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Batman vs. Mad Men

Dissecting the big fictional dramas of the moment

By Steven Rosen · August 17th, 2008 · Movies

I can mark my life as a Baby Boomer -- and maybe, too, our changing society -- by the ongoing waves of cultural impact Batman has had. As Boomers have grown into adults, Batman has stayed with us as an icon worthy of discussion and analysis. But now, while the latest Caped Crusader juggernaut, the movie The Dark Knight, might just be his biggest ever, it seems time to move on.

As cultural impact goes, I -- and apparently a lot of other people -- have discovered something far more worthy than comic-book-derived movies for revealing the American way: The AMC cable television series Mad Men. Created by Matthew Weiner and set in the Kennedy-esque early 1960s, it is nuanced and sophisticated, full of specific references to its time yet also universal in what it says about conflicted ambitions. It also lays bare how pop culture is actually manufactured and manipulated.

It gets inside the lives and minds (and campaigns) of the kind of real people -- Madison Avenue advertising executives, thus its title -- who subtly and secretly shaped our societal tastes in that epochal era. In fact, it's set in a time when the DC comic book of Batman was first appealing to Boomers -- an accessible hero with exceptional but not superhuman strengths who lived a mysteriously secret life not all that removed from the kind a pre-teen could imagine for himself in fantasies.

Later came a different kind of comic book hero for Boomer teens -- the star of the 1966 tongue-in-cheek Batman television series. Its Batman became something new: Pop Art with a capital P. Because of that, we've subsequently tended to take Batman seriously as art.

So maybe the desire to treat Dark Night the same way is just an old habit.

Yet I don't want to dismiss Christopher Nolan's film too flippantly. It has dominated the box office for four weekends now and has already eclipsed $400 million at the box office. It continues Nolan's updating of Tim Burton's popular 1989 Batman film, as well as of the 1985 comic The Dark Knight Returns.

Christian Bale's angst-ridden, unhappy Batman in The Dark Knight is a somber take on the hero -- he seems almost a gravel-voiced Angel of Death rather than an object of inspiration. There is complexity and tragedy in Aaron Eckhart's turn as prosecutor Harvey Dent. And the late Heath Ledger's neurotic, sadomasochistic turn as the uber-terrorist Joker is arresting, especially for making people wonder, as critic David Denby has noted, if the actor ruined his health to inhabit the Joker's manic, bizarre psyche.

Many see in The Dark Knight's exaggerated depiction of good and evil a grand artistic statement about the mood of post-9/11 America, especially life in its fearful big cities. But I find that it pushes its archetypes into stereotypes and in the end exploits the Joker's cruelty by repeating it over and over, continually using a Sophie's Choice-like plot point for cynical ends.

On the other hand, in Mad Men Jon Hamm's Don Draper -- creative director with Madison Avenue ad agency Sterling Cooper -- is one of the most complex characters ever created for television, right up there with Tony Soprano. He's also a sort of dark knight himself. Like Batman, he has a secret identity he's trying to hide -- he walked away from his past to re-create himself for the 1960s. A self-made man.

He broods, usually with mixed drinks and cigarettes, but occasionally wonders what the truth of life is like. Not the ad agency version, but the kind depicted in books like Frank O'Hara's poetry collection Meditations in an Emergency, which he reads in his more private moments.

Three episodes into this second season, Mad Men already has delineated the shadings between good and evil -- between a sense of fairness and callousness -- in a way far more profound than anything in The Dark Knight.

It comes when the agency's staff, like the nation, is shocked by an American Airlines crash just outside New York City. While the rest of the staff listens to the radio, Draper -- unsentimental man that he is -- whips into action, ordering the radio off and canceling his company's ad for Mohawk Airlines that had been ready to run. He then orders his junior executives to devise a new campaign for Mohawk.

But Draper is actually this firm's moral compass, conflicted as he is. Partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) cynically sees the crash as an opportunity to dump regional Mohawk and pursue American as a new "crisis" client. When Draper resists, asking, "What kind of agency are we," Sterling answers, "The kind where everyone has summer homes." Ledger's Joker couldn't say anything more devastating.

Against Mad Men, The Dark Knight is teen/young adult stuff. This time around, I'm not going to treat it like culture-defining art. Things have changed.


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