It was well after I’d endured the 150-minute long “The Dark Knight” before I realized I’d been taken in by the fiendish hype — media-generated, friend-generated and probably even me-generated — and persuaded myself I liked it. A lot.
The truth is, I watched 80 percent of the movie in varying states of mental and physical discomfort thanks largely to its many incomprehensibly kinetic action scenes and earsplitting explosions. Meanwhile, the spectre of Heath-Ledger-as-Joker filled me with a nauseating mix of repulsion and pity. Yet I still walked out afterward singing the movie’s praises. It was as if I was following a script too, mouthing the words I expected myself to say: “Wow!” “Brilliant!” “Profoundly awesome!”
Let me be clear: “The Dark Knight” rocked my world. But not in a way that my world particularly enjoys being rocked. It browbeat me into acknowledging its cinematic verve, superb special effects and audacious storytelling. In the process, though, it forced me to look at a kids’ comic book story as an allegory for the war on terror, and Ledger’s Joker — psychotic, hate-filled, gleefully mendacious — as some kind of clownish Osama Bin Laden. Worse, the American citizenry was banally depicted as just barely capable of not self-destructing out of fear and callow self-interest.
All of this might be forgivable if the film would have been as purely entertaining as promised. It wasn’t. It was lots of other things: Extravagantly disjointed, disturbing, and more than anything, disheartening — and not just due to the unintended consequence of having the dead Heath Ledger play the demented, deeply disturbed arch-villain.
The moment that chaffed me most as I thought about it later: In what can safely be called the most significant moral moment in the movie, “The Dark Knight” made its case for man’s decency by using a shamefully cynical plot twist to coax the audience into feeling a moving sense of admiration for human nature. How? They made Deebo from “Friday” — here playing a seriously vicious-looking black convict (surprise!) — the man who saves humanity. By being willing to sacrifice both his own life and those of his criminal comrades to save a boatload of innocent people, he proves that even the most depraved human individual is capable of redemption.
This in itself is cheap enough, but that they cast a scarred and tattooed black man in this role robs “The Dark Knight” of its moral credibility, which it so obviously covets. It’s not a terrible movie, really, not even bad. It’s worse in a way, though — the kind of action film that pretends, all too well, to be something it’s not — meaningful art.
Disclaimer: I felt misgivings about the movie after coming home the evening after watching it, so I looked up the reliably insightful David Edelstein’s review before writing this, which probably influenced my thinking — and which you can read here.