The Dark Knight
It’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.
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.
Heath 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!
Harvey 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.