TROUBLE CITY

"The Dark Knight" -- Too Grimm for young audiences?

BlogsRonald PanarottiComment

My wife and I have been having an ongoing argument over whether "The Dark Knight" is a suitable movie for kids. It started, I think, over the idea of taking some of our nieces and nephews to see it (which we never did), because after we went to see it ourselves on opening day, I voiced the opinion afterward that this was most definitely not a movie for kids, despite the PG-13 rating.

(WARNING: SOME "DARK KNIGHT" SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW.)

On the one hand, kids today are largely immune to the shock value of violence in movies -- as, indeed, many of us are, simply because we've seen so much of it over the years. Once, the violence in "Bonnie and Clyde" was considered shocking; today, no one would so much as blink at it.

The overall permissiveness of our society, along with more violence and conflict in the world today, seems to have brought about the loss of our ability to be shocked by anything anymore. And there's the argument that, "Is it really worse than anything else that kids are exposed to today?"

Well, my feeling is that just because they can stomach it does not necessarily mean they should. Even though there is not a lot of graphic violence per se in "The Dark Knight" (Harvey Dent's ruined face notwithstanding), the story is very adult and emotionally intense, and that alone, I think, makes it inappropriate for kids.

This is part of what has always baffled me about Batman, because if you really think about it, the subject matter alone indicates that this is not really an ideal children's character. Yet he's been regarded as such for years.

You've got someone whose mom and dad are gunned down in front of him when he is 6 years old or so (and if that is not the ultimate nightmare for a child, then I don't know what is), who grows up with a lot of fury and molds himself into a guy who pummels a criminal underworld in a cesspool of a city where all manner of grotesque evildoers commit horrible deeds. Yet, these stories and movies are consistently marketed toward kids, via toys, fast-food tie-ins, etc.

And growing up, I myself had Batman toys and liked the character as a child, as I'm sure many other kids of my generation did. (Though what I grew up with was more the Adam West/Superfriends version of Batman. It was not until I was somewhat older that I learned about the character's dark roots. The 1960s TV show always made it seem like Bruce Wayne just went out as Batman for fun, not as the result of some childhood trauma.)

There seems to be a certain "2+2=5" reasoning at play. Basically:

1. Batman is a comic book character.
2. Kids have loved comic books since practically the beginning of time.

Therefore...

3. Batman is a perfect character to aim at kids.

Now, I know that many classic fairy tales, like those from the Brothers Grimm, that have been told to kids for years contain horrors far more powerful than anything in the Batman movies. And I also know that a little dose of horror, within reason, can be fun in the life of a child. After all, what else explains the popularity of telling ghost stories around a campfire?

But this particular iteration of Batman we are now seeing in the Christopher Nolan movies is hewing to the character in a more adult manner than any previous live action version. The new movie is excellent, but it's not for kids.

The Adam West TV show and the Superfriends cartoons are completely different animals; those are just examples of taking the character and making him into a generic kids program. They have about as much to do with the real character, and what he's all about, as Roger Moore's James Bond had to do with what Ian Fleming wrote in his books.

The Batman Animated Series from the 1990s was largely true to the source material, but cartoons made for television, by their very nature, inevitably sanitize the more nightmarish elements. They have to, in order to be judged suitable for kids. And kids, I think, can more easily see that a cartoon is make-believe, but when it's a live-action movie where an actor convincingly has half his face burned off via makeup and special effects, the line becomes a little bit more blurry.

My wife contends that "Batman Returns" was more inappropriate for kids than "The Dark Knight," with Danny DeVito's grotesque, icky, sewer-dwelling Penguin and his goal of kidnapping and killing all the firstborn children of Gotham City. I had to disagree, though it was an interesting debate.

Not that the 1992 film was ideal for kids -- it wasn't, and what made it worse was that it was marketed at kids thanks to Happy Meals and such, so that the darker, mean-spirited elements took some parents by surprise. But Burton's movies had a different tone. They were more fantasy in feel.

Looking at those films, it's difficult to believe that you're watching life in a real city. True, kids cannot necessarily make that distinction, but in real life, babies thrown into sewers do not survive to be raised to adulthood by penguins. Nor do secretaries survive falling 30 stories after their bosses push them out a skyscraper window only to be licked back to life by alley cats. It was so far beyond the plausible that, I think, the horror is somewhat muted, and far more cartoonish.

In "The Dark Knight," though, a man in clown makeup does all sorts of bad things, and a lawyer gets horribly disfigured and has his fiancee killed, then ultimately goes on a killing spree himself and finally threatens to kill a child at gunpoint after being driven insane by rage and pain. This, I think, is far more inappropriate for kids (and maybe even some adults) than what "Batman Returns" served up 16 years ago.

Regardless, though, I think Batman, if portrayed true to form, is strictly for adults. And that's how it should be, because that's the way we've gotten the best, and most interesting, stories and movies. But the trouble is that it comes packaged in a "brand" that has been seen as kid-friendly for a long time. I certainly won't presume to tell someone else what they should or should not allow their kid to see, but it is important to know that what's behind the packaging can often be very different from what you might be expecting.