The Ape, Roaring and Red-Handed, and How to Poke Him
Sunday, July 20, 2008
posted by Mark Finn
I read the latest entry by fellow Howard-Hour-of-Power Brother Steve Tompkins with the requisite amount of aplomb; I just love it when he waxes fantastic. But he should take heart, or at least, take the L-Line over to Manhattan and catch The Dark Knight while it’s on the big screen.
Not because it’s living up to its hype (and that in and of itself is pretty miraculous), and not because it’s the Batman movie we always wanted, but didn’t think we deserved (sad, but true), but because the endlessly fascinating topic of Barbarism vs. Civilization rears its gorilloid head and waves at all of the Robert E. Howard fans in the audience during the course of the movie.
It’s not giving anything away to discuss the Joker as an agent of chaos in the movie, but those of you who don’t want to know anything about the film (you know it’s got Christian Bale, right?) may want to be cautioned about possible minor spoilers, here. I’ll keep it to a minimum, I swear.
That said, Heath Ledger’s intense and creepy portrayal of the Joker set a new standard for menace and maybe even horror. Even the most jaded of the Chainsaw Generation, who tittered every time he pulled a knife out, gasped in disbelief when he torched a huge pile of cash, saying, in effect, “It’s not about the money. It’s about making a statement.” But what statement is he making? The Joker’s acts, random, uncontrolled, and even he admits, unplanned, seem to strike the very gong of chaos personified. Maybe so, but there’s a method to his madness, as he reveals at least twice in the film.
The Joker is doing his level best to strip the trappings of civilization off of Batman, Harvey Dent, and the Gotham police department. After all, when you’ve got barbarians running about, it’s easier to inflict a little chaos. Or, as Howard himself put it: “break the skin of civilization and you find the ape, roaring and red-handed.”
While Batman will go farther than the Gotham PD, both will only go so far. In fact, both entities end up compromised by the Joker, who has no such boundaries, and both pay a heavy price for their transgressions. The Joker goads one cop into participating in some good old-fashioned police brutality, and it’s that slip-up that adds greatly to the death toll. Batman compromises every aspect of his personal life and several relationships, just to get a fix on the Clown Prince. Not so for Harvey Dent, who shows us early on that for all of his high-falootin’ talk about White Knights and Progress, he’s actually the easiest of all to push out of the light, if I may quote Renee Belloq. In all cases, the end is the same; do whatever it takes to win, and they end up losing. The citizens of Gotham, by the way, are the only ones who choose to reclaim their civilized status in the end. It’s an interesting statement by Nolan, and one that betrays his thoughts on the matter. In the Howardian version of the story, the two groups of people on the ferries would have torn each other apart trying to get to the detonators.
I know that all sounds a bit cryptic, but I’m really trying not to give away the film for you. Incidentally, I predict that two weeks from now, the second wave of criticism will be a direct response to the overwhelmingly positive early reviews. Look for “It’s not THAT good,” and “Well, for a SUPER HERO MOVIE, it’s SOMEWHAT sophisticated,” and just ignore them. People who don’t have a grounding in popular culture should not review pop culture movies.
What does this mean for upcoming Robert E. Howard films? Hopefully, it proves that the critical positions are a writer who understands the source material, and a director who’s not afraid to put that source material onscreen. All movie endings don’t have to be happy. They can leave things hanging (especially in a franchise situation). You can cover meaningful and thought-provoking material in a fantasy film (Tompk knows what I’m talking about). The Solomon Kane movie is long gone and we can’t get it back. More’s the pity. But I would caution future genre film makers: Chris Nolan pulled off what was once thought to be impossible. He finally, and truly, made super heroes operatic in theme, mythic in scope, and philosophical at their core. If future film makers don’t agree to step up to the plate and try for at least two out of three, then we deserve a sequel to Elektra and a third Fantastic Four movie.