25 August 2008

Thoughts On: The Dark Knight

I saw The Dark Knight last week, but I’m not all that convinced I saw Batman.

Once again director Christopher Nolan proves himself a master of plotting and tone and hit-and-miss with pacing and character.  For a long movie, The Dark Knight doesn't feel too bloated.
Nolan’s most noticeable weakness remains his action. As captured in The Dark Knight, the fisticuffs on display are a vast improvement over the sleight-of-hand editing that rendered fight scenes in Batman Begins utter mush. For the first time, we are allowed to glimpse Nolan's Batman and his variously concussive victims together in frame, if only briefly.

Where The Dark Knight really distinguishes itself--for good and ill--is in its take on the Batman characters. The Joker continues his streak of making for great film characters that are not even remotely related to the Joker from the comic books.  First, Jack Nicholson vamped for two and half hours, now Heath Ledger is allowed to disappear inside of a numb, mumbling street psycho.

As a foil for Batman he does all the right things.  Otherwise, as a presence in the film, he seems to be a negation, like some sort of post modern narrative gargoyle. He is the most nihilistic thing in this very nihilistic picture. (Almost as an indication of his character's tenuous attachment to the proceedings, his grease paint, barely a micro-millimeter thick, comes off constantly throughout the film.)

I don’t know. Maybe I just miss a Joker who was more interested in stealing stuff or who took more delight in killing people. This Joker can hardly be bothered to talk... or kill ... anybody. He seems to find people, even as potential corpses, a little tiring.

As for Batman, he’s pretty dire here.  We're definitely playing to the "Batman is so cool he's not actually a guy in tights" fan, here. 

Denied everything he wants, completely unsure of what he’s doing, unable to succeed and, finally, declared an outlaw, this Batman is only denied a spot on the cross cause his wings probably would've got in the way of the nails.   I’m not sure I’m smart enough to understand what Nolan and his scriptwriting partner (his brother, I think) were getting at, giving Batman outright criminal status at the end of the film. Hard as they’re trying to make these Batman movies into “real world” Batman movies, I suppose it’s just a logical outcome of what’s going on in the story.

I’m even less sure of what to make of the "illegal surveillance" story point that closes the picture. Batman saves the day through his horribly invasive “wire-tapping” that he regrets having to resort to for some reason, even though if he's pretty much a vigilante.   His cohort is utterly against using the technology... except maybe this once... but is meanwhile fine with the attacking and beating people. 

Another story point I didn’t like--this time simply for believability reasons--is the fall of Harvey Dent, the handsome but doomed district attorney known to comic book fans everywhere as the criminal Two-Face. The movie simply shoe-horns his descent into madness into the last third... excuse me, fourth ... of the fil and it's not entirely convincing or satisfying.  

Dent's troubles are not unexpected, and snapping as he does seems unlikely, especially after the movie's spent two hours proving to us what a sharp, well-adjusted customer he is.  What’s more, the grudges he acts on don’t make a whole lot of sense.

As a confirmed Marvel-phile, I have to admit I entered this movie worrying a) that I would not like it unfairly, or b) that I might like it too much. I’m proud to say neither turned out to be the case. The movie was really good, and not nearly the masterpiece it's being hailed as.

Like its predecessor, I find the film’s tone too much one note and a little oppressive. For all its action, neither film is ever, in the least, rousing. It’s just my personal taste, but I like my superheroes rousing. Nolan’s films are tense and brooding. 

I simply can't consider The Dark Knight an exemplary superhero flick, but it is a solidly built, large scale urban thriller, like Michael Mann’s Heat, which it is clearly emulating in part. It is very good at that.

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