I’m starting to get worried about The Dark Knight.
My concern stems from David Edelstein’s review. I don’t care that it’s lukewarm; I do care that it’s lukewarm and that Edelstein seems to have a pretty good handle on why Batman Begins worked so well:
“Nolan is grappling with the Big Themes of vigilantism (especially urban vigilantism), and he did pretty well in Batman Begins [...] . But the psychological twists in The Dark Knight [...] play as if they’d been penned by Oxford philosophy majors trying to tone up a piece of American pop [...] .”
Edelstein’s understanding of Batman Begins wasn’t as evolved three years ago, but now he’s seen the light. Not to brag (too much), but something I wrote back then (albeit not on deadline) remains awfully perceptive in light of The Dark Knight and its reception:
“Batman Begins’ Gotham features at least six levels of corruption, and each is represented distinctly by characters in the movie.”I didn’t see anybody else talking about this shit in 2005, and that’s the source of my fretting now. If the themes have become the show, it could make for a long 150 minutes.
Here’s the weird thing about Nolan, and why I’m afraid: Although he’s gotten good to great reviews for everything he’s done since his breakthrough Memento (his second feature), I don’t think many people get him. His movies have been intricate and dense, but never at the expense of pleasure, and he has largely been judged on his shiny surfaces — suspense and structural puzzles.
It’s not as if his themes are buried deep; they’re subcutaneous but plainly visible. He’s been an illusionist much like the two protagonists of The Prestige, diverting attention from what’s really going on: Nolan’s thematic “grappling” is the heart of his work, and it has been an honest and evenly matched rasslin’ contest.
And now a mainstream critic, writing a first-blush review for a general-interest publication, is equating The Dark Knight with collegiate term papers. Ouch. Has Nolan gotten too declamatory? Has he forgotten to make an entertainment? Did he blow his wad the first time? (I closed my essay on Batman Begins by saying: “The only major problem with the movie is that it doesn’t seem to offer any satisfying place to take the franchise. How do you top this?”)
I worry that Nolan (with his co-writer brother) has perhaps resorted to underlining his themes, and we know that he loves to underline. In Batman Begins, dialogue gets repeated for emphasis or irony, and it’s painful. Does he really think audiences get a kick from Morgan Freeman’s “Didn’t you get the memo?” fuck-you?
Nolan’s work before now has been human in a very curious way: The audience connects to characters not as people but as abstract concepts that apply to our lives or our societies. You could almost put two- or three-word labels on characters in his movies, identifying them by what they represent. Memento’s Leonard embodies self-destructive denial. Batman Begins’ Joe Chill is a criminal born of circumstance.
That effective use of characters as symbols makes Nolan an ideal filmmaker for comic-book stories, but only when they’re arranged and moved and played off each other with vigor and rigor, when the audience doesn’t recognize that somebody is actually trying to spur them to self-examination.
Beyond that, a Nolan Batman movie can’t merely be “about” vigilantism; it must say something interesting and meaningful — with subtlety and curiosity — about vigilantism.
I’ll find out Saturday whether I agree with Edelstein. My understanding of The Dark Knight is that Heath Ledger’s Joker makes explicit philosophical and ethical quandaries that would simply have been latent in Nolan’s earlier movies. That allays my concerns somewhat, as do the assessments of some other critics.
But I’m prepared to be disappointed.