Last Thursday night, my wife and I went to a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight" (warning: there will be mild spoilers). I'm normally an early-to-bed early-to-rise type, so our decision to view the new Batman movie during the witching hour was not an easy one. I was not a fan of comic books growing up, so it wasn't a decision bred by obsession, either. We saw the first showing of "The Dark Knight" because Christopher Nolan is the most talented director on the film scene today, Christian Bale is perhaps the most talented actor alive not named Russell Crowe or Daniel Day-Lewis, and their first collaborative effort, "Batman Begins," was terrific.
We weren't disappointed. For all its gritty violence – and there are several scenes that left us gasping – "The Dark Knight" is a masterful reworking of the Batman myth. In "Batman Begins," Nolan gave audiences a serious origins story for the hero. But "The Dark Knight" goes further: It gives audiences a serious look at sociopathic evil and points out that, when fighting such evil, true heroes must get their hands dirty.
Heath Ledger delivers a frenetic, hauntingly sickening performance as the Joker. Nolan, who co-wrote the film with his brother, takes particular care not to humanize the Joker. The Joker is a pathological liar, a sadistic murderer, a brutal masochist and an unmitigated sociopath. His origins are never reliably explored – he gives at least two explanations for his disfigured face – and his motivations are not explained beyond the most honest and simple explanation: He engages in evil for the pure pleasure of it. "Some men aren't looking for anything logical," says Alfred, Batman's butler and mentor. "They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn."
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In order to fight the Joker, Batman must engage in means he abhors. He must allow others to make sacrifices. He must shoulder blame for deaths. He must violate rights in order to save lives. He can do this because as Batman, Bruce Wayne wears a mask, and so his alter ego can do what no public person in Gotham can. As Alfred puts it, "[T]hat's the point of Batman: He can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make – the right choice."
Over the weekend, "The Dark Knight" raked in an astonishing $155 million, making it the largest weekend opener in the history of cinema. That jaw-dropping figure is due to many factors: great reviews, word of mouth, a tremendous marketing campaign, star power, the hubbub surrounding Ledger's untimely death and the success of "Batman Begins," among other reasons.
One of those factors – perhaps the largest factor – is the fact that Americans love Nolan's reinvigorated Batman. We love the idea of a leader willing to take risks, a leader willing to make unpopular choices. We want a leader who will make the hard choices.
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We do not elect our leaders on the basis of their continuing popularity; being president is not an exercise in self-congratulation. Winston Churchill was unceremoniously tossed from office after World War II. Harry Truman almost lost the presidency to Thomas Dewey. Abraham Lincoln came within weeks of losing the White House to George McClellan. Great leaders do not please all the people all of the time.
Great leaders are great leaders because they stand tall when times get tough. We elect leaders because we know, based on their past action rather than empty slogans, that they will stand for our ideals when the hurricanes begin blowing. That is why we love Nolan's Batman, and that is why we love great leaders. And that is why I hope "The Dark Knight" continues to garner millions of viewers.