Have passions cooled? Can we discuss calmly? Without dispute The Dark Knight was the big story of the cinematic summer, which is the same as saying the big money of the summer, $500 million domestic and counting. A movie doesn’t ascend into that empyrean without ascending also into the rare air of a religious revival, a Great Awakening, an E.T., a Titanic, a Lord of the Rings. Passions simmer and seethe. There’s no reasoning with people in the throes of such rapture.
On the one hand I might want to assert that these are sham religions, but the other hand finds something touching about it: the craving, the yearning, the needing. Ever since the conceptualization of the “event-movie,” a mere movie can’t quite fill the bill. Moviegoers en masse don’t even seem to want movies these days. They want something more, something they’re missing. Paradoxically, one of the things they’re missing is movies. Movie-movies, that is to say, movies like they don’t make them anymore. And the new industry of the event-movie, the ongoing quest to heighten, deepen, broaden, lengthen, strengthen the experience, can only take the moviegoer further away. But that’s a large subject.
Let’s get back to The Dark Knight. And let’s not pretend there would have been anywhere near as much hoo-hah around it if not for the pre-release death of its Joker, Heath Ledger. We can never know how big the story would have been, how big the money, were it not for that. And because we can never know, I’m free to speculate that while it would have been guaranteeably big, it would not have been significantly bigger (if at all) than the Indiana Jones film, the Hulk film, Iron Man, Hancock, WALL-E. It had been anointed in advance. This was The One to see. A viewing of the body. A canonization of the martyr. A sacred rite.
The question we might hash out on solider ground is that of how big was Heath Ledger. Granted he had made a splash in Brokeback Mountain — a right-place-at-the-right-time cannonball — and he already had been established as something of a hunk. Still, the subsequent Casanova hardly convened a sizable congregation, and Candy barely got an airing. (I missed it altogether. Did it play in San Diego?) Before Brokeback, there was no gathering flock to be discerned around The Brothers Grimm, The Order, The Four Feathers, A Knight’s Tale. He was pretty much just another pretty face, first brought to wide attention as a sacrificial lamb to Mel Gibson’s masochism in The Patriot. It’s a marvel what a drug overdose can do.
Had it been Christian Bale who perished beforehand, as opposed to (allegedly) assaulting his mother and sister in the midst of the promo tour, would The Dark Knight have been exactly as big? (Surely Ledger commanded a somewhat more ardent following.) Had it been Robert Downey, Jr., would Iron Man have been bigger? Or would Hancock, had it been Will Smith? These questions are unanswerable, and probably, in polite society, unaskable. My own preferred point of reference would be the unhypothetical River Phoenix, who died under mysterious circumstances (meaning mysterious drug influences) on the street outside a Hollywood nightspot in 1993 at the age of twenty-three, half a dozen years younger even than Ledger. In my memory, Phoenix was at that time an arguably bigger figure than was Ledger at the beginning of this year. And yet Phoenix’s just completed The Thing Called Love, by Peter Bogdanovich, got no added bounce (it never made it to San Diego), and his posthumous Silent Tongue, by Sam Shepard, went straight to video.
Now, admittedly The Thing Called Love, although a decent little movie, was not a Batman movie; and superhero mythologies, savior mythologies, do tend to tap latent religiosity. (Craving, yearning.) But much of the difference, I would postulate, can be seen solely as a measure of the increase in media rapacity over fifteen years, and commensurate increase in public rapacity. The difference, to put it another way, is the measure not of a bigger star, but of a bigger spotlight.
Item: Anna Nicole Smith, a Marilyn Monroe wannabe, dies of (wouldn’t you know?) a drug overdose a year earlier, and the media, as if to make up for their laxity in 1962, carry on as if she actually were Marilyn Monroe. How much more could the media have done for the Real Thing? Item two: a summer ago, the public seemingly couldn’t get (or be given) enough of Lindsay Lohan, for reasons founded on mug shots and pantyless paparazzi shots, and yet practically no one got in line to see her in Georgia Rule or I Know Who Killed Me. These were not event-movies, but even so. You might have thought, or I anyhow might have thought, that the mug shots and paparazzi shots were of interest in proportion to the interest in her movies. But I, or we, would have been mistaken. They were of interest, quite precisely, out of proportion. Tangible evidence, should any be required, that there really are no movie stars anymore, only celebrities. (If Brad Pitt is going to do The Assassination of Jesse James, he might as well be Dermot Mulroney. If Angelina Jolie is going to do A Mighty Heart, she might as well be Julie Delpy. No one is going to come.) For all practical purposes, mug shots and paparazzi shots will serve as well as movies. And please don’t bring up James Dean as a point of reference for Heath Ledger. James Dean was a movie star. They were extant then.
I urged earlier that we not pretend The Dark Knight would have been as big without a dead Ledger, and for certain it would be worth our while to isolate and separate the Ledger factor if we want to talk about the movie per se as distinct from the cultural phenomenon. But in truth the entire phenomenon, movie included, smacks powerfully of pretending. Working ourselves up, convincing ourselves, deceiving ourselves. (Craving, yearning, again.) A large part of all that pretending is making believe that the late actor’s performance is a great performance rather than only a grandiose performance: the Oscar drums begin to beat. (Related item from outside the movie world, though not outside the celebrity world: we have to pretend that John Edwards was within a hair’s breadth of the Presidential nomination in order to spice up the commonplace tale of his extramarital dalliance.) I can’t, and I didn’t, go along. I honestly fail to see how anyone can feel any kind of excitement in The Dark Knight, much less keep it going into the light of day.
To submit just one piece of evidence, after which I am content to rest my case: if a major character gets killed off, in an action sequence so sloppily assembled you have to wait for the funeral to know he was supposed to have gotten killed off, and he later springs back to life (to cheers from the audience, pretending to believe they hadn’t suspected it was all a ruse), then how can we afterwards believe that another major character has been killed off simply because there’s no resurrection before movie’s end? I am referring here — I don’t suppose I can play spoiler for a movie that has raked in $500 million — to the Maggie Gyllenhaal character, previously the Katie Holmes character. Will she somehow be back in the inevitable sequel? Will Katie Holmes resume the role? Will it be a third party? (Lindsay Lohan?) The answers to these questions don’t matter. What matters is that the asking of them points to an essential frailty of the movie. An essential frivolity. A death is not a death. It’s a plot device, a ploy. The make-believe universe can’t be believed.
And in spite of its relentless reliance on head-spinning switcheroos — taking the old gag, for instance, of the dishonorable thief bumping off a fellow thief for a larger share of the pot, and then taking the gag to the logical extreme of another thief and another thief until no thief remains to share the pot — The Dark Knight comes to us exactly as expected. The road had been paved, the lights pre-set on dim. The surprises never surprise.
For genuine astonishment, it would have been hard this past summer to top The X-Files: I Want to Believe, hard to top the astonishment of its modesty, hard to top the incremental revelation that this six-year reunion had nothing more up its sleeve than a possibly psychic pedophile. No aliens, no monsters, no nothing. (Well, maybe also a gender-bending Dr. Frankenstein.) The movie was well made, tight, taut, truly worrisome, and a total bust at the box-office. Modesty doesn’t promise to fill the moviegoer’s spiritual void. Asking any movie to fill such a void amounts of course to asking it to be more than a movie. Or in other words, asking too much. Very soon, if not already, the votaries of The Dark Knight, feeling empty again, must be asking, “What’s next?”