(Warning: spoilers ahead)
I finally made it see the latest Batman flick. I am not a superhero junkie, nor am I anywhere near an expert on superhero lore. However, I did want to see Heath Ledger as the Joker.
One of the things that stood out to me about the film, besides Ledger’s great performance, was the ATTEMPT to be racially diverse in regards to casting. Yet, sadly, this attempt failed. Although Morgan Freeman played an honorable research and development expert, the majority of the other POC parts were of the usual variety – thugs and criminals. The Asian man was portrayed as a money-hungry control freak and the Latina detective was the character who took Rachel Dawes to her demise and also tricked the Lieutenant into nearly getting his family murdered by the Joker. One ‘black criminal’ played against expectations when he stepped forward and threw out the detonator that could have destroyed a boatload of people but, for the most part, the heroes were white (and male of course!) and the baddies were POC. However, as per usual, the evil mastermind, the Joker, was also white. You see, regular old thugs and drug lords can be people of color, but the ‘smart villains,’ the ones that control all the shots and have all the power, are often white.
Would it have been better if a non-white actor had played the Joker? Well, not necessarily. But it certainly would have been better if all the criminal mob thugs were not represented as African-American, Eastern European, and Italian (the last two categories of course being groups not defined as white at various historical junctures). What would have been even better than that is if the ‘dark knight’ was played by a person of color – or, literally, a ‘black knight’ ?However, to my knowledge, no big budget superhero movie has ever cast a POC. Superman: white. Spiderman: white. Hulk: white. Batman: white. Even Wonderwoman and Supergirl were white! (Note: I have not seen Hancock to know whether this character counts as a ‘superhero.’ Even if he does, he is not a well known, established hero like Spidey or Hulk, and, if the trailers are any indication, the emphasis is on humor, not on action and super heroism).
This reminds me of a recent article in Entertainment Weekly regarding the paucity of big roles that cast women of color. A reader replied in a letter that more roles should be written for WOC. Huh? I didn’t realize one had to specially write in POC roles. Silly me, I assumed POC are people too and can play all roles, not just ones ‘specially written’ for ‘them.’ On that note, I doubt it specifies in the scripts for action/superhero movies that certain characters are white. Doubt that Spiderman character description reads: “to be played by pasty white guy.”
Now, I can here the naysayers chiming in that Dark Knight had mainly white characters because the majority of Americans are white. This argument surfaces all the time. However, what this facile comeback does not acknowledge is white people are the majority due to a history of colonialism and genocide. There would be a lot more non-white faces if good old Columbus hadn’t “discovered” America or if whites hadn’t co-opted prime sections of Mexico for themselves.
In addition to the failed attempt to make Dark Knight racially conscious, the film traded in the typical valorization of violent masculinity and female as arm-candy message. Yes, I get it, it’s a superhero flick, but why must such movies always suggest that to be a good man, a ‘hero,’ one needs to be ultra-violent and wear a mask – or, as Jackson Katz would put it, a ‘tough guise.’ The Joker mocks other men as sissies with lines like “Did your balls drop off?” and jabs at the “group therapy sessions” of the other males in the film. Even Batman’s car has an “intimidate” setting. Wow. Talk about failing to depict men as fully human rather than as violent, aggressive, emotionally stunted brutes. I would think men might be bothered by this representation too…
As for female roles in the film, well, besides Rachel, there is no major role. There is the Russian ballet posse and the Latina detective (who, as noted, is a traitor). There is also the wife of the Lieutenant who has no role except that of grieving wife/panicked mother. Guess it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. No surprise there. Although, as Izzibeth at Nicest Girl writes in the film’s defense, Rachel is an improvement on Pepper Potts. I agree that as a character, she is stronger than Potts and has more verve. If only she got to live. But, alas, she is brutally killed. As John Pistelli points out at Dissident Voice:
“she spends her brief screen time torn between the two men, before being brutally dispatched in a glaring instance of the ‘women in refrigerators syndrome,’ a sexist literary trope identified by feminist comic-book readers in which male authors kill, maim or de-power strong female characters as a woman-devaluing plot device”
In addition to providing those of us wearing feminist lenses with lots of race/sex issues to critique, as Brightwallflower at Feministing notes, the film also provides great fodder for the analysis of masculinity:
“The Dark Knight is not a complete loss for those of us who tend to see the world through a gender lens. I think that we can use the same perspective that inspires the analysis of female characters in the movie to discover how Batman reveals constructions of hegemonic masculinities.”
One thing I did like about the movie, besides Ledger, was the social experiment angle that questioned humans’ capacity for good/evil. But, this was short-lived and then undercut by the closing message – that humans need an enemy. Seems as if the screenwriters took a cue from George Bush et al with that one. I guess, as the Joker might say, the writers “are only as good as the world allows them to be.”
Dana Stevens over at Slate reads this strand of the film as interrogating a post-911 world, noting that “Chris Nolan does more nuanced thinking about the war on terror than we’ve seen from the Bush administration in seven years.” While I agree the film pulls off some interesting interrogation regarding fear as a weapon, I disagree with Stevens claim that “Just as the United States can never get back to what it was before those hijackings, Gotham will never be the same after the appearance of the Joker.” All errors regarding “hijackings” perpetuated by such claims (let alone any knowledge of 911 truth) aside, this argument equates the Joker as terrorist with the “hijackers” when the real terrorist is Bush, not the hijackers! Bush, like the Joker, wreaks havoc, mayhem, and death for sport, with no apparent plan or raison d’etre. He even has a similar sinister grin if you ask me.
In this vein, the film also toys with various questions about democracy, freedom, the government, the law, etc. But, as the excellent post at Dissident Voice mentioned above clarifies, the film offers us the all too common either/or options:
“The moral is as old, and as conservative, as Hobbes: we can live in a wild, murderous wasteland or a lawless, authoritarian police state. It doesn’t matter which of these options the film presents as more appealing or fun; all that matters is that no other options-e.g., left-wing anarchism, participatory democracy, decentralized communism, democratic socialism etc.-present themselves.”
Like the moral of the story, the representation of race and gender is old and conservative too — but at least the movie is nicely wrapped in a good acting, fast action, semi-thought provoking wrapper. If you are willing to go for the nice packaging and mull over the sometimes sweet sometimes downright sour content, I recommend giving the Dark Knight a viewing.