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‘Batman’ helps us to imagine possibilities beyond fatalism

One of the songs in the hymnal I sing out of has a line written in the style of a prayer: “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.” That precise turn of phrase, by the renowned preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, is almost 80 years old. The underlying hope it expresses, however, is at least as old as humanity. Even before the concept of history was created, we were living it out, or at least trying to.

I was awfully grateful for that hymnal, as this particular scrap of poetry was ricocheting around in my skull this week while I sat through a late-night viewing of “The Dark Knight,” the second installation in the recently relaunched “Batman” film franchise.

In many ways you’d be hard-pressed to find a lot of fault with the film. It is both well-conceived and well-wrought, having been smartly written and beautifully acted.



As a superhero picture, it completely understands how to do action and why that action should be in service of the story. Yet it is happily far more than a superhero picture, and is downright genre-bending in how seriously it takes something as its source material that started out as comic books and children’s television.

I was mostly spellbound by “The Dark Knight,” and a few times even sat up out of my chair, upended by its skillful and non-pandering sense of itself. And of course, Heath Ledger’s Joker (now the subject of a controversy over the possibility of awarding Oscars posthumously) just blew me clean away.



Naturally enough, though, “The Dark Knight” is, well … dark. With its share of grotesque moments, it is not for young children, and its vision of the world can be thought of as landing somewhere between bitter and hopeless. Still, the whole project rises or falls on Batman, and Batman would rather save the world than let it go.

Since you’ve read this far, I may as well confess that I did not attend the showing of this film out of the dutiful sense of fandom that has driven so many. I wasn’t moved by the trailers, and like many of you, I was suffering from cinematic superhero burnout around the time the movie had its premiere. No, what I wanted to know was something simple: What was it about this project that had it so close to generating some of the greatest box office ever? What was the magnetic draw here?

What I think I found would be well encapsulated in this idea of Fosdick’s, that we might pray to be saved from weak resignation to the evils we deplore, then summon the will to do something about them. Batman is the living embodiment of such an attitude ” one who ducks all the excuses to take a dangerous stand against evil at its most tangible. He presents us with a complicated, serious, and morally ambiguous picture of one way to respond to the problems of the world, which is to face them head-on using all the tools in one’s reserve.

That Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne is a billionaire certainly helps him in terms of what’s available in the toolbox. When it comes down to it, though, it’s pretty much him against the world, and with those odds you’d want a big, cool hammer, too. No time for weak resignation ” we got evils here, people.

What I’m saying is that we all long deeply to face our problems and those of the world around us. We long to name them with clarity and then do something about them.

Give your particular solution a neat name and dress it in a cape, and you have a superhero ” a means of identifying with the human impulse to do good against those who, in the words of one “Batman” character, “just want to watch the world burn.”

Which brings us to villains, specifically the Joker. Cesar Romero’s Joker traded on bad puns, Jack Nicholson’s suffused anger beneath a smile. What Mr. Ledger brings to the screen is cold, controlled passion and nihilism, a self-serving philosophy he can use to justify the Joker’s doing anything he wants ” and mostly that’s destroy things and people because he can. It’s not that the Joker isn’t over-the-top with regard to the depiction of evil (because he is, and finally, in this case, that’s what makes for good American cinema). It’s that you don’t know where all his rage and hate come from, and I don’t think he does, either. He is played as a confused bag of impulses, dangerous not for his insanity but for the smoothly believable arguments he uses to keep himself sounding sane.

So then why, ultimately, will “The Dark Knight” be one of the most successful films ever? It all comes down to the fact that it features well-drawn characters willing to do what others will not. In this sense ” and to borrow another key image from the film ” they’re two identical sides of the same coin, men defined by iron will. When the world goes to hell, they step in ” one ready to make things worse, one willing to lay aside his own desires for the common good.

The Joker ” however he presents himself in your life ” is not just “the evils we deplore.” He’s also counting on you to exercise “weak resignation” in the face of those evils. Batman summons us to imagine other possibilities than just being resigned or fated.

And that’s worth watching.

The Rev. Torey Lightcap is priest-in-charge of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glenwood Springs (www.saint-barnabas.info). Torey and his wife have two children and live in New Castle.


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