Let me just say, first of all, that I am a huge Obama fan and not any kind of teabagger, so this isn’t going to be one of those The Dark Knight comparisons where I paint a huge red mouth on his face and you all get to wet your pants laughing at real-or-perceived socialism. No. None of that, please. Obama was my first presidential vote, and my first election night afterparty. I got to see my African American Studies professor weep with joy in class on November 5. I flew through the Chicago airport that Thanksgiving and could practically taste the local pride: I saw every store bedecked with BARACK this, HOPE that. Obama on shoes, Obama on shirts, Michelle on magazines, Sasha and Malia dolls. The place seemed to be saying – “We’re Chicago. For whatever our faults, we turned out a good candidate this year to be the next president, and we couldn’t be more excited.” I remember being excited, too. This was the exciting time – before we knew of the bank executives on golden parachutes, before the Stupak Amendment. Before the Afghanistan surge that would send my dad into the desert.
Backtrack to summer 2008. I was staying home in Indianapolis between freshman and sophomore year so I wouldn’t have to pay rent and my parents could keep an eye on me. I was freshly 20, working two of the kinds of jobs where you have to wear hairnets and nametags, and desperately carless. When my high school friends Becca and Cat invited me to come see them in Chicago for a week, I jumped onto a train from Indianapolis practically the same day. That week, we saw (twice each) Mamma Mia! and The Dark Knight, two movies that had both come out July 18, the Friday before. We were young, educated liberal women: exactly the target market. Judge us if you must.
I was busy, alternately giggling at A-lister ABBA autotuning and being scared shitless by the ten-foot-wide psychopath and mobsters leering down at me. Cat had a lot of things to say about poor, handsome, dead Heath Ledger, and Becca had a lot of things to say about Chicago. “They closed down the tunnel for a week to film the chase scene.” “That building is right next to my doctor’s.” “The police here actually do that.” For a Gotham City which every comic geek worth their salt knows is supposed to be NYC, Christopher Nolan and the filmmakers sure went a long way to show us the dark side of a specifically-Chicagoan world of gangsters, corrupt politicians, and gritty pessimism. We all shut up and watched in silence when Maggie Gyllenhaal, the one somewhat-viable (yet, still interchangeable) female character in the franchise, was murdered. And when, out of that disaster, the Lawful Good politician transformed into someone who couldn’t be trusted.
For me, The Dark Knight isn’t about the Joker. The Joker has always been an unpredictable force of nature – like a terrorist attack, a hurricane, a flu epidemic. The Joker is that uncertainty you feel when you see houses foreclosing all around you. When your uncle’s entire floor of accountants gets laid off. When you hear that the kids your age will have student loans until they’re fifty. When your customer in the deli burst into tears because the price of roast beef went up an entire dollar from last week and this is the thing that finally broke their spirit, and it happened that day, right in front of your eyes. What’s interesting to me isn’t the Joker – it’s how the people in charge respond when the Joker starts appearing in people’s lives.
For me, The Dark Knight is about Harvey Dent. The Dark Knight is about Batman’s sneaking suspicion that a politician that good (someone who believes in justice, in fairness, in public service, in open and honest dealings, and who people admire and believe in) is too good to be true – that they can try, but their trying to be decent men in an indecent time will break them. Their plans will be thwarted. They’ll be forced to compromise, to become someone they didn’t want to be. It wasn’t something Becca and Cat and I weren’t ready for when it was still summer 2008, fall 2008, winter 2008. So we talked about Heath Ledger and went back into the Meryl Streep movie.
Certainly Obama hasn’t morphed into a self-hating, coin flipping Decider, and he hasn’t joined forces with The Joker as far as I can tell. In fact, I would be so optimistic as to say that I’m still glad, after all that’s happened, that he’s our president. But I can’t say, either, that everything has gone according to plan. People are more unhappy now. Look how many apocalypse movies came out in fall 2009 if you’re not sure (but that’s another post).
Okay, screw it. Have a picture.
We could do worse.