DARK KNIGHT OF THE SOUL
The new Batman film is gripping thanks to a mesmerising performance by the late Heath Ledger. But what are we to make of the new era of sadism that is upon us?
Modern media both influence and reflect the culture they emerge from and the new Batman film The Dark Knight is evidence of this.
The film self-consciously reflects the era of the war on terror in its ambiguous morality. The Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger, is an amoral force of anarchy who creates chaos and kills for the fun of it in the mould of the emerging twenty-first century terrorist.
Gotham City’s District Attorney struggles to control this new kind of threat and the city must lean on Batman as a dark para-military force to do the work that regular law enforcement agencies cannot, remorselessly hurting the Joker in a cell to obtain information about a terrorist attack in a manner worthy of a deniable jail deep in the heart of Damascus or Beijing.
No great effort is made to present Batman as a hero because this generation is now protected by post-heroic figures who blur the lines between good and evil and for whom the ends justify the means.
The film also influences the surrounding culture in ways that are more sinister still. For several years now mainstream films have become increasingly violent, reaching an apotheosis here. One man’s mouth is stuffed with a bomb, another has semtex stitched into his stomach. Both are detonated. A tied-up man is set alight. Another has a pencil thrust through his eye. As the film is certified 12A, any child from zero upwards can watch it as long as they are accompanied by an adult (as if their presence would make any difference to the impact of such violence on the child). The Joker’s preference is to kill people with a knife, as ‘guns are too quick, you can’t savour the emotion’. All this, in the summer of London’s knifing traumas.
Chicago economists popularised the ‘trickle down’ theory of economic growth and there is a similar trickle down effect at work in the modern cinema which has filtered into mainstream television. At the nastier 18 rated end of the film market, storylines and visual effects have crossed boundaries that were once culturally taboo, creating a new genre of so-called torture porn. Slowly, this genre is trickling into the main stream. The process is incremental, meaning that for regular film goers it is difficult to recognise when the trickle becomes a tide that sweeps away their judgment.
The oral and the written traditions of storytelling have always contained their full quotient of violence, as apologists for this latest trend argue, but by definition the outcome of such violence is left to the imagination, while the screen burns it onto our retinas and into our sub-consciousness. As society debates the causes of youth violence, popular culture like this continues to escape meaningful scrutiny because no public leader likes to be caricatured as a killjoy.
I wouldn’t deny it, The Dark Knight is a gripping film due to a mesmerising performance by Heath Ledger. Yet I also wonder how Christians should be responding to this new era of sadism. In Romans 14, St. Paul’s discourse on eating meat and how, even as free people, we should restrict our liberty if it causes other people to falter in their faith, has a relevance to our consumption of culture which has been thought through only patchily. Meanwhile, in the forum of public decency and taste, Christians have been gradually silenced within a generation, to be replaced by the screams of actors carved as meat for the entertainment of children.
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