Monday, July 28, 2008

The Dark Kerniggut

I didn’t expect to go and see The Dark Knight because I have to say superhero movies don’t really cut it for me anymore. But it was tempting, and Bonusbarn wanted to see it, so ...

And, like the previous Batman Begins, it still cuts it.

I’d like to say what I disliked about The Dark Knight first, then go on to praise it for its considerable strengths and thus end on a high note. But to do that I’d have to plaster this with SPOILER WARNINGS, as Blogspot sadly lacks Livejournal’s handy method of hiding sensitive material behind cuts. So I’ll start with the strengths first and end on a low note. Sorry.

Strengths ...

Heath Ledger as the Joker. Head bowed, chin receded, constantly mumbling his jaws, flicking his tongue, the occasional slight stammer as his words race to catch up with his thoughts which stay a steady half inch away from his ever receding sanity. A brilliant performance.

Apparently Ledger lived alone in a hotel for a month to perfect the character’s mannerisms and voice, ingesting various comics and even keeping a diary of the Joker’s thoughts. I have to say that when it comes to the great acting divide exemplified by the friction between Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man – "why can’t he just act?" – I’ve always been on the Olivier side. Whether Ledger had to go through all that when another actor could have just turned up and given a performance, I don’t know. But what he did, he did well.

Even more so than Batman Begins, this is a film set mostly in the real world where the whole concept of the Caped Crusader is, to put it mildly, fairly silly. Gotham City is mostly Chicago rather than an ornate Burtonesque film set, yet Batman fits in.

We are spared the almost obligatory Origin Story for the Joker – we never learn his details other than what he tells us (and that too changes with each repetition). When we first meet him he is the mostly plausible twisted genius behind a successful bank raid. He proceeds to rise through the ranks of Gotham organised crime. Sadly, this is where the deterioration slips in, and by the end he’s a standard Batman villain able to hold the city to ransom through the acquisition and application of advanced technology that has everyone else flummoxed. I felt let down.

So, more weaknesses ...

Batman Begins covered a lot of ground but didn’t seem that long. This takes 2.5 hours and you feel it. The story starts in recognisable real world terms involving the Mob and the Triads, and that too is a plus. But then it seems to forget how it started. A whole subplot involves Batman abducting a Triad leader from Hong Kong and bringing him back to Gotham, but all this really accomplishes is to introduce a nifty and plot significant bat gadget that we could have learnt about in a fraction of the time. Another subplot involves a greedy employee of Wayne Industries who works out who his boss really is and intends to blackmail him. This too ultimately goes nowhere. Both those could have been shaved off the running time, sparing up a good half hour of bum-numbing time.

But the biggest letdown – here comes the SPOILER – was the working out of the Dent/Gordon/Wayne triangle. These are the three most powerful men in the city, one way or another. Lieutenant/Commissioner (he gets promoted) Gordon wants to be an honest cop and doesn’t like relying on a masked vigilante. Millionaire Bruce Wayne is fed up with being said masked vigilante, working outside the law and inspiring a host of inept copycat vigilantes. Both of them look to the new crusading DA, Harvey Dent, to be Gotham’s shining white knight – a hero that the city deserves. He certainly seems to fit the bill and this leads on to some genuine, thoughtful musing on right and wrong and how far the law can go in chasing crime. At one point Dent begins to go off the rails with a captured Joker henchman and Batman sharply slaps him back again. The point is taken and Dent, briefly, returns to the straight and narrow. Then he undergoes some horrendous suffering and a tragic personal loss, and flips into an even darker Dark Knight all of his own. The tragedy, we are told, is that the Joker took "the best of us" and corrupted him.

Well, no he didn’t. The Joker, it turns out, took the whining pretty boy ninny, stripped away his supports and showed him for what he really is. Dent gets to whine at both Batman and Gordon with a speech that is essentially "boo hoo, poor me, I’ve had a hard time, everyone must be nice to me, it’s not fair!" Yes, he actually protests in those words – "not fair". From the District Attorney? Oh, please. However badly he has suffered, sympathy is now at zero point and I didn’t believe either Batman or Gordon could show him any. (Gordon’s conditions were, admittedly, a little more constrained than Batman’s at the time.)

Gordon and Batman are the strong ones, the best of them. Gordon has already risked everything in fighting the Joker, Batman has lost immeasurably more than Dent ever could, and now they both recognise and collude in the sacrifice that must be made for Dent’s good work to continue. And it’s highly unfair, but you don’t hear either of them complaining.

The most moving act of heroism, it must be said, comes near the end and from the quarter you would least expect it. Not any of the individuals named above.

This is the fourth film I’ve seen by Christopher Nolan, the other three being Batman Begins, of course, Memento and The Prestige. I suspect this is most successful film to date – but, not that it’s any of my business, I do hope he hangs up the cape from now. Good as this one was, the world does not need any more Batman movies. It needs many more Mementos and Prestiges – original films with original stories. (Thus speaks the aspiring novelist who won’t be able to do any work on the current work in progress for a couple of months because I’ve taken on yet more writing work for hire.) He will never make a great movie if it is a Batman movie – and if he continues the franchise in the direction this one took then the direction can only be downwards.


  1. I've just seen the film today, so I then read the post (having first been put off by your spoiler warning). I really enjoyed it, and I have to admit I disagree with most of the bad points you put forward.

    I agree several of the scenes could have been cut to shorten the length, but I'm not sure they should have been cut. The added ability to reference previous things added to the surprising sense of the place being a real world.

    I also didn't agree that the Joker ended up being a boring enemy. You forget that when he "held the city to ransom" as you put it, it was never actually so. He didn't hold it to ransom because he asked for no money (or equivalent). He just wanted to see the city in chaos because he enjoyed it, and I thought his rise coincided extremely well with the audiences discovery of his character. At the start it seemed he was going after Batman for the money, but by the final chat as the Joker hung upside down (and him saying he wouldn't kill Batman because it was too much fun) you'd really discovered his true character and what he's prepared to do.

    I also don't agree about Dent being a loser at the end. Yes, he never deserved the title of "the best of us", but I thought his conversion (and obsession with fairness) was fitting to his character. Turning his earlier talks on luck into his new bent-morals way of deciding people's fates was a stroke of genius in my opinion. Yes, his final set of reasoning wasn't all that sound, but then you can't have a sound reason for doing what he did. I thought it fitted his character and was interesting to watch.

    I do have a complaint of my own though, which was that Batman himself was a little boring. Most of the interesting plot developments and characters stuffs were from Gorden, Dent, the Joker or (as you mentioned) unlikely sources. Batman himself was fairly boring, and I only really thought of him as someone to move the plot along.

    Meanwhile I agree with all your strong points. I thought the characters were very strong for a superhero film, and I enjoyed the film greatly. And yes, I do think that Nolan should make more obscure films.


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