Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Dark Knight

One of my most controversial posts to date was my negative review of Batman Begins, a film that was universally beloved by seemingly everyone but me and the couple of people I went to see it with. It was like I had seen a bad copy of the movie, since there was such a disconnect between my perception of the film and the way most people saw it.

But, as the hype mounted for its sequel, The Dark Knight, I too got swept up, and after getting out of work last night, I wandered up to Union Square to try to see the film. As I approached the theater, I saw a massive line of people stretching round the block, and I thought, I’m not seeing this movie tonight. I hadn’t seen lines like this in a long time, and the film does seem to be on its way to the biggest opening of all time. So, I headed back this afternoon to see the film at a 12:30 showing that was sold out by the time the film began. This thing is huge, and thankfully, I can say that I really enjoyed the film. Some of the flaws from Begins carry over, but most of the bad stuff from Begins is gone, and we’ve got the addition of one really interesting new character, and one all time classic character.

This movie, much like the original Tim Burton Batman film, is made by the Joker. Ledger is absolutely magnetic on screen, as a kind of possessed entity, incarnation of chaos itself. He doesn’t have an agenda or master plan, he’s only there to sow trouble, and show people how easily it can all fall apart. Batman shows that one man can change the world for the better, the Joker shows how one man can destroy it. And, like any force of chaos, it’s fun to watch him tear things down.

Unlike some other people, I don’t think Ledger’s Joker is a definitive take on the character, because the very nature of the character precludes a definitive take. I think he’s perfect for this film, in the same way that Nicholson was perfect for Burton’s Batman film. I still think the Nicholson performance is brilliant, but it would not have worked here. Both Burton Batman films go for an operatic craziness, which is very much about comic booky over the top images that don’t hew to real world logic. This film places Batman in more of a thriller milieu, a Michael Mann kind of world, and the Joker is believable as a person in this ‘real’ world.

As is Harvey Dent as an all purpose hope vessel who recalls John F. Kennedy, and more recently, Barack Obama. He’s the shining light, fighting corruption in a city where that act was once thought hopeless. The beginning of the movie seems designed to set up a world where Batman’s way is working, crime is down and things are getting better. But, that world can’t stay.

Harvey’s arc worked really well for me in the first half of the movie, before he became Two Face. Again, the film chooses to work in a realistic milieu, and his battle against political corruption works in that world. In fact, I’d argue his fight against the Joker works so well, Batman is rendered essentially superfluous in his own movie. If I had to choose one expendable character in the film, it would be Batman, who doesn’t really work in the film until the second half. The action sequence where he steals the guy from Hong Kong felt unnecessary, only there to give the film’s first act a boost.

The plotting surrounding the money and gang warfare is generally besides the point, so those scenes succeed and fall on their own merits. The ones with The Joker work as demonstration of just how crazy he is. The pencil moment is an instant classic, as is the scene where he burns money. That’s an essential one because it positions the character as an agent of chaos rather than a traditional criminal. He is Loki, the essential reflection of Batman.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really do much with the Batman character. An essential part of the Batman/Joker relationship is the idea that Batman loves doing his job as much as the Joker loves doing his. Here, The Joker feels that connection, he is completed by Batman, but you get the sense that Bruce has no real desire to be Batman, that it’s a duty rather than something he enjoys. That’s a valid take on the character, and I think it’s integral to the story they’re telling in this film. Batman is taken less as a person than as a symbol for the city to pour its hopes and dreams on. The white knight/dark knight dichotomy is executed really well on a thematic level, but it also means that the Batman/Bruce Wayne character is something of a cipher, who seems to change to suit the needs of the narrative.

Now, one could argue that the film is about The Joker, the agent of chaos, entering an ordered society and disrupting it. So, it would make sense that The Joker would have all the agency in the film, and everyone else would exist in reaction to him. But, because The Joker is the one doing everything, he is going to be the most interesting one, and when he’s not on screen, the film is nowhere near as strong as it is when he is there.

Personally, I would have liked to see some more of the spirit of Frank Miller’s ‘Goddamn Batman’ turn up in this film, and have Bruce simultaneously hating The Joker and sort of getting off on the fact that he’s got a worthy foe. I think that’s where the film gets caught between its commitment to realism and making a character like Batman work. Batman is on the more realistic end of superheroes, but he’s still a guy who dresses up like a bat and fights crime. When you see him in the shadows, the characters work, but when it’s a dialogue scene with two regular people and Batman, it feels kind of weird. Anyway, the realism means that we can’t really have a Bruce who enjoys fighting The Joker because this version of Batman is totally committed to cleaning up the city. He’s about the end goal, creating a sustainable order for the city, not the process. There’s some playing with the idea that he is addicted to being Batman, but I feel like the writing and Bale’s performance doesn’t let me really understand what the character is feeling. There’s so few moments of joy for him, for Rachel’s point about him not giving up Batman to work, we have to feel like he loves being Batman, and though they tried to convey that point, it just didn’t work.

The publicity for the film has cited Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns as an inspiration, but, apart from the title, I really don’t see many similarities between the works. Miller’s Batman is a revolutionary figure, he would have no time for an establishment politician, that’s what Superman would do, Batman is all about disrupting existing societal order and trying to build something new. Never is this more clear than in the call to revolution at the end of Dark Knight Strikes Again, as Batman strikes at heart of the military-industrial complex and tears it down in a glorious bit of social revolution. In that incarnation of the character, Batman is the agent of chaos, disrupting a corrupt social order. The films always cast Batman as a guy who’s trying to hold the city together, he’s order and the villains are chaos, which means the villains are always more interesting. Dark Knight Batman or Goddamn Batman are more interesting because they are fighting against existing social order and trying to inspire people to do something new. But, it’s also notable that in those Batman stories, Batman isn’t fighting a specific villain, he’s fighting a bigger societal ill. This is a film about The Joker invading Gotham City and causing chaos, you can’t have Batman trying to create more chaos to stop him.

I had a few other issues with the film. One of the major ones was the nonsensical plot development with Gordon supposedly dying, then just coming back from the dead for no apparent reason. Why didn’t they let his wife in on the plan? But, more importantly, why do this narrative development at all. I thought it was a bold move to have Gordon die, then all of a sudden he’s back and that inexplicable happening meant that when Rachel actually died later in the movie, I wasn’t sad, I was thinking, “so is she really dead? I guess so, but who can say for sure?” Once you decide that dead doesn’t mean dead, once you screw around with the audience’s trust, you can’t go back. It doesn’t kill the film, but it’s a really stupid choice that exists for no real reason.

Another issue is more general, and that’s some finale problems. I think the film really peaks with The Joker/Police/Batman chase on the freeway. It’s a fantastic action sequence, The Joker teetering on the edge of that truck, the Ewok trick on that helicopter, all leading to the amazing moment where the truck flips on itself. The Joker stumbles out and we’re finally going to get our big Joker/Batman confrontation, alone on this huge city street. That’s great stuff, and the action sequences at the end don’t really top it.

For one, I have some issues with the Two Face character. I think the makeup looked a bit unbelievable. It was cool, but in that universe, it just didn’t work. And, I think the whole leaving it to chance thing, while integral to the archetype of the character, didn’t really work here. It was pushing it, but I could see Harvey deciding to take things into his own hands after what happened to him, but I find it hard to believe he’d have so much ‘fun’ doing it. I guess the point is he was infected by The Joker, but I think it would have been more thematically effective to cast him as a deformed version of Batman, who isn’t going to work within the system anymore, he’s going to kill rather than just capture. Basically, taking the idea that the system is broken and he doesn’t want to work within it anymore.

I’m not sure if it was intentional, but the film featured a surprising number of scenes that seemed quoted directly from the previous 90s Batman films. The whole choose the girl/sidekick conflict came right from Batman Forever, the ending battle with The Joker hanging upside down from a huge building and Batman holding him up, and the attack on the Mayor while he’s giving a press conference about keeping the city safe were exact pulls. And, the whole "You're a freak, like me" exchange is exactly what The Penguin says to Batman in Returns, only there the comment is actually integrated into the psychological makeup of the character, here it's thrown out there to tell us something that's not really evident in the film itself.

The film’s final act runs into some problems. The whole sonar goggles thing seemed basically pointless, and I think they lost sight of the core character conflict for too long. The lengthy sequence with the two boats was thematically relevant, but hard to engage with emotionally because we don’t care about these people. I suppose it was meant to be the real defeat of the Joker when nobody would pull the trigger, a demonstration that the city still had order, but it only worked thematically, not emotionally.

But, the return to order is rarely as interesting as throwing everything into chaos. The best shot in the film was The Joker hanging out of a police car, wind in his hair, an image that summed up everything that was going at that moment in the film. Even the Joker in nurse outfit, which could have just been goofy, felt strangely menacing.

But, the film’s final scene was kind of a letdown. With The Joker off the board, we get the hostage situation with plot devices 1, 2 and 3, aka the Gordon family. They are ciphers, used as a shortcut so the film won’t have to build real, emotionally credible characters to threaten. And, it bothered me that they used Gordon’s son as the central kid, why not throw the fans a little nod and have Barbara Gordon, his daughter, be the one whose faith in Batman is vindicated, setting up her eventual transformation to Batgirl in the future.

It would have also given us another female presence in the film. Rachel is also pretty much a cipher, it’s totally a man’s world here in Gotham. Part of what I love so much about Batman Returns is the way that it’s a meditation on female subjugation in contemporary society. She’s the most explicitly feminist superhero in cinema to date, and when you look at a film like this, it’s clear that women don’t typically have a place in the genre world. It’s his interactions with Selina that make Bruce a more compelling character in that film, and integrate the personal life and the professional life in a way that this film doesn’t.

I think there’s too many issues with the film to call it an unqualified masterpiece, but I still loved it. I think Ledger was brilliant, absolutely captivating whenever he was on screen. Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent was also great, pre Two Face, and the pounding, moody score did a great job of building atmosphere. I still don’t think much of Bale’s Batman, but the film on the whole was excellent.


egamipeaks said...

I haven't agreed more with a Dark Knight review yet. I thought some of the exact same things.

1. The Joker was basically the only interesting thing in this film.
2. Batman was extremely underdeveloped and boring in his own movie.
3. The film should have gone to a finale at the face-off between Batman and Joker.
4. The only shot in the movie that really got me emotionally invested was the Joker hanging out of the cop car with the minimalist score in the background. That was a great couple of seconds.

Tim Burton's Batman universe was much more interesting to me.

queergnosis said...

Hey Patrick -- thanks for your thoughtful review. I'm curious what your take on this film within the cultural context of Bush/Cheney's demands for executive privilege. To stop terrorism, our protagonists will go to any length, even violating civil liberties. Lucius Fox seems to be the only character to call Bruce out on his actions. Of course, the comic Batman also built OMAC.

Do you think these are issues are worth exploring/debating while examining the film's content?

Anonymous said...

Hey there. I'm the guy who commented on Misato/Ritsuko/Kaji. Love your blog.

I haven't watched TDK yet (don't worry, spoilers don't bother me), but you're not alone in thinking Nolan's 'real-life' approach, along with Bale's dull performances kind of suck.

I'll comment further when I watch TDK, but I just wanted to ask what you think of Batman: The Animated Series and the follow-up Batman Beyond. Do you think they contain the closest thing to 'definitive' film takes on the Batman and Joker?

Patrick said...

The shot with The Joker hanging out of the car stood out so much because it was the only point in the film where it went for pure cinema, just a beautiful image that may not have forwarded the narrative, but told us so much about the character and the world. It was a Malick-like moment a major contrast to the really driven and forward moving rest of the film. There's nothing wrong with moving the plot along, but sometimes it's nice to take a moment off and just get lost in the images.

The thing I liked about the Burton Batman universe, particularly in Returns, was the way he used really over the top devices as a way of showing the characters' various psychoses. The Joker is clearly insane in this film, but the world as a whole is sane. In Returns, everyone is insane in some way, and their own psychological issues reflect the essential psychological issues of Bruce/Batman. He's forced to choose between the three elements of himself, incarnated in Selina, The Penguin and Max Schreck, so that even when Batman isn't on screen, the film is still about him. That's why I think it's a more complex film than The Dark Knight, because so much of the movie exists in a psychological place, and uses dream imagery and logic rather than restricting the perspective to an objective real world eye.

Patrick said...

Re: the terrorism angle, I think the essential message of the film is that society is a social contract, that we all choose to obey the rules and defend the standards, to live within the regulations of the social system we choose. The Joker refuses to obey those standards, and is able to disrupt it, however, the episode with the boats is designed to show that most people don't share his opinion. At their core, most people choose to accept our societal contract, and won't break it even in the threat of their own death.

I don't think it's a direct correlation Batman/Dent/Gordon to Bush/Cheney, though the film certainly opens the door. The difference is, with the exception of the sonar thing from the end of the movie, they are the ones who live within the law, while the other cops are dirty and in the pocket of the mob. So, Dent isn't overstepping his bounds by going after other cops, he's doing the right thing.

The Sonar thing crosses a line in some ways, but the way the film constructs the situation, they don't really have a choice, and Bruce is complicit in the device's destruction at the end of the film. So, emotionally, you can't really argue with what they do, even though in the real world, I wouldn't want that kind of device around. It's like 24, the narrative constructs a situation where we support the violation of civil liberties, because there doesn't appear to be any other choice.

Patrick said...

CitizenX, I haven't seen much of the animated Batman series from the 90s. I watched it when I was younger, back when it was on, but I don't really remember it. To be honest, back then the Fox animated superhero series that really captivated me was X-Men. I loved that series, and it certainly paved the way for my love of Claremont's X-Men run, as well as serialized TV like Buffy.

I think it's tough to point to a definitive film, or comics, take on either Batman or The Joker. While I'm not a huge fan of Grant Morrison's Batman run, I do like his exploration of how integral changing identities are to both characters. Batman and The Joker are almost like jazz songs, in that every one who writes them gets to do their own spin on the basic melody.

Alexander said...

Hey, Patrick. Regarding Barbara Gordon, there's a moment just after Gordon's wife is presented with the news of her husband's death where she says to her son something like, "Go get your sister." My guess is that Nolan didn't want to establish Barbara beyond that one line because he wasn't ready to indicate her age or her appearance. He probably doesn't know if/when/how she may eventually play into this series, and thus hoped to avoid establishing anything about her that may later cause conflict.

I just saw the movie today, and I totally agree with almost everything you've written, especially about Bruce Wayne. I don't remember Returns too well, but I do recall scenes in Burton's first Batman where Bruce is struggling with what to do about Vikki Vail. In Dark Night, however, everything seems so easy for him. In choosing whether to save Harvey or his girlfriend, and in choosing the path to take at the very end of the film, there are no moments of deliberation and seemingly no internal struggle for Batman. If he's not affected by the dilemmas that the Joker puts him in, why should the audience care?

As for Two-Face, the coin makes sense to me if Harvey is genuinely in conflict over whether to pursue his hopeful vision for the city or his utter hatred of the city. Being of two minds about Gotham, the coin could be really comforting to him. However, by the end of Dark Knight, Harvey has succumbed to pure rage. There is no inner-conflict, no use for the coin, and nothing that distinguishes Two-Face from any other tragic hero who goes nuts because a loved one dies.

I actually really liked Batman Begins, but thought Dark Knight was a step backwards, mostly due to the handling of Bruce Wayne.

Patrick said...

That Barbara Gordon reasoning makes a lot of sense. I don't see Nolan putting a character like Batgirl into this universe, but who knows, maybe it'll happen. It would have been interesting if Gordon had actually died, then they have Barbara Gordon become Batgirl, and Batman has to deal with a younger version of himself putting herself in danger.