Dark Knight footnote

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55seddel writes: "Will you speak to why [The Dark Knight] is a melodrama and not a tragedy?"

A melodrama is a drama where "good" and "bad" are easily distinguished (the name comes from how, when the original melodramas were staged, the band played a cue so that the audience would know who was good and who was bad), events are fantastical and emotions are heightened well beyond real life. The Dark Knight fits all those descriptions quite well — the good are good, the bad literally walk around with big distinguishing marks on them, the action is unrealistic (although grounded in a well-realized "reality") and the emotions — both on screen and in the audience — are greatly heightened. One of the acts even climaxes with a damsel tied to a big friggin’ bomb as the hero races to her rescue. In a traditional Victorian melodrama, the damsel is tied to the railroad tracks and the hero is the Mountie who always gets there in time. The Dark Knight plays this scenario out almost to a T — except that its hero races to the wrong address and the damsel gets vaporized.

A tragedy is, simply put, a story where the protagonist, trying to do good, causes his own downfall. Hamlet thinks identifying and killing his father’s murderer will set everything straight in Denmark, and instead he winds up getting everyone killed and losing the kingdom to an invading horde. And The Dark Knight certainly contains elements of tragedy, no doubt about it. One could find parallels to Bruce Wayne in Timon of Athens or Titus Andronicus, great leaders who boldly step forward to improve the life of their city, only to find in the end they’ve made everything much, much worse. And, like Oedipus, Bruce Wayne seeks to discover the source of the plague on his city, only to find that it is himself.

But to call The Dark Knight a tragedy is to overlook all the other things it does so well — it’s a great superhero movie (a genre melodramatic by nature), a great thriller, a great crime drama, and a not-bad detective movie. It is all those things on a very sophisticated level, so much so that it doesn’t quite have the time to develop a true air of tragedy. Better to appreciate it for what it is — an exceptionally intelligent, incredibly dense, impeccably crafted action thriller that smartly addresses its audience in a way its genre never has before, and raises the "comic book movie" to an entirely new level of excellence.

(Many thanks to faithful reader The Editor.)


10 Responses to “Dark Knight footnote”
  1. Anonymous says:

    You’re very welcome.

    I’d like to add, though, that The Dark Knight, especially when you add it to Batman Begins and whatever installment comes next, is part of a classic quest epic. Batman, driven by an overwhelming sense of mission, seeks an elusive goal that he’ll never ultimately achieve. He is supported by a trusted fellowship of men with the same goal, who recognize that of all of them he’s the one most likely to reach it. Like, say, Sir Galahad, he must renounce romantic love. And his quest requires other personal sacrifices, but never of his honor. Not for nothing is he called the Dark Knight.


  2. yesdrizella says:

    A tragedy is, simply put, a story where the protagonist, trying to do good, causes his own downfall.

    I’ve always thought elements of Harvey’s story fit into the tragic hero mold as well. He said it himself: “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Harvey not only predicted his own downfall (a classic tragic hero trait), but somehow managed to fulfill both sides of the equation.

  3. sean_tait says:

    Ok, this is late and a bit off-topic of “the Dark Knight” as melodrama, but I’ve got two observations I couldn’t get to because my internet was down.

    1) The sound mix at the IMAX showing I saw opening weekend was messed up. Neither I nor my wife could make out whether Batman said he was going to rescue Dent or Rachel (in fact we assumed, based on the outcome, he had deliberately done the self-sacrificing thing and tried to save Harvey) nor could we hear much of Gordon’s epilogue (actually, we could barely make out anything after Batman knocks Two-Face off the building).
    What I could swear I distinctly remember hearing was Batman saying “I didn’t kill him” as Gordon looks over the fallen Two-Face. Now, I know Nolan is on the record as saying Two-Face is dead so it’s a moot point, but I swear I heard that in the theatrical version I saw. I can’t remember which, but I know that the blogger at either “Living Between Wednesdays” or “The Absorbacon” recorded a reaction to that same line.
    In any case, it was revelatory watching the DVD last night. I found the film even tighter and better controlled than I remembered. I honestly can’t see the plot holes and gaps others find. I mean, we KNOW what happens to Lau – he burns to death on a pile of money – we just don’t see it because it’s a PG-13 film.
    2) What is up with the young boys in these films (the Inexplicably British Kid in the Narrows in “Batman Begins,” the Explosion Brothers and Jim Jr. in “The Dark Knight”)? Why does Nolan specifically highlight their reactions to Batman?
    Is it to sell toys? Do the kids remind the audience that, for all their darkness, these are still superhero films (and therefore ultimately optimistic)? Are they a substitute for the colorful optimism of Robin? Do they remind Nolan himself to suggest rather than show, and keep that PG-13 rating? For me, the biggest “kewl” moment of “The Dark Knight” was the unabashedly fantastical emergence of the Batpod… and it was for the Explosion Brothers too.
    Darn it, I know I’ve got a point to this. I guess it will just have to wait.

    • curt_holman says:

      A friend of mine believes that Batman assumed that the Joker told him the wrong address and went deliberately to save Harvey, sacrificing Rachel in the process, but I don’t think there’s any evidence of that.

  4. curt_holman says:

    Gotham City as Iraq

    Since this is the most recent ‘Dark Knight’-related post, I’ll put this note here. Reading your excellent ‘Dark Knight’ analysis made me wonder if the film actually offer parallels to the Bush Administration’s actions, just not the ones the Wall Street Journal would like to point out. I don’t remember if this particular point has been made on the blog, forgive me if it has.

    I was thinking about the point that the Batman’s actions (abetted by Gordon and Dent) effectively overthrow the organized crime power structure, and create the power vacuum that allows the Joker to flourish. Could that be a metaphor for the Bush Administration overthrowing Saddam Hussein, removing the Iraqi political structure and creating a power vacuum that allowed insurgents, terrorists and Al-Quaeda to wreak havoc? I can kind of see similarities between Dark Knight’s mobsters and Saddam, who believe in keeping a system in place as long as they control it and reap its benefits; and similarities between The Joker and Al-Quaeda, who intend to sew chaos rather than amass power, leaving civilians much more at risk from catastrophic bombings and the like. (Forgive my oversimplification of terrorist activity in Iraq.)

    Batman increasingly has to compromise his principles to combat the new terrorist threat (the cell phone sonar thing evokes the warrantless wiretapping issue in the real world) and ultimately accepts responsibility for his failures. Him taking the fall for the Two-Face murders is his way of admitting that they’re indirectly his fault. George W. Bush will never admit responsibility or be held accountable for the Iraq War in the same way.

    I should say that I don’t personally believe Batman’s responsible for Harvey Dent’s transformation or the Joker’s emergence, because that would take Dent and the Joker off the hook for their actions. But I can imagine Batman blaming himself.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Gotham City as Iraq

      The parallels to the Bush administration’s adventure in Iraq seemed more clear as I analyzed the movie scene by scene, but it felt like too big a can of worms to open, considering how long the actual analysis was getting.

  5. 55seddel says:

    Thank you

    That says it very consisely.

  6. Anonymous says:

    So would Watchmen be a tragedy or a melodrama?