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The Dark Knight and the dark side of sensawunda August 14, 2008

Posted by sensawunda in Movies, Sensawunda 201.
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At first blush, it might seem Batman: The Dark Knight would be a candidate for the “Not Sensawunda” category. It’s not about the wonder of being Batman, not even in the obligatory Bat-gadget scenes with Morgan Freeman channeling “Q”. In many ways it has the feel of act two of a trilogy, when everything goes wrong. Now, Bruce Wayne—with his friends and all of Gotham—begins to reap the tragic consequences of his choice to don a disguise and go vigilante.

However, the story hearkens back to traditions that parallel the roots of sensawunda. One of these days I intend to write about how sensawunda descends from the Romantic-era concept of the sublime. At the same time the Romantics were developing the literature of the sublime, they were also developing its dark side—the Gothic.

To quote the Wikipedia article linked above, “the literary Gothic embodies an appreciation of the joys of extreme emotion, the thrills of fearfulness and awe inherent in the sublime, and a quest for atmosphere…. Prominent features of Gothic fiction include terror (both psychological and physical), mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses and Gothic architecture, castles, darkness, death, decay, doubles, madness, secrets and hereditary curses.”

I’m no expert on Gothic literature, but when I ran across that Wikipedia article in my quest to characterize The Dark Knight adequately, it seemed to fit better than anything. It may not have all the trappings, but it has the feel. That being said, I welcome comments from anyone who knows more about Gothic than I do. (It wouldn’t take much.)

Heath Ledger’s jaw-dropping portrayal of madness as the Joker elevates The Dark Knight to the top shelf of Gothic-style terror. I watched him with a horrified fascination that could almost be called sublime, although the term properly refers to feelings inspired by nature’s vastness. In a way, the Joker was like a force of nature: unpredictible and terrible.

Where the Joker’s involved, nothing can be taken at face value any longer, not even his madness. Gotham becomes a hall of mirrors that transforms light into darkness and good into evil. It is the sublime terror of watching this unfold that makes The Dark Knight a textbook example of the dark side of sensawunda.

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