Clean vs. Family-Friendly

When I wrote a review of The Dark Knight for the website, I had some trouble coming up with a word to describe the movie’s resolutely sexless, bloodless content. I went with calling it “the cleanest Batman movie ever,” but as some people pointed out to me, that doesn’t make a great deal of sense. (Who describes a gritty crime thriller with a zillion murders as “clean?”) But I couldn’t call it “family-friendly” either, because this movie is not family-friendly, and in fact people are arguing over whether it’s too intense for children. “But,” it was pointed out to me, “you’re saying that it could be shown on CBS at 8 pm; doesn’t that mean you’re saying it’s family-friendly?” Not really. Few broadcast network TV shows today are really “family-friendly,” yet all of them, because of FCC regulations, have restrictions on violence, language and sex. And it’s the same with Christopher Nolan’s Batman, though the restrictions are self-imposed (even within the limits of a PG-13 rating, you can get away with more than he tries to get away with).

The Dark Knight has violence but hardly any blood — even the pilot of the Batman cartoon showed Batman with a trickle of blood down his mouth — and because Nolan has no real room for sex or sexuality, it not only doesn’t show Bruce Wayne gettin’ any like he did in Tim Burton’s movie, it doesn’t suggest that anybody would even want to have sex in this universe. It’s like a film noir that was made under the old Hollywood production code: the violent, dark story is not for family audiences, but it doesn’t have anything that the censors would actually strike out. More so, actually, since the old films noirs had more of a sex element.

I’m not asking for Nolan to make his movies any other way, you understand; I just find it interesting as an example of what’s happening in the content of movies as compared to TV. TV has severe censorship restrictions, even on most cable channels (only a select few channels, like HBO, don’t censor or bleep anything). Movies, in theory, have no censorship restrictions; they just have to be prepared to accept an R or NC-17 rating depending on how much naughty stuff they put in. TV censorship has gotten even more severe in the last few years because, in Chuck Lorre’s words, “Janet Jackson ruined everything.” And yet mainstream movies don’t actually seem to have more violence or sex, on average, than mainstream TV shows. If anything it’s the other way round. A movie like Batman Begins, where there’s no sex, almost no cursing and almost no blood, has the type of content you might have found on a TV drama about thirty years ago: no matter how intense the subject matter, it’s presented in a very chaste way. Today’s prime-time TV, on the other hand, has plenty of blood and guts; people go to bed with each other, and characters say naughty words (they just get bleeped when they do it, but PG-13 movies don’t use bleeps). If you put an episode of 24 in theatres, it would probably be PG-13, but it would be a more violent, bloody PG-13 than most “action” movies today. And Two and a Half Men probably has more sex jokes than most PG-13 comedies (though not the R-rated comedies of Apatow and co.). It’s like television, where producers are determined to slip stuff by the censors, is still a little freer than PG-13 movies where the producers are busy censoring themselves.

As for my review of The Dark Knight, I want to add that while I think the movie is flawed, it’s an entertaining film (overlong, but you knew that) and the audience seemed to love it; I was just bothered by some things in the movie, and was most interested in talking about the stuff that bothered me. But, to my disappointment, I haven’t gotten any angry e-mails yet from Batman fans accusing me of “not getting it,” whereas David Edelstein got blasted every which way.

Interestingly a lot of the angry comments on negative reviews is that most of them argue that Batman is “supposed to be dark” and the reviewer doesn’t get it. (David Ansen of Newsweek has been pilloried for merely saying that “This is Batman, not Hamlet” and he wanted it to be a little more fun.) I’m not saying they’re wrong about the movie itself — that’s a judgment call, and most reasonable people think it’s great — but they’re obviously wrong that Batman has to be dark or that any other take on the character is inauthentic. There’s nothing wrong with preferring a very dark take on the character, but fans who think that’s the only take are exactly the type of fans that the ’60s series was created to mock: fans who can’t accept that there really is something a little ridiculous about a rich kid with no powers who decides to avenge his parents by fighting crime in a bat suit.

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