Please if you are a fan (or just someone who may still see the film) do NOT read this essay if you have any intention of seeing The Dark Knight. At least, not yet. Come back to it when you've watched, and formed your own opinions. In other words this is a MAJOR spoiler alert, and shall not be repeated, so continue at your own risk.
It's been a couple of years since I went in costume to a movie premiere not that I wouldn't in an instant again if the mood took me.
Looking around at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight, it was obvious that my contribution was not necessary. There were a few terrific Jokers, both classic and Ledger-inspired, a Poison Ivy and Catwoman duo, a freaky Scarecrow, and, best of all, a couple that showed up straight out of the Batman animated series as Joker and a brilliant Harley Quinn, his deranged imp of a henchwoman.
What also struck me was that the excitement and anticipation for the lights coming down was not only the most palpable I've ever been party to, but that it was equally spread between the sexes. The true-geek banter and dissection, not to mention the predictions, came from women, men, girls, boys, with absolutely no regard to the stereotype that comic book fandom is restricted to adolescent males.
So what can you take from the fact that, short of a girlfriend and a cop, the women in The Dark Knight were completely absent outside of the usual (and thinly spread) mothers, daughters, and dates? Has Hollywood still not grasped that women love these flicks as much as guys do, wait for them with bated (if not batted) breath, and are not only willing to line up for hours for a good seat, but also to go to the cinema in full-on fan regalia? Read the Comments on this articleThe Dark Knight is largely a terrific film, and a complex one. Again, I can't help feeling that Nolan has bitten off more plot and theme than he can comfortably chew, even in his marathon 2 hour treatment of this next chapter of the new franchise.
I also can't help thinking that he may have lost sight of the franchise itself, which has to plant its threads carefully in the current installment in order to heighten as much as possible the next.
So what was missed, what was piled a little too high, and what ignored the chick-demographic entirely?
Much as I love both Morgan Freeman (not just because of my sentimental attachment to The Electric Company...) and the character of Lucius Fox, that was one plot arc that seemed utterly gratuitous, and more a function of wanting to introduce, then deep-six a too-powerful technology than a legitimate contribution to the established themes. It's a device most often used with villains in comic book films for fear of setting up powerful enemies that need to be mentioned in subsequent installments, the idea is usually to stick to the origin/escalation/defeat and death mode.
But the subtext of the Fox/Wayne relationship is such a big elephant I wish it had been saved for another film. The theme here is what lines will Batman cross, and which of his friends will it cost him? As the first film was all about how Bruce Wayne could possibly overcome his own fears (and becoming the Batman was the answer, fortunately for us...) the second was really about whether he was strong enough to continue – and, ultimately, about whether he could find the belief that humanity was worth saving.
That second pair of themes was enough already, without having him stripped of one of his greatest allies after losing both the love of his life and the impunity to operate under the general good opinion of Gotham citizens. Batman doesn't cross his own line – but everyone will forever believe he has, and he must force himself not to care.
Which brings me to the biggest problem with the film, and what I've alluded to, the poorly disguised theme of this essay.
Maggie Gyllenhaal's Rachel Dawes is a breath of both fresh air and sense, at last, in a comic book adapted film. Not that Gwyneth Paltrow's recent Pepper Potts was not also a step up from the general grotesque ineffectiveness and shallowness of movie "heroines" (dubbed that because they're female, not because they're heroic, and I think mostly to make some pretense of appealing to women and avoiding this very criticism).
But somehow, the major arc that began in the film as a real relationship between two men and a woman became the story of two men in love, with the object of their affection fading further and further into the abyss of either the cutting room floor or overlooked even initially in Nolan's script.
When the Rachel Dawes arc abruptly ends, we've had neither a scene of her kidnapping, or a funeral. For a death that is supposed to shake Bruce Wayne – and Harvey Dent to their cores, Rachel herself is given almost no weight, and ceases to exists as anything more than a vaguely idealized afterthought. I must say, I can only pray there is some move to resurrect her as the mysterious socialite Selina Kyle, the eventual Catwoman, because otherwise, it's a waste.
There are immensely powerful stories weaving here, Bruce Wayne's, Harvey Dent's, the Joker's, and Gordon's. The fact that Rachel's is lost in the shuffle may just be a function of too much to do in too little time, but I can't help attributing it to the general blindness of film to solid, meaningful female arcs. Even with an intelligent, powerhouse performer like Gyllenhaal, the part refuses to stay fully formed from beginning to end.
The second problem is deeper, and far more an example of the kind of chronic problem most film has, but especially films that walk the line between appealing to fans and to the general public far closer to common wisdom of what mass psychology demands.
Everyone who knows anything about Batman knows Commissioner Gordon has a daughter. She's one of the most important people in the Batman cannon, in fact. Barbara Gordon (not the wife, who according to this film apparently shares the name, but the daughter) is – or will be Batgirl. And it doesn't stop there. When Barbara become crippled, she takes on a new name, Oracle, and continues, much as the original Robin grows up to become Nightwing. Her storyline is not only rich, but inextricably intertwined with that of both Bruce Wayne and the Batman.
So why, instead of Gordon's daughter, do we instead have a subplot about the relationship between the cop and his SON? Yes, the young Barbara (too young, potentially, to become Batgirl in my lifetime) does eventually make a mute and unnamed appearance. But the focus is on a button-nosed blond boy who not only doesn't look like he could ever have been the progeny of Gordon and his wife but seems to have been deliberately placed merely for manipulative emotional impact.
It's the baby carriage in Battleship Potempkin all over again.
Someone suggested to me that perhaps we have a stronger, and simpler, reaction to cute little blond boys, that putting a girl in harm's way would have a sexual overtone that would have muddied the waters somehow, as if the Joker's gun to the head must necessarily become a Freudian symbol. Or, perhaps, that it's a kind of wish fulfillment on the part of a creator who would have liked his own dad to care so much, or that we have to appeal more to men than women just because. Just because.
It's really all bullshit. It was a mistake, a miscalculation of the sophistication and sympathies of the general public, and an elbow in the face of the fans. Here's the real problem the opportunity to weave an important thread into the mythology was missed, and one of the most important bonds in the real world (fathers and daughters) was ignored in favor of something that not only made no sense but was a weaker choice.
We have a long way to go in giving female characters the same credit as the males. It still seems to be okay for every film to wrap up with a damsel in distress somehow. It doesn't happen every time, but you know when it does, the female in question is going from solid human (if she managed to start that way) to flat and stereotyped.
The flattened and absent women in The Dark Knight are what keep me from being whole-hearted in my praise of what was otherwise an excellent and satisfying film. You can give me a couple of at Gordon's side at the beginning, then again just long enough to be outed as a baddie at the end when you've all but forgotten she exists, but you haven't sold me that women are part of this equation.
It's not going to remain enough for the legions of female fans, and it's not enough for me either.