Saturday, August 09, 2008

Dark Knight: Two-Face

Now, I've thought often about the character of Two-Face; he's one of my favorites. In fact, I've written about him on this blog several times. Unlike most people, what I was anticipating in the Dark Knight film wasn't Ledger's performance as the Joker (the trailers were pretty solid clues about that), but Eckhart's performance as Two-Face, and what the script would give him to work with.

Yes, Ledger's take on the Joker was very important and powerful. But the Joker's reputation as a solid character didn't necessarily rely on Ledger doing well. If Ledger had not acquitted himself so finely, it would have been taken as a reflection on Ledger, not the Joker. But Two-Face needed to be done well in this film to establish a broader public reputation as a serious Batman villain. He may be almost as famous as the Joker within the comic book world, but the only exposure to him most people have had is Tommy Lee Jones' performance in Batman Forever, which didn't really do the character justice.

But how do you do a character like Two-Face justice? First and foremost: don't portray him as a split personality. He wasn't portrayed that way when he was introduced, and to do so vastly oversimplifies and weakens the character. The Ventroliquist/Scarface is a split personality. Harvey Dent is a man whose concepts of morality have broken down and Two-Face is the man who forges a new concept of morality to work from. As I have said before, Two-Face isn't Harvey Dent's problem, he's Harvey Dent's solution. And, with unexpected wisdom, Christopher Nolan wrote Two-Face exactly that way. That alone makes the Dark Knight a great film in my eyes (although, there are certainly many other reasons, as well).

Note only did Dark Knight's Two-Face meet my high hopes it exceeded them; it taught me something about Two-Face, it gave me a perspective on him I'd never had before. Someone finally showed me that Harvey Dent is a perfectionist and a control freak.

Gordon's men aren't "pure" enough for him, even though they're helping Gordon and him clean up Gotham. His effort to clean up Gotham gangs isn't just about justice, it's about tidiness and control. Remember the courtroom scene with Rachel, where he plays -- lies, really -- about letting Rachel take charge of the case if his coin comes up tails? It won't, of course, because it's a two-headed coin. It's rather a cruel trick to play on her; I mean, is that really an appropriate thing to do to ones co-worker and fiancee? Dent uses the coin as a mechanism of control, or, as he puts it, he "makes his own luck". He doesn't believe in luck, or fate, or chaos; only control.

And, like a good attorney, he works the law to his advantage, redefining justice in a way that suits his purposes. The biggest example is the hat trick of the use of RICO laws against the Gotham gangster. His pointless grilling of the asylum lunatic he captures is another; "This is craziness," Batman points out, "you can't control it through sheer force of will." But even trying to gain control of the Joker situation by claiming that he is Batman is an example of Dent's need to control everything with his own plans.

Now, I'm not saying that's bad per se; but it doesn't work out perfectly well for Harvey, does it? In his comic book origin, it's the scarring of his face that sends him around the bend, as a perfectionist pretty boy like Dent isn't well equipped for such a thing (if anyone is). In the filmic origin, it's the essential unfairness of what happens to him, his own failure, that undoes him. He did everything he could to control the situation; but he couldn't. He couldn't "make his own luck", and he doesn't know how to handle a world where he can't be in control. Thus, the Joker easily seduces him into adapting by abandoning control of his decision and abrogating them to a flip of his coin.

The coin releases Dent from further moral dilemmas. It creates a form of "justice" -- or, at least, the fairness of even odds -- that seems more adapted to this world he now sees he cannot control, where justice cannot always be forcibly imposed. It's not something he's tied to, or controlled by; it's something he uses to relieve himself from the burden of controlling the world. The relief is very evident in the scene where he put a gun to his own head to decide whether he lives or dies to pay for his role in Rachel's demise. There's no tension at all in the decision, it's no more difficult for him then deciding whether to shoot Batman or Gordon's kid.

Of course, Two-Face isn't an entirely different person than Harvey Dent, and how he uses the coin is proof of that. I remember being shocked when the coin spared Maroni; "Wait," I thought, "Is Two-Face just going to let Maroni go with equanimity? That's hard to believe!" Of course, he didn't. Having abided by the coin flip, he immediately redefined the process to get his own way, and shot Maroni's driver (thus killing Maroni). Two-Face, like Harvey Dent, still works the system. He still manipulates others and the world, he's just let go of controlling himself.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Shield: Prepare!

I am going to finish my series on the Dark Knight film, with posts on Two-Face, Batman, and the Joker. But before I get to that, here's a hint of what's to come after that.

If you followed the news from San Diego, you know one of the big news items was the announcement that DC would be introducing the old MLJ heroes, like the Shield, into it mainstream continuity.

Who is this "Shield"?, many of you will ask. He just looks like a Captain America, or Wonder Woman in drag. Wrong; it's the other way around. Captain America looks just like the Shield; Wonder Woman is the Shield in drag. Yep, the Shield was introduced 14 months before Cap and 23 months before Wonder Woman. He was even 6 months early than Uncle Sam (uh, the one in the comics, I mean).

He was the first patriotically-themed American superhero, though few of us have heard of him and even fewer read any of his stories. Who has read some of his stories? Funny you should ask, because it's amazing the things you can find in the Back Forty of the Big Monkey storage tesseract... .

So, I've read some Shield stories. And I'm prepared to tell you Who He Is and How He Came To Be. I will tell the pros and the cons of the Shield. I will show you his foes. I will teach you to fear his Ultimate Foe. And you will come, as I have, to love the Shield and to await his advent in the DCU with happy excitement.

I'm prepared; are you?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Dark Knight: Commissioner Gordon

Gary Oldman is so good as Commission Gordon that you don't really notice him at all. And, yes, that's a real compliment.

You can tell Oldman is outstanding, in short, because he doesn't stand out. It's a good trick, since of all the characters in the movie, his is perhaps the moral center.

Like Harvey Dent, he's a law and order kind of guy. Like Batman, he's not afraid of unorthodox approaches to a problem. But the closest character of comparison for Captain, er, I mean, Commissioner Gordon, is Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes.

Both Dawes and Gordon are civilian law enforcement officials who are faced with a choice between ordinary and extraordinary methods of justices, as represented by Harvey Dent and the Batman, respectively. For Rachel, a choice must be made; you can't have your cake and eat it, too, and her romantic relationships with Harvey and Bruce highlight this dilemma.

But, for all his being a good guy, Gordon isn't an idealistic; he's a pragmatist and an opportunist. He doesn't see Harvey Dent and Batman, and what they represent, as two things between which he must choose. He sees them as two useful tools for accomplishing his mission, each with its pros and cons. To Gordon, Harvey Dent (ordinary justice) and Batman (extraordinary justice) are just two sides of the same coin.

The script makes a point of positioning Gordon as more flexible, less extremely hard-nosed than Harvey Dent. It's kind of subtle, but several times he and Gordon are in conflict about the fact all the men is Gordon's hand-picked unit don't have exactly spotless records. That's unacceptable to Harvey Dent; after all, you're either all-good or all-bad, right? Small wonder the cops call the unforgiving Dent "Two-Face" behind his back.

Gordon's a bit more practical than that. The issue is underlined later when Detective Montoya, oops, I mean, Ramirez, confesses how she was suborned by the gangsters when in desperate need for Money For Her Sick Aunt May (or some such). Is Ramirez a bad guy? No, she's essentially a good guy trying to cope with bad circumstances (like many citizens of Gotham). Gordon understands that better than Harvey does.

Gordon's real test isn't choosing between Harvey Dent and Batman (which he doesn't do). It's in deciding to fake his own death and in cooperating with the conspiracy of silence about Two-Face's misdeeds. But even in those decisions it's just about having to hurt his family and his friend Batman in the process, not any intrinsic moral principles.

James Gordon, pragmatist; he bends his principles, so he doesn't worry about breaking them. That's what makes him successful in the films and makes him the character most immune to the Joker's various machinations in the film.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Things That Made Me Happy my comics this week.

  • There were dogs all over Manhunter this week, which is good, because, while there are dogs all over the place in real life, you seldom see any in comic books.
  • Nightwing and the god of fractions.
  • You're pretty much asking for it, if your weapon has to be plugged in while you're fighting.
  • Supergirl plays guitar?
  • Walt Disney goes off the deep end in Comic Book Comics #2. Why aren't you reading Comic Book Comics?
  • Jonah Hex versus the blueberry pie.
  • Uberfraulein, indeed.
  • Okay, even though this is the same "Darkseid takes over the Earth when we're not looking" plot that Morrison used just as incomprehensibly in his JLA run, Final Crisis #3 will still be remembered well because it returns both Barry Allen and the real Aquaman.
  • Thor survives.
  • Spoiler's secret is a doozy, and I wasn't expecting it.
  • Supergirl sews?
  • "There's no basement in the Alamo."
  • There he is: the mysterious new Aquaman, looking exactly as he should and riding a giant sea horse. Of course, I might have preferred that his historic first words not be "Article X?"
  • Suicide Squad? Okay, that's a surprise.
  • Based of Hush's opinion of Zatanna, I think he reads this blog.
  • Supergirl paints?
  • Obviously, the most evil of the Evil Gods is the one who did Mary Marvel's hair.
  • "This is highly implausible ... yet poetically appropriate!"
  • Supergirl's designing herself a new costume!
  • Two-Face, finding an evil way to do something good.
  • Mr. Tawky Tawny-- still a sharp dresser.
  • That's ... quite a lot of firewood, Jonah.
  • The connection with the Scarecrow has finally made this character remotely interesting; nice move, Paul.
  • Wait... did the Human Flame just call something "gay"? BWAHAHAHA!
  • "I'd know that aura anywhere."
  • Lex Luthor, renounce science? Somehow, I don't see that happening.
  • Jonah Hex versus the Bible.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Dark Knight: Rachel Dawes

Ah, Rachel, Rachel, Rachel.

Poor Rachel. Because unlike most of our other major characters, Rachel doesn't exist. Rachel's not real. That is to say, she's not a part of the DCU.

And the universe has a way of taking care of things that don't fit in continuity, doesn't it? "Rachel Dawes" ain't an MJ Watson. I mean, it's not like anyone would ever dare take MJ's relationship with Spider-Man out of continuity!

Poor Rachel also had the misfortune of being portrayed first by an actress who wasn't very good and then by an actress who isn't really as attractive as she needed to be for the role. Of course, MJ has the same problem; it was just the same actress each time.

Rachel also had the problem of choosing between a gorgeous famous wealthy crimefighter and a gorgeous famous non-wealthy crimefighter. Throw me in that briar patch, please.

Of course, in a film like the Dark Knight, Rachel's dilemma isn't just a matter of personal choice. Her choice between Bruce and Harvey symbolizes the city's choice between extraordinary justice and ordinary justice. Ordinary justice is what the city is striving for. Bruce is hoping throughout the film that extraordinary justice (Batman) is just a means of getting the system back on track, so that ordinary justice can take over.

But the temporary means to an end have a way of turning into permanent methods of operation. Indeed, that's the very thing that Lucius Fox fears from Batman's use of the bat-sensor-web. And Batman's hope is in vain; extraordinary justice doesn't, in this case, lead back to ordinary justice, it leads instead to extraordinary injustice (the Joker). Once that's in place, extraordinary justice isn't merely an option, it's a necessity for survival.

Like the city, Rachel is grateful for Bruce/Batman, but doesn't want to embrace him as her permanent way of life. She longs for the normality, the stability that Harvey Dent represents (as does the city). She wants Bruce to represent that, to give up being Batman, but she realizes that's simply not going to happen (or, at least, she's not willing to wait until it does). Girls swoon for the bad boy on the motorbike, but they want to tame him eventually. If they can't, they almost always wind up marrying the stable, less dramatic guy.

Of course, that's simply what Harvey Dent represents; it's not what he is. He's not stable because the regular system of justice isn't stable; its stability rests on on the overall stability of society. The regular system is dependent on rules and underlying assumptions about the wholesale goodness of people (or, more cynically and perhaps more accurately, most people's innate understanding that the stability of society is more important to their well-being in the long-run than any short-term gains they might make in undermining it or breaking its laws). When that apple-cart is upset by an outside force (the Joker) and the stability of society is threatened, ordinary morality can breakdown (just as it happens with Harvey). Indeed, it's why society permits us to kill during war.

In the end, Rachel makes the only sensible choice: she chooses ordinary over extraordinary. Unfortunately, when living in an extraordinary world, the sensible choice may not be the right one.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Dark Knight: Coleman Reese

Coleman Reese is the weaselly blackmailing Waynetech employee whose name you probably didn't catch. That's how minor a character he is.

And, yet, in a film that spills over with moral dilemmas, his is perhaps one of the most severe, realistic, and resonant for regular people.

He knows his Big Boss is up to something, and it's something quite big. He decides he wants a cut for being a silent parent in the Batman secret.

It's all well and good to sit on the other side of the screen and label Reese a bad guy. After all, Batman is the good guy, Reese threatens Batman, therefore Reese is a bad guy. But if you found out your boss was Batman, what would you do? Nothing? Start sewing a Robin costume in your own size? Ask for hefty raise and the freedom to never work again?

Like Fox, Reese isn't someone Bruce Wayne chose to bring in on the secret; he just figured it out. Fox, of course, just happens to go from being fired to being the head of Waynetech; not a bad recompense for keeping the secret a secret, is it? Doesn't Reese deserve to be compensated, too?

That's certainly what Reese thinks. He's not really out to stop Batman. He just wants his silence to be part of the blacklined Batman budget that the Wayne business can easily afford. It's blackmail, of course. But, Batman of all people should know that if you break the law (like, by being a vigilante) you make yourself vulnerable.

Foxy Lucius calls the young weasel's bluff. "Dad" doesn't save your ass, he just warns you when something you've done looks like it's going to bite you in the ass. "Hey, Bruce; got another problem for you to deal with over here! Good luck, son."

But then Reese has a moral dilemma. Expose the Batman or keep quiet? What is his responsibility to society? Remember, it's not just a matter of undoing a vigilante; by this point in the action, the Joker has committed to killing someone every hour that Batman's identity remains secret. Technically, by revealing Batman's identity, Reese is saving lives, potentially more than Batman is saving. Isn't that his civic duty? Reese would go from being a blackmailer to a hero; but the result would be that the Joker's terrorism would have succeeded.

Before that happens, however, Bruce Wayne goes to great lengths to save Reese's life. Reese thinks first and foremost of himself, and when he realizes that HE needs Batman to save him as much as everyone else does, he chooses to clam up. He suddenly is reminded that Freedom To (expose Batman or get money for his silence) is always and of necessity secondary to Freedom From (the threat of destruction to himself and society).

Of course, that's the very hub of society's issue with the need to protect itself from crime and terrorism (and a central theme of the movie). They don't want their own freedoms curtailed in the process of protecting them from danger. "How dare Batman take the law into his own hands! How dare I be required to show documents! How dare Batman and/or the government listen in on my cellphone!" And, if the Joker (or another terrorist) kills you or destroys the society that protects you from predation, how much does that really matter?

By the way, did you think that whole scenario with the RICO indictments was just showy fun? Nuh-uh. What's one of the things RICO is most commonly used for by law enforcement and government agencies?

To justify wiretapping.

Yes, the more you think about the Dark Knight, the more it has to say ... .