Thursday, August 28, 2008

In defence of the dark knight

This is the Altar of Zeus in Pergamon, Turkey.

It is a huge stone structure built in the 2nd century BC by Eumenes II to commemorate his father's victory over the Gauls. The sculptures on the walls of the altar depict the battle of Gods against the demons - A combat of Good and the Evil, Order versus Chaos. Light against Dark. They were meant, at that time, to represent a classic victory of righteousness over the dark forces of immorality. A heroic struggle, in whose tragic aftermath Eumenes was brutally assassinated at Delphi in 172 BCE. In that age, the Altar was a political symbol. It still is, if you have the right kind of vision, more than just a tool for political propaganda. It is a relic from a Godless age which signifies an attempt by the ancient ruling classes to reassure the people that Gods did exist and that they would protect them against the barbarians.

But look at the building itself. It is hardly awe-inspiring. It is no Taj Mahal or Great Pyramid. Some IT office-parks in India are better looking than this, you'd say. But to truly understand a symbol, you have to understand its context. Look beneath the skin. Tear down the facade and examine the skeleton.

It is so easy to miss the point if you aren't looking for it.

The Dark Knight is essentially a superhero movie. That's what it is. A superhero story told with the aid of breathtaking visual aids. And like all superhero stories, it is a conflict between good and evil. So what's different this time?

For starters, this movie deals with issues on a much higher plane. It recognises issues of varying and incredible complexity such as the importance of morality and values in society. It deals the choices people make and the consequences they suffer. The various characters could just have been voices in your head, representing courses of action available to you at any instant. The best thing about this movie for me is that it does not preach Goodness. Nor does it condemn Evil. It merely plays out a debate between the two, and lets you decide. Such are the shades of complexity. It argues that there is no right or wrong. It argues that in life there is seldom a clear victory or defeat, there are only compromises. And usually the one who wins in the end is the one who can rationalise the compromises he makes. By that yardstick, would you say Good won in this movie? The Joker died of course, but did he lose? Would you excuse Harvey Dent for believing that the only morality in a cruel world is chance? Would you blame The Joker for his circumstances?

To me the appeal of a movie lies in the kind of questions it raises. Batman was vulnerable and had no super-powers. What made him a superhero is not physical strength, but the strength he showed to make the choices he made. That's exactly why Harvey Dent failed to make the cut- because one doesn't become a superhero by trusting chance. But you don't blame Harvey Dent for his circumstances. He was only human, so you sympathise with him. You root for The Joker too, because deep down inside, you root for anarchy. Deep down inside you detest rules and refuse to recognise authority, and think that the voice of anarchy cannot be intrinsically evil. The absence of order need not be a bad thing, because it is the only way towards progress. But the question is, where does that leave Batman, the good guy? He is the conservative voice of moderation. He is the anti-change. The Status-quo. He has to be the refugee. He seems to be the piece that doesn't fit when the jigsaw is complete. So he has to be cast away.

The movie did have its share of shortcomings. Harvey Dent's character development was not emphasised, Bruce Wayne in the billionare-playboy-who-wants-to-divert-attention-from-his-secret-life role looked stiff and hardly as convincing as the plot makes him out to be. But all that is trivial compared to the otherwise exceptional quality of overall cinematic delivery. I have no complaints.

So, where would you place this movie? With the other superhero movies- Spiderman, Superman and The Fantastic Four? Or in the same league as The Matrix, Godfather or Apocalypse Now?

This is serious cinema. It is not for the casual viewer. If you liked the dark knight because Heath Ledger's character was spine-chilling or because the graphics were mind blowing, you are missing the point. You liked it for the wrong reasons then. Its a bit like admiring the Communist Manifesto because you like the gothic font.

Crime is an age-old theme. The symbols used in this movie - Batman, Two-Face and The Joker aren't new either. What this movie has managed to do is take ordinary but popular themes and create a drama of epic proportions on the subject of Morality. It is the cinematic equivalent of taking a few blocks of stone, mortar and gravel and building the Altar of Zeus, an artistic symbol of timeless beauty. But then again, its so easy to miss the point