A hyperkinetic, comicbook superhero blockbuster is normally popcorn fare, not Oscar fare. But this year is different. Both “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight” are being regarded as serious contenders for Academy hardware.
So what is different this time around? The simple answer, of course, is that these two movies are better than most comicbook knockoffs — more skillfully made, more satisfyingly written and more complexly constructed with more conflicted heroes than the superhero norm.
But there is another answer that may not be as obvious — namely, that these films do what all enduring works of art do, whether within popular culture or outside it: They address serious issues and raise serious questions. These are, Oscar voters may note, films of ideas as well as of effects.
Superficially, both works present the usual conflict between good and evil. Batman is the personification of order — the force society needs to rein in the bad guys. Or as Police Commissioner Gordon puts it, he is the hero Gotham City needs, even if he is not always the one it wants.
Indeed, this is precisely how conservatives interpreted “The Dark Knight” shortly after its release. Batman is Gotham’s salvation, and he is justified when he has to go outside the law with his eavesdropping surveillance system because sometimes you just have to break the rules to save the world. Thus “The Dark Knight,” perhaps inadvertently, mirrors the Bush presidency — something, frankly, that wouldn’t necessarily enhance its Oscar chances.
The problem with this analysis is that it sells the film short and ignores virtually everything else in the movie, especially one of its most interesting features. “The Dark Knight” functions like a shell game. It sets up an idea and encourages viewers to accept it, only to then pick up the shell and reveal that the audience has been bamboozled.
For example, one assumes at the beginning of the film that Batman is our avenging angel. But it quickly becomes apparent that Batman is not like other heroes. He is the Dark Knight in part because he lives within a nimbus of darkness, but also because he brings that darkness with him. His own butler, Alfred, attributes Gotham’s intensifying crime spree to Batman’s overzealousness, and the city blames him for the murders the Joker commits when he demands that Batman reveal his identity.
In fact, the White Knight of the film, and another shell in the film’s game, is crusading District Attorney Harvey Dent. Dent is not a vigilante. Every bit as heroic as Batman, he operates within the law to bring justice. As a result, the film contrasts two kinds of heroism: On the one hand, good motives in the pursuit of order can justify any behavior (Batman). On the other, the system itself provides an order that must be honored (Dent).
Complicating matters, the Joker defies order altogether. As he says frequently throughout the movie, he is the agent of chaos — a self-described “dog chasing a car. I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I caught it.” But there is a method to his nihilism. The Joker seems bent on proving that the entire social order is a kind of hoax and that all rules exist to suppress human nature. “The only sensible way to live,” he says, “is without rules,” presumably because it is the only honest way to live, which is why he identifies with Batman, who can also eschew rules.
By this jaundiced view of humanity, both Batman and Harvey Dent are wrong in believing that evil can be controlled. Whether order comes from outside the law or within the law is irrelevant. Everybody is basically corrupt, and all order does is mask that fact.
The Joker’s final test of human indecency involves setting the passengers of one ferry boat against another, with each having the capacity to blow the other up. The Joker has given them a midnight deadline to beat the other to the punch. But instead, each party lets the passengers on the other live — which makes the real heroes of the film the citizens of Gotham themselves. In the end, it isn’t order or anomie, but human goodness that prevails. Batman’s only purpose is to guard against the aberrations.
All of this makes “The Dark Knight” a powerful film at the intellectual and even emotional levels where Oscar contenders usually dwell.
“Iron Man” is nowhere near as complex, but neither is it just a lot of noisy bombast. Largely, that’s because of Tony Stark’s transformation. The offhanded wryness of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance that won him so many critical plaudits is the expression of Stark’s cavalier attitude toward the world. He’s a mercenary with patter. “I’d be out of a job with peace,” the arms dealer jokes. But then, like a hero out of Joseph Campbell, Stark undergoes a near-death experience and has a revelation: “I came to realize that I have more to offer the world than just blowing things up.”
Stark’s nemesis, his one-time mentor and current partner, Obadiah Stane, is no Joker. Rather than embodying the chaos principle, he is a cold, calculating capitalist who measures life in power and money. When he kills innocent people, he calls it “collateral damage.”
In that context, the symbolism of the “Iron Man” is unmistakable. Power must be tempered by humanity, in this case literally placing the man inside the weapon. More, the weapon is almost literally powered by Stark’s heart, which is attached to a tiny atomic reactor. It is the human dimensions of Stark, even his fallibility, that make him heroic.
No one would claim that this is an earthshaking epiphany. Still, it raises the film above the typical cathartic muscle-flexing, and it adds an ironic edge to the genre. Whether that will be enough to get it Oscar attention remains to be seen, but “Iron Man,” like “The Dark Knight,” is at least on the voters’ radar, which is no small achievement. Ideas can do that for you, even when they are packaged in a comicbook extravaganza.
Neal Gabler is the author of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination” (Vintage).