The knife is shoved inside the victim's mouth and pulled from one side of the face to the other, the blade ripping a smile across the cheeks. The victim is petrified, frozen in terror, paralysed into powerlessness, and then the blood flows. This is a scene from The Dark Knight, which I saw last week and which is a much darker and more serious portrayal of caped crusading than I remember. The classification of it as a "12" has come in for some criticism, so I went to see it last week to make up my own mind.
First of all, let us take the film on its own terms and peer into the minds of some of the characters. The Joker has a similar slash across his face, a permanent sadistic smile which, he explains, he acquired because his drunken father carved it into his face when he was a child.
The mindlessness of the Joker's violence is easily understood. His world view has been altered by an overpowering, traumatic violation at home. When you know this about him, the shooting of his friends and accomplices in the bank robbery makes some sense.
If your own father betrays you, your trust is eroded. You eliminate others before they have a chance to violate you. The Joker is demonically powerful because the other potential heroes in the film are following the rules of order and decency. In the face of his nihilistic inverting of all boundaries, the preservers of world order are rendered impotent.
Batman, as we know, tries to overcome evil. Sometimes he punches and fights, but his violence lacks the sadism of the Joker. The Joker takes delight in the torture of others. He violates because he has nothing to preserve; he's prepared to lose, and delights in the corruption of civil society. He's sarcastic about humanity. The tension lies in whether pain will eventually force otherwise good people, such as Batman, whose violence is in the service of good, to abandon decency and kindness.
Is it a game of chance? Or is it individual moral choice? Will the heroic eventually be broken by personal pain, and driven to revenge? Hanging in the air, close to a mutual fall, Batman and the Joker discuss the matter. Batman can't kill the Joker because of his moral prohibition against causing harm. The Joker, fighting against this good, is entertained by the polarity and by his attempt to corrupt it. Batman and some of the public seek to hold on to good, but so much of what they love is destroyed. Because of this, evil is always more powerful. Is sacrifice just as painful as perversion? Can any war have a happy ending?
It's a metaphor of our time. The day that I saw the film last week, another teenager was shot dead in south London. I have seen the Joker's sadistic, victimising smile – and his nihilism – in some of the young children I work with. It's always born of catastrophic familial abuse. The abused child watching this film will recognise the elation of the Joker at making the shift from victim to violator. The power to cause harm is always far preferable to the humiliation of being at the receiving end of it.
These are serious issues, and one would hope that the more profound messages of this film would register with its young viewers; that the polarities of evil and good, and the shades in between, would feature prominently in what they take away from it. My worry is that the extent of the violence may obscure the subtleties. It may have a 12 certificate, but the underground film economy and its eventual release into shops will make it available even to the youngest viewers.
I saw the film with a number of young people who happen to have had abusive home backgrounds, and I fear my concerns are well grounded, but not because they were carried away by the violence. Quite the opposite. They, like many critics, thought it was too violent. They also thought it shallow in its characterisation and lack of sophistication. Once you've seen a few people get blown up or shot, the rest becomes a boring variation. Lack of depth and emotion makes this film lazy and forgettable. Even the technical artistry is diminished in the service of violence. Young people yearn for more than the showing off of weapons of destruction. The mind using the weapon is infinitely more interesting than the weapon itself.
Batman is a brand recognised across generations. It acquired a cult following because, like all good narratives, it grappled with complex archetypes through artistic symbolisation. I fear this soulless film may have done brand Batman an injustice. Not because, necessarily, it is too graphically violent for a 12 certificate. Children today are exposed to frequent manifestations of human cruelty through our daily news – shootings, bombings and rapes. The news carries no 12 certificate.
What worries me even more than the violence was the lack of human compassion surrounding it. Human life is presented as worthless. For me, the apathetic bystanders who facilitate violence are more disturbing than the Joker himself. His perversion, at least, has a sad logic to it. The indifference of the onlookers, though, is shocking.
To be fair, in the end, Batman sacrifices his own ego in the service of good, but I can't help feeling that the director missed an opportunity to provide a more morally visionary film. What they have done is make something so filled with violence that their message – which should be an uplifting one – has been lost.
In our age we have under-invested in our emotional and moral economy. We are rich in possessions, but impoverished in the spiritual dimension. Children and young people are in touch. They know there is a disease which manifests itself in violence. They know what violence feels like and looks like. What they're seeking in their heroes is someone who can offer a way out of this perversion.
This film does not do that. Too keen on violence and special effects, it failed to capture the meaningful. Such thoughtlessness is more damaging to children than mere manifestations of human-generated horror. Let's hope Batman returns one day with a more genuine, heroic task. So many are waiting.
Camila Batmanghelidjh is the founder and director of Kids Company