Thursday, July 31, 2008

A caped study in leadership

The latest Batman instalment, The Dark Knight, which has been shattering box office records since its recent opening, is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. There are myriad bits to love about this movie, from the special effects to the writing, to the tour de force performance of the late Heath Ledger as Batman's arch enemy, the Joker. But for all his heroism and gadgets and karate chops delivered with laconic precision (Batman is a fighter, not a talker), the most astounding thing about the Dark Knight's tale is the way in which he can get other people to perform at a top-notch level.

A cynic may point out that Bruce Wayne, Batman's alter-ego, is a billionaire, and so can just pay folks to do whatever he wants. But as anyone who has ever hired a contractor or an employee knows, simply giving people more money does not guarantee better work.

In Batman's circle, everything is done first-class, the first time, with life and death hanging in the balance. When, for example, our hero heads to Hong Kong to shanghai a fugitive businessman and bring him back to Gotham, the plan requires precision explosives, electronic surveillance planted by people in advance and, by the way, an airplane flying over the building at the exact right time. As everything goes off without a hitch, one wonders: What did he say at the planning meeting to get everyone to do all these jobs just right?

To give the devil his due, the Joker also shows otherworldly ability for getting groups to move with competence and purpose. When he and his henchmen perform a daring bank robbery, all of them wearing clown masks, the operation depends not only on tremendous skill and split-second timing, but each of the bad guys is required to kill one of his accomplices once his task is complete. It isn't just the large tasks -- safe-cracking and scheduled murders -- that the Joker's people get right. It's also little things, like no one forgot their clown mask that day. Impressive stuff.

Perhaps this common gift for getting folks to complete major and minor assignments correctly and on time informs the Joker's insistence to Batman, "You're just like me."

One of Batman's challenges in the film is dealing with copycats -- pitiful schlubs in black-painted hockey pads, hopping around Gotham, hoping to emulate him. Predictably, the imposters' attempts at crime-fighting go sideways and the real Batman needs to step in to set things right. In this, the film provides a potent contrast between the fruits of a tireless, disciplined performer and a group of amateurish hacks.

Again, a cynic may say that the amateurs' attempts at imitation are reflective of real life, while the skill and leadership Batman evinces are possible only in the movies. Perhaps so, but the film's point is still a valid one:Do it right, or go home.

Thematic of Batman's struggle is his desire to be something more than a hero. To wit, he yearns to be more than the object of admiration and emulation. He wants to achieve an aim that is bigger than himself, regardless of how he appears to others.

Without spoiling the movie for the few people on the planet who have yet to see it, Batman ultimately realizes that to uphold the citywide sense of hope he has worked for, he must take the blame for hideous crimes that he did not commit. He does this knowing that he will be hated and hunted by all of Gotham as a result.

This selfless devotion to a greater good is the film's final lesson. Batman is more than just a hero. He is a leader.