Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What Passes For PG-13

Bottom-Line It For Me, Baby Version (200 Words or Less):
Writers are pretty much known for expressing themselves in writing, and I've definitely got something to express about The Dark Knight. I'm interrupting the series on self-publishing to get up on my soapbox for this one post, but don't worry. The series on self-publishing will resume next week. Feel free to skip this one if you'd like.

Go On An' Run Yo Mouth, I Ain't Got Nuthin' But Time Version (Can't Promise It Won't Go On Forever):
I just came from seeing The Dark Knight. Oh it’s dark, all right. It’s edgy, it’s complex, and for the last half hour or so, it’s apocalyptic. The Dark Knight is a brilliant, adult exploration of threadbare ethics where heroism and vigilantism overlap. And it should’ve been rated R.

Despite the many, many murders in the film, there are no blood spurts, no decapitations, no exposed entrails or breasts, and I guess that’s why the MPAA granted it a PG-13. In terms of body count it’s really no worse than any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and the violence is considerably less graphic than what I’ve seen in The Mummy and the Lord of the Rings movies, all of which are rated PG-13. I didn’t have a problem allowing my twelve year old son to see all of those other films, but The Dark Knight is where I draw the line.

Director Christopher Nolan and his brother/screenwriting collaborator Jonathan Nolan have taken the Batman franchise in a grittier, more realistic direction. Their Batman is no infallible paragon of courage, strength and chivalry. He is, first and foremost, a man: a man with human failings. Their Gotham is not a place peopled by clearly delineated good guys and bad guys, a place where honest people have a reasonable expectation of safety. The Nolans’ Gotham is a dingy, impersonal, corrupt and dangerous metropolis in which bank managers are in league with mobsters and ordinary citizens will seriously consider blowing each other up if it means saving their own lives. In previous incarnations of the franchise, villains were cackling megalomaniacs whose ambitions generally fell into the rule-the-world category. The Jokers, Penguins, Mr. Freezes and Catwomen of yesteryear came equipped with catchphrases, Rube Goldberg schemes and ridiculous, over-the-top costumes. The Nolans’ villains have more in common with Charlie Manson and the BTK Killer than they do with any of those flamboyant, ultimately harmless criminal fops of the past.

All of these changes breathe new life into the characters and story, making them much richer and more provocative to an adult audience—while simultaneously making the franchise less appropriate for children and young teens. As adults, we know the world is not a black-and-white place of good and evil, and that bad things—sometimes, even horrific things—happen to good people all the time. We know that puppies and kittens aren’t always saved from burning buildings and children aren’t automatically granted asylum from violence. But kids need to feel safe in order to grow up with a sense of security and confidence, and for a while at least, they need to believe in absolutes in order to feel safe. I don’t advocate shielding children from the ills of the world and the people in it indefinitely, but I do think there’s a great deal of value in parsing out information and exposure in age-appropriate chunks.

My kids are growing up in a world far different than the one of my own childhood, no doubt. Even so, between school, responsibilities to family and friends, a growing awareness of world events (both good and bad), and navigating the rocky social terrain between fifth and tenth grade, I think they have quite enough on their plates. I’m not sure they really need to entertain concerns that their school bus may be hijacked by a murderous psychopath, the ferry could be impregnated with bombs, the hospital might go up like a fireball at any moment, the neighborhood cop they’ve come to know and trust could secretly be working for the wrong side, or that they might be kidnapped and murdered for the sake of payback against their parents.

The thing about the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the Lord of the Rings movies, The Mummy movies, and even the former incarnations of Batman TV shows and movies is that they are all firmly rooted in the land of fantasy. Assuming they’re beyond the age of belief in Tooth Fairies and Boogeymen, children who see those films know they have nothing to fear from Davey Jones, orcs or reincarnated skeletons so long as they stay away from the Caribbean of the 1800’s, Middle Earth, and Egypt circa 1920. No such subconscious buffer zones or safety nets exist where The Dark Knight is concerned, because The Dark Knight does a very good job of inserting Batman and all his adversaries into the real world…our world.

In the final analysis, I’d have to say that as a rule of thumb, I believe any movie in which an adult holds a gun to the head of a small, terrified child with every intention of pulling the trigger is not a movie I’d like my 13-year-old child to see.

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