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On July 21 The New York Times ran an article with the headline “Batman’s Dark Knight Sets Weekend Record.” In the piece reporter Michael Cieply wrote that ” Fevered fans pushed The Dark Knight, the sixth in Warner Brothers’ series of Batman movies, to record three-day ticket sales of $155.3 million over the weekend, ” surpassing the record set by another superhero movie, Spider-Man 3, the previous year. The next day Cieply provided an update: “A final tally raised the three-day box-office sales for The Dark Knight to $158.3 million”.

And yet New York Times movie critic A. O. Scott, who has been a source of exasperation ever since this column began a half decade ago, weighed in on July 24 with a Times essay titled “How Many Superheroes Does It Take to Tire a Genre?”. “Are the Caped Crusader and his colleagues basking in an endless summer of triumph, or is the sun already starting to set?” What an odd way to interpret The Dark Knight’s extraordinary commercial success. Superhero movies are more successful than ever therefore, they must be in decline. Scott acknowledges not only that The Dark Knight is not only a major financial success but also that it has received considerable critical praise from his colleagues. Nevertheless, Scott says, “Still, I have a hunch, and perhaps a hope, that Iron Man, Hancock and Dark Knight together represent a peak, by which I mean not only a previously unattained level of quality and interest, but also the beginning of a decline. In their very different ways, these films discover the limits built into the superhero genre as it currently exists.”

The key phrase here is, of course, “perhaps a hope.” Other critics welcome Dark Knight’s thematic ambitions and skill in characterization as signs that the superhero movie genre is maturing and growing in sophistication. For example, another Times film critic, Manohla Dargis, in her July 18 review of the movie, wrote that director “Christopher Nolan’s new Batman movie feels like a beginning and something of an end. Pitched at the divide between art and industry, poetry and entertainment, it goes darker and deeper than any Hollywood movie of its comic-book kind–including Batman Begins,”

However, Scott believes that The Dark Knight states its themes without truly exploring them. Even were that true, Scott, were he more favorably disposed to the genre, would urge superhero filmmakers to go still further in exploring the thematic potential of the genre. Instead, Scott has decided that the superhero genre is inherently too limited for thematic complexity. He just doesn’t like superhero movies, and, as he concedes, he hopes they will go away and stop bothering him. “I don’t want to start any fights with devout fans or besotted critics,” he claims, trying to be conciliatory on the surface but actually marginalizing anyone who disagrees with him as either fanboys whose enthusiasm borders on worship or as “besotted” critics whose emotions override their reason.

Towards the end of his essay Scott observes that ‘’The westerns of the 1940s and ’50s, obsessed with similar themes, were somehow able, at their best, as in John Ford’s Searchers and Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo, to find ambiguities and tensions buried in their own rigid paradigms.” Scott claims that superhero movies cannot do the same. Yet when classic Westerns such as these came out, the critical establishment was blind to those very “ambiguities and tensions,” and the true complexity and depth of these films was not recognized by American critics until many years later.

Scott has stumbled across an important point, that the superhero genre is a in various respects represents a recasting of the archetypes of the Western for a contemporary urban America. Yet I have the feeling that if Scott had been around in the 1940s and 1950s, he might well have been insisting that Westerns were by their nature shallow entertainments, and disparaging any filmmakers who attempted to infuse them with “ambiguities and tensions” as pretentious.

Scott’s willful ignorance of the genre is also annoying. He claims in his essay that the movie Hancock “which played with the superhero archetype by making him a grouchy, slovenly drunk rather than a brilliant scientist, a dashing billionaire or some combination of the two.” Hasn’t the idea of the typical superhero being either a genius scientist or millionaire playboy been out of date for forty-some years? (All Scott need have done is think back to the Spider-Man movies.) With the Watchmen movie coming out early next year, can’t someone induce Scott to read the graphic novel beforehand? Maybe that will change his ideas about the limitations of the superhero genre. Or will he be blind even to Alan Moore’s sophisticated subtexts? I recall when I showed a comic boom I liked to a friend decades ago, when most adults disdained the medium, and she just started reading the sound effects aloud, unwilling to pay attention to the dialogue or art. Her mind was made up that comics were silly, and therefore she fixated on a convention of the genre she could easily mock.

Since Scott predicted the fall of the superhero movie, The Dark Knight has continued to break records. On July 28 the Times reported that “Among other records it delivered the best second-weekend gross in recent Hollywood history” and “The Dark Knight has sold $314.2 million in tickets domestically in its first 10 days of release, a record”. This is not the start of a decline. This is a sign that the superhero movie has firmly established itself as a 21st century mainstream film genre. In G4’s coverage of this year’s San Diego Comic Con, Michael Uslan, executive producer of the Batman movies and producer of the forthcoming Spirit film, said that we are now experiencing a “Golden Age” of comics-based movies. The evidence, I think, is in his favor.

Critic David Ansen, in his Newsweek review of The Dark Knight, is more open in his insistence that superhero movies should be empty entertainments: “[Director Christopher] Nolan wants to prove that a superhero movie needn’t be disposable, effects-ridden junk food, and you have to admire his ambition. But this is Batman, not Hamlet. Call me shallow, but I wish it were a little more fun”.

I get the sense that history is moving forward, and that Scott and Ansen, in their condescension towards the superhero genre, are being left behind. I might call it a generational divide, except that there are older critics who get it.

For example, Roger Ebert begins off his review of The Dark Knight thus: “Batman isn’t a comic book anymore. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is a haunted film that leaps beyond its origins and becomes an engrossing tragedy. It creates characters we come to care about. That’s because of the performances, because of the direction, because of the writing, and because of the superlative technical quality of the entire production. This film, and to a lesser degree Iron Man, redefine the possibilities of the ‘comic-book movie’”.

While I agree with Ebert about the movie, I am dismayed that he felt he had to imply that Batman had transcended its origins as a comic book series, implying that the comics medium is incapable of matching the artistry and depth of cinema. In other words, he seems to be saying that comics are necessarily shallow and superficial; movies can achieve the level of tragedy. Further, he seems to be implying that a “comic-book movie” and a superhero movie are the same thing, as if comics only dealt in that single genre, and as if the movies American Splendor, Ghost World, A History of Violence, Persepolis and Road to Perdition were not all based on comics of the same name. However challenging The Dark Knight movie may be, to my mind it still falls short of masterpieces of Batman comics such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, and the Steve Englehart-Marshall Rogers Batman collaboration, all of which surely influenced the new film, directly or indirectly. (By calling the film The Dark Knight, Warners may consciously be attempting to associate it in audience members’ minds with the Miller series, since it was he who popularized this name for the Batman.)

But still, Ebert recognizes that as this decade of superhero movies proceeds, filmmakers are pushing the envelope ever further: “Something fundamental seems to be happening in the upper realms of the comic-book movie. Spider-Man II (2004) may have defined the high point of the traditional film based on comic-book heroes. A movie like the new Hellboy II allows its director free rein for his fantastical visions. But now Iron Man and even more so The Dark Knight move the genre into deeper waters. They realize, as some comic-book readers instinctively do, that these stories touch on deep fears, traumas, fantasies and hopes. And the Batman legend, with its origins in film noir, is the most fruitful one for exploration.” Batman debuted in 1939, just before the rise of film noir in the 1940s and 1950s, and it would be pleasant if Ebert gave some of us “comic-book readers” credit for the intelligence to consciously realize that the superhero genre deals in “fears, traumas, fantasies and hopes.” But whereas Scott insists on limiting the superhero genre, Ebert perceives both its great potential and the ways in which filmmakers are exploring it.

As in the past, I continue to be impressed by veteran film critic Andrew Sarris’s open-mindedness towards the superhero genre. Though he admits never having been a comics reader, he seems unfettered by preconceptions about the medium or the superhero genre. Admitting in The New York Observer that “it may seem strange for many that so much weight is being given to a movie about a comic-book superhero,” Sarris nonetheless declares The Dark Knight to be a “masterpiece,” acknowledges that “the moral despair in The Dark Knight has moved me so strongly” and asserts that “after The Dark Knight, I may have to rethink my past reservations about Mr. Nolan’s place in the 21st-century cinema”.

To my mind, The Dark Knight is a far greater achievement than its director/co-writer Christopher Nolan’s previous movie about the character, 2005’s Batman Begins, which I found disappointing in various respects (see “Comics in Context” #89: “Batman Reboots”).

One of my biggest problems with Batman Begins was its failure to properly portray its principal villains. The film’s Ra’s al Ghul–both the Asian Ra’s in the beginning and the “real’ Ra’s later on–lacked the regality, the sense of sinister force, and the sheer presence that the character should convey. (It’s certainly not impossible: think of Ian McKellen as Magneto, Christopher Lee as Saruman, or Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, whose performance is growing in me with repeated viewings, among recent on-screen villains.) The Scarecrow’s brief reappearance at the beginning of The Dark Knight serves as a reminder of the first film’s failing. He returns with his grotesque mask, and yet doesn’t seem intimidating or eerie in the least. Compare this to the way that Jeffrey Combs makes a chilling impression from his first moments voicing the Scarecrow in “Never Fear,” a 1997 episode of the classic Batman animated series. So I worried that Nolan was simply incapable of handling the operatic dimensions of Batman’s larger-than-life villains and would similarly blunder with the Joker.

But Nolan surprised me by turning Batman Begins‘ greatest flaw into The Dark Knight’s greatest triumph, through the late Heath Ledger’s remarkable performance as the Joker.

Nolan and actor Aaron Eckhart handles Two-Face effectively, though he does not rise to the heights of Ledger’s Joker. I was particularly pleased with Nolan’s first revelation on-screen of Two-Face’s scarred facial features. At first Nolan teases us: we think Eckhart is going to turn his head to show us the scarred side of his face, but he doesn’t; it reminded me of the unmasking scene in Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera (1925), with its similar suspenseful feints before the grand unveiling. Finally, Eckhart turns his face fully, and the makeup surpassed my expectations. capturing the grotesquerie of some of the most memorable depictions of Two-Face in the comics.

One might have expected that Two-Face would get to be the lead villain of his own Batman movie. But, as I will show, it’s necessary to the thematic structure of The Dark Knight that Harvey Dent not only becomes Two-Face in this movie but even goes through a complete character arc ending with his apparent demise by the film’s end.

As for Ledger’s Joker, as other reviewers have observed, this is the post-9/11 Joker. He blows up a hospital; through bomb threats and actual assassinations, he forces the evacuation of Gotham City. It is as if the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center were followed by a sustained series of terrorist assaults on New York City. The Joker of The Dark Knight thus becomes the realization of nightmare scenarios inspired by 9/11. In the movie Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler and counselor, points out that the Joker doesn’t abide by rationality: he wreaks havoc just for the sake of seeing a city “burn.” This points to suspicions I suspect that many of us have about the real life terrorists: that despite their professed ideologies, their real motivation is pleasure in inflicting mass destruction.

Amazing as Ledger’s performance is, and as different as it is from previous on-screen characterizations of the Joker, I am not going to claim that it renders previous actors’ portrayals of the character obsolete, as some reviewers have suggested. Granted, I’ve never been a fan of Cesar Romero’s comparatively harmless Joker in the 1960s Batman TV show. But I happened to see the part of the 1989 Batman movie on television the same day I saw The Dark Knight, and was paying attention to the more sinister aspects of Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker. When I saw The Dark Knight there was a big audience reaction when Ledger’s Joker rams a criminal’s head onto a pointed pencil, a sign of the character’s sadism; I had forgotten that Nicholson’s Joker kills an enemy much the same way, impaling his forehead with a quill pen.

Batman first appeared in 1939 in Detective Comics; the Joker debuted the following year in Batman #1. These are iconic, archetypal characters who have proved capable of being interpreted in numerous ways. Nolan and Ledger’s version is a Joker for the post-9/11 period, but that does not invalidate different approaches to depicting the character.

Romero’s and Nicholson’s Jokers, and the Joker as so memorably voiced by Mark Hamill in the 1990s animated series, are all showmen. They turn crime into performance art, and they always seem to be “on,” always putting on a show, whether for their henchmen or Batman or the entire city, when delivering one of their threats over the airwaves. They may be killers, but they’re also trying to make their audience laugh. These Jokers are over-the-top extroverts, and there’s something appealing about their boisterous laughs and high spirits even as we may be appalled by their crimes.

Nolan is said to have based his Joker on the character as he first appeared in Batman #1, the grim serial killer who did not laugh, and whose smile seemed more like a death’s head grin. In a radical departure from previous Joker portrayals, contrast, Ledger’s Joker seems introverted, quiet, even laid back. He occasionally laughs loudly, but not all that often. Ledger’s Joker isn’t putting on a performance: he is only interested in amusing himself through manipulating the people–and the city-at his mercy. His sense of humor is more clearly something that is entirely his own, unlike anyone else’s, his own perverse, ironic, cynical way of looking at his fellow man. If there were such a person as the Joker, he would more likely be like Ledger’s Joker, someone cut off from the sensibilities of other people, someone with a sadistic sense of humor that is wholly his own. This creepy self-centeredness is what makes Ledger’s Joker seem more truly demented than the supposedly crazy Jokers of Nicholson and Hamill.

One of the most striking differences about Heath Ledger’s Joker is the coloring of his face and hair. It’s referred to as “makeup” in the movie, yet when Ledger’s Joker is in police custody, his makeup is not removed. That suggests that it can’t be, and that, as in the comics and the 1989 movie, the Joker’s face and hair have been permanently discolored by chemical wastes.

But in the comics and the 1989 movie, is it really credible that those chemicals could have so nearly dyed the Joker’s face chalk white, his lips red, and his hair green, making him look as if he had made himself up to look like a circus clown? Ledger’s Joker is the first one I’ve seen who looks as if he were the victim of a horrible accident. The chalk-white face color isn’t solid: in closeups you can see through, here and there, to his original Caucasian skin hue. The red on his lips no longer looks like lipstick; instead, it looks like a thick red smear across his myth and the scars to either side.

Something that many writers don’t seem to get is the power of mystery. Sam Hamm’s screenplay for the 1989 Batman film gave the Joker a real name, Jack Napier (”Jackanapes,” get it?). In contrast, in offering an origin for the Joker in The Killing Joke, Alan Moore did not give him a real name, and even made clear that this was only a “possible” origin story for the character, who may tell different accounts of his past at other times. In other words, the reader may accept or reject this origin as he or she likes. By not giving the future Joker a name, Moore may have been implying he was an everyman figure, or that the horror that drove him to become the Joker could do the same to anyone. More importantly, if the Joker has no real name and no definite origin, then it is as if the Joker is the only identity he now has, as if he is cut off from humanity, as if he is some mysterious evil force. Batman is grounded in humanity through his alter ego, Bruce Wayne; in the Joker’s case, it is as if his original human identity has ceased to exist.

Following this idea, Dark Knight’s director/writer Christopher Nolan has repeatedly referred to the Joker as “an absolute”. I very much like the scene in the police station in which we learn that the Joker can’t be identified through fingerprints, dental records or even DNA samples: this is the 21st century version of utter anonymity. In The Dark Knight the Joker also gives differing accounts of how he got his scars, suggesting that Nolan is carrying on Moore’s idea that the Joker is an unreliable narrator of his own past.

At one point the Ledger Joker shows off his “card,” a Joker. But it’s not the typical playing card Joker figure that looks like a medieval court jester. Instead the Joker on the card looks like a laughing devil, complete with a tail. That’s appropriate, since the Joker in Batman is a modern descendant of the vice figure in medieval drama, a figure of evil who, as the drama evolved, also became the principal comedy character.

The Vice’s original dramatic function in medieval morality plays was as a tempter of human souls. One of The Dark Knight’s primary innovations in portraying the Joker us to cast him as a tempter. As Roger Ebert realized, “He’s a Mephistopheles whose actions are fiendishly designed to pose moral dilemmas for his enemies.”

Nolan and Ledger’s Joker also fits the Vice mold in that the Vice will cause trouble simply for its own sake. Shakexpeare’s Iago, a descendant of the medieval Vice, is notorious for what the poet Samuel Tayloir Coleridge called his “motiveless malignity.”

Hence, the Joker sets a series of challenges for Batman and the people of Gotham City, forcing them into positions in which they have to make painful moral decisions. The Joker’s apparent goal is to expose morality as a fraud, and compel people to choose self-interest over the fate of others. He says at one point, “These civilized people, they’ll eat each other.” The Joker is out to demonstrate that the rest of humanity is on his moral level; the difference is that he admits it and they don’t.

This begins with the Joker’s first criminal scheme in the movie, in which he has organized a team of criminals, disguised by clown masks, to rob a bank. The Joker has also arranged for each member of the team, once his function is fulfilled, to be shot dead by another team member: in the end, the Joker himself, wearing one of the masks, kills the final member of the team. We learn later in the movie that the Joker doesn’t care about money; perhaps he regarded his real triumph in this case to be inducing each of the criminals to betray the others. No honor among thieves, indeed.

Later, the Joker declares that he will continue killing people every day unless Batman publicly reveals his true identity. Despite Alfred’s counsel that the Joker can’t be trusted to stop his killing spree, Bruce Wayne is unwilling to let anyone die if he can help it, and is willing not only to reveal his dual identity but also to go to prison, since Batman is wanted by the police. In the end, the Joker is thwarted when an unexpected alternative is found, and Harvey Dent announces that he is Batman. (Watching this part of the film, I wondered, is he Spartacus, too?)

Stiil later, the Joker simultaneously puts both Harvey Dent and assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes in peril, forcing Batman to choose which of them to rescue. (Ironically, the Joker is unaware that Batman is Bruce Wayne and is in love with Dawes.) Again, Batman solves the problem by coming up with an slternative that perhaps the Joker hadn’t considered (though it is fairly obvious), sending Gordon to saved Dent. (Perhaps the Joker sought to learn more about Batman by seeing who he would choose to rescue himself.) But in the end the explosives go off, killing Dawes before she can be rescued.

Finally, the Joker threatens to blow up the bridges and tunnels leading out of Gotham City, the city begins evacuating people by ferries. The Joker announces that he has planted explosives on two of the ferries, one carrying convicts and the other carrying ordinary people, and that he will blow both ferries up at midnight. However, each ferry is provided with a trigger for detonating the explosives on the other ferry. The Joker claims that if either ferry’s passengers blow up the other ferry, he will spare the survivors. It seems as if some of the convicts are willing to blow up the other boat, whole people on that second boat argue that the convicts don’t deserve to live as much as they do. But in the end, the passengers on neither ferry are willing to blow up the other, apparently hoping for a miracle. And the miracle occurs: since Batman succeeds in besting the Joker, neither ferry blows up. Batman forces the Joker to confront this fact: he attempted to prove the darkness of human nature by corrupting hundreds of people on the ferries and failed. Similarly, the Joker recognizes that he has failed to corrupt Batman himself.

Even apart from the challenges he explicitly sets, the Joker’s very presence in Gotham serves as a temptation to Batman. One of the key lines in the movie is the repeated observation that in time a hero eventually becomes a villain. How often in Batman stories in different media have we seen Batman threaten to drop a criminal from a great height unless he gives him certain information? We never see Batman drop the criminal, and so most of us probably assume he’s bluffing. But in The Dark Knight, when Batman so threatens Boss Maroni, the latter calls his bluff, saying the fall wouldn’t kill him. But Batman wasn’t out to kill Maroni but to hurt him, and drops Maroni, who lands painfully on his legs; the audience at my screening was audibly shocked. Does Nolan mean us to think of the contemporary controversy over the U. S. government’s use of torture? Does he mean us to think that Batman is going too far? Similarly, when Batman interrogates the Joker at the police station. Batman begins punching him, but Nolan does not stage the scene in a manner to invite the audience to enjoy the Joker’s punishment; instead, Nolan emphasizes the brutality, and makes certain we see that Commissioner Gordon, looking in, is horrified. And yes, the Joker ends up telling Batman where his men are holding Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes captive, but it becomes apparent that the Joker wanted Batman to go after them, and the Joker reverses their locations. So what good did that torture via beating accomplish?

Towards the movie’s end, Wayne’s confidant Lucius Fox is shocked to discover that Wayne has found away to monitor all the cell phones in Gotham City. Contending that this is too much power for any man to have, Fox declares he will resign once the Joker crisis is over. Does Nolan mean us to think of the current administration’s vast expansion of warrantless wiretapping? Is he, perhaps, alluding to V’s similar wall of TV screens, enabling him to look through the fascist government’s omnipresent “Big Brother”-style video cameras in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta? Or the real life video monitoring system that the British government installed after Moore wrote V? Could Nolan even be alluding to Batman’s satellite monitoring of metahumans in the comics some years ago (said to be returning in the forthcoming Justice League movie)?

But Dark Knight’s Batman does not ultimately succumb to the temptation of misusing his own power. He instructs Lucius Fox to enter his (Fox’s) name into the monitoring system after the Joker crisis is over, and this causes the system to self-destruct. In other words, Batman/Wayne only temporarily assumed this power over people’s privacy to defeat a massive threat to their security, and then gives up the power once the need is over. One reviewer referred to Alfred and Lucius Fox as serving as Batman’s “consciences,” so it’s appropriate that it is Fox’s name that destroys the monitoring system.

Moreover, perhaps we are meant to contrast the Joker’s final fate in the movie with Batman’s earlier treatment of both the Joker and Maroni. At the end, Batman lets the Joker plunge from a high building, but then saves his life, suspending him upside down. (Earlier the Joker had hanged Batman in effigy; now Batman “hangs” the Joker without killing him.) The Joker is responsible for killing Rachel Dawes and turning Harvey Dent into Two-Face, yet the Batman resists any temptation to avenge them by killing him.

There’s a tradition in the Batman movies from 1989 on of killing off most of the major villains. It’s ironic that The Dark Knight keeps the Joker alive, as if setting up his return in a sequel. That was presumably the original plan: the Joker even says in his last scene that his feud with Batman will go on eternally. Since Heath Ledger died after completing the movie, it’s now unlikely that Nolan and Warners would attempt to recast the role in the current series of Batman movies, forcing a different actor to compete with Ledger’s extraordinary performance. Will Ledger posthumously become the first actor to win an Academy Award for playing a role that originated in comics?

The character who fails the Joker’s moral challenges is Harvey Dent, who, as in the comics, starts out as the idealistic District Attorney who is out to clean up Gotham City. Bruce Wayne regards Dent as the potential savior of Gotham City, the man who can do a better job of ridding it of crime through legal means than Batman can through vigilantism. Once Wayne’s girlfriend, Rachel Dawes is now in love with Dent. Perhaps Dent, in this movie, can be seen as Wayne’s doppelganger, showing what might have happened had Wayne chosen to fight crime as a lawyer or a government official instead.

But this one man, Harvey Dent, proves all too vulnerable. After being captured by the Joker’s men, half of Dent’s face burns and is horribly scarred. His disfigurement and the murder of Rachel surely push him to the brink of madness. Then, disguised as a nurse, the Joker confronts Dent in the hospital and pushes him over the brink. As Two-Face, Dent’s crusade against crime is twisted into a series if murders of those he holds responsible for Rachel’s death. Thus Dent becomes a corrupted version of Batman, the crimefighting vigilante, crossing the moral line that Batman refuses to. This ultimately leads to Two-Face’s clash with his thematic doppelganger Batman and to his death. (Or so it seems. Two-Face’s fall may not have been as lethal as it looked. See here)

The Joker, as tempter, won a major victory by corrupting the crusading district attorney Harvey Dent, turning him into the criminal Two-Face. Batman is determined to deprive the Joker of his victory and is adamant that the people of Gotham need the image of Dent as incorruptible champion of the law. Therefore, at the end of the movie, Batman insists that Gordon blame him–Batman–for the murders Two-Face committed, so that Gotham will look up to Dent as a martyr to the cause of law and order.

I’m not the only person who has noticed the resemblance here to the ending of John Ford’s The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). (See, for example, here). In that movie, it is Tom Doniphon, the character played by John Wayne who actually shoots the outlaw Liberty Valance dead. But the public believes that the hero was Ransom Stoddard, the lawyer played by James Stewart, who eventually rises to become a United States Senator. As in The Searchers, Wayne’s character, who takes the law into his own hands, is necessary to rid the territory of evil so the rule of law may take root. But once a society governed by law arises, the gunslinger has no place in that world. Doniphon allows Stoddard to take the credit for killing Valance, because Doniphon recognizes that he belongs to the past, and Stoddard, and the rise of law and government, are the wave of the future. Years later, when Stoddard returns to attend the now forgotten Doniphon’s funeral, he tells the local press the true story of who killed Valance. The members of the press, acting very unlike members of the press, decided to bury the story; as one of them famously puts it, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It is more important to them that Stoddard still be credited with the heroic act that launched his political career. Ford’s earlier Fort Apache (1948) ends similarly, with Wayne’s character continuing to speak of his deceased former superior officer, played by Henry Fonda, as a hero, even though the movie has shown that the Fonda character was a martinet who was responsible for leading his troops into a disastrous massacre.

As I said earlier, Scott had hit upon something important by comparing superhero movies with Westerns: Dark Knight seems to be invoking Liberty Valance. Batman is the vigilante who operates outside the law, who seeks to preserve the good reputation of Harvey Dent in the hope that Harvey’s memory will inspire the people of Gotham to rise up against crime through legal means, thereby rendering Batman’s vigilantism unnecessary.

Fort Apache and Liberty Valance appear to advocate this “print the legend” philosophy. But arguably both films actually advocate the opposite. In both Ford reveals the truth behind the “legend,” thereby indicating it is better that we know that truth. At the end of Valance, Senator Stoddard seems trapped in a lie that falsely gives him credit for the heroism of another man, who has died in poverty and obscurity.

Nolan’s Batman films radically differ from the comics in depicting Batman’s motivation. In the comics, traditionally, Bruce Wayne takes a vow to battle all criminals when he is a young boy, right after the murder of his patents. From childhood on he is driven to pursue this goal. Some stories, including Paul Levitz’s origin for the Earth-2 Batman’s daughter, the Huntress, and the animated film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), have indicated that if Batman/Bruce Wayne found fulfilling love, he would no longer feel the need to continue his crusade against crime. Other stories, such as Englehart and Rogers’ tales of Silver St. Cloud (see “Comics in Context” #84: “Dark Definitive” among others), and Tim Burton’s first Batman movie (1989), instead shows that love would not deter him from his self-appointed mission. Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns shows that if Bruce Wayne ended his costumed career, he would be left an empty shell of a man. The Dark Knight Returns and its sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, also show that Batman would continue his crimefighting career well into middle age, as long as he was physically able. The animated series Batman Beyond presents an elderly, wizened Bruce Wayne, still dedicated to his mission, even if he must now work through a young costumed protege. In short, it is difficult to imagine the Batman of the comics ever turning aside from his lifelong crimefighting career. His dedication to it is arguably an obsession, and it may end only with his death.

In sharp contrast, Nolan’s Batman Beyond presented Bruce Wayne as a lost and directionless youth, who merely became fixated on killing his parents’ killer, Joe Chill; once Chill was assassinated by someone else, Wayne had no goal in life until his childhood friend Rachel Dawes turned his attention to combatting crime in general, and Ra’s al Ghul subsequently molded him into the warrior he became.

In Batman Begins, as in Miller’s Batman: Year One, Batman is learning on the job how to operate as a costumed vigilante. In The Dark Knight Batman has mastered his new career and has become the commanding figure we know from the comics.

But, rather surprisingly, Nolan’s Batman can not only envision the end of his costumed career but actively seeks to bring it to an end. Nolan’s Bruce Wayne supports Harvey Dent as district attorney because he comes to believe that Dent is a truly dedicated man who can break the grip of crime on Gotham City. Indeed, Dent succeeds in bringing Gotham’s mob bosses to trial.

It appears, then, that the Bruce Wayne of The Dark Knight regards Batman as a necessary only in a Gotham with a dysfunctional system of law and order: the corrupt Gotham depicted in Batman Begins–and in Batman: Year One–in which James Gordon seemed to be the only honest cop. It’s rather like the Robin Hood legend, in which nobleman Robin of Locksley turns outlaw, battling the Sheriff and Prince John–only until good King Richard returns and restores the rule of law. The Bruce Wayne of The Dark Knight hopes to make Batman obsolete: if Harvey Dent can clean up Gotham City through legal means, then Wayne will happily retire Batman.

Moreover, The Dark Knight gives no indication that Bruce Wayne would become that purposeless, self-destructive man from Miller’s Dark Knight Returns if he gave up being Batman. The Bruce Wayne of The Dark Knight believes that once he ends his other life as Batman, he will be free to marry Rachel Dawes. However, she is intent on marrying Dent instead, a secret that Alfred keeps from Wayne, even after Dawes’ death, perhaps believing it is necessary for Wayne to think that a happy life with her was indeed a viable alternative for him, and that he was not necessarily doomed to be alone.)

So Bruce Wayne is in the position of Tom Doniphon from Valance, and Harvey Dent takes the role of Ransom Stoddard. Wayne is the man who takes it upon himself as Batman to battle outlaws, who makes it possible for Dent, like Stoddard, to bring about the rule of law through the government, making Batman unnecessary. The parallel even extends to Rachel Dawes, since Vera Miles’ character in Valance is originally in love with Doniphon but ends up marrying Stoddard.

In the movie Dent repeats the line that the night is darkest before the dawn. I expect that Nolan wants us to spot the pun here: Batman is the Dark Knight, whose presence is necessary to bring about the dawn, the new period of a Gotham that rises above the mire of crime, that Dent, this secular Messiah, promises to bring about.

Nolan’s Bruce Wayne even seems to regard Batman as a necessary evil. Nolan establishes early in the movie that there are various incompetent Batman wannabes in Gotham, attempting to imitate Gotham’s new vigilante. Batman disapproves of them. One Batman wannabe is later captured and apparently killed by the Joker, demonstrating that it is dangerous to try to imitate Batman.

I suspect it’s not just that this movie’s Batman wants to keep imitators out of danger, but that he doesn’t want people to treat him as a hero at all. By insisting that Gordon blame him for the murders that were actually committed by Dent as Two-Face, Batman ensures that the public will not think of him as a hero. If indeed Batman wants to bring about a Gotham City in which he will be unnecessary, then it makes sense that he does not want to be acclaimed as a hero, or to inspire any imitators. Batman operates outside the law because the law, compromised by government and police corruption, is ineffective in stopping crime; in the world he wants to bring about, in which the law regains its effectiveness, there is no place for a vigilante who operates outside the law. Bruce Wayne would hardly end up in poverty or obscurity, but his alter ego, Batman, would be “dead,” just as Tom Doniphon is.

There is further irony. It was Dent who kept predicting that a hero eventually becomes a villain, as he himself ended up doing. The Batman, however, begins to overstep moral bounds, but by the film’s end has pulled back. Yet he pretends to have turned villain in order to conceal Dent’s own villainy.

The moviemakers have it both ways: the people of Gotham City may regard Batman as a murderer and criminal, but Commissioner Gordon makes a stirring speech to his son, praising Batman as a true hero, willing to sacrifice his own reputation, and, of course, the audience will agree with Gordon. Is there a certain moral confusion here, though? If vigilantism is wrong, and the people of Gotham shouldn’t look up to Batman as a hero, then why should we?

Moreover, Gordon and Batman are engaging in a cover-up of the truth about Harvey Dent. Do cover-ups ever truly work? Doesn’t the truth eventually emerge? Is it ever really for the best to conceal wrongdoing in order to preserve someone’s public image?

Alfred is engaged in a cover-up as well. He has read the letter that Rachel Dawes gave him before her death, explaining that she will not marry Bruce and that he should not count on her to give him a normal life once he gives up being Batman. Alfred decides not to give it to Wayne. Perhaps Alfred believes Wayne is better off continuing to regard Rachel as a sort of muse and inspiration, continuing to believe that it would have been possible for him to give up being Batman and lead a normal life with her. But would it be better for Wayne to come to terms with the truth?

Does Nolan believe that these cover-ups are necessary? Or is he setting up another sequel. in which the lies will be exposed (especially should Two-Face return from his seeming grave)?

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Tom Doniphon perpetrates a lie that works; he rids the territory of its most dangerous criminal, and makes it possible for lawyer Ransom Stoddard to become a hero in his place, to lead the territory into statehood, and to establish civilization and the rule of law there. Doniphon makes tremendous sacrifices: he never gets his rightful credit for killing Valance, he loses the woman he loves to Stoddard, and he dies impoverished and nearly forgotten, his time having passed. But the film indicates that those sacrifices were worth it. In the framing sequence of Ford’s film, the vision that Stoddard had, of law and civilization, has come to pass and is firmly established.

But what about the sacrifices in The Dark Knight? When critic Andrew Sarris writes of the “moral despair” in The Dark Knight, he seems specifically to be referring to the fates of “Mr. [Aaron] Eckhart’s Harvey Dent and Ms. [Maggie] Gyllenhaal’s Rachel Dawes. Their deaths are testaments to the omnipotently anarchic evil of Ledger’s Joker. And for once, Bruce Wayne/Batman, for all his wiles and wizardry, is unable to save either Dent or Rachel, when earlier Batmen could have rescued them with a climatic swoop of their Batmobile, and have thrown in a wedding for the two virtuous lovers besides.” Sarris is quite right. The death of Rachel seems to have had something of the same effect that the death of Gwen Stacy had on Marvel readers in the 1970s: a violation of the conventional genre expectations that the leading lady will never die, and a shocking sign that happy en dings are no longer guaranteed. Consider too that in Bill Finger’s original Two-Face two-parter in the 1940s, Two-Face’s sanity was ultimately restored, as were his handsome facial features.

Rachel and Harvey each represented Bruce Wayne’s hopes for the future: that Harvey could release Gotham from the grip of crime, that he could make Batman unnecessary, that Rachel would someday marry Bruce. With Rachel and Harvey both dead, Bruce now seems trapped in his role as Batman.

Batman is determined to conceal Dent’s transformation into Two-Face and to keep the image of Harvey Dent, crusader against crime, alive. That image, Batman appears to think, will motivate others to believe that the fight against crime and corruption in Gotham is not hopeless, and to carry on Dent’s crusade.

Arguably, this Batman needs to believe in the memory of Harvey Dent himself, so as not to concede that the war on crime is hopeless.

Still, Batman is perpetrating a lie and an illusion, deceiving the people of Gotham, supposedly for their own good. But at the movie’s end, with Harvey Dent dead, his case against Gotham’s criminal bosses has apparently collapsed. There us no sign that anyone will take Dent’s place or that Gotham will indeed be freed from criminal domination. Doniphon died knowing that his sacrifice had borne fruit. It remains an open question whether Batman’s sacrifices will bring about that new dawn that Dent prophesied.

And Batman too is the victim of illusion. Just as he and Gordon have deceived Gotham about Harvey Dent, so too Alfred has deceived Bruce Wayne about Rachel Dawes, in order to preserve his illusion that she would one day have married him.

So Bruce Wayne/Batman is trapped in lies, trapped in what may be his endless one-man war on crime, and he has willingly forfeited the support of the very citizenry if Gotham that he has saved from the Joker. Ebert is correct about the tragic aspect of The Dark Knight.

But Sarris is not entirely correct about the film’s “moral despair.” The Joker, that force of anarchy and amorality, remains alive, but the Batman has thwarted him for now. Batman has transcended the temptation to abuse his own power. Dent’s legacy is his appointment of the honest James Gordon as Police Commissioner. And, most importantly, those two ferryloads of Gothamites, some criminals, some not, passed the moral challenge that the Joker set them. There us hope in Gotham City after all. But one cannot rely on a single savior like Harvey Dent. The struggle of Batman, Gordon, and their fellow Gothamites to save their city will be a longer, harder struggle than they had hoped.


However condescending some of today’s critics may be towards comics, matters were far, far worse in the 1950s, when comics were widely accused of contributing to juvenile delinquency, the comics industry was investigated by Congress, and hundreds of comics professionals lost their jobs. Columbia University professor David Hadju recounts this dark period in disturbing detail in his new book The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. You can find my review of the book in the July 7 edition of Publishers Weekly’s online newsletter Comics Week. It has taken a half century for comics to recover and progress to the point that it is now no surprise to see graphic novels taken seriously in the pages of Publishers Weekly, The New York Times and other leading publications.


You can find Hadju’s book at Amazon here.

As for one of my own books, since much of this week’s column is about the Joker, I’ll recommend The Supervillain Book: The Evil Side of Comics and Hollywood, edited by Gina Misiroglu and Michael Eury. Published by Visible Ink, this is an encyclopedia of supervillains in comics, film and television, for which I was a contributing writer.

-Copyright 2008 Peter Sanderson


6 Responses to “Comics in Context #228: The Bat Who Shot Liberty Valance”

  1. Garrett Says:

    You do actually get to see the Joker’s face, make-up less, in one scene. I believe its the scene where they “kill” Gordon. The Joker was dressed as one of the Guards on stage, and in one quick shot you see his face, the scars are visible but there is no make-up.

    I took this, as well as his revisionist autobiography, to say that he willing chose to become the Joker. No one made him this way. He gave himself the scars, and a series of horrifying stories about them, and the face paint and hair color, and costume. So i think your conclusions about him are correct. He’s only trying to amuse himself. He is simply preying on people’s fears. Why would anyone destroy their own face? is nearly the same question as Why would anyone blow up a hospital for the sake of blowing up a hospital? It makes him all the more nightmarish.

  2. Peter Coogan Says:

    This is a response to Garret’s comment about seeing the Joker without make up. We’ll have to wait for the DVD, but I got the distinct impression from The Dark Knight that the Joker was wearing flesh-colored make up when disguised as a police officer. His face only appears for a second, but it looks artificially colored. Perhaps someone who has seen the film more than once could chime in?

  3. joe turner Says:

    hey, is there anyone there? any more articles? i’m debating dropping this bookmark.

  4. Michael Shook Says:

    I know the feeling, Joe. I really miss this column. I can understand not posting any (maybe the man is busy… can’t imagine a free internet column is high on anyone’s priority list, and understandably so), but I’m annoyed at no announcement of a suspension or when it will come back. ????

  5. Moorish Says:

    The Joker is not “perma-white” in The Dark Knight. He is wearing white, black and red make-up. When you see him as the police officer in the assassination scene, that is the character sans face. If he were perma-white, how come it gets all smeared and rubbed off during his arrest? (and is then restored when he meets Dent in the hospital room).

  6. Eddie C Says:

    I, too, miss the articles posted here.

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