Aug 2, 2013

Posted by in Movies, Opinion | 11 Comments

Revenge of the Sith vs. The Dark Knight

A Reason for Evil: Why Revenge of the Sith is a better story than The Dark Knight

Now why would I want to write a post just to compare two completely different films that have almost nothing to do with each other?

The answer is two-fold. For one, I believe that at the heart of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and the second Nolan Batman film The Dark Knight lies a very similar tragic tale of how a good person becomes a force for evil and it is my opinion that George Lucas did a much better and more insightful job. Secondly, The Dark Knight has been widely received as a masterpiece, the one work that truly changed the face of superhero movies and even one of the greatest films ever made, while the Star Wars prequels as a whole have been maligned unfairly by critics, not to mention utterly despised by hordes of angry, resentful fanboys frothing at the mouth with rabid hatred. In my opinion, the Star Wars prequel trilogy as a whole is a vastly underrated masterpiece and The Dark Knight is just a relatively good movie heavily damaged by some colossally disturbing flaws. Since I’m obviously in the minority, I think it’s only right that I explain why I feel this way, and one approach would be to tackle the one component the two films most clearly have in common: the tragic downfall of a hero. In this case, Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force and Harvey Dent’s turn to becoming Two-Face.

Revenge of the Sith vs. The Dark Knight

Let’s start with the actual “prelapsarian” characterisations of Anakin Skywalker and Harvey Dent, respectively. In The Phantom Menace, Anakin is a little boy with a kind and loving heart, fearless and overconfident, but compassionate as well. His departure from his mother is clearly the emotional centre of the film as well as the start of his spiritual journey. This departure is reluctant and uncertain and it comes with a promise, an overconfident promise from the boy, claiming that he will “come back and free you, mom”. In Attack of the Clones, it becomes clear in the beginning that Anakin hasn’t actually kept his promise. His duties as a Padawan have kept him from returning to Tatooine. His overconfidence has evolved into a certain arrogance and an impetuousness that may be due to his youth, but also enlarged by his actual immense power, which is clearly too much for him to deal with. When premonitions of his mother’s impending death start plaguing him, he abandons his duties to return to the promise he made ten years before as a little boy. It then turns out, he is too late. He cannot save his mother. For the first time, all his power is not enough, and that realisation brings confusion, guilt and anger with it. The seed of his downfall is sown in this moment, when he acts out his feelings of extreme anger by committing an atrocity: slaying the Sand People who are responsible for his mother’s death, blinded by rage. It’s important to note that this is not yet the moment when he turns into a monster. He goes right back to being Anakin, but now a wounded version with a blight on his soul. He is still compassionate for those he loves, as evidenced by his attempt at rescuing Obi-Wan and his commitment to the good fight in the early stages of Revenge of the Sith. But what happened with Anakin’s mother has left a stain on his idealism and his confidence, and deep inside he fears that the world is not fair and he is not capable of vanquishing death and that makes him resentful and angry rather than humble, precisely because he is used to being so powerful in the Force and because he is aware of the rumours that he is “the Chosen One”. It is precisely when what he loves most dearly in the world is endangered, that he panics and starts behaving like a cornered animal. In this weakened emotional state, he is willing to listen to Palpatine’s evil whisperings.

Compare this to Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. For one thing, Harvey was not even present in the far superior Batman Begins. His story only begins with the second film, where he is established early on as a noble and idealistic figure: finally someone the people can really look up to and believe in because he has a genuine vision for Gotham’s safety and dealing with its massive crime problem. It’s revealed that he has a relationship with Rachel Dawes so we assume he is in love with her, although this is never actually shown in great detail. If anything, their relationship is clearly young and tentative and under a lot of pressure. It’s not the kind of uncontrolled, immature passion that Anakin feels for Padmé… Which is precisely why the subsequent loss or Rachel’s life, no matter how tragic, is not a credible setup for a complete personality change in Harvey. The problem is that Harvey Dent is shown to be a very mature and balanced individual. It would take a lot for him to turn to the dark side and I think we can rule out romantic passion, because he is clearly shown to be a more mature person than that and the nature of his relationship to Rachel is far too down-to-earth to warrant a Dracula-like turn away from the light.

Could it be then, that hubris was the inner flaw that put Harvey on his dark path? Anakin possessed enormous power and succumbed to his delusions of grandeur, believing it was possible for him to conquer death itself. Nothing so operatic is even hinted at in Harvey Dent. He is a district attorney, not a chosen mythological hero. He wields the power to push back crime, but it’s quite clearly a hard struggle. He’s winning, but only because of his own innate moral resilience, not because he wields a power he cannot comprehend. He is even so wise that he knows the danger of good intentions and too much power in advance, as he says in the beginning of the movie: “you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. So what is it that pushes him over the edge? That question is never fully answered, and it makes Harvey’s turn so sharp and complete it lacks credibility.

Turning evil: credibility

A far worse offense than that, though, is what it actually is that pushes Harvey Dent over the edge, and what he becomes afterwards.

The manipulation has begun…

In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side is initiated by Palpatine instilling a distrust for the Jedi council in him; a distrust that’s not entirely unwarranted. They do hold Anakin back, because they do fear what he might become. There is a lack of communication from both sides between Anakin and the Council, with Obi-Wan as the only person to bridge that gap to some extent. Palpatine knows very well that all he needs to do is to keep Anakin away from Obi-Wan to start his plan and poison the boy’s mind. It all begins with the very same visions that plagued Anakin before the death of his mother, only now they are about his young wife Padmé. Whether the visions are a creation of Dark Side rituals perpetrated by Palpatine or not, the future emperor happily makes use of the horrible associations they make in Anakin’s mind to make the young Jedi fear for his beloved’s life. Then, acting as though he is entirely unaware of Anakin’s situation, he teases him with promises of the power to keep his beloved from dying… Dark Side power. Gently, he lures the boy in, making him curious, preying on his distrust of the Jedi, his great power (suppressed by Jedi ideology) and his greatest fears. He plays the father figure, the only one who understands him, who is willing to listen and tell him what he wants to hear. That’s very important! Then, when push comes to shove and Anakin really finds himself in a situation where he has to make a choice between the Jedi and Palpatine, all the elements are in place for Anakin to make the choice to side with Palpatine and gain the power to save his beloved wife, whom he loves in a passionate and irrational way. From here, Anakin ceases to be Anakin and becomes Darth Vader, a tool of the emperor. His anger and hatred lead him to do the most horrible thing imaginable: to kill children. This is a very extreme act, one that completely pushes him into absolute darkness, and that’s precisely why it was a necessary and important plot-point and it was earned by what came before: hatred for the Jedi who tried to suppress his powers, who are complacent and unwilling to act, who will stop at nothing to gain control of the entire Republic and the whole galaxy, as proclaimed by the one person Anakin still trusts, the only one who can save the love of his life. At this point, the Jedi are de-humanised in Anakin’s mind and the murder of their children becomes a gruesome necessity in his twisted view. Once this has occurred, his turn to evil is clear and complete.

“Yeah, this seems like a reasonable guy. I think I’ll listen to him instead of everybody else on the planet.”

In The Dark Knight, Rachel is killed by the Joker. This is no secret to Harvey Dent. He knows well enough that the Joker misled Batman and that the Dark Knight did everything he could to save both Harvey and Rachel. But while Harvey is resting in the hospital, his face half burned away (a form of symbolic immolation similar to Anakin’s burning in Revenge of the Sith), he gets a visit from the Joker. The dialogue that then plays out is what leads to the worst, most contrived subplot in the movie. The Joker, the man who is clearly and directly responsible for the death of Harvey’s girlfriend, is actually the only person Harvey listens to. He shouts commissioner Gordon away, a good and decent man, but actually listens to the one person he knows he can blame! The one face that should be on the receiving end of his fist, a psychotic and murderous clown, that is the person that Harvey decides to actually trust on his word. A brief speech follows, where the Joker blames the corruption of society, the selfish ambitions of the politicians and other obvious fingerpoints for what actually happened to Rachel, portraying himself to be nothing more than a random force of nature, a purposeless bringer of carnage, in other words, a kind of nihilistic cosmical force who really can’t help it that he just is who he is. And what happens? Harvey listens. Yup. He lets the Joker go. After all, he’s only a “wild dog”, as he puts it later in the movie. Instead he decides to go after everyone else except the Joker. It’s at this point that the movie makes absolutely zero emotional sense anymore. It ends with Harvey threatening the lives of commissioner Gordon’s wife and kids, in other words, exactly the people he was out to protect before, exactly the people he as a rational and intelligent man knows to be innocent. All of this is explained by nothing more than a coin symbolising Harvey’s tendency for seeing life as random and indifferent and pointlessly cruel. You know, that might have worked if he had always been a cold-blooded psycho. But he was a good and decent man, not prone to hubris, not prone to psychosis and not emotionally hurt in a way that would believably lead him to such completely illogical and irrational actions that are so far removed from the character he was just a few days before, it’s completely and utterly unwarranted. Sure, I know that Harvey, in a moment of anger, was threatening a criminal with his coin, playing out a very Dirty Harry-like scene where blind chance was given control over the fate of the man he was threatening. But how on earth does this set up his later actions? Just because the same theme was used doesn’t mean it explains in any way why he would completely ignore the clear and present evil and instead very purposely pursue the obviously innocent. Two-Face is not an agent of the unpredictable forces of blind chance, as the script desperately wants us to see it, he is just a bad guy. For no reason established in his previous actions or dialogue.

Because of this, I claim without any reservations that Revenge of the Sith does a vastly superior job of conveying the fall of a hero to darkness than The Dark Knight does. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is just one of several reasons why I believe George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels to be superior films compared to The Dark Knight.

  1. Beautiful article! I too was perplexed by the moral ambiguity of “The Dark Knight”. In fact when I first saw it, it reminded me of another Nolan film: “The Prestige”, which also left me saying: “I don’t get it”. Though I haven’t seen enough Nolan directed films to make a general assumption of his film making skills, my problem with his movies (judging by these two) is that he’s so wrapped up in giving his audience a big moral finale that he ignores the minor ethical faux pas his characters commit. Case in point: in “The Prestige” Michael Caine’s character tells Hugh Jackman’s character that he can’t take Christian Bale’s character’s daughter because she needs her father despite the fact that Bale’s rivalry with Jackman (with a side of deception and infidelity) drove her mother to suicide. It’s as if this plot point was totally forgotten in the film.

    • I hadn’t looked at it that way but I think you’re right. Nolan does sacrifice details to the big picture. It’s in his other movies, too. I would like to say that I like Nolan’s films in general, though. I like the fact that he at least attempts to have something to say about morality, which is desperately needed in these cynical times. I just don’t understand why he gets a free pass for everything while Lucas is treated so harshly by geek culture.

  2. While I do agree with you that Anakin’s tale is much better, and I do agree that prequel haters who venerate Dark Knight are total hypocrites due to the latter’s inherent flaws, I also love DK and think you’re being a little hard on ol’ Harv.

    While having Harvey from the beginning would have allowed for a better story, what we got isn’t terrible. We can infer that Harvey’s idealism has cost him again and again, and when he becomes half a skull he snaps.

    Remember, he still hates the Joker, still holds him responsible in part. But he became a slave to the coin, representing his loss of control both of his life and his mind. He never goes against it from that point on. Joker just happened to win the toss.

    Like I said, Star Wars is the superior here, you’re absolutely right. I just think Dark Knight is also fantastic, though not always for the same reasons others do.

    • Thanks for your comment! You’re right, by the way. I don’t dislike The Dark Knight either and I’ll admit I’m being harsh here. In general I tend to forgive a lot if the overall film is good. In the case of TDK and ROTS though, I felt the mainstream reaction was so extreme and frankly hypocritical, that I thought it was necessary to point some of this stuff out. The harsh tone towards TDK is an attempt to balance the scales a bit but I did actually enjoy the movie.

  3. Terrific – Drives me crazy that the delusional frothing fanboys have never stopped – their intentions are to destroy all the prequels and refuse to acknowledge everything you site here. Thanks very much.

  4. I myself think the new Star Wars movies (still new for now, anyway) are much better films than the endlessly repeated rhetoric tries to make people think; in fact, I’d argue they make the old trilogy better by emphasizing they’re a “character saga” and further setting up the conclusion. If this disagreement with the casual putdowns that pop up when I’m not expecting them is a problem for me, though, it would be that I can wind up sort of resenting any genre picture that attracts wide acclaim, and that might be the case with The Dark Knight, which I’ve only seen once. Still, your thoughts were interesting to me.

    Thinking about it, I can wonder if “Harvey Dent will become Two-Face” is even more automatically assumed than “Anakin Skywalker will become Darth Vader.” With The Dark Knight, I might have found it more “all about the Joker,” who seemed capable of any action he wanted. I do want to disagree with what seem certain opinions that everything that happens in the new Star Wars movies is according to a master plan of Palpatine’s, but even there I can see subtleties to his schemes.

  5. I liked “THE DARK KNIGHT”, but I had some serious problems about it . . . especially in the movie’s final half hour. And although “REVENGE OF THE SITH” (and just about every STAR WARS movie that now exists) had its flaws, I believe it was the better film.

  6. J. Reeves says:

    “The Dark Knight” is a handsome, propellant, weighty blockbuster, but I think it ends up being too grim and portentous next to the breath-taking entertainment of “Revenge Of The Sith”. While Nolan’s picture is fettered in darkness and faux-adult seriousness, Lucas’ opus crackles with a trenchant energy and wit, not completely unlike the 1977 original, but obviously, much more melancholic and dire. The George Lucas picture is also a much more vibrant and concise film, containing vast expanses of mood and landscape that beautifully dovetail and compress, one into the other. You feel you’re watching something foreboding and epic, but those aspects are not oppressive. There’s great sweep and an impressive litheness to Episode III which I find hard to tease out of the Chris Nolan movie. And ROTS looks and sounds like the wonderfully-designed juggernaut it is: a true “night at the opera” (with even a “night at the opera” mini-movie within a movie). Sith, in my opinion, is a beautiful achievement in mass-appeal motion-picture movie-making.

    Yet the comparison between Harvey Dent and Anakin Skywalker, all things being equal, *should* come up a bit lacking in Dent’s case, in my estimation, if for no other reason than Anakin, for most intents and purposes, is the central protagonist of an entire trilogy, while Dent features as a side character in a single film. Anakin should be more fleshed out; his psychology explained by way of ambient mosaic: i.e., the rich tapestry of the fuller film/trilogy itself. Yet the weaker development, or devolution, of Dent is slightly problematic, since it’s his arc which takes us to the climax, where Batman is forced to intervene and make what is ostensibly a game-changing decision at the end. But this all feels a bit too crow-barred to me; on a basic aesthetic level, anyway. Nolan is quite manipulative, in rather a shallow way, in my opinion, based on some of the tricks he uses in TDK, especially, like the way he over-eggs Batman as the sacrificial lamb, with Gordon looking on as the object of his manly affection speeds into, well, the dark (k)night. It’s all a bit too worthy of lampooning; a little bit too mawkish for its own good. It kills the elegant fun of Batman and makes the viewer — this viewer, anyway — feel like they’re being spoken down to. Note how each of the three Nolan Batman films essentially ends the same way (there’s a contrived “heart-to-heart” between Batman and Gordon in each — either a mark of genius or hackery depending on how charitable you’re feeling).

    I also can’t help remembering Charlie Brooker’s great smirk. For those who may not know, Charlie Brooker is a British media analyst/satirist who comments acerbically on the state of British (and sometimes, non-British) films, television programmes (primarily TV programmes), and sometimes, newspapers/the printing press. In his own words: “Calling Batman ‘the Dark Knight’ is like calling Papa Smurf ‘the Blue Patriarch’: you’re not fooling anyone.”

    P.S. There’s an earlier review which pairs TDK and ROTS off against one another. Of course, the game is rigged, since the author is a self-confessed prequel fan, but it’s a fun read regardless — all the funner, in fact, since the prequels have tended to be compared unfavourably to almost every other film in existence at one point or another:

    http://worldfilm.about.com/od/christophernolan/tp/darknightvssith.htm

  7. J. Reeves says:

    You’re welcome on all fronts!

    I think “The Dark Knight” is a bit morbid/mawkish which runs counter to the aesthetics of Batman and his world. Nolan came up with a pretty gripping end on one level — it’s operatic and memorable — but this is very nearly its Achilles’ Heel: there’s a sense of veneration for this Batman, by Gordon and the filmmaker, which feels like the filmmaker (in my opinion) trying to bludgeon the viewer with admiration for what is, at root, a dark character living in a dark universe. The title is quite literal and grandiloquent, while the musical treatment, the dialogue, and visuals attempt to add even more weight to it, especially in the emotional/cathartic department, without really subverting anything along the way; almost the complete opposite to the way the Star Wars movies handle things. The imposition of such heavy emotional artifice — such as I see it — *is* a *little* subversive, I’ll grant that, but that doesn’t move me to a state of ekstasis by itself. What I’m saying, in effect, is that the Batman films, basically, are collapseable into a fairly simplistic “Hero’s Journey” paradigm, while Star Wars has more facets.

    Look at the endings to each of the prequels, for example, and then collate them with the endings to the Nolan Bat flicks. In the prequel endings, Lucas was able to create tableaux that recall the endings to the original movies, while adding entirely new elements to an epic chronicle. There’s a lot of poetic irony locked up in those endings as a galaxy heads to its inevitable doom. But Nolan goes for something resembling a “feel good” coda with each outing: in “Begins”, Batman promises Gordon that he’ll “never have to” thank him (though, yes, Gordon DOES thank him in TDK, while Batman still insists he doesn’t have to), then flies into the night, with an admiring Gordon looking on; in TDK, Gordon again looks on admiringly, this time delivering an epilogue as Batman rides off into the night; in TDKR, well, we have Bruce magically appearing in a cafe at the end, Gordon looking hopefully at a restored spotlight (after a “final” moment of intimacy between Batman and himself), and a future “Robin” discovering the cave and “rising” in the trilogy’s final shot. Whether you want to interpret those final images as being “dream-like” or not, it connects to the previous endings to make for a trifecta of happy, uncomplicated, unchallenging, unworrisome conclusions.

    These objections by no means make the Nolan films bad films. They are what they are. It’s just… I can’t get too excited about them. I do admit to some liking of each installment, and for the trilogy as a whole, but for me, they hit a ceiling and are stuck in a kind of “padded cell” mentality. If you look at some of the hand-wringing that goes on, particularly in “Begins” and “Dark Knight”, with Alfred admonishing Bruce about his reckless midnight drive in the former (“It’s a miracle no-one was killed”) and Fox getting all uppity about spying in the latter (point-blank: “This is wrong!”), it all emerges as a bit shallow and preachy for my liking; and in a rather ham-handed fashion at that. To expound, death is by no means the only negative outcome, nor even the most common negative outcome, to high-speed pursuits, let alone fantastical drives on rooftops, while spying, freighted with ethical problems as it may be, must surely rank below arming a vigilante with rockets and other explosives and then looking the other way after every violent night-time excursion. So, in my book, you can’t really have it both ways equally: either your Batman is dark and his helper characters have serious concerns or they don’t; don’t just throw the audience a bone now and again and then delve straight back into mayhem like nothing’s changed.

    Dent’s portrayal, in my reckoning, then, is merely symptomatic of a larger issue. Nolan creates these hard and fast scenarios that serve to jangle the psyche and beat the viewer into submission, so a viewer, perhaps, doesn’t look too closely at the mechanics of the piece, while these very conflagrations are quite cheap and unedifying to begin with. Dent is a freakshow played straight — this is a torque that the film can’t get rid of. Maybe another reason Anakin’s descent feels more plausible and/or layered is that, hey, he’s ultimately going to a gruesome end. Dent got his faced burned off, but his injuries don’t ring true. I mean, his freakin’ eyeball is hanging out, and we can see through half his face, but he’s walking ’round like Dirty Harry. Star Wars, ironically, while being situated in a sort of “far-mirror” world, makes Anakin’s bodily destruction count: he’ll be so badly scarred and mutilated that only an advanced entombing mechanism can, paradoxically, save him from imminent death. Violence in Star Wars, for all the serial hijinks, has a pretty serious cost; in Nolan’s films — think of all that empty gun-play in “Inception” — I’m not so sure. Yet, for all the simplicity of Nolan’s violence, the consequence-free dalliances in subways, the playing chicken with ordinary people’s lives, he makes his films top-heavy with thematic dread, pontifications on society and the subconscious, and sombre interpersonal dynamics that all MEAN something, dammit. It’s an oppressive cloud of adult pretentiousness that I find quite choking. Star Wars, to me, seems a lot richer, and a lot more brilliantly realized.

    But this is all just one guy’s opinion. The Nolan films have their fans.

    P.S. Glad you enjoyed that article. That guy is a delight to read.

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