Sunday, July 20, 2008

Review: The Dark Knight

Three years ago Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale re-invented Batman movies for the world, and this was a good thing. No more Hockey player henchmen and bad jokes, no more molded Bat-nipples. They offered us a Batman universe that was as dark as anything Tim Burton had ever imagined, and was much more complex. We had a hero who struggled not only with villains, but also with how we understand justice. Our hero had to save a corrupt city from destroying itself, all the while facing who he was and was not. Batman Begins is a great movie.

This past weekend Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale brought us The Dark Knight. This movie has been the center of more expectation and hype than anything in recent memory with the possible except of the awful Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. There's been hype because Begins was so good. There's been hype because of the audacity of revisiting a character that Jack Nicholson masterfully realized and Heath Ledger's lauded, final performance in it. I went into this film right off of viewing its predecessor, I went in without eschewing the hype, and on the other side of that unprecedentedly crowded midnight showing, I can confidently say that The Dark Knight is the best superhero film ever made.

As an ambitious an undertaking as this film was, the cast carries it through. Maggie Gyllenhaal made Rachel Dawes fit into this Bat-verse in a way the Katie Holmes, I'm afraid, simply couldn't have ever done. Gary Oldman received much more screen time than in the first film, and showed that he was up to the challenge--his and Bale's relationship in TDK is easily the best Gordon-Batman relationship outside of Batman the Animated Series. Aaron Eckhart was a pleasant surprise to me. I appreciated him in Thank You for Smoking, but he really just nailed Harvey Dent. Heath Ledger is going to get an Oscar nomination--and maybe a win.
The only disappointment to me was Bale, though this isn't entirely his fault. Though Batman is really well done in this movie--we see him on international quests, playing the detective, and just really reflecting the Batman of the comics--I'm still not sold on Bale as Batman. His Wayne is fine, but his Bat-voice kills me. (I think the Animated Series spoiled me there, and now any man who doesn't sound like Kevin Conroy is paying the price.) But more than that, Batman simply doesn't get the development in this film that you expect. Batman Begins spent so much time on Bruce's internal struggles that once you arrive at TDK, with Gordon, Dent, and Joker receiving so much attention, you feel short-changed. Christian Bale can do so much if he's given the chance. The foundation for exploration is definitely laid, as Batman is forced to become darker and darker with the Joker's chaos spreading so quickly, but I think this conflict ultimately plays out better in Harvey Dent than in Batman, and the film-makers simply give themselves no time to do it any other way.
Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman both do well, though Caine's Alfred sees less screen time the second time around, and much of Freeman's seems forced. The former I can't complain about, as there's only so much Alfred can do while Batman devotes himself to stopping the Joker, but I could have done for less of Lucius Fox. We don't need more of him just because it's Morgan Freeman. Let him be Lucius Fox, not Alfred, or Robin even.

I could go on for some time about the production of the film. It's well-made. But what about the story? the message we are left with? I've been asking myself about this since the credits finished rolling and that impressive film score came to an end.
This is a dark film. The darkness brings Scorsese to mind, except that Scorsese's work relies not only on violence, but on graphic violence; he takes advantage of his R ratings. Also, Scorsese is dealing with men, and, as Batman Begins belabored, Nolan with Batman is not dealing with a man, but a symbol. Batman Begins closed with the sad acknowledgement that 'Bruce Wayne' is only a mask, that Batman is who he is. In Dark Knight the Joker is no man either, but is something like sheer chaotic desire. He's just the bandit in Alfred's story or, as Dent put it, a mad dog. He doesn't even have a real history like Batman--every time he tells you about his scars it's another tale.
So what does Nolan do with these two powerful symbols?
He pits them against each other, and offers them both to the people of Gotham and to us.
We're offered on the right the darkness of Batman, darkness that precedes the dawn, and on the left the Joker's dark 'plans', where we won't panic, but we have to act without consideration to survive. Batman's tempted by Joker's darkness, so is Dent, so are all of the citizens of Gotham. Batman's alternative is offered to all as well--the citizens, the police, Dent, Joker even, though he's oblivious to such offers. As we make our choice, we're reminded that it is a social decision. We can't 'make our own luck', life's not fair, and every choice we make will affect others somehow. We must decide whether we'll be the person the Joker expects us to be, or the person that Batman determined to be in the first film.
Not everyone decides the same way, and the film's end shows you how affected everyone is, how unfair the results can be.

The Scorsese films that I've seen never have a "happy ending". You might be content--maybe your favorite character survives (-gasp!-). But you're never happy, things are never settled. That's because the films are brutally honest. The Dark Knight is no different. It doesn't pull punches, and it sacrifices some potential to make the point. The Joker's funny until you come to yourself and realize what it is that you're laughing at. His violence is repulsive, but he'll scare you until you buy into it. Batman doesn't have an attractive alternative, but it is decent, good. And really, no matter what you choose, you lose. That's The Dark Knight.

Last summer Spider-Man 3 hit theaters; it had been heralded by the greatest film trailer I've ever seen. Unfortunately the film itself was terrible--I nearly walked out, and can honestly say now that I wouldn't have reason to regret it had I. I saw the trailer again after seeing the movie, and was captivated. "This looks like the greatest movie ever made!" I thought. Then I recalled that I had seen it... and it wasn't. The Dark Knight is the super-hero film that Spidey 3 ought to have been. We have to look long and hard into the darkness--a darkness which hides no emos--and then we must make our choice: who are we? 'Why hide who I am?' Dent asks Gordon at one point in the film. How will we let the darkness of life shape who we are?
It's true that any number of films can show you the true, frightening nature of evil, but that doesn't automatically put this on the same level as some slasher flick. People going to see Saw 18 get what they pay for... and what they pay for it disgusting. People going to see The Dark Knight may be disgusted, but that's what well-portayed evil ought to do. Go watch Silence of the Lambs again.
If you love superheroes, see this film. If you love Batman, though I don't need to say it at this point, you must see this film. If you love good movies, see it. The Dark Knight is what it is, and we just have to trust Dent that "the dawn is coming."

Brant at Kamp Krusty didn't like the movie much.
Jeffery Overstreet did, and he defended it from some criticism.
Christianity Today's review

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Once again, my nemesis, I have found you. You will never be able to find a haven that will shield you from my wrath.

Prepare to be vanquished.