On the occasion of The Dark Knight’s 10th anniversary, Polygon is spending the week investigating the comic-book blockbuster’s legacy. Why so serious? Because Christopher Nolan’s Bat-sequel gave us lots to talk about. This is the retrospective you deserve and the one you need right now.
The core of the Batman mythos is a story of trauma, healing and recalibrating to a new way of life. Any parent knows the birth of his or her first child fits almost the same description.
In 2007, after the turbulent delivery of our son, my wife and I slowly adjusted to life as parents. Once we felt comfortable leaving this little bundle with a sitter, we wanted to re-establish date nights. The first movie we saw in theaters after his birth was The Dark Knight.
A few rows up from us in a mostly empty theater in Queens, New York, was a family: mom, dad and two kids. My parent radar immediately went off. Neither of the kids could have been older than 5; the younger one was still in diapers. They sat looking up, glued to the film’s propulsive opening heist, where the Joker stays a step ahead of everybody, even his own gang. This movie was operating on a higher level than Batman Begins. I knew it, and deep down, they knew it.
Unlike our first post-birth, delivered-by-Netflix-envelope rental viewing, Shoot ’Em Up, a movie about Clive Owen scooping up an abandoned baby and gunfighting his way through a public bathroom, which left my wife reeling from the sounds of the baby crying, we actually enjoyed The Dark Knight. There were no endangered infants, and the film’s morally complex take on the vigilante was thought-provoking and compelling. But our eyes kept darting to the family in the front row, where the parents munched popcorn as their kids stared raptly at the screen.
By the time the doctors removed Harvey Dent’s bandages to reveal a hideously decayed face, all we could think about was the two kids. Wasn’t this too intense for them? What does a kid in preschool make of a pencil being driven through a man’s eye, a psychopathic clown gleefully slaughtering innocents?
As we left the theater and walked home, we didn’t talk about Heath Ledger’s performance or the movie’s remarkably downbeat ending, Batman now a fugitive of the law. Instead, we discussed parenting, and what could have been going through the minds of that family. I seized up with judgment. Even if they didn’t know ahead of time, what was their excuse for not leaving the theater and bringing their little ones to something more appropriate? Or did they just not care? Did it not matter?
I wonder a lot about those kids.
If you like comics, my house is a good place to grow up. A first-floor closet is dominated by row after row of collections — Marvel, DC and otherwise. As soon as my kid was old enough to read, and I could trust him not to wreck the spines, I gave him unlimited access to the archives.
I’ve never been a huge Batman fan. I grew up as a Marvel zombie, engrossed in the overlapping storylines of Chris Claremont’s X-Men. The Bat in the ’80s was at the ebb of his popularity, treading water against the same old, crusty villains. But the character imprinted hard on my son. I’ve tried to let him navigate through culture and discover his own interests, so after a brief and intense flirtation with Tintin, he became a Bat-fan through and through.
I can’t even remember his first exposure to the character — he may have browsed the shelves at the public library, or been gifted a book by a friend. Whatever the inflection point was, it owned him.
The modern Batman books are solid storytelling, but they’re not made for younger readers. Thankfully, he has 75 years of history to dive into. He’s devoured everything he can from the classic Jim Aparo Brave & the Bold team-ups to Grant Morrison’s bizarre, totemic super-spy run. He’s seen the Tim Burton movies, the 1966 movie where Batman runs around on a pier with a bomb in a seemingly endless gag, Zack Snyder’s Justice League and even the aggressively nippled Joel Schumacher sequels. He’s seen Mask of the Phantasm and Lego Batman, watched the many animated series and the direct-to-video animated movies, and consumed dozens, if not hundreds, of hours of Bat-material.
Looming like a gaping hole in the middle of that completist run: the Christopher Nolan movies.
There’s no denying that The Dark Knight is one of the best interpretations of the vigilante ever. Christian Bale seethes as a Batman so driven he cauterizes the remnants of a normal life around him, and Heath Ledger’s Joker inspired a sea change in the character throughout the franchise.
Something the mass of Bat-media touches on is the mutability of the character. He can be anything the creator wants him to be: a grim prowler of the night, a smiling friend to children, a globe-trotting James Bond stand-in or a voyager through the halls of madness. Nolan’s films, as brilliant as they were, served to refocus the lens in the eyes of the public down to the character’s bare wire of tension.
That makes for fine movies, but it also kind of strips away what makes the character so potent for kids. I’m not going to relitigate the “Bang! Zoom! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” argument, but when you have a caped crusader who appears on washcloths and lunchboxes, it’s sort of insane that there aren’t movies featuring that character for kids to watch. I loved the Lego Batman movie for precisely that reason: It was an effort to recapture the mythos for the audience that truly needs it.
I’m not afraid of exposing my son to the PG-13-inching-toward-R content of The Dark Knight. Violence doesn’t bother him too much — we’ve gleefully shared hard-cracking elbows in Ong-Bak and vicious knife fights in The Raid. What’s keeping me from sharing Nolan’s film with him isn’t the movie’s viciousness (although the bit with the Joker and the pencil still makes me wince), but the chaos.
Earlier this year, I showed my kids the psychedelic Japanese horror classic Hausu, a brain-melting trip into a decrepit rural manse haunted by bizarre ghosts. The effects are hokey even for the ’70s, and if it were rated by the American motion picture board, it’d be a generous PG-13. But the film has earned a reputation by how it harnesses an undercurrent of irrational dread. Hausu, simply put, fucked my kid up. He woke up with nightmares and ended up sleeping in our bed (while I was exiled to his for my media crimes).
Hausu shares the core message of The Dark Knight: chaos reigns. In my estimation, kids love Batman — my son included — because he represents the force of order. When faced with deformed nightmares of human malevolence, Batman sets the world right. But even though the Joker is disposed of, the unease he unleashed on Gotham remains. There’s a reason that the Joker commands the movie and propels its plot: He wins at the end. For a kid who loves Batman’s ability to right wrongs, having that taken away could destabilize his whole cosmology.
Here’s the thing about my son: He grapples with chaos every day. At about the same time as the genesis of his Bat-obsession, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. As with many of the denizens of Arkham Asylum, his body turned violently against him, his own immune system destroying itself.
While at the hospital for his quarterly checkup, my son started drawing Batman on the office whiteboard, his face riddled with scars. The nurse had an interesting observation: Unlike most other superheroes, Batman isn’t gifted with specialness by forces outside of his control. He’s gifted with trauma, and has to become stronger to overcome it to help not only himself but others.
Instead of a utility belt, my kid wears a fanny pack loaded with glucose and test strips. Instead of high-tech Bat-gadgets, he gets a Bluetooth-enabled glucose monitor implanted in his arms every few weeks. Every day is a fight for survival that requires his constant attention, and it exhausts him. I can’t blame him for escaping into a world of superheroes who put it all on the line to set things right.
When I pitched this article, my editor asked me if my son, just about to turn 11, would finally watch The Dark Knight. I had to think about it, and eventually I decided that it’d be best if it were his decision, not mine.
I thought about those kids in the front row at that screening, their eyes glazed over as the Joker tore Gotham down around Batman’s head. How did they process it that night? Did it stick with them like it stuck with me? And what was it going to do to my son, already teetering on the precipice of chaos?
We sat down at the kitchen table. I cued up the trailer for him. He watched it in silence.
“What do you think, buddy? Are you ready?”
I wasn’t either.
K. Thor Jensen is a writer and cartoonist who lives on a tiny island in a big ocean with his family. He has been excavating the upside-down of the internet since 1997.