Let Us Now Praise Ordinary Men: Normalcy, Comics, and The Dark Knight

2008-07-18 (General release)

Asking superheroes to abandon their spiffy powers and outsize personalities is in itself a doomed proposition. One might as well as request that rappers stop boasting; it’s just part of the definition. You can come across the occasional modest MC or normal-seeming superhero, but those instances are going to be few and far between Yet when the creative revolution that swept up out of the indie comics’ world during the 1970s and ’80s was rippling through the mainstream comics world, one of the great changes it promised was that superheroes would no longer be simply the titanic and implacable figures of yore. No, now they would be human characters, flawed and damaged and unsure of themselves just like the characters one finds in the greatest works of literature.

In some ways, this proposition was always a lie. Yes, Alan Moore could take his Watchmen and Swamp Thing to depths of introspection that had rarely been seen in the comics format. And the frequently sub-moronic and exclamation-point-heavy dialogue characterizing many superhero titles was long due for an overhaul that would bring them within grasping reach of at least the better category of pulp fiction. But in the end, mainstream comics were always going to be in some respect about heroes and villains and their acts of outsize heroism or evil. You could talk all you wanted about the classic Greek dramaturgical overtones of Batman’s struggle with his dark side or the Shakespearean depth of certain themes and struggles within Sandman, but ultimately there was a reason that many comic fans (not all, of course) were reading comic books instead of W. Somerset Maugham or John Cheever. The realism and focus on character that the auteurs brought to mainstream comics (indie comics would always be a different creature entirely) could only go so far.

The same goes for the comic film adaptations. One occasionally finds a realist comic-adapted film like Ghost World or the great Persepolis, but nearly always, comic-book films are about the struggle between good and evil writ extra-large, preferably with cool weaponry. Whether it’s Superman, Iron Man, or X-Men, the film — no matter how much wit or character study it may contain – will come down to the showdown between two or more figures who can be cleanly arranged in various notches along the moral scale and also within the terms of their superhuman abilities. By dint of the studio machinery pushing for maximum effect, story and character ultimately always got tossed in the back seat, while the special effects drive the vehicle. The X-Men without their mutant powers would simply be sulky adolescents, Iron Man without his awesome suit is just another war-profiteering jerkwad, and so on.

But then you have to consider this summer’s eight-hundred-pound critical and commercial gorilla, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which unlike practically all other comic-book films, achieves a sense of authentic human drama. Nolan’s precursor Batman Begins didn’t show much indication that this was where the series would go. In that earlier film, the characters were certainly better drawn than in the average comic-book adaptation. Certainly, the warmly chiding relationship between Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and Michael Caine’s Alfred would be the envy of any filmmaker. But the whole film ultimately came down to a big whiz-bang showdown and far too much loving attention paid to the low-slung, tank-like Batmobile (buy the toy now!). Viewed on the small screen, Batman Begins is a fine enough piece of work, but it seems rather bombastic and run of the mill, particularly now that we’ve had a chance to see what Nolan was leading up to, not with his superheroes or villains, but with his regular people.

Many have noted that The Dark Knight bears some resemblance to the operatic crime-film stylings of Michael Mann. This is certainly true and points toward an intriguing new direction for comic-book films to take. Mann was no slave to authenticity, of course. For all Mann’s pretensions at realism, Heat was supremely comic-book-like in its vaunted estimation of its protagonists: Al Pacino as supercop and Robert De Niro as supervillain, neither bearing much resemblance to people one could ever actually meet. However, by at least making the effort to dress up its action in the clothing of realism (with the meticulous attention paid to the technical aspects of how the cops and robbers went about their business), Mann allowed audiences to feel that extra shiver of verisimilitude. With The Dark Knight, Nolan similarly tries to drag his superhero into the real world, but on additional levels.

First there are the visuals. From the sleek and looming skyscraper canyons of the Loop to the wide open industrial flats to the west, few films have utilized Chicago (the quite-effective stand-in for Gotham) better. The main players in all this may be Batman and the Joker, but there’s something grounding about a film that doesn’t scrub out telling details like Binny’s Beverage Depot or the Amalfi Hotel (on West Kinzie right by the Mies van der Rohe IBM building, in case you’re curious).

While Batman Begins was all pop-noir gloom and fog, The Dark Knight takes place in the clear light of day. True, there’s an elaborate pulse-quickener of a nighttime chase on Lower Wacker Drive that resembles plenty we’ve seen elsewhere, but The Dark Knight is somewhat perversely a creature of daylight, frequently putting even as cartoonish a creation as the Joker out in the sun for everybody to see. Even Hannibal Lecter rarely ventured out of the shadows.

Nolan’s Gotham/Chicago looks and feels like a city people would actually live in (and die for), particularly compared to the blatantly artificial and expressionist dioramas Burton erected for his Batman films. There were no residents of Burton’s Gotham, just extras. In Nolan’s version of Gotham, you get the feeling people not only live there but may even do prosaic things like go to the supermarket and have strong opinions about their local alderman.

Granted, The Dark Knight is not really about those people. This is a film about a winged vigilante billionaire named the Batman, who fights crime while festooned in high-tech body armor and imaginative weaponry cooked up by his own in-house R&D department. He faces off against an agenda-free supervillain named The Joker whose love of and skill with explosives and terror tactics would make an al-Qaeda strategist flush with envy. As such, Nolan presents a convincing spectacle of post-9/11-style sprawling urban guerrilla warfare, one where easy solutions are never quite at hand, and the purported good guys turn a little too quickly to anti-constitutional methods.

If that were all that The Dark Knight had going on, it wouldn’t be nearly the film that it is. What makes it great hearkens back to the work done by those same comic auteurs who helped revolutionize the form so many years ago. What makes it great is, in short, normalcy.

Without a couple of recognizably fallible and ordinary men like Harvey Dent and Commissioner Gordon at its center, The Dark Knight would ultimately be nothing more than an exceptionally well-tooled and smartly-acted thriller. Considering the film’s lengthy running time, its primary characters like Batman and the Joker occupy the screen for a comparatively short amount of time. Joker is frequently manipulating the action from behind the scenes (Nolan knows, like Jonathan Demme knew with Lecter, not to be promiscuous with his devil), while Batman is frequently out of costume as Bruce Wayne (a good thing, given the unintentionally comic growl that Christian Bale uses to mask his voice when in costume).

Occupying center stage is this pair of ordinary humans who are struggling without the benefits of Wayne’s Croesus-like wealth or Joker’s reality-skewing insanity to make sense of the chaos around them. The crusading district attorney Dent may have a heroic streak, but as the script relentlessly makes clear, he’s the real-world kind of hero who people should and need to believe in, as opposed to a black-cowled Batman who fights crime and directs omniscient surveillance from an undisclosed location. Because of all the hopes that the people of Gotham put into their “white knight” Dent, when he is ultimately becomes Two-Face it’s a wrenching transformation that actually touches the tragic in a way that no other comic-book film has approached.

Placed even more dead-center in normalcy is Commissioner Gordon, whose humble and mustachioed everyman quality feels drawn heart-and-soul from Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One graphic novel (which is far superior to his more popular Dark Knight Returns). In Miller’s book and particularly in Nolan’s film, Gordon serves as the unharried center of things, the civil-service anchor around which the story pivots. Unlike nearly everybody else on screen, Gordon is the one who has a regular home-life with a regular family. He has a tendency to run into Batman while doing ordinary things like taking out the garbage. This was not supposed to be a film about people who take out the garbage, yet during some of the The Dark Knight‘s more convoluted action scenarios, it’s Gordon who seems to be leading the war effort, and it’s the likes of him who the audience’s heart goes out to.

Dent and Gordon give The Dark Knight more substance than you would expect because, unlike the quasi-magical characters who are battling on the streets of Gotham, they have something to lose. Joker couldn’t care less if he dies, and Batman is always an inch away from burnout, but Dent and Gordon have lives. Joker and Batman, by comparison, have causes. In a climactic exchange between the two that lifts rather liberally from Alan Moore’s tragicomic Batman story The Killing Joke, Joker and Batman seem to be actors doomed to play out their opposing roles for as long as fate will allow, neither to win nor lose. They are playing a game that Dent and Gordon can’t afford to take part in.

In The Dark Knight, as in many other comic-book films, when mortals tangle in the affairs of the gods, they get burned. However, unlike most every other film of this kind, it’s those same mortals who create the most affecting drama. With Nolan’s film, the promise of change to the superhero genre that comics readers were promised decades ago has finally come to pass. It’s not that superheroes had to become more human but that they had to be placed on the same stage with non-superheroes. It’s like gambling; the more you have on the line, the more people pay attention.