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The dark days of summer

Special to The Times

In “THE WAY WE ARE,” a concise, razor-sharp book of existential musings, philosopher Allen Wheelis describes the “margin of terror.” Just beyond the agreed-upon scheme of things, like the raw desert and wild places at the edge of the paved city, it’s the territory where pain and grief and mystery are too much to reconcile. “We look away, pretend it does not exist, is of no importance, a deviation, a neurosis perhaps.”

That self-deception, Wheelis contends, is the essence of the social pact, a matter of survival. You don’t gaze directly at Medusa -- and, as a rule, you certainly don’t do it in summer movies, those mega-escapist mass entertainments. But as a quick scan of current big-screen protagonists attests, mainstream filmmakers are not always playing by that rule anymore; not only are they not looking away from the margin of terror, they’re sometimes setting up camp there. Even cartoon characters and those based on comic books are gazing straight into the abyss.

Darkness has rarely been the central subject of large-scale fare -- it might surface as a tone or stance or an intermittent generator of shock. To temper and defuse the horror, filmmakers -- ardently independent ones as well as those working for studios -- often have adopted a twisted, winking jokiness, the punch line a la Quentin Tarantino or the Coens having become all but obligatory. But to varying degrees, 2008’s summer tent-pole titles are forgoing irony as they walk quite purposefully into the darker realms of storytelling, and critics are embracing that darkness, whether it’s an undercurrent (“Iron Man”) or a defining principle (a certain Batman movie).

In the 38 reviews of “The Dark Knight” by Rotten Tomatoes’ “top critics,” 90% of which are favorable, readers will find 40 references to the film’s darkness, most of them admiring. Reviewers speak of the feature’s “dark vision” (Christopher Orr, the New Republic) and the way it “turns pulp into dark poetry” (Richard Corliss, Time). In this paper, Kenneth Turan praised the film for its “darker-than-usual themes that have implications for the way we live now.” Manohla Dargis of the New York Times observed that “Knight” “goes darker and deeper than any Hollywood movie of its comic-book kind,” and Newsday critic Rafer Guzman called it “a dark and highly complex drama [with] more brains than any other movie this summer.”

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If “dark” is the new “smart,” what do critics mean when they laud a film for its darkness? A number of things, to be sure, beyond aesthetic gloom to moral complexity and psychological depth; they’re welcoming the material’s serious exploration of primal impulses and clear-eyed depictions of corruption and amorality.

The oppressive, visceral power of “The Dark Knight” is rooted in such timeless themes but also taps into an urgent, of-the-moment despair that has resonated with critics. “Things are worse than ever,” a nameless reporter in the film declares with no small amount of anguish. And the official response he receives -- “The night is darkest just before the dawn” -- echoes with all the hollowness of today’s newscast sound bites.

Separating it from past incarnations, Christopher Nolan’s Gotham is not a stylized, self-contained universe but a realistic contemporary city. “Hancock” too, a far looser-limbed fantasy than “Dark Knight” but one that shares its focus on vigilantism and the loneliness of the long-distance crusader -- the protector-turned-destroyer -- places its events quite clearly in the real world, a Los Angeles of dive bars, bus-stop benches and traffic-vexed commuters persevering under a pall of crime.

And though it uses humor to offset its fatalistic edge, “Iron Man” roots its comic-book exploits in such real-world matters as war-torn Afghanistan and the unchecked clout of the military-industrial complex. The title character’s day job is, like that of Batman alter-ego Bruce Wayne, playboy/industrialist. He uses that all-American combo of fantastic wealth, technology, ingenuity and determination to transform himself into a superhero. But whether the setting is Wayne’s penthouse aerie or the antisocial Hancock’s hilltop trailer, these superheroes are essentially alone and misunderstood, and these films are more concerned with their isolation than with their dazzling deeds.

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The darkness that critics are responding to is as elemental as order versus chaos. The very schematic dualities that drive “The Dark Knight” are themes that have been dramatized in countless cop movies and westerns. But there’s something new here too, in the way a pop extravaganza gives audacious form to that indefinable margin of terror. Some deem Nolan’s film a suffocating exercise in “Stygian bleakness” (Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal), others find it “ominously labyrinthine and exciting” (Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman), but most reviewers acknowledge its sock-in-the-solar-plexus impact. Whatever its narrative shortcomings, the film sustains a ferocious mood. Mayhem is its animating spirit, and its moments of unspeakable sadism are no less haunting for their avoidance of gore.

Even in animated film

But THE season’s most unexpected portrait of our most profound fears takes a far subtler approach. With the animated “Wall-E,” Andrew Stanton has given us the summer’s most heroic and poignant character: a rusty garbage compactor on a post-apocalyptic Earth whose trusty sidekick is a cockroach. Before its action excursions and concessions to sentimentality unfold, this elegant dystopian meditation quite fearlessly plumbs the bottomless well of loneliness and longing.

On his abandoned planet, the title character is an archaeologist of kitsch whose discoveries pulse with soul. “Wall-E” is a work of breathtaking melancholy -- of darkness as much as charm. As David Denby of the New Yorker noted, the film “will never appeal to people who are happy with art only when it has as little bite as possible.”

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There’s a purity to the way Wall-E makes order out of chaos, an idealism that his live-action megaplex brethren can’t ultimately embrace, although they start out trying.

When Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, says of his weapon-producing conglomerate, “What we do keeps the world from falling into chaos,” director Jon Favreau wants us to squirm. Until they question the wages of war, our comic-book heroes are harder to believe than the villains they oppose.

“I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are,” Heath Ledger’s anarchic Joker explains, with chilling reason.

His interpretation of the character is dread transmogrified into something unhinged, a life force that thrills at destruction, even its own. This is the free-floating evil we have, collectively, agreed to fortify ourselves against. This is noir taken to a new level. That a summer blockbuster looks head-on into such a toxic world without retreating to the prank bin is worth noting. Ledger’s Joker is not without a deliriously mordant wit, but he can’t be laughed away. He reminds us at every turn that the world is a corrosive place. In the indelible image of him walking away from Gotham General Hospital, limbs flapping and jerking, a deranged and all-too-real rag doll delighting in the conflagration around him, he’s the darkness unleashed, a snake-haired monster, and he won’t let us look away.

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Linden is a Los Angeles-based film critic, freelance writer and editor.


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