Yesterday morning I went to a memorial service in Mt. Auburn cemetery for the sister of a family friend. Afterwards, as the group milled around drinking iced tea and eating finger food under a small tent next to the chapel, word got out among the teenagers and college kids that there was a movie critic present. One by one, they came up to me and asked the same question, with almost the same wording.
Is "The Dark Knight" the best movie of all time?
I cracked wise in most cases, saying, no, it's the best movie this month, or this summer. I talked about how much I liked the movie, with reservations, and Heath Ledger's performance, without reservations. But, of course, what was really being requested of me here was validation -- a professional media-guy's acknowledgement that "Knight" was in fact the pop tsunami so many moviegoers, primarily young ones, saw it as and needed it to be.
We knew the movie was going to be big, but not this big. Records fell like blades of grass: Biggest opening day and one-day take ever ($66.4 million). Biggest Friday midnight-show gross ever ($18.5 million; take that, George Lucas). Biggest three-day opening weekend ever ($155.3 million). Most theaters ever -- 4,366 -- which helped offset the 152-minute film's comparatively fewer showtimes.
But even that doesn't convey what happened this weekend. Audiences applauded the opening credits, cheered every one of Ledger's lines, shrieked with delight at the action setpieces. Standing ovations at the end, packed houses full of instant friends. As happens only once every decade or so, the entire moviegoing population of America became welded into a single breathless entity, and the result was a pop event on the order of the Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan. Go ahead and scoff at the analogy, boomers, but one of the kids at the memorial service likened the opening of "Dark Knight" to the JFK assassination and the Challenger disaster as quintessential where-were-you defining moments of his generation.
That says much, about both this movie and the callowness of smart young men -- the correct analogy is to "Titanic" or the final installment of "The Lord of the Rings" -- but a pop event has always created its own sense of necessary immensity. "The Dark Knight" has to be the best movie of all time because it feels that way right now, and because it feels impossibly exhilarating to share that thrill with everyone you know and millions of people you don't.
Although hype played a critical part, this is less about hype than the gentle madness of crowds. The response to "Dark Knight" represents a perfect storm of studio publicity, public mourning, epic seriousness of filmmaking purpose, and the unspoken need for something in this crass tinsel culture to mean something. Without Ledger's performance -- and more properly, without the tragedy of his accidental death lending a glow of belated triumph to that performance -- I doubt the response to this movie would have been so impassioned.
But that's okay. In a strange way, the past weekend saw the kind of cultural mass wake usually reserved for deceased rock stars: Kurt Cobain, say, or John Lennon. Because the grief and amazement were tied to a commercial artifact -- a superhero movie -- they built and built over the months from Ledger's death in January to the release of both the film itself and all our withheld emotions. The tragedy lent gravitas to the movie but it worked the other way around, too: I don't think people would be mourning the actor nearly so deeply without the movie (and his performance) to focus their sense of loss. So did Warner Brothers manipulate us into theaters by trading on our feelings? Of course: that's their job.
In any event, the weekend allowed a mass audience to file past the casket of a very good actor's career and pay its respects, and it's clear that being at the front of the line counted for more than just bragging rights. (Although, in its lurking sense of rubberneckery, it counted for that too.) It doesn't matter right now whether "The Dark Knight" is the best movie or action movie or superhero movie of all time. (It isn't, but it's pretty darn good, and, anyway, time will sort that out.) What matters is that it matters and that over the past few days it mattered to almost everyone, young and old(er), male and female, jock and geek, Republican and Democrat.
One final thought: There's relief to be found in such pop-cult unification and also the elation of not having to think for yourself -- the joy of being picked up in a boundless groundswell of excited, committed response. That this has been brought about by a movie about people in tights blowing things up (all right, a thought-provoking movie about people in tights blowing things up), rather than any of the vexing issues of our actual world, isn't accidental. Not in the least. "The Dark Knight" is over in two and a half hours, and would that you could say the same about climate change or the presidential election. I know: bummer, Captain Bringdown. But it does make an interesting question to mull over when the glow finally fades. Why do we rally around a movie rather than the things that actually do matter? Because it helps us forget what we feel powerless to change? Or because it allows us to agree on something, no matter how ephemeral?