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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

A Geek Dad's Thoughts on The Dark Knight

by Ken Newquist / July 26, 2008

The Dark Knight is brilliant. It’s intellectually challenging. It’s psychologically terrifying. And there’s a damn good chance it’ll scare the living daylights out of your 13-year-old.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who saw Batman Begins. The movie hews close to the comic books, which have run to the dark side ever since 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. Miller’s re-imagined Batman lived in a brutal, gritty world in which hope was a distant dream rarely realized. It’s a tradition that continued in some of the best Batman stories since then, such as Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween. Director Chris Nolan captured that darkness perfectly in Batman Begins, and he expands it in the sequel.

“This City Deserves a Better Class of Criminal”

The Dark Knight picks up where Batman Begins left off. Batman’s made a huge impact on Gotham, striking fear into the hearts of petty criminals and putting the Mob on the defensive. But the rise of the Dark Knight has spawned something as horrible as Batman is heroic: a crazed anarchist known as the Joker.

We don’t know how the Joker came to be – he offers several possible origins, and it’s possible that one of them may have been true – but it’s not really important. What matters is that he’s crazy enough to fight Batman … and doesn’t care how many people get hurt or killed in the process.

At the same time, Batman’s heroics have inspired someone to step up and face Gotham’s corruption head-on. This white knight is Harvey Dent, a man who will let nothing come between him and justice. That brings him into the Joker’s crosshairs … and causes him to make some of the most gut-wrenching decisions in the entire movie as he moves from hero to victim to villain.

It’s the Joker, though, who sets the tone for the movie. His insane schemes are just that: insane. He’s chaos incarnate, the epitome of the unhinged psychopath who no longer has any connection to the world around him, living merely to obey the whims of his own insanity.

It’s this insane dance that makes the movie so exceedingly dark, so psychologically brutal. At ever turn he tests Batman, Dent, and the entire population of Gotham, trying to prove that ultimately they are just as amoral and nihilistic as he is. Some pass these tests, others fail, and I think that could lead to some awesome fodder for philosophical discussions.

But it’s not for kids. Certainly not for kids under age 13. And possible not even for ones older than that.

“Intense Sequences of Violence and Some Menace”

When Batman Begins came out, I took my five-year-old nephew to see it.

That was a mistake. I knew it was a mistake before we went – I hadn’t seen the film, but I knew that a major theme of the movie would be fear; hell one of its villains was Scarecrow. But his mom said he’d be fine, he really, really wanted to go, and I relented. My nephew was fine through most of it, and enjoyed a lot of Batman Begins (particularly the fight scenes) but ultimately the Scarecrow’s final ride proved to be too much for him and we left the theatre early.

I’m older, wiser, and now have a five-year-old of my own, and I certainly won’t make that mistake again. And if you’re a geek parent, I don’t want you to make that mistake either.

The Dark Knight is far, far more intense than Batman Begins. The joker gleefully murders his cohorts in a bank robbery, kills a goon with a pencil, slices open victims' faces to give them a smile every bit as gruesome as his own, burns a man alive on a mountain of money, and places the city's citizens in moral quandry after moral quandry. Almost all of the Joker’s murderous antics happen off screen – violence is implied, rather than revealed – but that doesn’t make it any less effective. Hell, I think it makes a lot of it more effective, but then again, I’ve always felt that way about horror – showing someone get disemboweled is almost never as horrific as showing us everything up to the attack … but then cutting away at the last moment.

It’s the Jaws school of horror, and it works brilliantly here; this is easily the most exhausting movie I’ve watched since Se7en, though unlike that film this one retains enough hope and heroics to make me want to watch it multiple times.

Everyone I know who has seen the film has been actively creeped out by it, and they’re all adults. I can only imagine the impact it would have on a kid. Now I’m not saying that some kids can’t handle it, nor that there aren’t redeeming themes to be found in the film. And I’m in no way suggesting that it should be censored.

What I am saying though, is that parents need to think twice before taking their kids if they’re over age 13. And if they do take them, they should be prepared for some heavy conversations afterward. To that end, I’d argue that the sheer intensity of this movie demands an R rating.  It’s all too easy for parents to think “well, it’s Batman – it’s super heroes, how bad could it be?” and get totally sideswiped by what they end up watching. An R rating might make them think twice about bringing their five year old and yes, even that 13-year-old, with them to the theatre.

I’m not alone in thinking this; for the last week I’ve run a poll on Nuketown asking folks what they think the rating should be. The vote was eight votes for “R”, four votes for “PG-13”. Obviously, it’s not scientific, but I think those numbers (and the comment thread the poll inspired) should give parents pause before taking their kids to see this movie.

Comments

I think the problem lies with the nature of the rating systems (or at least the system in the U.S.; I'm assuming something similar happens in the U.K.). Basically, the systems are setup to rate movies based on identifiable acts. So there's a difference between violence and implied violence, and drug use and implied drug use. The former kicks your movie up into R rating territory, the later lands you back in PG-13.

So it's a math equation -- how many times did the Joker slice someone's face open on screen? 0. How many times was it implied? At least 2. But close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, so PG 13 it is, even if the total emotional impact of the "implied" acts is greater than that of the explicit ones.

The thing is, I can't really fault them for that. It's easier to say "your film had three acts of [X] in it" then to say "we felt this was emotionally disturbing enough to warrant an R rating."

The first standard is objective, the second is editorial, and ultimately, I guess I'd rather leave the reviewing to the reviewers to avoid having things get *really* hairy.