Friday, July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight - Review and Review

Well, I saw The Dark Knight today, and I can say with a fair amount of confidence that it is just about the best superhero/comic book movie... ever. I may not feel that way six weeks from now--when I first saw Spider-Man 2, I thought that was the best comic movie ever, and now much about that film bugs the crap out of me.

Let me get my basic comments about TDK out of the way before I move on to the review of the reviews:
  1. Heath Ledger is AMAZING. There are many, many things for me to nitpick with the movie's portrayal of the Joker, but his performance is unbelievable.
  2. The Joker is SCARY. I've seen the word "creepy" used in several reviews, but I was genuinely scared of Ledger's Joker.
  3. The tension is, well, TENSE. And enduring. I'm not sure how well much of the film will hold up over repeated viewings, but for my first time seeing it... Wow. I was tired coming out of it--the movie just grabbed me and did not let go. I was absorbed completely.
  4. I still hate the Batsuit. If nothing else, give Batman a gray bodysuit so that we can actually SEE the title character. I believe it was Denny O'Neil who said "Batman is 50% style, and that style always comes from the artist." So it should be from the movies. Give me a Batman I can actually see instead of the great black blob. Ugh.
Okay. With all of that said, let's review some of the common comments from the reviews. I'm not going to quote here, as it's late, I wish to go to bed, and it's beside the point.
  1. "This movie is so dark/serious/complicated/grimngritty that it makes you forget that silly 60's show/Adam West/Cesar Romero/fun." Give me a damned break already. ANYONE who is still griping about the initially excellent 1960's Batman show: SHUT UP. Just SHUT UP. It's been 40 years. Batman is dark and serious--we get it. Never mind that the show saved the comics. Never mind that the show was better than the comics of the time, by far. Never mind that no one who has read more than five Batman comics believes that the show--that any incarnation--is the ONLY Batman. The first season of the TV show was perfect for what it was, and nothing more or less. Let it rest, and let those of us who can still enjoy it continue to enjoy it.
  2. "Heath Ledger makes Jack Nicholson look like a clown." Let's get this out of the way, okay? Ledger was given different material than Nicholson, and it was very different from Ledger's usual stuff. This is not to detract from Ledger's performance, which is brilliant. However, this is in NO way a Ledger vs. Nicholson debate. It can be a Batman (1989) vs. The Dark Knight (2008) debate, if you want.
  3. "The Joker is scary because he's an anarchist." In the words of the Human Ton and his sock-puppet Handy: Read a book! Even the writers/director of the film claim that the Joker represents anarchy. It might be more proper to label the Joker a sociopathic nihilist, and even then the labels could be better. Were the Joker in the film truly an anarchist, he wouldn't SPOILER have a third detonator. SPOILER
More complaints about the critics and the buzz may follow and be edited into the list above. Long story short: Go see the movie. It rules.

Eric

2 comments:

Jared's Review-Beware of Spoilers! said...

Let me preface this by saying that I'm neither a movie buff nor a
diehard fan of Batman the way I am of Spider-Man and Sleepwalker.
It's just the views of one casual fan. Please keep that in mind
before you start flaming me.

Now, with that out of the way, let me say that this was a really good
movie, but not as good as the Spider-Man movies in my view. You'll see what I mean by the end of this review.

The dark, moody vein of Gotham City, the people who struggle to
survive within it, the few who fight for good and right, and the
parasitic elements that prey on the underworld are all perfectly
captured. Commissionner Gordon, especially, is a guy who tries to
maintain his sense of honor and decency in a city that too often
lacks both, and constantly wrestles with the consequences of his actions, especially when they're tragically driven home at the end of the film. Harvey Dent is a passionate, devil-may-care white knight who believes in his cause with every fiber of his being. Batman is, as Gordon correctly describes him, a silent guardian, a protector in the night. Bruce Wayne truly is the cover for the true man underneath, and if Christian Bale is less engaging than Michael
Keaton as Bruce Wayne, then Bale more effectively shows that Bruce
Wayne really is just a mask Batman assumes when he has to.

The multilayered plot of the movie works extremely well too, with the
Joker's various schemes all serving as part of his larger overall project-his desire to show people the underlying selfishness and depravity that he claims lurks beneath their civilized exteriors.
Even when people successfully respond to his schemes, it all fits
into the larger game by exposing the lengths to which some people
will go to protect themselves at the expense of their fellow
citizens. This can be a commentary...but so too can the fact that the people on the ferries couldn't bring themselves to kill each other. At least on one level, the Joker is proven wrong when people reveal the limits they simply can't cross.

On the other hand, he succeeded with Harvey Dent, driving him mad
both with the scene in the hospital and his murder of Rachel,
shattering Dent's belief in law and order and leaving him believing
that the only determining factor in the world was chance. He almost
succeeded with the SWAT teams who would have inadvertently killed the
hostages disguised as the clowns; how would they have reacted on
shooting the clowns, only to realize they were the hostages?

This, of course, brings us to the Joker himself. Now, I know how
this is going to make me look, and I know how many flames will be
coming my way...but Heath Ledger's Joker is simply not the Joker as I
see him. Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, and Kevin Michael Richardson all portray the Joker as a macabre artist, a "performer" who uses innocent and unwilling victims as his canvases and his theaters, which is how I view the Joker, with Batman acting as the ultimate straight man. This Joker is nothing like that-he's not the Joker as I view him, he's a supervillainous Charles Manson, an extremely effective and cunning villain, but not a performer or an artist.

Ledger's performance also didn't frighten me-his Joker is a dangerous son of a bitch, to be sure, but not the same twisted artist I recognize in previous renditions of the Joker. In my defense, let me say that I don't see what's so great about Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, so maybe I'm just a philistine.

I also have issues with some of the themes the narrative seems to be hinting at. When the Joker says that Gotham deserves a new "class of criminal", are the Nolan brothers implying that Batman is giving rise to the 'freaks' that are slowly infesting Gotham? This risks making the same fundamental thematic mistake, in my view, that Grant Morrison seems to have made in "Arkham Asylum"; if Batman really IS the reason the supervillains flock to Gotham, then isn't the only sane and responsible thing to do to retire and stop? How can we as the audience empathize with and root for Batman if he's the one
causing all the problems in the first place? As I see him, Batman
didn't create the Joker, he didn't create the Scarecrow, he didn't
create Two-Face, he didn't create Poison Ivy, he didn't create the
Riddler, he didn't create the Mad Hatter, he didn't create any of his
worst enemies. He's the silent protector that keeps Gotham from
sliding into hell, the dark angel, flawed as he might be, that keeps
the city from tearing itself apart.

Fortunately, it seems like the questions the film raises aren't
addressed so easily. Gordon's trust and his optimism, misplaced when he thinks he's cleaned up the police department, are what ultimately allow the Joker to destroy Harvey Dent, but it's those same traits that keep the Joker from ultimately winning in the end. It's what allows the city as a whole to continue in its struggle to survive, even if the film seems to end on a pessimistic note. For all that he has very real flaws, the city still needs Batman; if it's dark and grim with him, it would be hell on Earth WITHOUT him.

That's the thing about Batman in just about every version, though; as grim and dark as he might be, and subsequently more difficult for me to identify with and root for, the city still needs him, and he still continues the fight not just for revenge, but because the innocent and defenseless need him.

Eric Teall said...

Now, with that out of the way, let me say that this was a really good movie, but not as good as the Spider-Man movies in my view.

Philistine! ;-) Seriously, I think there's a difference between a "feel-good" movie (Spider-Man 2) and a dark movie (The Dark Knight). I will argue till I'm blue in the face that TDK is a better film than SM2, but I can totally see why someone would like SM2 better.

Bruce Wayne truly is the cover for the true man underneath, and if Christian Bale is less engaging than Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne, then Bale more effectively shows that Bruce Wayne really is just a mask Batman assumes when he has to.

I don't think there is one teeny, tiny aspect of Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne that holds a candle to Bale's, in large part due to the poor quality of the material Keaton had to work with. He's a great actor, and I love his work. But Bale's Bruce Wayne gets to play the smarmy, trust-fund-idiot as well as be a more serious person.

Furthermore--and this is enough for a whole post, and I'm not doing that tonight--I disagree with anyone who says that Wayne is the mask and that Batman is the real person. Batman is only one aspect of Wayne's war on crime--a large aspect, to be sure, but not the only one. The Batman is, as Alfred says in Batman Begins, "a persona to protect [Wayne's loved ones]" as well as a symbol to frighten criminals. However, high-society playboy Wayne is a persona, Matches Malone is a persona, etc. I think it oversimplifies things to say that Wayne isn't real but Batman is.

That said, I do love the time in the comics where someone tries to unmask Batman "to see his real face" and the Joker just laughs at them: "That IS his real face!"

Heath Ledger's Joker is simply not the Joker as I see him. [T]he Joker [is] a macabre artist, a "performer" who uses innocent and unwilling victims as his canvases and his theaters with Batman acting as the ultimate straight man. This Joker is nothing like that--he's a supervillainous Charles Manson, an extremely effective and cunning villain, but not a performer or an artist.

I'd argue that this isn't a Ledger issue, it's a Nolan issue. I agree with much of what you say in that this isn't exactly how I imagine the Joker, either--my favorite interpretation is much closer to Mike W. Barr's two-parter from Detective 569-570.

Ledger's performance also didn't frighten me--his Joker is a dangerous son of a bitch, to be sure, but not the same twisted artist I recognize in previous renditions of the Joker. In my defense, let me say that I don't see what's so great about Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, so maybe I'm just a philistine.

Not liking Sgt. Pepper isn't the best defense I've ever heard, you Philistine! I guess I found myself afraid of the Joker's absolutely unrelenting nihilism. Terrorists scare me, too. (And as one reviewer commented, make no mistake--this Joker is a terrorist.)

This risks making the same fundamental thematic mistake, in my view, that Grant Morrison seems to have made in "Arkham Asylum"; if Batman really IS the reason the supervillains flock to Gotham, then isn't the only sane and responsible thing to do to retire and stop?

I agree: Morrison took it too far in Arkham, but I don't think Nolan goes as far here. Listen to Alfred's explanation in the film again: the mob is acting out of desperation, so they turn to a man they don't understand. In other words, there's so much evil in Gotham, and Batman is such a potent force for good, that he basically forces the evil out at higher pressures, like a thumb over a hose. The Joker himself admits that all he did before was steal from the mob and kill people--fighting Batman is more fun.

As far as the Scarecrow and his ersatz Batman go, I do think there'd be some copycats--see The Dark Knight Returns--but such people arise to mimic any influential figure. I think Nolan treats the issue fairly without placing the blame on Wayne's shoulders.

What I thought the film did best was to deliver a compelling narrative between two titanic forces and to raise the stakes in each scene. The dramatic tension here is thick and fulfilling.

Still better than Spider-Man 2, for my money! ;-)

Eric