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The Dark Knight

December 13th, 2008 by Myrhaf · 11 Comments · Movie Reviews

Last night I watched The Dark Knight on DVD. I found it to be entirely loathsome. I won’t bother you with the plot, which did not make much sense to me. The movie is dark and malevolent, a world of nihilism and pain. It had the sense of life of Metallica lyrics or what I imagine the Saw movies are like, though I have not seen one. It’s a horror movie that makes Frankenstein and the Wolfman seem like Anne of Green Gables.

This ghastly sewer is what naturalism has done to the superhero story. It used to be about heroes for children; now it’s a celebration of evil with tormented heroes who are Byronic at best, psychotic beasts at worst.

If this is the end, I put the beginning of the end in 1969, when Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, two young men with tremendous talent, were given Green Lantern, whose sales were sagging. Green Lantern was paired with the second-rate hero Green Arrow. O’Neil and Adams were given remarkable creative freedom as DC searched for ways to compete with the juggernaut Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were creating over at Marvel.

O’Neil and Adams brought “social conscience” to superhero comic books. As with Zola in serious literature, naturalism in comics began as a sort of stolid, left-liberal propaganda. Their brief run culminated in a story in which Speedy, Green Arrow’s teenage sidekick, gets hooked on heroin.


This series marked the end of the Silver Age of Comic Books and the beginning of the Bronze Age. The age of innocence and sunlit heroism was over. It’s been downhill ever since. From then on comics would be increasingly dark, adult, tormented and violent. Heroes and villains would more likely have an ambiguous “shades of gray” morality instead of clear-cut good and evil.

That a movie such as The Dark Knight and music such as heavy metal can be as popular as they are today gives me pause. This art of nihilism and madness would not have been popular in America in 1969, when the Silver Age died.

11 Comments so far ↓

  • Inspector

    Goes to show you what a funny thing art is. I didn’t read Dark Knight like that at all.

    Sure, a central focus of the film was the Joker’s nihilism, but that wasn’t the point of the film. The point of the film was Batman’s struggle with how to be a hero in the face of such villainy.

    While I think it falls short somewhat in the latter due to altruism’s influence, I do find refreshing the departure from the usual Hollywood “appealing villain” that altruism breeds. This villain isn’t some stereotype of selfishness that they can’t help depicting glamorously. This is a true villain in the original sense of the word – and you can see how he gains position among the criminals of the city by being more consistent than they, and in the process this lays bare the true end of every petty thug.

    My point is, this isn’t simply nihilism being shoved in your face for no other reason than to disgust you. It doesn’t even compare remotely to such films as Saw, where the entire point of the thing is to see how much horror it can get away with shoving in the face of the viewer or, alternatively, to treat such sickos as enjoy such things, thus the moniker: torture-porn. (I haven’t seen Saw but that is what I hear it was all about.)

    Ultimately, I think the triumph of heroism could and should have been stronger. They showed well how evil profits from compromise, inaction, and the denials of those who advocate moral greyness. They could and should have shown how it withers in the face of good standing up to it – in the face of clear moral opposition and so forth. With altruism still dominant in our culture, however, this was impossible. I think the result is the best that could have been expected, but this is an indictment of altruism’s ineffectiveness in heroism, rather than the movie being, itself, nihilistic.

    That’s how I see it, anyway.

  • Myrhaf

    I was expecting to get some disagreement on this one!

    This Batman, like James Bond in Casino Royale, sacrifices his happiness to save mankind. Neither can live a normal life or find happiness because of their mission. Both characters have been turned into a kind of demonic Jesus.

  • Bill Brown

    I think the superhero genre as such is suffused with the ethics of altruism and duty. I can’t think of any character whose powers aren’t a leash held by the helplessness of other people.

    Here’s my take on The Dark Knight.

    It’s also interesting (and telling) that the Westerns went through a similar change at about the same time. I wonder what it was about the Sixties…

  • Inspector

    “This Batman, like James Bond in Casino Royale, sacrifices his happiness to save mankind.”

    Yeah no disagreement there. They do temper it a small amount, by tying it to the fact of his working outside the law necessitating matters somewhat, but it still shines through.

    Altruism will always fail to produce a really good hero.

  • madmax

    There was a great discussion of this movie in a NoodleFood post over the summer. I think it was the post on Wall-E but the comment section went off into a discussion of Dark Night. If you go through that discussion, I would say focus on Brian Smith’s analysis of the film. It is brilliant. He gets to the philosophical essence of the theme and links it to Kant. IMO the movie was philosophically dreadful but it was philosophic which is more than can be said of most movies, especially action films.

  • madmax

    “Both characters have been turned into a kind of demonic Jesus.”

    Oh and I’ll add to this that IMO altruism has a way of turning every “hero” into a copy of Jesus.

    I don’t believe in an historic Jesus. I agree with the critical scholars that argue that Christianity started with a mythic tradition which means that it was in essence literature. And the person most responsible for that literature was whoever we call Mark as his Gospel came first and the others are rewrites. Mark has set the template for the “hero” ever since.

    Its not until altruism is discredited and Jesus is rejected will we ever have a culture dedicated to true hero worship.

  • Amy Nasir

    I agree with your assessment of The Dark Knight. Here is an excerpt from my previous post on

    This movie was very malevolent. Not only did I think the reaction of society towards Batman, and his own wimpy resoluteness was depressing and completely uninspiring, but I remember the pivotal scene where Batman captures the Joker who was hanging from a building’s girders.

    At that moment I thought of one of two crucial outcomes – either Batman would kill the Joker (or simply drop him), or Batman would come full circle with his futile malevolency and spare the Joker and turn him into an incompetent police force that he knew was incompetent and, at the very least, ineffectual in handling such a powerfully evil villain.

    It portrayed the men of the mind, the heroes, as hopelessly weak, and portrayed the men of evil and destruction as unceasingly powerful. That’s what I call a malevolent universe! If Batman killed the Joker right then and there, I would have cheered. Since he didn’t, I found myself hoping that Batman would have slipped on a girder and get killed, because then this moldy vegetable of a movie would finally end.

  • Fat Charlie the Archangel

    “Its not until altruism is discredited and Jesus is rejected will we ever have a culture dedicated to true hero worship.”

    If that be true, then you won’t see such a culture 🙂

  • Fat Charlie the Archangel

    “Its not until altruism is discredited and Jesus is rejected will we ever have a culture dedicated to true hero worship.”

    Sorry – I decided that my last comment was too terse, and didn’t include enough explanation.

    First off – one may, if one wishes, say that we’ve got this current mess because of a cultural acceptance of Jesus, but then it’s difficult to explain how we descend further into the abyss at the same time that Western culture moves further away from being actively Christian. If there’s less fire, how come there’s more smoke?

    This sort of “hero” seems to me to be much more a product of what Asimov called “the culture of ignorance” – worshiping mindlessness and actively turning away from reason.

    But my original point was that there are quite a few bright, educated and content Christians, and while it’s currently unpopular to say so, we aren’t going to softly and silently vanish away – so, if it’s really true that the whole “tortured hero” thing is caused by Jesus worship, then it isn’t likely to go away any time soon; in fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine a series of circumstances which would product such an effect.

    Therefore, the phrase “Its not until altruism is discredited and Jesus is rejected” is, under any reasonable set of assumptions, another way of saying “never”. Which hardly seems to fit the realist tone of most of these discussions.

  • madmax

    “Therefore, the phrase “Its not until altruism is discredited and Jesus is rejected” is, under any reasonable set of assumptions, another way of saying “never”.”

    Short answer to this: If mankind never gets past the myth of Jesus Christ then it is doomed and it deserves the misery it will get.

  • John Schmidley

    I mostly agree about The Dark Knight. Perhaps if the story had ended on a lighter note, like Batman Begins, than I would be more lenient, but really the whole thing was just one long depressing journey through a dark cave.

    Although, I’d just like to make one comment on your disparaging remark about Heavy Metal music that it is a very large genre to just dismiss out of hand like that. I won’t go into details (That would be a bit derailing of the topic here, I think), but there is much Metal style music that is not nihilistic at all, and can be said to be “better” in certain contexts, I think, than even Classical music.