Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Dark Knight

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight

I finally got around to seeing The Dark Knight. Normally, on a Monday after a movie is released, this news would not be especially shocking. In the case of the movie which just shattered all box-office records for opening day and opening weekend, I can safely say I was behind the curve on this one. Actually I did try to go last night, but after arriving at 7:30 and discovering the next two hours' worth of shows were sold-out, we discussed our options and decided to buy tickets for the 9:50 screening.

Unfortunately, by the time we got to the kiosk, they were gone too.

So here it is, Monday morning, and I've just returned from a matinee showing of what is sure to be the biggest movie of the year. Or of all time, if some of the blogs and their comment sections are to be believed. The term "hype" doesn't quite do justice to the phenomenon we have on our hands here. All the rabid press aside, what communicated the power of this film to me was the sheer volume of people I knew who wanted to see it. Old, young, guy, girl, artsy, popcorn-munching, avid movie buffs, people who never go to the movies. At a cross-generational family reunion this past weekend, it was on everyones' lips.


But of course, you know all this. What did I think - what was my reaction?

Well, as much fun as it would be to pull the rug out from under my readers and at the risk of an anticlimax after that buildup...I liked it a lot. This was not necessarily to be expected. First of all, Batman Begins left a bad taste in my mouth -- and it wasn't just the salty aftertaste of celluloid (sorry). Initially excited by the prospect of a "dark," "realistic" Batman franchise, I found the movie's complexity to be only skin-deep. Its climax, involving some elaborate evaporation of the Gotham water supply, was just as silly as anything in the Schumacher-helmed Batmovies; its self-styled darkness felt glib, smug, and shallow; and though Christopher Nolan had wisely chosen to avoid the neon stylings and cheesy dialogue of Batmans past, the new Batman universe seemed oddly colorless and somewhat dull. The Batmobile was no longer a sleek jet on wheels, but a drab and cumbersome tank. The gothic and imaginative Gotham City of Tim Burton's films had been replaced by a disappointingly Chicago-like standard-issue metropolis. Furthermore, the combination of Bourne-style blurry fast cuts with the dark cinematography led to action sequences that seemed to be happening offscreen: I could hear them but couldn't see them. And finally, with all the great Batman villains to choose from, the film gave us a throwaway Scarecrow who barely registered, and yet another variation on the Liam Neeson-as-father-figure that the early part of this decade seemed to thrive on.

So, yeah, I was not a fan. It didn't help that the film was so widely praised, often for the very qualities I found so irritating, mostly the phony darkness and obnoxious self-seriousness. But then, Batman Begins was part of a larger trend: my growing disillusionment with big-budget Hollywood filmmaking (to much "me" here? Go somewhere else, this is a blog!). Toss it in with the second and third Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson's yawn-inducing King Kong, and all the other CGI-infested synthetic playthings that have no appeal to me. A dozen years ago, as a precocious movie-loving kid, I could've told you the release dates of every blockbuster for months to come, along with the top ten at the box-office that week and probably even the per-theater revenue. At ten, I would have made a good hire in a studio marketing department.

By 2006 or 2007, I had grown weary and cynical. It wasn't just that I had possibly outgrown mainstream Hollywood movies - after all, they had supposedly been undergoing a maturation of their own. But around 1999, with The Matrix and Fight Club and the other slick harbingers of the digital age, I became alienated from what should have been my cinema. Dark, single-minded, and somewhat smug, the new trend in movies seemed to lose the fun of the adventure and sci-fi films I'd grown up with, without gaining in intelligence or depth like the classics I was moving towards.

Which brings us to The Dark Knight.

This sequel does not dispense with many of Batman Begins' flaws. It still has a propensity to self-seriousness, it is never as visually imaginative as the Burton versions, and the Batmobile is still ugly. It also takes on some common 00s-era blockbuster luggage, including a very long runtime, barely subtextual references to 9/11 and the War on Terror, and a reliance bordering on fetishization of technology, both within the world of the film and in its making. Yet the flaws are either subdued or overcome, and the potential flaws turned into virtues.

For one thing, by dispensing with the obligations of an origin story, The Dark Knight can spend its ample length digging into the story's emotional and social subtexts. Just about every "big" film since 2001 has tried to tackle the overarching questions of our time (admirable, in a way, especially since most "small" films haven't). This is the first to do so substantially and successfully. Partially because it couches these references in broad-enough terms that they don't seem like they're straining for political relevance. But also, and this is the kicker, instead of offering simplistic principles, it immerses itself in ambuguity and draws some conclusions which are surprisingly complex and even conservative (in the more classical sense). The 21st-century blockbuster has finally earned its dark visual palate and surface cynicism.

If you've stuck with me this long, you probably already know the plot or don't care. For those who've patiently waited, The Dark Knight introduces the Joker (or, a titular "the" going the way of the dodo these days, just Joker), a criminal psychopath who considers himself Batman's doppelganger and wants to introduce an element of creative destruction into Gotham's criminal underworld. Among his various schemes, we get (and stop reading altogether if you don't like spoilers; for the record, I'm glad I saw the film knowing little about the actual story): a pyramid-scheme style bank heist where each robber kills another until only Joker remains with the loot; an elaborate tripartite assassination in which one target is handed an envelope and told it contains her destination - the letter inside says simply "up" and her car explodes; and finally two bomb-rigged ships, one packed with prisoners, the other with civilians, and each group presented with a detonator which will destroy the other frigate and save their own. Batman has to decide how far he wants to go in defeating the Joker, who has no qualms about sacrificing civilians (and making Batman feel responsible for their deaths) in his no-rules game. Meanwhile, a third figure completes the film's morality play: Harvey Dent is Gotham's D.A., idealistic but tough (he disarms a witness who's pulled a gun on him in court, in one of the film's more ridiculous moments). Batman and Commisioner Gordon see Dent as the city's best hope, a crimefighter who doesn't have to hide behind a mask or work outside the law to achieve justice. But Dent has a dark side too, and if you're familiar with the comic book and recognize his name, you know where he's headed. By the film's end, the Joker will not be the only villain Batman has to deal with.

Speaking of which, the Joker of this film is a marvellous invention. Played by Jack Nicholson in the 1989 version as a kind of performance artist, playfully postmodern, here he is something sicker and more disturbing. Unlike in the earlier film, this Joker has no backstory: he offers his victims tearjerking but ever-changing psychological rationales for his appearance and behavior, as if mocking their desire for a simple, tidy explanation of his madness. Admirably, the film never explains who he is or where he came from; he simply exists, as if Batman's emergence as the city's superego has released the Joker as the corresponding id, the element of irrationality lurking beneath the surface of everyday reality. Heath Ledger (see how long I waited before bringing him up?) creates a terrifying villain. He's often funny but frequently the humor veers off into a homicidal mania that kills the laughter in your throat and inspires genuine unease. I don't think there's anything to the silly rumors that this role somehow led to Ledger's death, but the role is certainly darker and more unhinged than I expected. Ledger does not provide the audience consoling winks the way Nicholson did. One moment we think we're in on the joke, the next we feel like its potential victims.

Though Joker gives the film its spirit and energy, the climax doesn't involve him at all. Instead, Batman must confront Harvey Dent, turned by mutilation and bitterness into Two Face. Despite his appearance, he's no longer much of a split personality. Earlier in the film, while preparing to torture a suspect, he is; but by the conclusion, he's made his choice. And when he is finally vanquished, Batman and Commisioner Gordon have a choice to make too. Batman offers himself as a scapegoat and asks the Commisioner to frame him for Dent's murders and treat him as a criminal, so that the public can have their hero, Harvey Dent, unsullied, a martyr who will continue to inspire them. I found the finale of the film to be a little talky but the themes it enunciates certainly enrich the film immeasurably.

The ending of The Dark Knight has the feel of a genuine tragedy or myth, in which the hero makes a sacrifice and is ennobled in the process. And taken as a whole, the film presents a genuinely complex and fascinating vision of society and humanity. On the one hand, the film doesn't really respect the boundaries of the law; after all, its hero is a vigilante. However, it is constantly questioning these principles and never quite settles for the easy answer. Batman utilizes a Patriot Act-esque phone surveillance system "just this once." Is it all right to bend our cherished principles of liberty and autonomy? We know what Ben Franklin thinks, but lives are undoubtedly saved in the process. Yet can we really say this system will not be used again, for more diabolical purposes? Has Batman opened a Pandora's Box? Joker certainly seems to think so.

I would say The Dark Knight's outlook on humanity leans towards elitism. It's Joker, not Batman, who empowers people to make life-and-death decisions and it's Batman who decides that the people can't learn the truth about their public figures. A myth will be more useful to the public order which Batman has dedicated himself to preserving. Ironically, he is something of a freak who exists outside of the order, but this allows him to make his sacrificial gesture and takes the edge off what could potentially be an extremely elitist action. If it hasn't been yet, the film will soon be accused of an unfashionably right-wing outlook. But even here the film isn't one-note. That decision which Joker empowers the people to make eventually redounds in a way he did not expect. Neither ship, even the one full of murderers, wants to press the detonator and kill hundreds of their fellow citizens. They call Joker's bluff and survive: their humanity proves that perhaps they can be trusted with their own fates after all.

Of course, aside from the philosophical and political ramifications, the film is a good deal of fun. Joker is a great character, the set pieces deliver, there are chases, explosions, and much better fights than in the first film. But I don't think it's just the entertaining elements that propelled the film to the top of the box-office (nor is it solely the mystique of Heath Ledger, though his death undoubtedly gave this film a huge boost in public consciousness). The Dark Knight is actually about something, and remarkably, it's not glib or trivial in its dealings with grand themes. It's a grand myth for our times and evidence that perhaps there's a future in big American entertainment after all.

That said, as the film's ending shows, the public is fickle. I suspect a backlash will arrive relatively soon; and for what it's worth, I myself would not call The Dark Knight a "great" film. Its primary value lies in what it's about, not how it's about it -- the style and formal approach of the film are good, but not outstanding, which is usually a prerequisite for greatness. But that's a quibble and I could certainly change my mind upon seeing it again. Which I definitely plan on doing, though next time I'll try and make it to the theater a little earlier...

For a follow-up to this review, go here.

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