Analysis: Dark Knight's political power

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  July 28, 2008 at 4:25 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 28 (UPI) -- Batman, DC Comics, Hollywood, Christian Bale and the spirit of the late Heath Ledger are all smiling again this weekend: "The Dark Knight" continued to confound all expectations, earning $76.8 million in its second weekend in domestic distribution.

The move also set Hollywood creative patterns for at least the next two years, as it easily blasted through the $300 million domestic revenue barrier in record time over this weekend. Total grosses as of Sunday night stood at $314,245,000. It took "The Dark Knight" only 10 days from release to get there. The previous movie to hold the speed record in reaching $300 million target in gross domestic revenues, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," took 16 days to get there in 2006.

"The Dark Knight" now looks certain to break the $400 million barrier, and an increasing number of movie industry analysts believe it could even dethrone the all-time domestic revenue champ, James Cameron's 1997 "Titanic," which netted $600,788,000.

Heath Ledger, the brilliant young Australian actor who played the most terrifying and darkest version of The Joker even conceived in the movie before dying tragically from an accidental prescription drug overdose earlier this year, is now the hot favorite to be the second actor after Peter Finch to win a posthumous Oscar. Finch won it for his memorable performance as Howard Beale, the mad prophet of the airwaves, in the 1976 "Network."

In some respects, the success of "The Dark Knight" should not be so surprising: Comic book superheroes have been beating the stuffing out of every competition at the multiplex for more than a decade since Marvel Comics' "X-Men" and "Spider-Man" movie franchises rejuvenated the genre.

But "The Dark Knight" upends all expectations and conventions. It is less reliant on CGI than any other recent movie. There are no colorful and exotic special creatures, as in the "Lord of the Rings," "Narnia" or "Hellboy" movies. Neither the hero nor the villain has any superpowers at all. The villain is not really witty and not entertaining or brilliant the way Jack Nicholson's previously definitive Joker in the 1989 "Batman" movie was: He is just an utterly terrifying, purposeless psychotic. Nor does he have the charm of either Nicholson's Joker or Anthony Hopkins' brilliant, charismatic cannibal Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs" and its sequels.

"The Dark Knight" is certainly not a movie for young children. Adults and teenagers have been lapping it up, but children below the age of puberty, especially girls, would be rightly terrified of it.

The movie has to be seen conceptually as the latest and most spectacular descendant of the classic German Expressionist movement Gothic/Surrealist horror movies of the 1920s and early 1930s, many of whose creators, most notably director Fritz Lang and actors Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt, eventually fled to the United States. Lang became a key figure in developing the film noir genre.

This was fitting, as the great comic book creators Bill Finger, who wrote Batman's origin, and Jerry Robinson, who created the Joker, were clearly inspired by such German expressionist horror classics as "Nosferatu" and "The Man Who Laughed" -- also known as "The Man Who Laughs." Batman creator Bob Kane was notorious throughout his long life for appropriating the creative contributions of all his most important and talented co-creators.

"The Dark Knight" hit theaters after gasoline had hit record prices across the United States, after a major bank had failed in Southern California, and after the Bush administration had to step in to bail out the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac giants of the U.S. mortgage industry. It also appeared as fears grew in the United States and around the world about how close Iran was to producing usable nuclear weapons.

The classic, tough law-and-order, shoot-'em-up movies of the 1970s, especially the "Dirty Harry" series starring Clint Eastwood and the "Death Wish" series starring Charles Bronson, played to the fears of crime and chaos rampant in America at that time. Both were widely seen as heralding the advent of a new, long-lasting era of conservative national political and cultural dominance.

It's far too early to see if that will be the case with "The Dark Knight" and its many now-inevitable sequels and knockoffs. Even if that happens, it probably will not translate directly into a Republican comeback in the 2008 election. The perceived negative heritage of the Bush administration on the economy, in soaring energy costs and in Iraq is seen as just too negative for "Dark Knight" identification to be remotely conceivable.

However, Democratic putative presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois is far too liberal and intellectual to be a credible Batman, and Republican standard-bearer Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who would have fit the bill to perfection in his prime, is probably now too old.

Still, the movie's astonishing runaway success confirms that one of the earliest conceived comic book superheroes, introduced nearly 70 years ago, still reigns supreme in the minds of men -- and women -- across America.

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