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.


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.