Directed by: Christopher Nolan. I originally saw this one when it came out, and it was around that time that I took a Film class about the Hollywood Western, which has influenced a lot of how I view American film. And then, the nail in the coffin for me, that Robert Ray book, that I seem to talk about a lot in this blog (just search Robert Ray in the tags), and here I am at this damn movie. On an airplane recently, this one was available, and I wanted to see if it was still as good as I thought it was 9 years ago, to see if it could withstand my jaded cynical contrarianism against superhero films. Is it just a movie about a guy in a bat costume? Or does it reveal, as I always hope it does, deeper social anxieties that are pertinent to the modern day? As I mentioned recently, with that Logan film, it was really striking to see how incredibly intact the old Western structure is, how functional it still is, when you just tweak it slightly to fit a modern superhero narrative. And I remember, once I got familiar with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, thinking how well this new, generation-making anti-superhero film lined up with that classic, archetypal Western. But seeing it now, I was blown away by just how explicit everything is, just like Logan. They don’t mention it explicitly like in Logan, but holy shit, it’s practically written in black marker across the screen. In a way, it’s so obvious, it’s embarrassing to talk about it, like shooting fish in a barrel, but sometimes that’s fun.
Basically, the short story is this—The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is about a dual protagonist, a good old Western cowboy played by John Wayne, and a genteel Eastern lawyer/schoolteacher played by Jimmy Stewart. And Robert Ray uses this film as a textbook example of delineating between the Official Hero and the Outlaw Hero. Basically, American mythology has always been way more interested in an Outlaw Hero, and usually the Official Hero is only there to make the Outlaw Hero look good. But what you’ll notice when you watch enough Westerns (and other films), is that even though the Outlaw Hero looks cooler, is more exciting, is the whole reason why we come to the movie in the first place, the movies that have the biggest impact are the ones that show us how we need the Official Hero more, and how the Outlaw Hero has to work against his own best interest in order to ensure that the community accepts the Official Hero over and above the Outlaw Hero. This is implicit in most Westerns, but in this one, it’s so utterly explicit, that it totally knocks your socks off when you see it—namely, that it looks like Jimmy Stewart is the one who shot the bad guy and saved the town from lawlessness and paved the way to statehood and the railroad and modernity, but actually it was John Wayne, hiding in the shadows, unseen, who shoots Liberty Valance (because of course it was John Wayne! Jimmy Stewart can barely hold the gun!), and remains anonymous in order to help the cause of the community, of “civilization”, of modernity. And what made the film so striking is that, unlike every other Western where the Outlaw Hero would ride into the sunset after proving his usefulness, this movie shows us what happens next, how after his usefulness has run out, and John Wayne has ushered in a context to make Jimmy Stewart thrive, he’s no longer needed, and he dies poor and alone, a pathetic barfly, a forgotten nobody. But the message is clear—the Outlaw Hero is the Real Hero, without whom society would have descended into chaos, and we wouldn’t have all the nice things we have now. It’s this push and pull that makes American mythology so easy to identify—we celebrate the Outlaw Hero, because society needs him in order to thrive, but we can’t admit this, and we have to prop up an Official Hero to openly recognize. We want to worship the Outlaw Hero, but because he’s an outlaw, he can’t be our official hero. So we get to have our cake and eat it too—we acknowledge the importance of an official hero, of law and order, of rules, of civility, but we like the outlaw hero better, because he’s cooler, he’s edgier, he’s more fun. With this mythology, we get to have both!
Then you throw Batman into it. It’s amazing how well it fits, although as a recovering comic nerd, I noticed at the time that this elaborate story didn’t really have anything to do with the comic villain Two Face, but that’s because I didn’t realize that, for all intents and purposes here, Harvey Dent is Jimmy Stewart. And maybe the reason I didn’t really notice all of this at the time, was that the main attraction here was The Joker, Heath Ledger’s movie-stealing performance, all of that good stuff. And all of it is truly amazing. But I remember at the time, thinking that the movie was too bloated, there was too much going on, it was 3 hours of movie crammed into less than three hours, sheared down by taking every single beginning and end of a shot and trimming like 0.5 seconds off it, so the pace was this lightning-fast, ADD, Jason Bourne pacing, which I found irritating at the time. We’re going to spend 30 minutes of screentime on this extra character in Hong Kong, and all the great stuff with the Joker, and all the extra stuff about Harvey Dent and Rachel, and Commissioner Gordon, and Alfred the butler—it was too much, I thought. It was a good movie, but it was like 10 good movies stuffed into one movie, like a supersized meal that really should have remained a normal meal. I see now that, as true as that may be, they were trying to juggle this Western archetype with the candy of watching Batman and Joker face off, and of course, I’m glad they kept as much screentime for Heath as they did. But even though I find all the Western archetype stuff super fascinating, I kind of wish they’d pared it down a bit, or just saved it for another movie, because I could have used 100% more Heath, especially due to his untimely death.
As far as all of the Western archetype stuff goes, and what it reveals about modern society, etc, I’m not sure, beyond the basic fact that, as with Logan, it’s interesting that this archetype still holds, that Christopher Nolan decided to invoke this stuff when structuring his superhero story. Because really, what is this movie about? It’s not the “wild west”, but it’s a variation of that, just as it was in the 70’s with French Connection and Taxi Driver and Dirty Harry, where instead of a racist colonial view of the antagonism between “civilized” white society and “uncivilized” Indigenous wilderness, you get a racist modern view of “upright society” ie: white society, lawfulness, hard work, religion, Conservative values, etc, and the encroaching threat of crime, vice, drugs, selfishness, laziness, atheism, hippies, black people, did I mention drugs? Basically, starting in the 60’s—Civil rights, women’s lib, gay rights, environmentalism, etc—it was easy for the mythology to invoke these Western archetypes, because they had never left. The Western genre was dying out (literally—see The Wild Bunch), but there was a new, even darker, cynical, manifestation of it in modern, urban settings, with outlaw cops. The maverick cop, the loose cannon who gets the job done goddammit, that whole thing—this is the outlaw hero, the antidote to weak, ineffectual liberals, and the antidote to reckless, anarchistic lawbreakers. To quote the speech in Team America, the outlaw hero was a dick, because a dick was seen as the only defence against both assholes and pussies. Super vulgar, but it’s hilarious because it hits the mythology on the head.
So you fast forward to this movie, and where are we? I don’t detect the explicitly racist overtones that you had in 70’s cop movies, so that’s an improvement! But there’s definitely a sense of dread, what I interpreted as a post-9/11 fear of anarchy, of entropy, the gradual breakdown of society. What does the Joker represent if not antagonism for the sake of antagonism—an utter breakdown of predictable values, of values as such? And fast forward to the modern day, and the unpredictability of terror attacks, Anonymous hacker attacks, gradual but assured destruction from climate change, and the ultimate in terrifying unpredictability, a clown in the White House, and you can see what this movie was tapping into, and how it’s likely to remain popular for a long time.