Dark, Dark Knight

Biff!  Bam! Ka-Pow! 

Oh, for the halcyon days of the old '60s Batman TV series, campy as it was. 

Batman, as portrayed by Adam West, was resolute, noble, brilliant, brave, and emotionally – healthy.  He was self-sacrificing, a wealthy man willing to risk life and limb to protect the people of Gotham City. Batman was a genuine superhero brimming with character, Superman in a black cape.  

Robin, his faithful, idealistic sidekick played by Burt Ward, was strong enough to punch out The Penguin's henchmen, yet young enough for a third grader to identify with. The serious Commissioner Gordon was forever imploring Batman to handle yet another criminal menace that exceeded the coping powers of lovable Chief O'Hara. I couldn't figure out why the Commissioner didn't fire the hapless police chief, but I was too young then to understand the power of the civil service.   

I wasn't too young, however, to understand that Good must triumph over Evil.  After all, Batman proved it every week. 

 The plots were, to put it graciously, consistent.  The Riddler or Catwoman would be cackling with glee, seemingly victorious, as Batman lay strapped to a table. Our hero writhed mightily against the bonds – Never Give Up! – as a massive blade swung above him like a pendulum, dropping a fingerbreadth lower with every arc, promising to send the Caped Crusader to his doom.  The announcer's anxious voice breaks in: “Will Batman escape Egghead's fiendish scheme?”  You never doubted he would. Batman always managed somehow to wriggle a finger free, ease a Bat-gadget out of the Bat Belt, and before you knew it Egghead would be locked away in Chief O'Hara's hoosegow.

Yes, the show was self-consciously ironic. Yes, the stories were predictable morality plays and the satire was lost on younger children.  But in a cultural sense, the show provided great value.  Batman delivered the reassuring message, so important for Cold War kids to hear, that courage, fair play and a dash of superior technology would overcome evil. 

Adam West's virtuous superhero has long since departed, relegated to the backwaters of cable reruns.  Reflecting Hollywood's rejection of moral absolutes, various Batman films have remade the champion of law and order into a dark, emotionally disturbed soul willing to break the law himself.  One of the movies even suggested smarmily that Batman and Robin were more than friends.   

The latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight, has reduced the franchise to a subterranean clash of neurotic versus psychotic.  Against dark, forbidding cityscapes, a not-so-noble hero crosses swords with a purely evil psychopath, a man whose soul is black as pitch.  You might enjoy a cup of coffee with The Joker as portrayed by Cesar Romero in 1968, but keep your distance from Heath Ledger's deranged Joker of 2008. 

As much a crime drama as a superhero cartoon brought to life, The Dark Knight combines the inevitable morality play with an intricate plot and spectacular special effects and action sequences.  Critics are gushing, describing the movie as “brilliant” and a “milestone.”  

Some parents, however, don't see the movie the way the critics do.  Apart from its somber, film noir tone, the movie seems to overreach its PG-13 rating with excessive violence.  A Sacramento dad who regretted bringing his 12-year-old son to the theater told USA Today, “There has to be a way to tell parents that someone is going to get a pencil in the skull.”  This is the stuff of nightmares, a far cry from a – Pow! – old-fashioned clout on the jaw.   

Hauling in $158.4 million, The Dark Knight broke the record for the biggest opening weekend box office haul in history, so Batman is providing top-flight entertainment to millions of adults.  Sadly, something more valuable has been lost to the culture.  Adults have plenty of action movies to choose from.  Kids have lost a role model who embodied good character and helped them understand the difference between right and wrong.

Baylor professor Thomas Hibbs, a film critic for National Review Online, detects in many of Hollywood's recent dark movies a search for moral order.  Perhaps Hollywood will climb out of the abyss of moral confusion. But how many more kids will be tormented by nightmares before Hollywood's nightmare is over?

Brian Fitzpatrick is senior editor at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.