The Darkness of The Dark Knight

Last night I watched The Dark Knight with my 16 year old son. He had seen it in the movies a year ago and raved about it ever since and wanted to watch it with me. So we did.
So this is a film that has a PG-13 rating. By comparison, The Matrix is rated R. About half way through I asked Gabriel why he thought this was PG-13. And he gave a sensible answer – so that children would be able to see it and then the film makers would make more money than with an R rated film. After all, there is no blood shed or foul language. There is no nudity and what little romance is in it is very tame. There are no references to drugs though you know what the baddies do for a living. And so it gets PG-13.
What disturbs me deeply is that though I think (I hope!) most people are sensible enough to know that this is not a film for young children, many will think it must be ok for children of say 8 or 9 and up. It is, after all, about a super-hero. It's just a comic strip come alive – or is it.
This film is one of the darkest films I think I have ever seen. Its pace is relentless. Whereas say Lord of the Rings is also viscerally relentless, the story line and the characters are so well developed and the scope so grand that one does have some time to step back and take a breath. Pirates of the Caribbean is also very fast-paced, even somewhat manic. But there is so much humor that again, one can breath. There is no humor, no beautiful and intricate plot or character development, no room at all to breath in The Dark Knight. It is horror all the way through – though some of it, like the guy with the burnt face is pretty hokey, nevertheless, there is no pause. There's a vague attempt for some light relief with a character who wants to unmask Batman – but that goes wrong and he ends up in danger too. Michael Cain, shuffling amiably through the film dishing out little homilies could also be considered light relief, but only if one is desperate!
In the other films I just mentioned, because there is some room to breath, one can reflect on the development of the story in, for instance, LOTR and consider the portrayal of good and of evil. In Pirates, one suspends disbelief and just has a fun time accompanying the characters through their implausible plot. From the very roots of drama, playwrites have always known the power and importance of letting the audience breathe: once one has gone through the catharsis of a Greek drama, for instance, the audience was then given some relief by a short comedy before the next drama was unveiled. And of course Shakespeare used this device in his plays where there are always humorous characters who allow the audience to have a bit of a rest before the drama carries on in the next scene. These are art forms where the human beings watching and participating inwardly are respected and where the art lies in the attempt to educate and enlighten – as well as to entertain. What is the purpose of a film such as The Dark Knight one must ask oneself. There is no education as the content is utterly shallow. It is not to enlighten as there is very little intelligence in it. And entertainment? We surpass the Romans in their brutality if this is what we do for entertainment. And the games at the Colosseum were not meant for children.
Here, in The Dark Knight, there is no humor, no room to breathe. Watching this film is like experiencing an  assault. The evil character is utterly evil and there is no room for redemption. There is a scene where he first tells a little about himself and one thinks ah, I can gain a little insight here. I can breath. But as the story unfolds, we see that he makes up little biographical sketches for himself as it suits him. There is no human being behind the  mask. There is no room for the audience to breathe or be human either as there is no room for compassion or understanding. While Lord of the Rings focuses on the grand universal themes of good and evil and gives our souls something to consider and while Pirates of the Caribbean makes no pretenses toward any serious content (except vague references to the corruption of the East India Trading company and other unsavory aspects of the British Empire), this film takes us right into the heart of good and evil – and leaves us stranded. In the worst kind of "post modern" nihilism, this film sets up questions of good and evil and then leaves us drowning in a morass of grayness and relativism. All we are left with is the horror of the Joker.
Heath Ledger was universally acclaimed for his portrayal of the Joker – and I too believe that he was phenomenal. But the question that is not asked is why did the director and the producer feel that Ledger's  Joker was acceptable for a film geared toward children? He is responsible for some of the worst scenes of violence I have ever seen in a film – horrible not because of their gore or emotional intensity, but because of their absence of gore, absence of emotions and absence of comment. There are scenes of beatings – but no blood. Knives are flashed right next to vulnerable necks and terrified eyes – no blood but Ledger's calm, collected and absolutely mesmerizing Joker. The most horrific things are built up – and then the camera, ever aware of that much valued PG rating, goes off to the next scene before we actually see anything.
So the effect unfolds in us – in children watching. Three hoods watch their leader impersonally dispatched, are given a sharpened stick between the three of them and then told only the winner will live. Exit. A man is placed on top of a mountain of money and the Joker sets it on fire – he does not even refer to the man as he is busy threatening another gangster. We do not see what happens – we do not even hear screams – we are left with the image of a man tied to a chair on top of a mountain of burning money. One of the heroes of the film is blown up: we do not see it, but her words are cut off and we see the explosion. We have had an opportunity to sympathize with her, like her, feel terror as the scene builds and then – wham! Cut to next scene, both to avoid anything which would endanger that PG rating and also, I must think, to cut us horrifically to the quick.
This avoidance is what gets this movie a PG-13 rating. This film is filled with the most gratuitous and menacing violence – and it all centers around Heath Ledger's amazing performance. His skill at creating an absolutely unimaginably evil character is terrifying to witness. His character even says there is nothing personal in what he does – there is no particular motive, no anger, nothing to make him human. We, the audience, have the most shocking  experience of all – evil is inserted into our imaginations and we are left reeling, having to deal with the unthinkable because of the power of his character. We can't just shut our eyes and not look – because the menace of his words, face, tone and manner have gone right inside of us and touched what is untouchable. We are sucked right in and then told that it doesn't actually matter if it us or the next guy. Our hearts are left unmoved and we have no opportunity to go through any sort of healing upheaval – certainly nothing like the cathartic experience that the Ancient Greeks thought was so healing for audiences.
This is a film that people will take their children to or let youngsters of say 10 or 12 watch at a sleepover. Had I not seen it, I might have done so too.
I was glad to watch this with my son, not only because I now have a deeper appreciation for the depths of depravity (and I do not use that word lightly) of the film industry, that they can think that such a film is fit to feed our childr
en (and many would have no idea what I am talking about – how sad it is that people can become so numb). So I said to Gabriel after the film, "At what point does it become OK to be indifferent to violence and horror?" He shrugged….then nodded. We talked for quite a while about "getting used to acts of violence" and what the film would have been like if during the beatings there had been blood and so on. We talked a lot about the Joker and about how brilliant Heath Ledger was. What does it mean to have a character who has no possibility of moral redemption? How does that play into the feeble attempts in the film to deal with issues such as when can one justify acts of aggression against aggressors; when is torture justifiable; is it possible to value one human life over another, regardless of the acts done by those individuals. All really important issues – but in a film that cannot decide whether it is a serious film about morals or a Bruce Willis-type mindless action film, one is just left with vague and confusing images and thoughts – and  with the utterly terrifying clarity of the horror of the central figure, the Joker.
See the film with your older teens and dicuss it with them  – they should be aware of what is actually taking place in films like this and in our society. But anyone younger – beware.

Posted on July 25, 2009 in Children and Society

  • Roxie says:

    I could not stand the Batman movies myself , only saw the first two . It was my teen boys also who got me to watch them . The whole movie is set in a grey dark colour tone throughout I am just not into that nor could I ever imagine nor want to ever be in a grey dark world .
    Even as far as an action movie goes I think these movies are just boring and not well done at all .I never was into the whole comic book thing as dh & our boys are but I did enjoy the spiderman movies we watched . I just found the storyline and movies in general to be more well done then the batman movies.

  • Alida says:

    I went to see it with my husband last year and thought it disturbing and was disappointed by the ending. I was horrified to see people there with kids as young as five. When my daughter was five, she cried during Ratatouille. There is a scene where the critic tastes the dish and it takes him back to his childhood. His mom would comfort him with a bowl of Ratatouille after kids teased him at school all day. I felt so bad. She climbed up into my lap and when I felt her tears, she said she just felt so sad for him. Which would explain why we haven’t been to the movies with the kids since 🙂

  • plunkie says:

    Thank you for sharing your insight. I have not seen the movie, but was a bit breathless with horror when I saw my 4yo nephew wearing a Dark Knight outfit at his 4th b-day party. THEY MARKET THIS STUFF IN A SIZE 4T!!! I almost asked if he’d actually seen the movie but truthfully, I didn’t want to know. Sad. And I was thinking that the SpongeBob everything theme was kinda sad…

  • Shonda says:

    I haven’t seen this movie but several young men (13ish) in the Shakespeare class that I mentored last year did and loved it. We had a good discussion on Heath Ledger’s Joker and how he totally took that character into himself. At what cost? Possibly his depression and ultimate suicide? A very interesting and very sad thought.

  • tuvalu says:

    I agree that it is a shame that this movie was marketed toward children. Especially because it is an incredible adaptation of such a fine graphic novel that was in no way intended for children eyes!
    As a kid and then a teenager I loved Batman. He was as miserable as I was and but still would always do the right thing. When Bob Kane created Batman back in the forties, I think he was appealing to those surviving grim times. When Frank Miller adapted Batman into the Dark Knight series, he was writing graphic novels for young adults who were as sad and tortured as he. When Christopher Nolan Adapted Frank Millers beautiful graphic novels in to this film, I believe he intended it for the teens and adult who adore the works of Frank Miller.
    I feel that this is similar to people being upset about cartoons intended for adults. If you let your child watch anything just because its is a cartoon, then if they happen upon Family Guy, well? And if you take your child to every Batman movie, well?
    I think we would agree that the problem is parents being oblivious to what their children see. I don’t think that a work of art like the Dark Knight series is to blame.
    The Batman lore has always inspired writers to really dissect and attempt to figure out the psychological reasons behind the criminal mind. And Christopher Nolan really honers Frank Millers effort to consider also what would drive the hero to be so obsessed and how there is really only a thin vale between the villain and the hero.
    However, I hope no child of mine ever identifies with this sort of darkness and wallowing. But who knows?
    Read the Graphic Novels the movie is based on.
    They are amazing. You may be surprised!
    I can’t believe I am talking batman on Christopherous. Its like- my 2 favorite things. I guess am a Holistic Nerd..

  • Liz says:

    I’ve not seen the film yet because I have too much of an imagination and could fill in the gaps. I certainly don’t intend to allow my child to see the film until she is in her mid to late teens either.
    My comment would be that acts of evil and violence are edited out of our lives all day long. We don’t see brutal murders but we know they happen. There are muggings, machete gangs, violations happening all the time on this planet. We know there are acts of violence going on all day long and yet we can do nothing or very little. Our hearts are only moved when we make a connection, when a journalist steps in and points out what happened, a photo appears on the news, or when a mass grave is exhumed and the forensic teams go through and analyse and catalogue and try and find the story of the individual amongst the many.
    We watch films or read books and it is ironic that we care more about and feel that more should be done for the characters that have never lived, never breathed because we make a connection to them because of the actor, the writer or the director.

  • donna says:

    Speak for yourself, Liz! Many of us are well aware of the violence on this earth that happens every day and do what we can to heal and to make better. My point in this blog entry was that here is something marketed for children – my opinion is that by exposing them too early to the horrors of the world, by making horror an everyday ho-hum occurrence as in this film, that we numb them and then they are not as able to respond and act when faced with real life evil – when they are old enough to do so. If evil becomes nothing special then indeed, people will turn away and not care.
    And I would also say that when we read books etc of course we identify with the characters and the story – that is the point of literature. It is meant to touch us deeply, touch our universal humanity and make us feel and think – and hopefully – act. If it it worthy literature, it will up-lift us. If it is garbage, it will push us into the abyss.

  • dottyspots says:

    I’m with Tuvalu – I’m a Batman fan, especially the Dark Knight. I think the most recent Batman adaptations for film with Christian Bale are excellent. Certainly the graphic novels are well worth reading.
    One of my biggest bugbears in life is that comics are considered to be ‘just for children’ as really, many, many comics out there are absolutely not suitable for children. However, because they are comics, because they have pictures, many parents seem to assume that they are suitable for children :0( The thought of my youngest children reading through Sin City makes me shudder.
    I agree that the problem lies with parental responsibility and also the increasing desensitisation of children (well and society in general). It is interesting to compare films from years ago and what sort of age ratings they get now. My mother says she once sneaked into a Cliff Richard movie because she was too young to see it (and I think she was probably a young teen at that point) and now they’re on on an afternoon on tv.

  • Lisa says:

    We were well aware before going to see The Dark Knight that it was not a children’s movie. I believe that the trailer and advertisements made that quite clear. As a result, my 7 year old son was babysat by his older sister the night that my husband and I went to see the movie. We really enjoyed it. I liked the fact that what made the joker truly “evil” was that he had no impulse control or morals of any kind and that heros could be unlikely people in unlikely situations (like the prisoner who throws the explosive remote off the boat). The movie impressed me because it took characters that could have been cartoon-like, and made them seem believable.
    Parents must really do their homework when it comes to what movies their children can watch. Read reviews, watch the trailers, ask friends, or go to the movie without the child first (this was how we decided not to take our son to the final Star Wars movie or the Latest Harry Potter movie). You are the best judge of what your child can handle.

  • Heather D says:

    I agree that the problem is more with parents not researching, or not really thinking things through… and also with marketing. But not of the movie itself. The makers of the movie were not intending this to be “for children”, no more than say “The Killing Joke” graphic novel was intended for children. The comic book genre has long had a great many titles that are DEFINITELY for adult audiences, not for children. This movie was simply in that genre.
    So the fault is not that of the moviemakers for making a dark, nihilistic work of art. (FWIW, I loved many aspects of the movie but found it weak overall… I can’t get into Bale’s batman… so I’m not just an apologist because I’m a fan, since actually I’m not) The fault is that of the studios for marketing it to children — as another poster mentioned, 4yo pajamas based on it. I’m sure there were plenty of fast food kid’s meals featuring Dark Knight toys.
    And then the rest of the fault lies with parents who, for whatever reason, think that it’s okay for their kids.
    However, I would not blame the makers of the movie, not for a moment. Otherwise you may as well say that adult-geared movies should never, ever be made, because a child somewhere, sometime, MIGHT see one!

  • donna says:

    I am totally against censorship and never ever advocate that this or that film (book, TV show etc) should not be created. If people are sick enough to create some of the garbage that is out there (and I am not referring to the Dark Knight) then yes, as a society we have problems, but censorship is not the answer.
    What I am against is the fact that parents do not think carefully enough when they let their children see such films. I also write as I do to highlight the fact that the “rating system” of films in this country is deeply flawed, serving as it does the pockets of the film industry and not the needs of parents and families.

  • Vie says:

    You guys are making a crucial mistake- as anyone who has read the modern Batman comics can attest, Ledger’s portrayal is consistent with the Joker of the comic book. The Joker is an arch-villain and a regular in Arkam Asylum. Typically, villains are not nice guys, and villains that are mentally disturbed are even less ‘nice’ than other villains who simply have tastes for the criminal element. The Joker was meant to be scary, and Ledger was faithful to that- a real bonafide boogieman. So maybe parents should be reading their kids comics- then there would be no need to be shocked about the Joker’s callous behavior.
    Secondly, horrible tales have been part of childrens’ entertainment since the emergence of human societies. There’s the boogieman who whisks away naughty children, ogres that feast on children who play in the woods, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood (in the oldest incarnations of this tale there is no woodsman to save her), vengeful spirits in streams that will pull children into a watery oblivion.
    Just like the Dark Knight, the children can’t and never could see the ogre, but they could certainly imagine it- and these monsters of old were certainly not remorseful.
    Your outrage is a little selective and awfully late in the game. There is also little evidence to show that films like these actually result in more violent or less well-adjusted children.

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