‘Dark Knight’ speaks to our darker nature

By CHRISTIAN PIATT

I’m a big fan of movies. Always have been. As a kid, my folks took me to the drive-in all summer long, and we’d hit the theaters at least once a week.

Suffice it to say that having kids has stifled my movie-going habits dramatically. I see very little that’s not animated anymore, unless I catch it on DVD.

But when the buzz kept building about “The Dark Knight,” Christopher Nolan’s most recent iteration of the Batman saga, I knew I had to catch it on the big screen.

This movie definitely was unlike any comic-book-themed film I’ve ever seen. The characters were startlingly real and disturbingly complex in their moral ambiguity.

There was, however, nothing ambiguous about Heath Ledger’s Joker, the much-praised performance that may earn him an Oscar nod in memoriam. Together, Ledger and Nolan present a fiendish character whose most fearsome qualities are not in the depth of his power, but in his absolute lack of regard for himself or the rest of humanity.

Most bad guys – or girls – are motivated by things we can relate to, such as greed, revenge or the like. It’s almost fun in a way to live vicariously through certain villains, getting a kick out of the voyeurism.

This Joker, however, is no joke.

Ledger’s character is the embodiment of pure anarchy, content to sit back and watch the world burn, with himself at the center of the conflagration.

His power lies in having absolutely no fidelity to any person or thing in the entire world, including his own life.

The protagonist, however, has no such luxuries.

Batman’s (Christian Bale) desire to preserve life and his romantic inclinations toward Ms. Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are Achilles’ heels that make him vulnerable to his opponent, regardless of the firepower he brings.

The Joker is fairly explicit about his relative weakness and lack of resources. He points out that his only passions in life – gasoline, gunpowder and knives – are cheap.

Yet he wreaks havoc on a metropolis out of sheer will, and because he has nothing at all to lose.

The terror of such a character lies in the salient reality of its existence in our world.

After all, if a handful of men with some box cutters are willing to go down with an airplane, what’s to stop them or anyone else?

How do you buy someone off who will burn a mountain of money out of sheer spectacle?

How do you intimidate him into compliance if he has no fear of death or suffering?

In battling such a force, how do you keep from becoming the very thing you are trying to stop?

The implications with regard to modern American society are disturbing.

In recreating our idea of villains, Nolan also turns the notion of heroism on its head.

Batman’s saving acts at the end of the movie hardly lead to a ticker-tape parade or keys to the city.

Instead – spoiler alert – he becomes the symbol for everything he fought against: a guiltless martyr.

The Messianic parallels, though not stated outright, are so mythically similar to the crucifixion of Jesus that any Christian is likely to sense the similarity.

After all, who has better demonstrated that doing the right thing may not lead to glory and adulation than Christ himself?

I won’t say the film is fun or that it left me with much hope.

But it did leave me with the lingering sense that choice really is the main thing keeping us from being as good – or as bad – as we imagine ourselves capable of being.

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