Monday, September 15, 2014

The Dark Knight and the Western

Duel in the Street
At this point, it shouldn’t be controversial to discuss The Dark Knight as a masterpiece.  It is a work that managed to combine massive cultural and popular impact with major artistic achievement--a very rare thing in modern movies.  While of course not everyone agrees with that artistic assessment, there is enough consensus for me to bypass defending it and get to my point.

I am interested in superhero movies for a number of reasons--I find them entertaining, they offer larger-than-life action sequences, the characters have complex histories in comic books and other popular mediums, their iconography lends itself to diverse styles and genres--but one thing that feels paramount to me is right there in the name: superhero movies are about heroes.  They display/represent what we desire from our heroes, what we admire, what we wish we could be.  A discussion of American heroes throughout our history could take us down many unusual paths (from Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Natty Bumppo to Alvin York and Audie Murphy, or even Martin Luther King), but when looking at modern popular culture the view can narrow a bit.  When it comes right down to it, I think there are only two homegrown American film genres which deal entirely with the hero: the Western and the Superhero.  

Other genres certainly have heroes, but they do not focus on or require the hero to the same extent.  Film noir has the hardboiled detective, but plenty of major works in the genre omit him.  Robert Warhow famously saw the gangster as a tragic hero (in contrast to “the Westerner”) and there is certainly truth there, but my focus and comparison is a little more narrow--genres which explicitly set up their protagonists as heroic and admirable, and then discuss the nature of this heroism.  The “cop film” might qualify if it were not so vague and diffuse, with sub-genres ranging from police procedural to buddy-cop to vengeful-cop-on-the-loose.  The generic “action movie” is obviously so broad as to be meaningless, even if it offers an interesting variety of heroic types from Rambo to John McClane to Jason Bourne.  All of these types can of course be compared and contrasted with one another, telling us interesting things about the evolving nature of our fictional heroes, but my point is this:  the superhero is the first major genre (although its limited numbers may still qualify it as only a sub-genre to some minds) since the western to consistently explore the qualities of a hero as part of its raison d’etre.  This is important to us as a culture, and I hope to explore the implications further in the future.  For now, I want to circle back to The Dark Knight, because I think it’s interesting to consider the movie in the context of the Western.

Most reviews of The Dark Knight when it came out brought up its supposed realism, and many (including me) compared it to crime dramas like Heat or The Departed.  Others, noting the villainy of the Joker, brought up serial killer movies like The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en.  Certainly all these comparisons are valid, but I’m interested in the way Batman himself compares with Western cowboy heroes, and how the film as a whole deals with classic Western themes.

In what I like to call the classic “Town Western,” a heroic outsider comes to live in a new community.  This community is struggling (sometimes failing) to become a good, stable place, a genuine outcropping of civilization in the wilderness, but it is threatened by a villain attempting to either control the town tyrannically, or terrorize the citizens wantonly and destructively.  The heroic outsider is the only one capable of standing up to this villain, and whatever other actors are involved, in the end it must come to a showdown between the hero and the villain, usually as a duel in the middle of the street.  In the end, with the villain defeated, the hero usually leaves.  He may be seduced by the town, by the love of a good woman and the possibility of settling down, but he knows this life cannot be for him, so he rides away into the sunset.  We see this pattern in movies like Dodge City, My Darling Clementine, and Shane, but it extends across the length and breadth of the genre.  

In The Dark Knight, Batman takes on many qualities of the western hero: he is an outsider (though not born one), the only one capable of fighting the villain when the townspeople run scared and the old law and order breaks down, and in the end he must ride away into the light.  (It was that final shot of the Bat-pod driving into the tunnel with light spraying out that first clued me in to the resemblance.)  The comparison becomes stronger when we remember the discussion of ancient Rome that Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent have in the restaurant.  For the Romans, the city was the state was the nation was the civilization, something we might link back even farther to Athens and the Greek polis.  So it is with the town in the Western and Gotham for Batman: the city is everything, outside are barbarians bringing chaos.  Thus, the action of the film is confined to the city, not even allowing us a view of the outskirts or suburbs.  (True, there is that jaunt to Hong Kong, but except for the brief shot of the boat, its glass and steel skyscrapers maintain a continuity of milieu.)  He who threatens the city threatens civilization itself.  More resonances are embedded here as well: While the Western town often represents American decency in the face of World War II and the Cold War, Gotham represents America in the age of terrorism.  They both speak to our fears and our ideals under attack.

The Western that best compares to The Dark Knight, that engages with the myths and ideals of law and order most closely (indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were genuine influence here), is John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Here we see remarkably clear analogues for Batman, Harvey Dent, and Rachel in Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), and Hallie (Vera Miles).  Stoddard is a lawyer, schoolteacher, and eventually politician, bringing order and learning to the west and representing legitimate republican government.  Liberty Valance, like the Joker, represents anarchy, a “liberty” that rejects all rules and order.  Doniphon is the only one who can stop him, but in doing so he must participate in a noble lie that turns Stoddard into a hero and gives up Hallie, the love of his life.  (Shades of Plato in both movies--the necessity of lies to maintain civilization.)  Unlike Harvey Dent, Ransom Stoddard does not fall into madness, but his success as a symbol for the entire territory rests on something he did not do, while the true hero recedes into obscurity.  Tom Doniphon, like Batman, is the kind of hero society can’t afford to celebrate.  The kind of hero who breaks the law to uphold the law, whose justice is too rough for the modern system to officially countenance.  The Roman dictator who saves the city by ignoring democratic process.  Unlike Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine, who rides away to finish the drive he started, or Shane who rides away to die, Doniphon has nowhere else to ride to, no more wilderness to roam.  He just goes back to his ranch and lives out the rest of his days doused in whiskey, consumed by loneliness and regret.  (Note that while Harvey Dent dies and becomes a symbol himself, there is a third figure in TDK to preserve law and order and maintain his status as a public hero: Commissioner Gordon.)

It’s so much easier when our heroes die in battle, their moment of greatness preserved forevermore as their final legacy, so we don’t have to figure out what to do with them later.  What use can Batman have in peacetime?  He is more than just a man (a man who now has no hope for a normal life), he is a symbol, and it is in the shifting meaning of him as a symbol to the people of Gotham that we perceive the uses we make of our heroes and villains.  We may also perceive the potential of the superhero genre to investigate these uses, a potential it has yet to fully tap.  This potential is why I keep coming back to the superhero genre, looking for something more.

(actually posted Feb 2015)

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