Sunday, August 10, 2008

Dark Knight: Too Violent?

Well I'm going to start out with my conclusion and work backwards. You can't question Dark Knight's violence without asking 'too violent for whom'? It may be true that some of the violence was excessive for a 12A rating in the UK - the scene where the Joker introduced himself to the mob was shocking to me as an adult, but even then the violence is in a very clear context. Camila Batmanghelidjh (surely too ironic a name to be real) disagrees:
Batman, as we know, tries to overcome evil. Sometimes he punches and fights, but his violence lacks the sadism of the Joker. The Joker takes delight in the torture of others. He violates because he has nothing to preserve; he's prepared to lose, and delights in the corruption of civil society. He's sarcastic about humanity. The tension lies in whether pain will eventually force otherwise good people, such as Batman, whose violence is in the service of good, to abandon decency and kindness.
You have to wonder whether she's even seen the film. The moral message which radiates from the film is that even in a state of anarchy and lawlessness, good wins. The third act scenes where the Joker tries to get two ferries of Gothamites to kill one another, shows prisoners less likely to kill innocent people than even the most rabid right winger. The Joker's shown quite conclusively not just to be morally wrong but a complete idiot. He thinks society will reflect his anarchistic, morally absent worldview if pushed just a little bit too far, but he's wrong. Bruce Wayne fights for that, Jim Gordon fights for that, and that Harvey Dent fails suggests more of a problem with our elected officials than our fellow citizens.
The day that I saw the film last week, another teenager was shot dead in south London. I have seen the Joker's sadistic, victimising smile – and his nihilism – in some of the young children I work with. It's always born of catastrophic familial abuse. The abused child watching this film will recognise the elation of the Joker at making the shift from victim to violator.
Wrong again. The Joker plays mindgames with the origin of his grin, hinting initially that it was caused by family abuse, but then contradicting that story many times. It would be an enormous shift from the book to make the Joker's madness (for that is what it is) a result of abuse, rather than being an inherent psychological disorder. That you can laugh at some of the scenes involving him is a reflection of black humour - what the Joker does is never funny and the laughter is a symptom of discomfort rather than fellow feeling. Batmanghelidjh is suggesting that The Dark Knight is some sort of abuser's charter and that's about as stupid as the Joker.
What worries me even more than the violence was the lack of human compassion surrounding it. Human life is presented as worthless. For me, the apathetic bystanders who facilitate violence are more disturbing than the Joker himself. His perversion, at least, has a sad logic to it. The indifference of the onlookers, though, is shocking.
Err this is even more stupid. The point of the Joker is that compassion is alien to him, as it doesn't sit with his worldview - it probably doesn't help either that he's insane. But no human compassion? Really? Batman throwing himself off his own roof to save the love of his life? Jim Gordon doing anything to protect his family? Bruce Wayne sacrificing his own happiness and chance of a future, to protect people he doesn't even know? He even sacrifices his alter ego's reputation in order to save Harvey Dent's so that people can still believe in the good of elected officials ahead of vigilantes like him.

I've seen articles about Batmanghelidjh before, and her work is quite remarkable. The levels of trust she's gained with inner city kids with no hope is inspirational, but this piece is deeply patronising. The point of a 12A rating for starters is to put the decision as to whether the film is suitable for younger people in the hands of adults. And secondly it presupposes that even damaged young people won't be able to read the messages in the film clearly, when all the evidence suggests that young people from all backgrounds are far more adept than people from her generation.
It's a metaphor of our time. The day that I saw the film last week, another teenager was shot dead in south London.
It isn't anything of the sort, and maybe it should be. Given that there's noone out there making any measurable difference to the lives of young people, who are murdering one another in ever greater numbers, maybe we do need a Batman, a Jim Gordon, even a Harvey Dent to cut through the crap. The root causes of teen violence has nothing to do with movies like The Dark Knight.

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