We are living in the culture of 9/11. Still.
I'm a firm believer that if you want your finger on the pulse of a ny culture, follow its art. See what it values, see who its heroes are, see how it defines beauty. And, if that art happens to be popular, it knows a little bit more about what the people want than other pieces of art before it, and there can be no better merging of artistic value and societal value than the cinema.
I'm young enough to have nearly completely missed the cold war scare, but I'm old enough to remember a time when the government was not to be trusted -- ever -- when Will Smith was fleeing from the Feds and Scully and Mulder were heroes against a nearly omnipotent government. Today, even Batman has begun spying on his own citizenry (if they can indeed be called "his"). I will contend that the opening weekend of 300 extended the war in Iraw by at least 6 months. The same for The Dark Knight.
Occassionally, however, a movie comes out that attempts to directly address the issue, but usually just glorifies one group or one person in a time of crisis. These things happen. I find them to be poor examples of art, but I accept that they're necessary for people to see, as a cathartic effect they wish to have. My interest is not in movies and art like this, but the ones that provide a cathartic effect for the terrors and evils of the time without the audience realizing it. These are the things that become popular without us realizing why -- typically the reason is that they have tapped something deep within us, that we may not even realize existed.
Throughout history, the definition of "heroic" has been fairly loose. It's an adjective that is usually attributed to whatever the highest point of righteousness is at that time. For some cultures, heroic is a glorious death in battle. For others, martyrdom in the face of overwhelming odds. Sometimes it's just humility (think about Jesus). There can literally be volumes of books written on this subject, so I'll only touch upon it briefly. Please, just take my word for it, "hero" is a subjective term.
At the time of this writing, one of the more popular movies in America is The Dark Knight. For those of you who still haven't seen this movie, I recommend you stop reading it now, as I will make no attempts to hide spoilers (sorry Steve). If you have seen it, you'll know that The Joker is a character that is established quite extensively -- dare I say, the most extensive characterization in the movie -- and I will do my best to summarize that here.
The Joker has two major aspects to his super-villiany that remove him from Magneto, Lex Luther, The Green Goblin and any movie super-villian you've ever see and any that I can recall.
He is seemingly interested in only two things: according to others, killing for the sake of killing, and according to himself, breaking down society.
Alfred suggest, and many others imply this notion, that he exists only for murder. He is compared to a dog more than once throughout the movie. But, he is not an animal. He is different from villians like Sabertooth and Venom in that he's intelligent, and he plans his executions. In fact, he's seemingly two steps ahead everyone in the movie, and I find myself wondering how The Joker planned for so many different contingencies. Through his planning, however, we can assume that the statement that he enjoys killing simply for the sake of it to be false, a slur on his (already severely damaged) character. And besides, it must be false, because The Joker leaves a great deal more people alive than dead. He is simply not murdering every Tom, Dick and Harry in the neighborhood. If one enjoys "just killing" than one body should be just as killable as the next, correct? Not so, with The Joker.
But, my goal is not to correct the Nolans' screenplay. On the contrary, I find it to be a brilliant move. It is important that we see this statement as false, and it is nothing more than just how everyone views The Joker, as opposed to how he is, because it is the exact same thing that people were saying about Osama bin Laden, once upon a time. I'll return to this point at a later date when I discuss Iron Man, but for now, just remember the way that we as a nation characterized our terrorists.
Bearing this mind, and our Joker/bin Laden connection, look at the second part of the Joker characterization, the self-admitted one. He wishes to shake the foundations of society through the use of destruction. Killing, he implies, is nowhere near as important as the intentional breakdown of everything Gotham City stands for. He even states that he could never kill Batman, as he would have nothing to do without him. (I apologize for not having the actual quote. It's so hard to write in a dark theater, especially when your friends wonder what the hell you're doing.) He even further believes that this cause is noble, stating that Gotham needs a higher class of criminal than the one that cares only for money. His nobility is even so extreme that he's prepared, willing, and even wanting to die for it. "Hit me. C'mon, I want you to hit me," he says to an inbound Batman via motorcycle, without fighting back. He knows that Batman killing him will strike a deeper psychological blow, both for Gotham and for Bruce. And that's his goal. Blood is not the object. Terror is.
A love of murder, a misplaced ideal, a quest for martyrdom, a disinterest in money -- regardless of the facts of Al Queda, it cannot be denied that this is how the American public views it, and all these traits have been given to the biggest star of the biggest movie of 2008. To say nothing of the fact that they even refer to him as a "terrorist" when they're not talking about him like a dog.
So, if we assume The Joker is bin Laden, does that make Batman George W. Bush?
When I first saw the movie, a scene that had my mouth wide open was the discussion between Bruce Wayne and Lucious Fox regarding using spying technology on every citizen of Gotham to find The Joker. They quickly debated the merits and ethical dilemmas of such a practice. Their conclusion: Yes, it is a terrible, unethical thing to do, and we'll use it once, but no more. I have to wonder what happens when just one of the many, many Batman villians appear, and what the verdict will be then. "Ok, we'll use this on The Joker, and then Mr. Freeze, but no more. I mean it this time." Of course, I can't help but notice that Batman has serious moral issues with using a gun, but zero qualms about violating the privacy of the entire population of Gotham. I have news for you Mr. Wayne, punching someone in the face with a metal glove ain't much better than a bullet. But I digress.