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‘We appear to find ourselves in a bit of a-‘ ‘don’t-‘ ‘-grey area.’ ‘-say that! Can we just get through one damn day without saying that?’ July 25, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, reviews.
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A few warnings and disclaimers before I get into this post. The first is a warning that this post is ABSOLUTELY SPOILERIFIC, so if you haven’t seen Dr Horrible or The Dark Knight and want to, read on at your peril.

Disclaimer #1: I hadn’t seen anything Batman-y since I was three years old and watched the cartoons on TV. I went to see The Dark Knight because Heath Ledger has been one of my favourite actors since he danced down the school sports arena singing I Love You Baby to Julia Styles in 10 Things I Hate About You.
Disclaimer #2: I am a Whedonista of the worst kind (no, I don’t say ‘Browncoat’, because I became a rabid Joss fan before Firefly). A fantastic quote by CowboyCliche on Whedonesque pretty much sums up my position: ‘You realize, if Joss were to make a thread telling us to take to the streets and riot, our only question would be, “pitchfork or torch.” ‘

So bear this in mind when reading what I have to say about the matter.

Well, unless you’ve been doing the online equivalent of hiding under a rock for the past two weeks, you’ll know that Joss Whedon’s latest project, Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog has been a cult internet hit. You might’ve watched it. You might be planning to download it on iTunes. Or, like most of my real-life and online friends, you might’ve been subjected to a series squeeing fangirlish discussions of it and its brilliance.

I’m not going to provide a full, essay-like analysis of the essence of Dr Horrible. That’s being done perfectly well on Whedonesque, on Facebook, and on LJ groups like drhorriblesing. No, what I want to do is talk about a specific aspect of Dr Horrible, and indeed of all Joss’s work – the notion of evil. I’m going to compare it with how evil is presented in The Dark Knight. And, just so you can be perfectly clear what you’re getting yourselves into, I’m going to say that Dr Horrible does a better and more nuanced job of exploring this theme.

Dr Horrible typifies a few key Joss Whedon beliefs. The first, and one that no-one besides me seems to have noticed (if I’m wrong, point it out, please) is opposition to solving problems with grand symbolic gestures. Joss has adamantly expressed his opposition to this on many occasions, the most notable being on Buffy. I’m thinking in particular of the several episodes about Jonathan (‘Earshot’ and ‘Superstar’) where he attempts to fix his problems in dramatic ways – first by killing himself at school, secondly by using magic to make himself the most powerful and loved person in the world, both times with utterly disastrous consequences.

In those Jonathan episodes, his plight is conveyed with a great deal of pathos and empathy, but there is little doubt about the moral message that underpins each episode. Jonathan may be a pitiful character, but his attempts to fix his life are wrong in their drama. He needs to help himself on a smaller scale.

This theme is, of course, writ large in Season 6 in the figures of the Trio. Here is evil that is utterly banal (shout out to Hannah Arendt) – three bumbling nerds who make robot girlfriends, have a van with a horn that plays the Star Wars theme and don’t know how the plural of ‘nemesis’ They’ve decided that being ‘evil’ is the way to fix all their problems.

And this, in essence, is what Dr Horrible is about. We know less about Dr Horrible than we do about the Trio, and because we’re watching Dr Horrible from his perspective (and because his hammer-fisted nemesis is so unlikeable) we empathise with, and cheer for, him in a way that we do not for the Trio.

Joss has a way of getting us to cheer for sociopaths, though. What is Spike, after all, but a serial killer? What is Angel but a self-pitying former sadist? Why are we so quick to forgive Willow for her Season 6 evilness? It’s because we see them in all their nuanced, messy, humanness (even if they’re not human). Dr Horrible is no exception. His real-life alter-ego, Billy, is a bumbling but witty (as only a Joss character can be) man who is quietly in unrequited love with the girl he met in the laundromat. He brings her frozen yoghurt. He stabs himself with a spork. He has a PhD in Horriblenss. What’s not to love?

And yet…and yet there’s always an ‘and yet’ in a Joss show. In this case, it’s one of Joss’s other pet themes: be careful what you want. You just might get it.

Billy wants, desperately, to get into the Evil League of Evil. His arc is showing how he gets there. Throughout the film, we’re all cheering him on, wanting him to fulfill his evil potential. He has to kill someone to get there? So what, it’ll probably be Captain Hammer, that unpleasant ‘corporate tool’, and the world will be better off without him. We all forgot that we were watching a Joss creation.

Be careful what you wish for, the consequences are always monstrous. So, Billy kills someone, but not the someone he expected. He enters the ELE with a bang. He becomes the evilest of them all. As others have pointed out, his ‘real-life’ persona, Billy, gets banished to the blog and Dr Horrible takes over. And he learns the true nature of evil: to be always alone, and always lonely. It’s a terrible story (in the sense of ‘filled with terror’), and it’s spot-on. Hell isn’t other people. Hell is being alone when surrounded by other people.

Which segues nicely into my discussion of The Dark Knight, a film about a lonely and alone guy who has a responsibility to protect the people around him and yet remains distant to preserve his sanity.

So, what can I say? I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but I guess I was underwhelmed.

Yeah, Heath Ledger was amazing, yeah, the film was ‘dark’, but no, it wasn’t thematically complex, deep and meaningful, ‘Hollywood at its best’. It took a fairly cop-out-ish route and explored the notion of the fine line between heroism and villainy. Through the prism of the war on terror.

That was my main gripe. If you take this analogy to its logical conclusion, The Dark Knight condones torture, rendition, Guantanamo Bay and all the iniquities of the ‘war on terror’. Let me explain.

The basic stance of The Dark Knight is thus: The new villain (the Joker) has no discernible motivation (this is shown several times when he gives different ‘explanations’ for his scars) for his ‘evil’. Thus, the ‘good guys’ decide, he revels in chaos – in fact, he’s chaos incarnate. And this new breed of evil, one that cannot be reasoned with, cannot be controlled in the usual way. The law is powerless to stop it. We need a new kind of hero, a ‘dark knight’, one who is prepared to descend to the same evil level to defeat the evils of chaos. In other words, terrorists have no desire or motivation other than to spread chaos. They want nothing, they have no grievances, therefore we have carte blanch to use all manners of evil, extra-legal methods to defeat them.

Which strikes me as morally abhorrent.

The Dark Knight is a simplistic film that masquerades as being something much richer in meaning than it actually is. It makes heroism out of cruelty and writhes piously and deceptively in a false exploration of the brutalising effects of the ‘war on terror’ on the American soul. It masquerades as a film about grey areas and moral ambiguity, when in fact it is simply two-and-a-half hours spent deferring its inevitable and disquieting conclusion. It is, in other words, pure evil.

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Comments»

1. jess - July 25, 2008

i liked batman but not as much as the guys i saw it with who pretty much felt it was without fault. i knew the acting was very good, and that i found it too loud, and slightly messy plot-wise, but i was having trouble articulating what else i thought it was lacking… but this could be it. that you for articulating this for me.

in terms of representations of evil, i wonder whether an “evil” that is unspecific and with no discernible motivation is scarier and more disturbing (and thus more effective for the “war on terror”) than something that can be easily pointed out.

i feel like comparing this to magneto and company from x-men (also in the context of the whedon universe, he cites the mutant kitty pryde as a major inspiration for buffy) in this discussion of representations of good and evil, but x-men makes clear references to historical developments in the 20th century so it’s hard to talk about it. and maybe i just find marvel comic characters deeper than dc comic characters. but i can probably ditto your first disclaimer with respect to the world of comic books, so maybe i should be careful what i say.

2. dolorosa12 - July 26, 2008

I didn’t have any objection to the evil being represented as having no discernible motivation. My issue was with this kind of ‘evil’ being a metaphor for terrorism. ‘Lack of motivation’, and ‘chaos’ are in the eyes of the beholder.

I don’t think we need to be careful what we say, but I do think we need to declare at the beginning what comic book n00bs we happen to be, because it will undoubtedly colour our assessment of various films based on comic books.

3. I watch the Watchmen « Geata Póeg na Déanainn - March 19, 2009

[…] a friend of mine on #btts, I made the inevitable comparison between Watchmen and The Dark Knight. You may recall that I was pretty much outraged by The Dark Knight’s faux attempts to be edgy and gritty, its […]

4. Ben - July 20, 2010

I feel that in the case of “The Dark Knight”, Dolorosa read way too much into this movie and ultimately took it to task for things that it didn’t actually do.

She claims that the movie was intended to be a metaphor for America’s war on terror – I do not believe that it was intended to be a metaphor for that at all.

She claims that the movie condone Guantanamo Bay and torture and “all the iniquities of the war on terror”.

I don’t believe that The Joker was ever intended to represent all of the things that she claims he does….

The character of the Joker was created long before the War On Terror ever existed – and in terms of thematic emphasis in adaptation, David Goyer and the Nolan Brothers drew mostly on Frank Miller’s comic book “The Dark Knight Returns”… which was also published long before any of these things happened.

I feel she has read too much into what is a movie that was never intended to convey the kind of things she says that it was intended to convey.

And then there’s this comment:
“We need a new kind of hero, a ‘dark knight’, one who is prepared to descend to the same evil level to defeat the evils of chaos. In other words, terrorists have no desire or motivation other than to spread chaos. They want nothing, they have no grievances, therefore we have carte blanch to use all manners of evil, extra-legal methods to defeat them.

Which strikes me as morally abhorrent. ”

This comment would seem to imply that the filmmakers expect the audience to cheer on the Batman character without question, that he is portrayed as a dove-white hero and that the audience is expected to sympathise with every single one of his actions.

I do not believe this is the case. I believe the film intended to portray the Batman character as an anti-hero, and that the audience is not supposed to sympathise with him or support his actions, at least, not all the time.

The reason his actions come across as morally abhorrent is because they are supposed to come across as morally abhorrent. You aren’t supposed to like the things he does.

The film specifically states, many times in dialogue, that the character of Batman “is not a hero”. It’s repeated constantly, this guy is not a hero.

Surely, this would indicate that the character was intended to be an anti-hero, rather than a conventional hero or villain?

The problem I have with Dolorosa’s critique is that she has analysed this film as though the Batman character was intended to be seen as a hero, rather than an anti-hero… and although I disagree with her line about the metaphorical underpinnings of this movie, she hasn’t considered the possibility that perhaps the audience is not supposed to sympathise with the characters’ actions, that the film could be meant as a critique of the very things that she says this film celebrates.

I don’t see how anyone could construe this film as an endorsement of the war on terror, when the main characters’ actions are portrayed in such a negative light… or why anyone would criticise the character for being “morally abhorrent” when it’s obvious that it was never intended that the audience should view the character in a heroic light.

dolorosa12 - July 21, 2010

I did put a disclaimer at the beginning of this post! However, I take your point about Batman being an anti-hero in this film rather than a straight-out hero. If I remember correctly (it’s been nearly two years since I saw the film), it seemed to be exploring moral ambiguity and the nature of heroism through the contrasting figures of Batman, the Joker and Harvey Dent. It was, I guess, meant to be forcing us to question our assumptions about black-and-white heroes and villains, and asking how far it was okay to go in fighting ‘evil’.

It’s this final point that I think is relevant to the War on Terror reading of the film. Since September 11, US pop culture (and more ‘elevated’ art and literature, also) has spewed out film after film exploring this question: how far are we allowed to go in the pursuit of security, how much are we able to sacrifice and still remain morally in the right in the pursuit of justice? (TV series like 24 are one such example of texts exploring these questions.)

So while you say that these questions have been explored in relation to Batman at least since Frank Miller (and I’m sure you’re right), I can’t help but wonder if they were given a more contemporary resonance in light of recent political events. I certainly read the Joker as being a symbol of terrorism – a symbol of the kind those who’d like to sacrifice some democratic rights for the sake of security would love. I interpreted the line about how the Joker got his scars (and the fact that he always replied with a different answer) as being about how terrorists had no motivation other than to cause fear and destruction. The reasons behind the Joker’s scars (a possible motivation for his destructive behaviour) are irrelevant. What matters is that he causes destruction, and that he be stopped.

I accept what you say about the audience not being meant to approve of all of Batman’s actions, but I disagree with you that the film is not a War on Terror metaphor.


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