Summer Comic-Movie Review: The Dark Knight
It’s been over a week since I saw the Batman movie and I’m still trying to come up with something intelligent to add to the conversation beyond, “Joker = good = Oscar. AmIrite?” The short version is that the movie is good, almost as good as everyone says it is. This is the Batman movie that gets is right, the one that we’ve (or maybe just “I’ve”) been waiting for. The Dark Knight is the best Batman movie to date (not that the competition in that arena is too fierce), and it’s one of the four or five best superhero movies made so far. This is a well thought out movie and it requires a well thought out response.
(Minor spoilers ahead)
The movie overcomes a lot of the problems I had with Batman Begins. Superhero movies, like any adaptation, are a tightrope act. The best adaptations demonstrate an understanding of the source material without being a slave to it; they show something new, while staying within the boundaries of the characters and their world. You can’t have Batman firing lasers out of his fingertips or detaching his head and throwing it at someone, but the same old kicking and punching isn’t going to cut it either. Movies like X2, Iron Man, and even the Blade series, succeed because they know what to keep from the comics, and how to use film to do things that comics can't. The failing of Batman Begins was that it didn’t show me anything I hadn’t seen before. They got the character right, but none of it was new. Batman Begins had no moments that made me sit up and say, “Yes. Exactly.”
The Dark Knight is chock-a-block full of those moments. I was smiling right through the first half of the movie (you know, until it got serious). The entire sequence in Hong Kong, to take one example, is perfect, from the rooftop preparations (which finally made me accept that the armour is a better choice (aesthetically and practically) than the cape and cowl of the comics), to the glide (which takes my least favourite aspect of the previous movie (the fucking gliding) and makes it awesome), to the fighting (showing how scary having Batman come after you would be), to the escape (pure Batman; a perfect combination of planning and daring. The WTF look on the cops’ faces says it all). The fighting in the building is just one of the many satisfying beatings Batman lays down in this movie, another great one being at the nightclub where Batman cuts a swath through mob goons, pummelling his way to Maroni. Nolan leaves behind the choppy Bourne-style fights of the first movie and pulls the camera back to let us watch the beatdowns in full. They have to use the first act to make Batman look cool, because he spends the rest of the movie getting punked.
The centre of the movie is, of course, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. Ledger’s Joker is a magnetic presence, and he lights up the screen whenever he appears. Just as Jack Nicholson's Joker is (undeservedly) held up as a classic, Ledger's performance here is one for the ages. The movie falters around the midpoint after a catastrophic death, and doesn’t fully recover until Ledger reappears in the hospital at Harvey Dent’s bedside. Ledger disappears under the Joker’s tics, mannerisms, and vocal intonations. If I hadn’t known who was playing the role, I’d never have been able to identify him. Hell, I still can’t see him in there even though I know who it is.
The writing plays just as important a part in defining the character. Each of the Joker’s speeches is perfect in the insight they give into his psyche. I particularly liked the bit where he explains his capriciousness by saying he’s like a dog chasing after cars, and that he wouldn’t know what to do if he caught one. When he started telling the (admittedly terrific) story of how his father gave him his scars I was disappointed that they’d nailed him down to a single origin, and then overjoyed when he gives a different explanation later in the movie. In one of several parallels with The Killing Joke, this bit of dialogue mirrors a line from that story in which the Joker says, “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another... If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” Grant Morrison also has this terrific line in Arkham Asylum, in which a psychologist theorizes:
Unlike you and I, the Joker seems to have no control over the sensory information he's receiving from the outside world. He can only cope with the chaotic barrage of input by going with the flow. That's why some days he's a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer. He has no real personality. He creates himself each day.
(clipped from Adherents.com)
Nolan deserves much of the credit for taking this daring approach to the Joker. He abandons some of the traditional trappings of the character to give him a new, modern scariness. I was unsure about the Joker having face paint instead of white skin, but one of the opening lines describes it as “war paint,” which makes it make sense, and hints at the character’s savagery. The Joker’s appearance sets up an immediate and obvious contrast with Batman. The two characters’ masks make them inhuman, reducing (or elevating) them to archetypes or avatars. The clean and rigid lines of Batman’s armour are almost architectural, and reflect the order on the surface of the city, while the Joker’s scarred face and crumbling makeup suggest the underlying decay at Gotham’s soul.
Does anyone else hear the Bosom Buddies theme song when they look at this photo?
At the center of the story, between these two forces, is Harvey Dent. The dualism that pulls at him eventually manifests itself on his face. Dent is the true protagonist of the story, not Batman, because Dent is the only one who changes during the course of the movie. Dent’s fate shows the pessimism at the core of the story. (I honestly thought the movie was going to end in the aftermath of that big death and Dent getting his face burned off. I thought, "Well, I guess Batman loses in this one," because there was no way he could hurt the Joker like the Joker had just hurt him). A major theme of the movie, as several characters say outright, is escalation. Batman’s hasn’t improved the city; rather his presence has made things worse by drawing out a “better class of criminal.” The Gotham City of the movies isn’t the dystopia of the comics…yet. It’s getting worse since Batman showed up.
In adopting this worldview, TDK reflects the major Batman works of the 1980s, which shared this pessimistic vein. While Batman Begins took much of its inspiration from Denny O’Neil’s 1970s Batman stories (which, now that I think about it, may explain that movie’s blandness), The Dark Knight draws on the darker Miller/Moore Batman of the 1980s. Both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan cite Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke as a major influence on their respective Joker stories, but while Burton used only the superficial aspects of the story (ie. the Joker’s disfiguration being a result of a plunge into a vat of chemicals), Nolan goes deeper into Moore’s story to draw out the psychology and motivation of the Joker. In The Killing Joke, the Joker terrorizes Commissioner Gordon in an attempt to show that madness is the appropriate response to the horrors of the world. In The Dark Knight, the Joker repeatedly puts people in situations where they are forced to confront their own capacity for savagery, as when he tells the people on two boats that their survival is contingent on them detonating the other boat. The Joker wants everyone to have the same epiphany he did: that the world is insane. Following from this, I’m convinced that if either boat had pressed the detonator they would’ve blown themselves up, leaving the other boat to realize what’d happened, and that their altruism had left them vulnerable.
The turning point in The Killing Joke is when Gordon, despite being put through hell, insists that the Joker be brought in by the book, “…To show him our way works.” In the movie, it’s when the people in the boats refuse to blow each other up to save themselves. (MGK has a perfect one sentence review of the movie hinging on this point). As in the comic, the movie Batman confronts the Joker with the idea that Joker’s failure in bringing others down to his level indicates that the Joker’s madness is a sign of personal weakness.
The depth of thought behind this Joker, and the magnitude of this actions (for example, the demolition of the hospital) elevate him beyond the comic book Joker, and leave the Burton/ Nicholson Joker looking like a joke. The scene in Burton’s Batman where the Joker and his goons dance their way through an art gallery, slopping paint on fine art, to the accompaniment of Prince on a boom box, seems like a Saturday morning cartoon in light of TDK. Months ago, Jack Nicholson stated that he was furious that he hadn’t been considered for the part of the Joker. I wonder if Nicholson, who wrecks the first Batman movie with his hammy acting, is sitting somewhere right now, having seen TDK, saying, “Shhiiiiitt.”
Some critics are writing that this movie is at the level of Heat or The Godfather II. I think that might be overstating the case. Parts of the film do transcend the genre to reach those heights, moreso than any other comic book genre movie. However, some of the speechifying is just too earnest and sentimental. As well, the movie drags in the middle after that catastrophic death, with Batman’s moping being less interesting than you’d think it’d be. The movie is close to perfect, but it isn’t quite there. However, it is exciting, complex, and both emotionally and psychologically draining. Oh, and the score is pretty amazing, too. The question I’m left with is that with the way things are at the end of the movie, the way everything has gone wrong, this movie is Empire Strikes Back, and the door is open for a sequel, but how can they possibly top what they’ve done here? Anything less will seem like a joke, but anything more won’t leave a city standing for Batman to defend.