Sunday, November 8, 2009
Has enough time passed for the hype and the resulting backlash surrounding Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight for a reasonable evaluation to be made. This wildly ambitious follow-up to the inventive but largely by-the-book Batman Begins certainly struck a chord with audiences -- this reviewer included -- to the tune of over a billion dollars worldwide, but as so often happens, enjoyment turned into poetic waxing, which framed those who didn't enjoy it as much as the herd as virulent haters until, at last, the lambasting riled enough of those people to the point that they did become haters. I saw The Dark Knight six times while it was in theaters, and I say that less an expression of personal triumph and more a lament of that inner flame of geekiness that shall never die. However, I have not watched the film since the end of 2008, so I trust that I've stepped aside from the film long enough to make my definitive opinion of the film: it is, for all the hype, indeed a masterpiece (of genre if not cinema as a whole), albeit one with some key flaws. [This review contains spoilers because, let's be honest, if you haven't seen it by now you don't care anyway.]
Christian Bale's Batman is a justifiable bone of contention (well, not so much the character as the voice he uses), but he brings more to the always-neglected alter-ego of Batman, Bruce Wayne, than all of the previous actors combined. His Wayne pauses for the reflection afforded in comic book films only to Spider-Man, but Nolan and Bale leave out the 2-D camp of Raimi's franchise, instead tackling a traumatized young man's attempt to reconcile his desire for good with the mounting consequences of his actions.
Batman's impact on Gotham is evident an early scene where men dressed as Batman (copybats?) and armed with guns attempt to take down a deal involving Scarecrow before the real Batman bursts in to save the day. Bats ties up his would-be helpers alongside the villains and heads back into the night. "What gives you the right?" asks one pudgy vigilante, "What's the difference between you and me?" Batman dodges the question, but that's the underlying issue of the film, one compounded to the umpteenth degree by the emergence of the Joker.
Superhero films present the hero as the only one who can stop the bad guy, that Lex Luthor or Doctor Octopus or whomever will subjugate all the normal people of the world if the superpowered or at least most-inventive person does not stop them. The Dark Knight's biggest triumph is that it destroys this notion of the necessity and fundamental justice of vigilantes. Nolan, along with his brother Jonathan and their writing partner David S. Goyer, posit that a figure like the Joker exists because of people like Batman. The Joker is nihilism incarnate, a combination of Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Hannibal Lecter and insectile tics, and he comes to Gotham not to help criminals reassert themselves -- the first action of the film is his elaborate heist to steal mob money -- but to provide a sort of cosmic balance to the city. When he receives half of the mob's collective money pool, he burns it without hesitation, simply to prove that he does not need such material incentives.
Joker quickly dispatches mob bosses and high-ranking law officials alike, and his unrestrained brutality enrages Bruce. He blames the mobsters who hired this beast to kill Batman, neglecting to note that they did so as much out of fear as anything else. Alfred (Michael Caine) is there to cut through this nonsense: "You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn't fully understand."
The Joker has always been the perfect foil for Batman, in that Batman differs from his archenemy only because of his code of ethics. Joker sees how ridiculous those rules are, and so he tears through the world like a whirling dervish, killing as many criminals as police officers. The entire crux of their conflict in this film is Joker's desire to force Batman to see the contradictions in his moral code -- after all, how is it that stopping just sort of killing someone is considered inherently heroic? Indeed, all of the Joker's attacks are carefully structured to get under Batman's skin and hopefully provoke the masked hero into revealing the darkness within.
Largely, he's successful. In the course of the film, Batman tortures a mobster for information by throwing him from a height he knows to be nonlethal, indiscriminately causes millions of dollars of damages to the city, beats the Joker to within an inch of his life and even designs his own personal wiretapping system that uses every cell phone in Gotham as both a tracking device and sonar. In the film's best stretch, starting with an inspired chase through Gotham leading through an interrogation between Joker and Batman and its ultimate result, brings this idealistic conflict to a head. I say interrogation between the two characters, because the scene reveals as much about Batman as it does Joker and his plans. With his friend Harvey Dent and his love Rachel tied up in separate warehouses filled with explosives, Batman finally comes undone and starts beating Joker to a pulp. The villain just laughs as he tells Batman, to Wayne's mounting horror, that the hero can do nothing to frighten him.
Equally as important as Joker's attempt to corrupt Batman, though, is his quest to do the same with District Attorney Harvey Dent, revealed upon repeat viewings as the film's true protagonist. Aaron Eckhart's performance was largely overshadowed -- as was everyone else's -- by both the mastery of Heath Ledger's performance and the increased pressure/praise placed upon his death, but he's almost on the same level. Dent is the positive side of Batman's vigilantism; while Batman breaks the law and many sets of ethics that go beyond written legality, he can also inspire truly good men and women to action. Dent finds a way to bring up half of Gotham's organized criminals on charges at once, and in his handsome and charismatic face Gotham has a legitimate path to a brighter future, one not forged by an unstable billionaire getting out his demons on the faces of Gotham's criminals. But the Joker's actions bring out Dent's dark side as well, and when Joker's deathtrap kills Rachel and leaves him with a half his face burned off, something deep within Dent fully snaps. He's the tragic hero of The Dark Knight, or one of them at least, a shining hero brought to madness and ruin by the story's end. Some fans were disappointed that Dent dies at the end, but he could not have continued to live in Nolan's semi-realistic view of the Batman franchise. Furthermore, by the end he exists as the Joker's prize trophy, proof of the fine line that separates people between good and evil; he'd served the story as far as it could go.
Batman, on the other hand, has the possibility for self-realization. When he proudly presents his wiretapping device to Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Fox responds with revulsion, threatening to quit on the spot, only agreeing when Wayne tacitly informs him that he will destroy the device once he finds the Joker. As he stands over Dent's corpse at the end, Wayne makes the choice to preserve Dent's legacy and Gotham's budding sense of hope by finally accepting responsibility for his actions. Yes, he's also taking the blame for Dent's killing spree to preserve his friend's image, but Batman comes to understand that he's royally messed up, and allowing the city to align him with the villains is what they need to find a true morality.
If it does all of this so well, then, what are its flaws. For one thing, Christopher Nolan needs to learn a thing or two about editing. Some scenes, particularly a sequence near the end involving two boats full of fleeing Gothamites pitted against each other by the Joker, run far too long, while others cut out without any regard to narrative. Case in point: when the Joker crashes Wayne's fundraiser for Harvey, he chucks Rachel out the window, causing Batman to leap out and save her and then...what? It just ends. We can infer that the Joker assumed that his work was done there, even that he guessed that Dent was Batman after watching the cowled freak jump after Harvey's girlfriend so quickly, but when it comes to storytelling there's artistic ellipsis and flat-out laziness, and this scene clearly belongs in the latter category.
There's also the matter of Rachel Dawes, substituting Maggie Gyllenhaal for Katie Holmes but doing so little with the character it's hard to notice either way. Wayne's potential love interests never have anything to do in the Batman films, precisely because Bruce Wayne is too traumatized to think of anything other than his quest to clean up crime. Oh, he'd like to, sure, but something will always get in the way. The writers know this, which is one of the reasons, I suspect, they decided to kill her. Her death destabilizes both Batman and Dent, but in some way it plays like the writers liberating themselves and the franchise from the convention forced upon it. Nevertheless, they could and should have taken the time to flesh out her or any of the grand total of two women in this film instead of presenting both as plot devices.
These are major flaws, yes, but I still find myself enjoying The Dark Knight more than almost any other film made in the last decade. I devoted no space to Ledger's performance, because at this point I wonder if anything more can be said. To call it a tour de force is almost underselling it, as he so inhabits the core of the character's being that the more impish iteration that Nicholson played seems cartoonish in comparison. The film's detractors tend to love him too, but they shout that no one would care about this movie if not for his performance. I've discussed this argument elsewhere so I'll not revive it here, but let's all consider for a moment that many of the people who say this then point to Iron Man as the superior film, utterly refusing to apply their own logic to a film that is carried wholly by Robert Downey Jr. Ledger's performance is transcendent, yes, but it's one cog in a larger machine. Apart from a boxed-in Gyllenhaal (it's not her fault) and the Batman side of Bale, everyone in the film gives bravura performances, including wonderful minor work from character actors such as Keith Szarabajka (Holtz from Angel) -- and let's not leave out Gary Oldman, who brings levels to Commissioner Gordon rarely seen in any of the comics. Nolan films some scenes a bit sloppily, but Wally Pfister's cinematography is beyond reproach, and he largely distracts us when the editing becomes an issue.
A conservative columnist named Andrew Klavan brought down the wrath of the Internet when he wrote a rave about the film interpreting it as a validation of George W. Bush's presidency, that its hero justifies the use of extreme techniques such as torture and and wiretapping to stop evil. The funny thing is, Klavan's right, just not in the way he thinks. The Dark Knight is a crime epic, with Dent on one side, mobsters on the other, and Batman and Joker in between. Batman fights to capture the mobsters, while Joker works to simply push the line deeper and deeper into Good's territory until no one bothers with petty morality and contrived rules. Batman's techniques are not worthy of praise: they are what moves him almost past the point of no return. If anything, The Dark Knight makes its message too obvious, that the letter of the law must be followed even when times are desperate, otherwise we'll slip into anarchy. Furthermore, if we accept Klavan's belief that Batman stands in for Bush, then we must also consider how Batman inspires the Joker. If we extrapolate plot and interpretation, then Bush is directly responsible for the terrorists he fights. In that sense, Klavan just might be more on the money than any other analyst; how many terrorists did the Iraq invasion create as opposed to how many were there beforehand?
When Gordon explains to his young son that Batman is "the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now," he's acknowledging that both Batman and Gotham are corrupt, that the Caped Crusader's destructive justice is what this town has brought upon itself. Yet this ending is not wholly bleak, as in the end, both Batman and the residents of Gotham display a willingness to accept a sense of responsibility, and that this is merely the darkest part of night before the break of dawn.
**Post-script: I couldn't find anywhere to put this in the actual review, but I love that Alfred, when presented with a boat full of gorgeous young dancers to "watch over," is merely cheesed that rubbing them down with suntan lotion just means more work.