Why The Dark Knight Really Is A Science Fiction FilmS

Click to viewWhen we listed The Dark Knight among the best science fiction films of 2008, half of you asked why it wasn't #1. The other half wanted to know why it was science fiction. Here's why.

Batman exists in a universe full of science fictional elements.

Batman hangs out with aliens from the planet Krypton and Mars and the 30th century and the 5th dimension, and so on. "But wait," I hear you say, "that's in the comics. In the movies, Batman's separated from that. He's a stand-alone character who's never even heard of Beppo the Super-Monkey." It doesn't matter.

Here's the only question you need to ask yourself: is Batman a superhero? If the answer is yes, then he's still connected to all that stuff. Superheroes are more than capes and funny insignias - they're part of a whole tradition of larger-than-life archetypes and tropes.

Why The Dark Knight Really Is A Science Fiction FilmS

You can't even look at Batman without seeing him as part of the superhero tradition. You don't question why he can jump off a tall building without going splat, even though he has no superpowers - because you're used to superheroes. (Yes, he's got a sort of hang-glider thingy and a grappling hook line and stuff, but still. It's also just a convention of the superhero genre.)

Even when he's in a movie, Batman is still a comic-book character, and he's still part of that fine comic-book tradition of mashing up noir vigilantes with aliens, wizards and giant robots. It never occurred to comics writers to try and separate these genres.

The comics have frequently admitted as much - when Grant Morrison took over writing Batman, he had a scene where Batman opened up his "scifi closet" full of alien artifacts, weird future technology and other
toys.

You can strip all that away, but it creeps back in.

Okay, so you're still not convinced? After all, Chris Nolan did such a great job of burning away all of the campy baggage that had glommed onto the Caped Crusader in the 1990s movies, and he explicitly tried to keep Bats more down to Earth.

The same thing happened in the comics, actually. Starting in the late 1980s, then-editor Denny O'Neil decreed that Batman would exist in a slightly more realistic world than the rest of the DC Universe. He kept Bats out of the Justice League, and even changed old stories to say that Batman had never been a Leaguer.

But the more grim and "realistic" Batman became, the more otherworldly elements found their way in. Like the replacement Batman, Azrael, who turned out to be part genetically engineered monkey as well as part human. (Please don't ask me to explain Azrael's origin. It made my head hurt the first time.) Or Dr. Shondra Kinsolving, who magically healed Bruce Wayne's shattered spine with her mental powers.

Why The Dark Knight Really Is A Science Fiction FilmS

Weirdly enough, one of the most grim and realistic-feeling Bat-comics from the O'Neil era is 1992's Batman Vs. Predator, written by Dave Gibbons and published in conjunction with Dark Horse. It's a harrowing story of Batman facing a superior foe he doesn't know how to beat, and in the introduction to the trade, O'Neil explains how it fits in with his grittier, more grounded idea of Batman:

We generally put the planet-hopping variety of science fiction off-limits to Batman scripters; Batman's roots are in the dark myths — vampires, demons, were-creatures, ogres, all the shadow beings that creep from the nether side of the human psyche. Rocket ships and Batman are not a good mix: our Caped Crusader may use technology — he has to, to be a credible crime-fighter in the twentieth century — but he is not of technology; it has nothing to do with what he is. And it has nothing to do with what the Predator is, either. Take a look at him and then search your memory for predecessors. Shiva, Satan, Grendel, the Fenris Wolf — the fiends, the devils, the devourers, the enemies of mercy and humanity — those are the Predator's kinfolk. Do we really care that he arrived by spacecraft instead of being belched up from a fiery pit? Not unless we're very picky indeed... Batman shouldn't tangle with just any old bug-eyed monster who slides through the ozone, but the Predator was the right alien for him to fight.

So there ya go - the biggest opponent of "scifi Batman" is saying that Batman is about as science fictional as the Predator.

He uses tons of improbable gadgets - including his suit.

Okay, okay, so you want me to shut up about the comics. Lots of people who saw TDK had never read a single comic book in their lives, so only the movies should count anyway.

Fine. So let's talk about the movie. It's full of Bat-toys that are either way beyond our current level of technology, or at the very least five minutes ahead. In the same way that many of the James Bond films are science fictional to greater or lesser extents, Batman's toys, in themselves, make him what Alan Moore would call a "science hero."

Why The Dark Knight Really Is A Science Fiction FilmS

Remember the Batpod, that awesome motorcycle? It violates just about every law of physics except for the Law Of Awesome. Just ask Popular Science. (Also, the Batmobile/Tumbler has a "stealth mode," which works like a cloaking device.)

And then there's the doodad that Lucius Fox comes up with, which allows Batman to jump out of an airborne plane - and then jump back into it when he's done with his mission. Oh, and did I mention the supercomputer that lets Batman turn every cellphone in the city into a listening device, and then listen in on all of them at once? I didn't? Well, I don't think that's within our current technology, despite what some conspiracy theorists might say.

Actually, go read the comments on that Popular Science piece on the physics of Batman. They're full of people saying "Batman is fantasy, you can't expect it to be realistic." Or: "Batman has an exoskeleton that gives him superstrength." Which reminds me: the Batsuit? Totally science fictional. Nobody questions that Iron Man is scifi because he's in an obvious exoskeleton, and he has a reactor in his chest. But Batman's suit is only different from Iron Man's by degrees, not type. That's where I disagree with Denny O'Neil. These days, at least, Batman really is of technology.

He fights science fictional supervillains.

Still not convinced? Maybe you think Batman just gets a free pass on physics and plausibility the way Bourne does, or the Transporter or whatever. So let's talk about his villains.

Even if you ignore the comics, and all of the Burton and Schumacher movies, you still have to admit that The Dark Knight takes place in the same universe as Batman Begins, right? That's not much of a leap, since they share the same stars and director (except for Katie Holmes).

In Batman Begins, we meet Dr. Jonathan Crane, aka the Scarecrow, a psychopharmacologist who's developed a powerful hallucinogenic that directly targets the fear centers of the brain. This amazing substance can be delivered in an aerosolized form, at close range. But it can also be dumped into the water supply of Gotham City, where it'll be just as effective at driving the entire populace into a panic. It' s a pretty versatile substance, given how effective and fast-acting it is. (Crane makes a very brief reappearance in The Dark Knight.)

There's also Ra's Al-Ghul, of course, who's a super-ninja pretending to be a French guy. He's not so much a science fictional figure, except for his whole supervillain-esque desire to "save the world"
through mass murder.

That's the thing about Batman: he fights supervillains. By contrast, the Punisher fights regular criminals (except maybe Jigsaw.) Even though some of the same arguments I'm making could apply to the Punisher just as well as Batman, the Punisher clearly isn't a superhero and doesn't belong to quite such a fantastical world, unless you put him in a room with the Avengers.

Why The Dark Knight Really Is A Science Fiction FilmS

As for the main villains of The Dark Knight, there's nothing overtly superhuman or high-tech about the Joker or Two-Face... except that as badly destroyed as Harvey Dent's face looks, he might not be running around quite so nimbly. As for the Joker, he's just barely a realistic figure, until you consider everything he gets up to in the film. Which brings me to my last point.

The Dark Knight is either science fiction or urban fantasy

Some movies are works of strict, inescapable realism. Off the top of my head, Sideways is such a film. There are the Dogme 95 films, which adhere to a strict set of rules designed to remove anything artificial or fancy.

Needless to say, TDK is not one of these films.

Why The Dark Knight Really Is A Science Fiction FilmS

I could be here all day listing all the unlikely stuff that happens in the movie, but a lot of it has to do with the Joker, who technically doesn't have superpowers but possesses some fantastic luck. As the Guardian puts it:

Wait, so the Joker really orchestrated that big truck chase just so that he could get caught and go to prison, then he could kidnap that guard and grab his phone to make the call to set off the bomb he'd previously sewn inside the henchman in the next cell? That would kill the guy who stole the mobsters' money, thus enabling him to … er, what?

Not bad for a guy who says, "Do I look like a guy with a plan?" He also manages to rob a bank, blow up a hospital, kidnap the district attorney, and set explosives on two big ferries, all without getting caught.

I know, I know - it's just a movie. But it's a fantastical, larger-than-life movie, full of improbable technology, weird science and comic book characters. To my mind, that makes it science fictional.