The Knight’s Armor

The Dark Knight

dark_knight7.jpgIt’s become apparent with The Dark Knight that dissent will not be tolerated by the movie’s fans.

But contrary arguments, even if they’re wrong, serve an important purpose, assuming they’re thoughtful and supported; they can help opponents question themselves and ultimately develop better cases. In that spirit, I recommend Patchwork Earth’s review, which is thorough and articulate. (It’s correct, too.)

My goal here is to raise some very specific complaints (very randomly) to prompt the film’s many, many supporters to re-think their adoration of Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins. I’m not saying it’s a bad movie; I’m saying it’s a not-great (and probably not-good) movie.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, start with my broad (but brief!) overview, because the Spoiler’s Creed is in effect here.

The really short version: I enjoyed the movie but found it painfully muddled, and a poor reflection of its makers’ obvious ambitions and ideas.

Hong Kong. I liked Batman’s vacation, as it took the Caped Crusader out of Gotham and put him in something approximating the real world instead of the comic-book universe. It’s a fun contextual flair that I wish worked toward some greater good.

Alas, this much-maligned section exists for two reasons: to establish the spying-sonar gadget (more on that later) and to show that Batman Has No Jurisdiction. Both are bald attempts to equate Batman with the Bush administration; given the movie’s mantra of “terrorism,” it’s hard to avoid the comparison.

Yet it’s not a meaningful or appropriate comparison. The Bush administration is a regime with checks and balances within and outside the United States; that those checks and balances are tooth- and ball-less misses the point. Batman is a self-appointed dispenser of justice, and any governmental sanction is unofficial.

That aside, Batman has always ignored pesky rules, and the conundrum of rights pitted against the general welfare would certainly be appropriate thematic fodder. But the ideas are barely developed. When Lucius Fox objects to wide-scale surveillance of Gotham, his complaint is dismissed and deflated with the argument that it’s really, really important to catch the Joker. One discussion wonders whether it’s better to only pursue solid prosecutions against the mob or to have “clean streets” for 18 months; fuck the law, and let’s go for clean streets.

The absence of strong and rational dissent sends a clear message. Perhaps I’ve politically misjudged Nolan and his co-writer brother, but they seem too thoughtful to so glibly endorse oligarchy and the disregard for due process.

The rating. Ed Howard at Only the Cinema has praised Nolan for his restraint. It’s a spirited defense, and it makes a good deal of sense outside of the context of the movie business.

But I refuse to believe that Nolan made an artistic choice to present his ample violence in a bloodless and largely implied fashion, because this must be true: The movie’s financiers would not have accepted a picture that could potentially be rated R.

This seemed at best a minor challenge with Batman Begins, given that the primary weapon was a hallucinogenic gas. The Dark Knight, on the other hand, features the unpleasant business with the pencil, and improvised cosmetic surgery, and a primary villain whose weapon of choice is knives. Lots of knives. (And pocket lint, although I’m not sure what he hopes to accomplish with that.)

Nolan does a mostly admirable job, except that at heart The Dark Knight should be an R-rated movie, and I think he knows it. Rather than delivering a PG-13 movie abiding by the letter and the spirit of the MPAA’s silly rules, he seems to want to push the boundaries, punishing parents who take their eight-year-olds to see this. How much violence and sadism can I get away with?

This is admittedly a gut feeling, but it seems to me that Nolan was hell-bent on being a movie-ratings Batman, flouting the rules.

The death of Jim Gordon. Obvious and badly done, the faked death of Jim Gordon mainly makes us question whether Rachel Dawes is actually dead, which is a grave misstep considering that her passing should be the heart of the movie.

The boats. Ultimately, whatever optimism The Dark Knight exudes comes from this episode, in which people packed on two ferries are given the choice to (a) blow up the other boat, (b) wait for the other people to blow them up, or (c) in the unlikely event that both boats still exist when the deadline passes, wait for the Joker to blow up both boats, as he’s promised to do. Both boats still exist when the deadline passes, and Batman claims to the Joker that this proves ... something or other — I think that people are good.

But this merely shows that the Nolans think people are stupid. If the choices are that half the people die, or everybody dies, any rational person would decide to blow up the other boat. And given an even more loaded choice — one boat of decent folk and one boat of bloodthirsty convicts — we’re to believe that the good citizens of Gotham show their decency? Ignoring logic, their instinct for self-preservation, and their mob mentality? Bullshit.

And let’s look beyond the actual outcome: The people voted to blow up the boat full of prisoners, and they would have done it had one guy had the balls to turn the key. We are supposed to feel good about humanity from that?

The primary problem here is the threat from the Joker to blow up both boats. Yes, that’s in-character, but it undermines the obvious question of situational ethics, and the tension inherent in the predicament. Again, the threat of death to all makes the choice too easy; it should be a matter of who can turn the key first.

But what if there were no deadline? What if the “good ferry” had 20 people, and the “bad ferry” had 200? What would Jesus do? What would you do? I’m not sure how you’d set it up, but it would be difficult to make it more awkward or false.

dark_knight6.jpgHeath Ledger. I’m asking for trouble, aren’t I?

Let me be clear: If Anthony Hopkins deserved an Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs, Heath Ledger deserves one for The Dark Knight.

His performance is forceful, nuanced, entertaining, frightening, and fully developed. It also has such mass and gravity that it dominates the rest of the movie and, to extend the metaphor, throws everything else out of its trajectory.

This is a tough one, because the realization that Ledger was going to exert too great a force on the movie could only come once production was underway. And while re-writes are hardly uncommon, Nolan seems too meticulous, and the production was too expensive, to retool it so late in the game.

Bluntly, to accommodate his performance as the Joker, the movie would have to be significantly re-thought. Which leads to ...

Two-Face. As the idealistic, relentless DA Harvey Dent, Aaron Eckhart is convincing and compelling. As Two-Face, he’s a pretty cool special effect, and is the de facto — and disappointing — denouement to the real show of the Joker.

The big problem is that the Nolans create and kill Two-Face as if they couldn’t wait to be done with him. He’s burned! He’s angry! He’s dead!

dark_knight5.jpgHarvey Dent seems more interesting to them than Two-Face, and he seems a better thematic match for Batman in his battle with the Joker, with his dedication to justice and order, his warnings to Gordon about trusting his bought-and-paid-for colleagues, and his apparent incorruptibility. So why not save Two-Face for the next movie? Duality is barely touched on in The Dark Knight, even though the marketing would have you believe otherwise.

Cutting out the Two-Face transformation would have necessitated scrapping much of the script, but it would have lent the project more focus. And it would have the added benefit of letting Maggie Gyllenhaal return.

Sound design. Ummmm ... wouldn’t Two-Face have some speech impediment if his face looked like that?

Yes, that’s nitpicking, but Nolan appears to want to ground his Batman movies in plausibility, and attention to detail is the only way to sell the silliness in such a way that it can be taken seriously.

The familiar. In a take-down of The Dark Knight, Keith Uhlich argues that coin-flipping Two-Face comes off as a low-rent Anton Chigurh. Ulrich was rightly criticized for forgetting that Two-Face’s games of chance were around long before Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men or its film adaptation, but he’s on to something. From Two-Face’s coin to the Joker’s Glasgow smile (Pan’s Labyrinth) to the cell-phone-in-the-belly explosives (some variation of which surely has been used in a Saw movie), the motifs of The Dark Knight feel tired because of their familiarity from recent movies, no matter which came first.

Batman Begins wasn’t revolutionary, but its approach was something we’d never seen in a Caped Crusader movie: a groundedness bordering on realism (for a comic-book movie). It was fresh.

The Dark Knight feels pretty stale.

Diabolical plans. The Joker is at his best in direct action. His first meeting with the mob is electric, as we feel his menace on a very personal level. He visits the mob on its own territory, and is in an obvious position of weakness. Yet he takes control with both quick, brutal action and smart, cunning words. The other standout scene comes when he’s being held and questioned/beaten by Batman and the police, and it’s evident that he has the upper hand. Through intimacy we discover him and revel in him. The movie’s enduring prop will be a pencil, not the Batpod or some other gadget.

But the Joker has Big Plans, and the bigger they are, the less we see of him. The convolutions of plot and scenario in The Dark Knight reminded me a little of the Adam West TV show. That ain’t good.

The evil plot in Batman Begins was simple, but three days after seeing The Dark Knight, I couldn’t piece together a reasonable facsimile of the Joker’s master plan. I’m not certain I ever understood it.

The sonar. An obvious work-around for a climactic action sequence that the filmmakers seemed to know beforehand wouldn’t work without some sort of voice-over narration. So there’s the Hong Kong detour to set it up. And beyond knowing that the people in the clown masks were the hostages, I still couldn’t tell you what happened.

It almost seems that the Nolans worked really, really hard to address a storytelling problem, and their solution is so awkward that it comes off as lazy despite the screenwriting and technical challenges that had to be overcome to execute it.

It’s akin to struggling to find the perfect word and writing around the problem with 236 collectively inferior words. There’s ample evidence of both the effort and the failure.

at times the Joker seemed almost too smart, borderline clairvoyant, but i guess that what makes him a good foe for the Batman...

The death of Jim Gordon was indeed really, really stupid, one of my biggest problems with the film. It was so obvious all along that he wasn’t dead, especially since you know, he still has to become Commissioner Gordon, and it was so obvious that that was him in the truck. Really unnecessary and contrived.

On the other hand, I thought Heath Ledger was pitch-perfect both taken separately and as part of the film as a whole. Why exactly do you feel the film would have to be re-written to accommodate his performance? Quite to the contrary, Ledger’s Joker is integral to the film, and the moral tensions between him, Batman, and Dent/Two Face seem to me very well developed. Even when he’s not onscreen, his presence is felt very strongly. I also thought Aaron Eckhart’s wonderful performance, likely to be underrated in all the hype over Ledger, carried over into his transformation in the latter half of the film. It might not have worked, I think, if he hadn’t sold his profound grief over Rachel so well. The shot where he’s lying in the gas puddle, half his face soaking it up, obviously foreshadowing his impending fate, is just heartrending. You can feel his split, his definitive break from his former goodness.

Ed: Perhaps I wasn’t clear, but I think Ledger’s Joker is such a force of nature that everybody else in the movie looks like they’re acting in a period drama — and not a good one. (That is meant as a compliment to Ledger.) Another analogy: He’s so bright that everybody else looks dim.

(And while I like Eckhart as Dent, I didn’t like him once the transformation to Two-Face started.)

My point was that you write a movie anticipating a certain type or caliber of performance, and if you get something different, it can fuck things up. If the Joker had been more ordinary or conventional or dull, I think the movie overall would play better.

I hadn’t even considered that Gordon had to live because he had to become commissioner, but of course you’re correct.

Thanks for the tip of the hat!

I failed to mention the initial scene between the Joker and the mob in my review, which I should have (I may go back and make an addition) - the bit with him opening his jacket and having an array of implements was a well-played bit of black humor, and more true to the idea of the Joker than much of the material - as I belabored in my review. It’s frustrating, then, that for the rest of the film the Joker relied almost entirely upon “knives and pocket lint” when acting close-up and by hand (and the idea that Joker had nothing but knives when detained could almost be considered a continuity error) - was Joker someone who had the tendency to act himself, using an edged weapon in the same style every time (not chaotic), or is he someone who works primarily from a distance, using explosives and gasoline, as he later complains (more chaotic, but too planned-out)?

My apologies for misspelling Keith Uhlich’s name in this (it’s been corrected) and in comments on other Web sites.

You make a lot of good points here. A lot of good points.
I didn’t love TDK, I enjoyed it, I’d recommend it, but I wouldn’t jump on the crazy train with 95% of the people who saw it.

I liked the movie despite its flaws, the biggest problem I had though was the sonar sequence which was the climatic battle of the film. It was like trying to play a video game that moves way too fast and all over the place for me to have any idea what I’m supposed to do. I do like your point about the Nolans trying to find the perfect word, it clearly had at least a movie and a half’s amount of material and with that many character’s somebody is going to get shut out of the fun. The lead may have suffered the most, but I still enjoyed it and hope for a more focused but equally compelling part three.

spoiler warning!

What annoyed me was the usual Hollywood action movie assertion that pure evil actually exists. And here there was not a purely “good” character to balance it out. The good guys have been made more “realistic” but the bad guy was, despite some rather lame efforts to blame his upbringing, still a one-dimensional “force”. More the embodiment of an emotion than a character. Which is I guess where the comparisons to Anton Chigurgh from No Country for Old Men (another over-rated film) have arisen.

What really annoyed me was that Batman chose to save him. It would be like Roy Scheider stopping before blowing up the shark in Jaws. Batman must know that saving the Joker will lead to more people being killed, yet he chooses to save him anyway. I guess this is because Bruce Wayne does not wish to leave the Batman mask behind, and yet he must know that keeping his enemy will lead to the death of more innocent people. I’m yet to hear any critics bring this up, I guess because it’s a major spoiler, but it really irked me.

Jeff,

I dug a lot of TDK, but the parts that stumbled did so badly. Dent-after-burn almost made me grimace. He sold the 50/50 poorly and there was almost an evaporation of character.

More importantly, though, the pro-Bush edge to the film (if I imagined it, then at least I’m not alone) was awkward. As in, looking-around-the-theatre awkward. I felt that Nolan was speaking highly of Bush for being the guy the dogs can chase, which is a bad analogy for reasons you highlighted, although I guess Batman did get a lot of people in Gotham City killed, so maybe Nolan was just being prophetic...

Bush-bashings aside, I question why the wire-tapping was even necessary. There were plenty of ways for Batman to find Joker without a scene in which Morgan Freeman points out (weakly) the civil liberties violations and Batman’s subsequent Executive Privilege-esque response.

Hope things are going well in the office, I’ll be shooting you an email pretty soon.

“But this merely shows that the Nolans think people are stupid. If the choices are that half the people die, or everybody dies, any rational person would decide to blow up the other boat.”

Several years ago, a similar scenario was proposed in an introductory Philosophy course I attended. (This isn’t surprising. As has been noted, the film is littered with references to famous situational ethics dilemmas.) Of the thirty or so students in the class, I was the only one to opt to save some of the group by sacrificing its other members. The only one. There wasn’t a single other person who agreed with me. Worse, the situation described to the class lacked the detail that a group of convicted criminals would be the ones to be sacrificed and, in addition, required one to shoot people rather than merely push a button, making it far more difficult to emotionally distance oneself from the killings.

I don’t understand why people do what they do.

Maybe some (many?) people are romanced by the notion that there’s an admirable nobility in refusing to kill others in any situation, even if the decision results in strictly greater suffering and death. In particular, choices which involve intentionally killing oneself are exalted above all others, as self-sacrifice is eminently honorable, even if the sacrifice is entirely unnecessary.

Or, perhaps, people recognize the clear, almost mathematical, answer to the question and, instead, desperately attempt to demonstrate their own free will, even at great cost, cognizant of the irrationality of their decision, but utterly resistant to any cold calculation of their behavior. Clearly this line of thought accurately represents the positions of the students attending my local community college’s introductory Philosophy course.

Maybe it’s a religious objection. “I’ve been told not to kill people, so I will refuse to kill anyone and, in doing so, permit many more to die.” This appears contradictory until you recognize that it’s not. Why? Because I said so. Don’t ask; it’s complicated. Explaining it would require a montage of me feverishly scrawling esoteric mathematical symbols across blackboards and such. You wouldn’t understand. Just trust that I’m wicked smaht.

I don’t know. Like I said, I don’t understand people. Plus, this all is getting away from me.

Lest you think I’m an irredeemable misanthrope, you should know that I actually have great faith in the rationality of my fellow man. Because, see, removed from the situation and any consequences of one’s decisions, it’s very easy to make irrational decisions for bullshit self-aggrandizing reasons. In fact, I’m certain that without the distance of hypothetical scenarios, even my own family would light me up like a Christmas tree without a second thought if my survival threatened their own. Fortunately though, it’s not much of a concern, as large segments of human society have risen to such a point that the pressing question of existence is no longer “How do I stay alive?”, but rather: “How do I fill all this fucking time?”. Wake me when the polar ice caps have melted. Yawn.

Someone mention something about a movie?

“But this merely shows that the Nolans think people are stupid. If the choices are that half the people die, or everybody dies, any rational person would decide to blow up the other boat. And given an even more loaded choice — one boat of decent folk and one boat of bloodthirsty convicts — we’re to believe that the good citizens of Gotham show their decency? Ignoring logic, their instinct for self-preservation, and their mob mentality? Bullshit.

This really begs the utilitarian question, doesn’t it? One rarely sees such complex ethical issues “solved rationally” with such glib bravado. (Because they ought not to be.)

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