Dark Zeitgeist – Needless Nihilism in Batman’s Bombast

Last night we went to see The Dark Knight. I try not to get my hopes up for superhero flicks, but the buzz around this one was so strong, I was definitely looking forward to it.

Sigh.

I found one review that agrees with how I felt, and I shouldn’t have been surprised that it came from the man who is possibly America’s most insightful film critic, Michael Sragow (his thoughts on Indy 4 not withstanding).

My main complaint is that the movie simply goes on too long. My other complaint is that, even at 150 minutes, there’s so much plot that the narrative has no room to breathe… There’s no cadence or flow, it’s just one big thing after another.

As such, The Dark Knight suffers from the same mistake as Spider-Man 3 — too many stories for one film. In Spider-Man 3 you had three villains loosely connected (Venom, Sandman, and evil Spidey), and it felt like the writers were afraid to bet such a big film (and franchise) on any one story, and so spread it around. TDK has two movies packed into one — The Arrival of The Joker, and The Rise and Fall of Harvey Dent.

The Joker thread is the least engaging, as it simply revels in chaos and nihilism for its own sake. It might be valid social commentary, but it makes for lousy storytelling.

The Harvey Dent thread is more disappointing, because inside it there’s a legitimately good movie waiting to bust out. The love triangle between Dent, Batman, and Dawes, mixed with the origin of Two-Face at the hands of the corrupt cops that Dent attempted to ferret out… these are elements of strong drama.

But because that story is intertwined with the Joker’s, its heart gets lost. I so with Nolan had the guts to choose just one of the threads (I’d prefer the Dent thread, though a Joker thread with an actual narrative could have worked), and gone with that… But, again, I think there’s a fear of putting all your eggs in one narrative basket when dealing with a $150 million investment.

The thing I find most intriguing is the public perception of TDK. It will be the highest grossing movie of the year, and it also has remarkably high critical acclaim (95% approval on Rotten Tomatoes, 82 on Metacritic). All I can think is that this relentlessly dark and nihilistic film is tapping into the American Zeitgeist, confirming our society’s misery in the face of an endless war in Iraq, housing prices up, gas prices up, food prices up, economy stalled, health care a mess, having to face the reality that our government condones torture, etc. etc.) Americans feel like victims of forces far beyond their control, as do the citizens of Gotham at the hands of the Joker.

4 thoughts on “Dark Zeitgeist – Needless Nihilism in Batman’s Bombast

  1. fwiw, i agree completely. i vastly preferred Batman Begins. for me, the missing element in TDK is motivation. why does wayne (or, really, in this movie — Dent, Gordon, Dawes, the Joker, Alfred, Fox, or the people on the ferries) do what they do? in the previous movie, we had the Bruce Wayne childhood scenes, as archetypal as they were, to give us a lens to view the adult behavior of the characters. in TDK, we just have actions, chase scenes, mayhem, and brooding. i think this is why franchise movies usually go downhill after the initial film (or, in the case of Batman, the “reboot” film) — they stop dealing with “origin stories,” but they forget, origin stories are what make our choices have meaning. as you point out, Harvey Dent’s story is the closest we get to a satisfying arc, but it’s still incredibly weak. his justifications for changing maybe on the screen, but in my mind, they seemed rigged.

  2. I don’t blame moviemakers. The movie is the deal: primarily concept and stars. The reason that TDK is crap is because of all the dummies who were there this week to celebrate it. They got your money, what do they care about your opinion after that fact. Those of you who don’t like TDK think you’re hipper than those who did. Forget that. You’ve been screwed, paid for it and didn’t even enjoy it. How pathetic is that?

    If I call you dummies it’s mainly because I resent the loss of reasonably decent movie making available in my old age. And it’s all your fault because you know how shitty contemporary movies are but you can’t resist being part of the “hip” clacque who have to rush out to see every new piece of hype so you can have an opinion about it.

    Is this a generational thing, or are there some truly hip young folk out there who don’t know dick about TDK and couldn’t care less?.

  3. I have now caught up with TDK, mostly out of curiosity and only because it was compliments of WB. It is hard to see what all, or any, of the fuss is about since it is just about 150 minutes of conventional genre movie making without any significance whatsoever. You expected more? It’s intended audience didn’t; it is sure to gross a billion bucks worldwide and another billion in ancillaries. You want to knock that? Too late, you already contributed.

    There is no evidence of nihilism in TDK. Nihilism has nothing to do with violence and destruction. Nihilism basically just claims that nothing matters. SIENFELD was nihilistic. TDK’s violence was to a purpose: money to the Mob; retribution against society for an unhappy childhood by The Joker and the preservation of social order by The Batman and the good arms of the law.

    And what’s with the Zeitgeist? You can’t really think that young comic book readers are flocking to TDK because they are drowning in anguish while waiting in line at Pinkberry’s. TDK is just a big, over-loud summer diversion executed with more money than talent.

    So?

  4. I agree there were a few too many stories going on. But I have to say I find the Joker’s story is very much one of nihilism. If not, then what? He didn’t want retribution. He wanted chaos. Why??? Because chaos speaks to the Joker as the only true aspect of reality. Because in the end, nothing matters to him. Not even his own life. He is certainly indifferent to his own life to be sure. And I think that speaks to his nihilistic disposition more than anything.

    HEADS YOU LIVE. TAILS, YOU DIE.

    Now we’re talking.

    That’s how much life means to the Joker.
    ———————————–
    The original poster said:

    “The Joker thread is the least engaging, as it simply revels in chaos and nihilism for its own sake. It might be valid social commentary, but it makes for lousy storytelling.”

    Chaos and nihilism for its own sake indeed. Isn’t that how it works?
    And I think it makes for great storytelling. It might not be conventional storytelling, but I found the Joker more interesting than any other aspect of the film. It is so incredibly rare that we meet an antagonist with no motivation beyond his own visceral reaction to his own emptiness.
    I dare say I almost find it refreshing.
    The Joker is not a “schemer”, he just DOES. I think that upsets so many critic types. They feel that, nihilism withstanding, where’s the motivation and purpose within the narrative? The Joker’s role was to test the Batman’s character; to test his faith if you will.

    Batman’s righteous moral character cannot be justified or explained in any satisfactory way. This is what intrigued the Joker. It’s what should have intrigued me. But quite frankly the Joker did most of the talking, and made a better case for side of the argument.