Twenty-three years after its first appearance and a week before its movie adaptation is released, I finished reading Watchmen (and you thought you were a procrastinator). I cannot express how much I loved it, particularly its overriding ambiguity toward its main characters.
With the movie officially out tomorrow, I have no doubt it will be a hit, regardless of reviews. But putting aside its fascinating character study, my concern is will its overriding Cold War theme about the threat of nuclear annihilation go over the heads of the under 30-fan base critical to its success? My guess is, yes it probably will. I’ve been thinking of this since I finished the novel last week, and io9 reviewer Charlie Jane Anders struggles with this question too — she makes the perceptive observation: “We understand superheroes and costumed asskickers, but we no longer understand Henry Kissinger.”
I think all this will hardly matter to its bottom line, as it comes in with a heavy dose of marketing momentum and little box-office competition at this time of the year (a brilliant move to release a potentially controversial, decidedly R-rated superhero movie in early March, thus avoiding the PG-13-friendly summer competition, in my humble opinion). Most importantly to its box-office ambitions, but perhaps not to its modern pertinence, it promises a superhero movie that blows shit up real good.
SPOILER ALERTS. CONTINUE AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Troubling as it is, Boomer mystery author Andrew Klavan, writing in July the Wall Street Journal, has a somewhat convincing argument, comparing the Batman of this summer’s The Dark Knight with President George W. Bush.
There seems to me no question that the Batman film “The Dark Knight,” currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.
But while Mr. Klavan sees this as a heroic yet unappreciated connection between the Dark Knight and our 43rd President, the author conveniently overlooks one major point, which I think would actually strengthen his argument (though surely not in a way he intended) — the Joker, as the ultimate terrorist, comes to power as a backlash and in reaction to Batman and his extreme measures — “you complete me,” Heath Ledger’s Joker says (the line gets laughs, but there’s sincerity behind it on the Joker’s part).
Part of the modern Batman backstory is that the strange and extreme criminals the Dark Knight fights in Gotham City are part of an escalation; they’re a reaction to and creation of the Batman himself and his strange and extreme measures. Most (if not all) of the arch-villians like the Joker and Scarecrow (the “freaks” as they’re derided and as they sometimes call themselves and Batman) gradually thrive and replace the more traditional criminals such as mobsters precisely because of Batman — it’s a circular cycle that essentially traps Bruce Wayne into his Batman persona forever.
This theme is present in Christopher Nolan’s two Batman films (with credit due to himself, his brother, Jonathan, and David S. Goyer as writers), and it is also present in the 1996 graphic novel The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, which the Nolans and Goyer draw from in their two films. I’m not as well-versed in the Batman legend as I would like to be, but this may or may not go back to Frank Miller’s take on Batman (there’s definitely some of this in his Batman: Year One from 1986, which Batman Begins also draws upon), or if it goes all the way back to Bob Kane for that matter.
So, let’s see: we have a leader who responds to a terrible problem with extreme measures, with the unintended consequence of creating an extreme response that traps the “hero” into forever fighting a situation that he largely bears responsibility for creating. Yep, never heard that before in real life.