Friday, August 01, 2008
I don't believe in Harvey Dent. posted by leninWell, as John Pistelli argues, Hollywood's production mill is at a miserable nadir. One comic book fantasy after another, and all of them somehow parables about the 'war on terror' and the need for a hypertrophic superman to slaughter the evildoers without and the traitors within. The Dark Knight, the latest installment of the Batman flicks, follows on from The Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. The Iron Man was, of course, about a billionaire arms producer named Stark who drives fast cars and treats women like whores - one of his victims being a female reporter from the ubiquitous Liberal Media (who, we are invited to judge, had it coming). He gets into a dreadful scrape in Afghanistan, while flogging his weapons, which results in his capture by the banally evil Talibs (who look about as Afghani as I do). To escape, he builds an 'Iron Man' shell that turns one ordinary billionaire adventurist into a weapon of God, a furious monster that lays into enemies with mammoth hammer blows and every variety of weaponry known to a screenwriter. Having noticed that his weapons are getting into the hands of the evil ones (he finds killing sweet American boys rather than Afghan farmers objectionable), Stark announces that he no longer wants to make arms and retreats into privacy - but predictably is drawn back into action as the Iron Man to thwart the corrupt double-dealers in his own company who have been selling to both sides. And so on. The Incredible Hulk is, on the face of it, a glorified Beauty and the Beast fable for teenagers. Ed Norton is the unassuming prince who, due to radiation poisoning during a military experiment, becomes a ferocious, bawling, infantile green giant if his heart rate gets too fast. He is in hiding, because the corrupt colonel whose daughter he loves (the weepy, pouting Liv Tyler), wants to abduct him and return him to status of a lab rat so that he can develop this Hulk into a battlefield weapon. And what a weapon - he takes down helicopters, absorbes rocket blasts, repels bullets with contemptible ease, crushes tanks, and lays buildings to waste with his mighty muscles. Hulk smash! But the man himself is anxious to rid himself of the Hulk persona and is desperate to return to his sweetheart, which he duly does. He finds himself mutating into the green thing again, the better to protect Liv from collateral damage when the colonel goes after him with said tanks and helicopters at the college where Liv works, and the pair elope to a cave where the sobbing giant roars his heart out. Hulk wuvooo. And so on and on. You might think the Hulk is a bit more ambivalent about the need for a superman, but there is no implied critique of the military-industrial complex, and Norton eventually reconciles himself to being a viridescent chump. And, at the end of this race in which Norton finally outwits and escapes his would-be captors, he is propositioned by none other than Stark, the Iron Man. The way is clear for a fun-packed cross-over - oh frabjous day!
The Dark Knight is the most obviously fascist of the films. The billionaire playboy with a penchant for sadistic violence is back in action against the Joker, a criminally insane "terrorist madman" who issues demands in shaky-looking videos, which the weak-minded populace is often inclined to give in to. The Joker, of course, has no motives. He is just an Iago-like malevolence, pure vindictive chaos, who can no more be reasoned with than he can be bribed or bullied. As Alfred remarks, regaling Master Wayne with a tale of his colonial exploits in Burma, "Some men don't want anything logical like money. Some men just want to watch the world burn." And so it transpires: the Joker is a purveyor of purposeless, chaotic violence, who ends by placing a massive bet on the sociological assumption that most people are at root as viciously indifferent to other human beings as he is. The Batman's counter-bet is that people are as devoted to order, authority and hierarchy as he is. The bad guys are an assortment of freaks, black gangsters, Russian gangsters, mobsters and crooked Chinese businessmen. The good guys are, with the exception of a single side-kick played by Morgan Freeman, uptight bourgeois white Americans, and the most virtuous of them all is the blonde hero with a chin like a body-builder's arse, the District Attorney Harvey Dent. Elected on the slogan 'I Believe in Harvey Dent', he is the hallowed Great White Hope of the film, a potential legit successor to the Batman's subterranean campaign of terror. Dent's crusade against crime is on the legal side, but just because he is a pious public servant doesn't mean he doesn't sympathise with the aristocratic vigilante. After all, as he remarks, when the barbarians were at the gates of Rome, they suspended democracy and appointed a Caesar to protect the population. (These pompous jerks do love their classical metaphors). In fact, that part of Gotham's police department which isn't bought off by the Joker relies on the violent, lone storm-trooper to break legs, smash faces and torture on their behalf. And the Batman, with the enormous resources at his disposal, doesn't shrink from breaking international law to abduct a robotic Chinese criminal (because "the Chinese will never extradite one of their own"), or from erecting a colossal apparatus of surveillance which makes Bush's extensive illegal wiretapping look decidedly unimpressive, the better to catch the evil one. In protecting the population, he and the police confect serial lies and myths for public consumption - the 'noble lie', that is, which the masses need to sustain their morale. This struggle is not a collective one, after all, and the few members of the public who do try to 'copycat' Batman's antics end up being butchered.
The Batman is a man of steel, unlike Bruce Wayne, who is merely super-hunky and dashing. He has no limits, and can survive flesh wounds, stabbing, crashes, and falls from a great height, without putting a dent in his schedule. He moves with a fluidity and speed that must make him the envy of the Parkour kids, appearing out of nowhere, and disappearing noiselessly. His ferocious masculine growl is an exaggerated imitation of Dirty Harry. He is the ruthless, overbearing superego of Gotham city, animated not by compassion or solidarity but by an obsessive conscience. "The most urgent task of the man of steel," Klaus Theweleit argued, "is to pursue, to dam in, and to subdue any force that threatens to transform him back into the horribly disorganized jumble of flesh, hair, skin, bones, intestines and feelings that calls itself human." People turn to men of steel in order to restore the imperilled fantasy of immortality, by ensuring that it is others who die. But the men of steel, whatever their protests to the contrary, do not desire an end to the chaos and destruction. They adore it, and are lost without it. If Bruce Wayne no longer had his epic fight against mega-crime, he might have to deal with picket lines at his company gates, people trying to 'redistribute' his wealth, immigrant workers becoming politically assertive, public prosecutors bashing on his doors to investigate his environmental or labour code violations, all of that petty stuff that real-life CEOs have to deal with. His romantic interests might realise that he was unworthy of love too, and anyone unfortunate enough to marry him would discover a controlling personality given to violent rages, a megalomaniac who spies on her every move through his system of cameras and hidden mics. And what's with all the secret chambers and torture equipment? He might even prove to be rather dim, bigoted and narcissistic, a more handsome version of Donald Trump. As for Harvey Dent, his 'idealism' would prove to be as tyrannical as it is selective. He would be rounding up petty drug offenders and shoplifters, 'cleaning the streets' of prostitutes and undesirables, jailing the homeless, going after the damned radicals and peaceniks.
No, I don't believe in Harvey Dent, or Batman, or the Incredible Iron Crock. Gotham needs a revolution.