Friday, September 5, 2008

The Dark Knight (because Ben insisted)

It's important to consider my reactions to The Dark Knight from the context of my own experiences with comics and comic book movies. Yes, ultimately the film stands or falls as a film—and I have serious problems with it as a film—but it wouldn't have been made if comics hadn't been such a huge part of Baby Boomer formative years and if Batman hadn't previously been a success in television and film.

I was born in 1962. In the late 1960s, Spider-Man was on television in the form of an animated show (a half hour of two fifteen-minute episodes) overseen by famed animator Ralph Bakshi. I didn't read the Spider-Man comic, but I did watch the show (the comic came later for me). At the same time, Batman was a huge television hit as a live-action half-hour in prime time. (The first or second movie I saw was the film version of the television series.) The show was "camp": that is, it exaggerated for humorous effect. Batman's speech was full of stiff moralizing; the set design was all about bright colors; villains and dire situations were filmed with a tilted camera; fights were punctuated with illustrations of such words as "Bam!" and "Socko!" overlaid on the image. I was a little kid, so I actually found the show frightening and dramatic. The most fun to be had was from the colorful villains, played by outstanding Hollywood actors who all brought a kind of gleeful  insanity to their roles. I had a Batman battery-powered car, Batman action figures, and Batman coloring books (I loved his costume's colors, the purplish blues, one deep and one paler, and the yellow oval around the black bat). I even had a Batman cape and cowl. (The cape tore on my backyard slide when I was five; the cowl, a thick plastic affair, lasted into my high school years, when we used it to costume Ratman in our full-length movie Ratman and Pigeon.) Later, I read Batman comics and enjoyed him as a character, the "dark detective" (the artists in my early days of reading were Jim Aparo and the legendary Neal Adams, both of whom depicted a dynamic, lithe figure of flowing cape). Though I haven't kept up with Batman exactly, at times over the years I've read some Batman comics. He remains the tortured and mysterious character I had enjoyed when younger, still visually and emotionally interesting.

Jump ahead to this year and the string of comic-book-inspired films. I saw Iron Man, The Hulk and The Dark Knight, in that sequence. 

I got a big kick out of Iron Man. The third act is lousy, with a fight that makes no logistical or logical sense, but aside from that it worked. Its major strengths were two: First, Robert Downey, Jr., gave the most interesting line readings. Nothing sounded as if it came from a script, but as if the actor were inventing smart things to say at every moment. Without Downey's idiosyncratic (look it up) take on those lines, however, I'm not convinced the script would have held much interest. A second strength, equally important, I think, was the film's approach to its technology. The manufacture of the metal suits was dramatically and visually interesting. Mechanical elements looked as if they actually worked and lived. The combination of those elements—when Downey is involved in making his suits, interacting with his computer and his robots—made for some of the most riveting (no pun intended, but I'll take it) scenes.

I actually enjoyed The Hulk more, and in part for reasons that affected how I felt about the Batman film. Though the opening chase in The Hulk is clearly lifted from the opening chase in the James Bond film Casino Royale (which was good, I suppose, for a Bond film but not actually a good movie), I appreciated that I was being shown an atypical location, a slum in Rio de Janeiro. (Unfortunately, most of the actors speaking Portuguese were Canadian.) I thought the story worked well; for the most part, it was uncluttered by narrative side trips. For anyone who read the comic, as I had, or seen the old television series (again, that's me), the film was stuffed with references, spoken and visual, to those other sources. (For true fans of Marvel Comics heroes, the film even gives us references to Captain America, America's first "super soldier," the first person given the formula used on the villain, Blonsky.) Visually and narratively, the film referenced the comic, much as the Spider-Man films have done. (There are certain shots in Spider-Man movies taken from particularly famous covers of the old comic or even certain panels drawn by John Romita.) Whereas the Iron Man film didn't visually reference the comic (the armor doesn't quite look like that in the comic, which is fine, but iconic stances aren't visually referenced, either), the Hulk film tied together comic, television series and film—for those exposed to all of those elements. It captured surprisingly well the explosive violence and potential of its main character, and I found it immensely satisfying.

Okay. Now we come to The Dark Knight. Overall, I liked the movie. But when it was finished, I wasn't satisfied in the same way as the other films had satisfied me—as a critical viewer of film and a comic fan. Clearly, this was the most adult of the three films. It's not a children's movie. (None of them is—though plenty of people take their kids to such things long before they're prepared to watch them—but there's a lot more for someone under 16 to appreciate in the other two films, though both have rather shocking violence at certain points.) In fact, the movie takes itself so seriously, so grimly determined to explore moral questions, that it doesn't quite fit the comic-book movie mold, and the Batman world that director Christopher Nolan (and writers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan) has created doesn't necessarily need the comic book to make sense.

I wasn't a big fan of the Tim Burton-directed Batman films (nor the two that followed those). The first one had a lot of energy and was visually interesting, and the second had the same strengths, but they didn't seem entirely serious. I had mixed reactions to Nolan's first Batman film, Batman Begins. I liked a lot of how Batman worked, his ability to disappear into the shadows, the abruptness of his violence, the way he used fear. I liked Christian Bale's performance. Katie Holmes, a non-actor, brought the film down a notch, and the use of ninjas just seemed wrong-headed. Those aren't Batman villains. (And why was Ras al Gul, a notorious Batman villain, played by Liam Neeson, who must have been wondering himself why he had an Arab name?) I hated the way the fight scenes were directed, cut too quickly to follow. I liked the movie and appreciated the seriousness with which the character had been treated, but it wasn't a great film.

The Dark Knight sees itself as a great film, and quite a few critics concurred, but I think, in the words of poet Robert Browning, the reach exceeded the grasp. ("A man's reach must exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?") The film aimed at lofty goals but couldn't quite pull them off. It reminded me of one of Bill Clinton's speeches: too long, too ambitious, too satisfied with itself, lacking a focus. (Clinton was always trying to write "the great American speech"; this was a mistake.) The film felt like two films smashed into each other. 

Who is the protagonist? The obvious answer is "Batman/Bruce Wayne," but I think he has less screen time—and less of an involving story—than Harvey Dent, the crusading district attorney. One of my complaints about the earlier Batman films is their need to muddy the narrative waters by bringing in more than one villain. To do it once can be a treat, if it's done well, but to do it every time smacks of desperation, as if the writer doesn't know how to fill the time. Harvey Dent ("Two-Face," a long-time Batman villain in the comic) could have had his disfiguring accident in the present film (any attentive viewer of the trailer knew as much) but played out his villainous career in the next film. Why the need to cram his story into this film—unless, as I'm suggesting, he is actually the film's protagonist? I don't believe the writers/director really see him that way; I'm just suggesting that he takes on that role because Batman doesn't quite.

Dent's story doesn't just extend the film an additional half hour and add narrative complication, it also confuses the film's meaning, even what filmmakers call its "through-line," the single arc of character and emotion pulling the viewer through from start to finish.

Also, the movie disappointed me visually. While it certainly looked, if not great, then good—and the use of Chicago for its on-location exteriors shots was a smart call, introducing viewers to novel streets scenes—Batman himself did not look good. He didn't look like Batman. He looked stocky, stiff, and dark. He's monochromatic (like his voice). His cape was used to help him glide, but it disappeared at other times. Nothing in the film referenced the iconic, beautiful imagery of the Batman. I guess I shouldn't have expected Nolan to have learned, between the two films, how to put together a hand-to-hand combat scene that's actually viewable and comprehensible, but he also forgot what worked well in the first film, using Batman as a figure of fear. All we had was the raspy voice, which was hard to hear and sounded downright ridiculous at times.

Certainly most films don't intend to "say" anything, or what they say is rather simple and obvious: families need to stick together; one should fight for what is right; people can sometimes let us down; a single event can have an enormous impact—these are standard film "meanings." The Dark Knight wants to have a philosophical discussion, and quite often pauses to do just that, so it's fair to consider what questions it's asking as well as what answers it suggests. Consider the various philosophical/moral points raised by the main characters.

The Batman's existence and actions raise questions about the uses and limits of violence; the role of the individual in society; the relevance of privacy (Batman's use of the phone-scanning technology is an obvious comment on the warrantless wire-tapping enacted by the Bush administration); the nature and value of a hero.

The Joker tells Batman that his role really has a philosophical point: he believes that, beneath the veneer of society, people are all monstrous. The rules exist only as long as the world seems settled and secure; remove that security (again, a politically loaded proposition) and people become animals.

Harvey Dent's character (which really should have been given a history) also asks about the role of the individual against the group (and is contrasted to how the Batman functions); the limits of the law; the roots of vengeance; the possibility of goodness; and, again, the function of a hero.

So who wins these arguments, and what does the movie conclude? The Joker (who sells himself as an agent of chaos—though why he bothers to rob banks isn't clear) sets up the two-boat scenario to test his hypothesis about human behavior, and he's proven wrong. People do the right thing. However, he's also set in motion Harvey Dent, who inexplicably blames Gordon for what's happened to him. (While I like the Joker in his nurse's outfit—his dance outside the hospital is inspired and perhaps the best visual moment in the film—his explanation of his motives to Harvey slow down the film.) Dent's rapid descent into vengeance suggests that the Joker was right after all. Then there's the puzzling issue of heroes: Batman is a hero who, because he doesn't reveal his identity, becomes a problematic figure. At the end, he allows himself to become even more problematic by seemingly taking the blame for the murder of several people (mostly crooked police, though where they come up with the numbers—five, then six—is a mystery to me, given the huge number of deaths in the film). Now people are allowed to believe in Dent as a hero but must find some focus for their fear in the Batman. This is a puzzling outcome, I suppose meant to set us up for the next film. And what does Batman think of himself and his actions? Throughout the movie, Bruce Wayne says he wants to make himself irrelevant; he supports Dent because he believes that the normal systems of society ought to handle issues of justice. Huh? The Batman isn't a political pragmatist. He's driven by the murder of his parents, which isn't mentioned in this film. He exists because of the terrible gray areas. He knows about corruption and understands that its inevitable. In this film, he sees it happen to Harvey Dent (whose fall from grace seems to prove the Joker right after all). The Batman does what he does as a permanent mission; demons drive him. The notion that he would have other motives violates the whole premise of the character.

I did enjoy most of the performances. Ledger was wonderful as the Joker, though his death was a fact that distracted me throughout. I thought the Joker should have said less about his motives. I liked when he told and retold his "origin," how he gained his scars: his variations on it make him unreliable, which is fascinating, and suggest that his very presence is chaotic, anti-narrative, impossible to contain. But then the writers let him yammer on and on about his purposes, and the character loses something.

A tighter film, more about the Batman, and more visually interesting, was what I wished I'd seen.

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