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Desson Thomson on Archetypes in ‘Dark Knight’ and ‘American Teen’

posted by Nell Minow

One of the most thoughtful and knowledgeable movie critics I know, Desson Thomson, appeared on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” this week to talk to Scott Simon about what ties “Dark Knight” and the new documentary “American Teen” together — the way they explore archetypes. He has some fascinating insights about the way the documentary was shaped in the editing room and the way that what draws us into superhero movies is seeing both hero and bad guy — like the “American Teen” geek, beauty queen, athlete, and rebel — turn out to be more complicated than we expect.

  • jestrfyl

    Editors are the unsung shapers of everything seen on the screen. As much as the actors, directors, special effects techs or even musicians put into the work – it is all pulled together by the editors. Their work combines every aspect of art and technology.
    I just saw Dark Knight this afternoon, so it has not sifted all the way through. It was good, but I didn’t think it was great, as in overpowering with insight and imagination. It sure is NOT a kids movie. And it saddens me to think that people are calling this Ledger’s Magum Opus – the chracter was too broadly disturbing to show more than all that Ledger had to offer. But it must have been hard to shake the character, too. I will be interesed to get Thomson’s take on it and “American Teen”.

  • Alicia

    I hope this isn’t a double-post. Advance apologies if it is. I’m going to make some SPOILERISH comments, so don’t read on if you don’t want to know about the plot.
    I saw “The Dark Knight” on Saturday, and plan to see “American Teen” in the next couple of weeks. Although I thought “The Dark Knight” was way too long I thought Heath Ledger was brilliant. Not only was his performance great, but the dialogue was great.
    Unlike the first Tim Burton “Batman” film, which I found dark and nihilistic, I thought “The Dark Knight” was a very moral film, which posed questions that are usually never asked in a summer blockbuster film. One reviewer compared it to “Heat” and said it was a meld of crime drama and superhero film. I loved the film’s conception of the Joker as a man who questions the moral basis of civilization.
    Jack Nicholson plays the “Joker” as a psychotic thug who loses what is left of his mind in the accident that gives him his green skin and scars. He plays the character sardonically.
    Ledger’s Joker evokes compassion, and I believe that the character would do so even if Ledger hadn’t died tragically. Ledger’s Joker is part inhuman monster, part damaged child. Given the psychological risks involved in going as deep as Ledger went to play this part, it is not surprising that most actors who play screen villains choose the safer route. Even Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Hannibal Lector wasn’t as powerful.
    After watching “The Dark Knight” I was reminded of the situation with the drug cartels in Mexico. The more the Mexican government goes after the cartels, the more the cartels unleash terror on the innocent civilian population, which is exactly what happens in “The Dark Knight.”
    It is a really serious moral dilemma that is raised by the movie, not just that “the good guys” are always a hair’s breadth away from becoming “the bad guys” but that often the actions of “the good guys” actually appear to make things worse, at least in the short run.
    I’m looking forward to seeing “The Dark Knight” again soon.

  • Nell Minow

    Thanks so much for a very insightful post, Alicia. I liked the way the other parts of the story — like the choices put to the people in the two boats — underscored the themes.

  • Alicia

    Thanks, Nell. It is rare to see a superhero movie dramatize a thought experiment like the dilemma of the two boats. I thought that was great, too. And I liked Batman’s response. He never doubted that those groups trapped on the two ferries would make the right choice. Also sort of an acknowledgement that even Batman can’t save everyone and has to “pick his battles.”

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