction is taking a fictional element (usually a trope or genre) that is usually seen as a nice thing, and showing this element to be poorly thought out, impractical, and/or much less nice than commonly assumed. As the name implies, this usually means taking it apart in order to better show the flaw or flaws at it’s core.
For example, one of the best on-screen examples would be Shrek, which perfectly picks apart all the conventions of those modern Disney movies and modern versions of fairytales. Of course, the classic notion of deconstruction is that it is somewhat darker and edgier than the material it is picking apart.
And, as every action has an equal and opposite reaction, there is a concept which reverses deconstruction of a particular genre or convention. So, instead of deconstruction, we get the rather logical reconstruction. On that, TV Tropes observes:
A Reconstruction accepts the criticisms of the initial fantasy made in the previous Deconstruction and then modifies the initial fantasy into something that would not be so bad in reality. Basically, where a Deconstruction shows fantasy X as being much darker than you thought it would be, a Reconstruction corrects the fantasy to have less dark results.
Of these two ideas, The Dark Knight is more frequently offered as a deconstruction of the classic superhero genre:
The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s second entry into the Batman franchise, is also a deconstruction. It is deliberately set in the real world, in a Gotham as real as Hong Kong, and without any overly medieval archictecture. Superhero costuming is portrayed not as unstoppable magic armor but as real equipment with tradeoffs in its design. Thus the film clearly establishes that the internal logic of its world is that of our world (or at least alleges that).
Bruce Wayne’s superhero double life is portrayed as taking a heavy psychological toll on the man (especially when things go wrong). It interferes with his social commitments and even his romantic life. As such, Superheroing is not portrayed as a ‘we’ll be home by Christmas’ glamorous adventure but rather a significant commitment.
I’d have to respectfully disagree with that sentiment. I accept that Nolan does pick apart the classically accepted superhero film. For example, the idea of a secret identity is totally torn to shreds, as its revealed exactly how little digging would be required to link Wayne Industries to Batman’s “wonderful toys”. Or the notion that Batman is a completely heroic figure, when he resorts to acts like breaking the legs of suspects or tapping every phone in Gotham.
However, I’d suggest that Nolan’s version of Batman only picks it apart to put it back together. Indeed, the whole point of making the movie is to take the idea of the superhero and make it function in the modern world. Instead of flying and gliding with ease like Burton’s Batman does during a key scene in Batman Returns, here you see the meticulous effort it takes for Batman to pull off one of his dramatic entrances – carefully mapping his target, sneaking to an adjacent rooftop, sabotaging the glass for his escape before swooping in and carefully planning for his escape by hiring pirates using a plane he purchased on the black market.
The entire purpose of The Dark Knight is to enable willing suspension of disbelief for the classic tropes of the superhero genre. Batman still pops out of nowhere with absolutely no reason why he should be able to (even delivering “Then you’re gonna love me!” as a pre-fight rejoinder to the Joker). He still drives a Batmobile, even though it is explained away as a failed military design. He is able to physically endure far more than any ‘real’ person (a fall from his penthouse, for example). Hell the movie even makes his eyes glow white (a classic image from many a comic or animated television show), explaining it away as using a visual interface within his mask.
More than that, though, the film actively justifies Batman’s existence. On one hand, it deconstructs the notion of urban vigilantism by showing us lethal copycats (because, let’s face it, odds are those guys in the garage weren’t shooting to wound) and the consequences of ‘escalation’, but these elements themselves play into enabling some of the most basic traits of the Batman mythos. It’s this gangland escalation and the creation of a void within the criminal underworld that leads to the development of a niche crime market (what might be called “novelty crime”). Batman’s put the regular drug dealers out of business, so Scarecrow can sell his fear toxin. Batman has put the mobs in such a tight squeeze that they’ll turn to the Joker.
It’s ridiculous contrivance to treat the emergence of superhero and supervillain as a perfect coincidence – it’s more efficient, but still lazy, to tie their origins together (as Burton did with Batman and the Joker in his Batman). Instead, it’s actually logical to give us the image of Batman’s war of crime giving us an environment in which his more wacky opponents can grow and thrive. The fact that organised crime is unable to sustain itself against his assault and itself makes things worse for the citizens of Gotham is something which enables or justifies some of the more ridiculous staples of Batman lore. A spate of industrial accidents creating characters like Clayface or Mr. Freeze is hard to believe, but the fact that the Joker – who previously spent his time “knocking off drug dealers” – is perfectly at home in the new Gotham helps make his appearance and manner somewhat easier for us to engage with.
More fundamentally, his title “The Dark Knight” is one slowly and gradually earned over the course of the film. Christopher Nolan spends two-hours-and-a-half explaining to us why Batman has to be that sort of character, and why Gotham must fear their protector, rather than thanking him or worshipping him. Nolan carefully explains to us that being a “dark” superhero affords Batman the chance to make choices that he couldn’t otherwise – necessary choices. He needs to be feared, because – were he loved - the criminals wouldn’t be afraid of him (“No one’s gonna tell you anything,” Maroni assures Bats, “They’re wise to your act. You got rules. The Joker, he’s got no rules. No one’s gonna cross him for you.”), and he would inspire copycats and random acts of vigilantism (“We’re trying to help you,” one of the copycats declares, possibly the one wielding a shotgun) that would erode the whole justice system.
However, the film really lies its cards on the table with the character of Two-Face, “the real Harvey Dent”. Two-Face is a character who is a kindred soul with Batman. He believes in Batman, as Batman believes in Harvey Dent – so much so he’s willing to put himself in harm’s way to help draw the Joker out, and won’t accept Batman’s offer to reveal his identity. However, when Dent loses his love and ends up horribly scarred, he goes psychotic. He becomes a vigilante too. However, unlike Bruce (who also lost his true love), Dent abandons the concept of justice and morality completely. “The world is cruel,” he explains at one point, “and the only morality in a cruel world is chance.” Instead of allowing justice to determine his actions, he lets a coin toss decide.
The film juxtaposes this image against Batman’s somewhat compromised heroism. At this point in the film, Batman is “spying on thirty million people” without a warrant or just cause. Even though he doesn’t have the authority to use the device himself, he still uses it by proxy and without jurisdiction to eavesdrop on the citizens of Gotham. This is as moral compromised as Batman allows himself to get. While it’s certainly not text book heroism, it can’t help but seem a little vindicated when compared to Two-Face’s random killing spree in the name of his lost love. Although Batman’s antics are inherently unheroic, what the film does – and does ingeniously – is to create a world where his actions are justified. There’s no doubt that Bruce’s decisions salvage as much of the day as possible. And, although the cost is incredibly high, Batman’s cause is vindicated by the end of the film. The mob is dismantled. The Joker is custody. Gordon’s son is safe. Harvey Dent is dead, but the start of the film demonstrated that the mob wanted Dent dead not because of Batman’s actions – it seems unlikely their assassination attempt in the courtroom would have been the end of it.
Don’t get me wrong, The Dark Knight is a dark film, and a deep one – but I believe it ultimately justifies its lead character, rather than picking him apart into tiny pieces. It offers us a chance to see the conventions of Gotham built from the ground-up, with each of them flowing from a logical consequence of the appearance of Batman. The arrival of Batman shaped Gotham into a city not unlike that featured in the comic books. If that’s not a reconstruction, I’m not sure what is.