Last Thursday I finally had a chance to catch the new Batman entry, The Dark Knight. Before I launch into the complete review I need to get a few things out of the way up front. Firstly, I am a casual comic book reader not a die hard. I’ve always enjoyed comics, but I’ve never followed monthly installments with any sort of regularity. Usually I tend to gravitate toward graphic novels or limited run series that tell particular story arcs. Secondly, I’m partial to the DC Comics universe as opposed to Marvel. I enjoy both, but the heroes of DC have historically held more appeal for me. Thirdly, of all comic book heroes Batman is my hands down favorite. I’ve always been fascinated by the notion that a regular human could stand toe to toe with the likes of Superman as a full-fledged superhero. Finally, I read Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns during its initial run in the 80’s and have held that incarnation of Batman as the most successful and interesting. So that’s where I’m coming from. And I should also confess that I’ve found all the big screen renditions of Batman to be less than satisfying (but loved the early 90’s cartoon). That includes Christopher Nolan’s first effort Batman Begins. To me it was on the right track, but just devolved into empty CGI nonsense toward its conclusion. So that’s where I’m coming from on issues surrounding Batman.
Given that I was less than thrilled with Batman Begins, I really wasn’t looking forward to The Dark Knight. I figured it would probably be more of the same, this time with The Joker back in the action. The early trailers looked okay, but my jaded self wasn’t in the mood to get too excited about it. Then the reviews started pouring in and gradually sold me that I needed to go see it. So I did. All I can say is I don’t know what got into Nolan, or how this thing slipped by the studio, but it is simply amazing. Not because it is a blockbuster spectacle, but because it tries its best not to be. Don’t get me wrong there are explosions and chases, but they aren’t “satisfying” in the way you would typically see in a comic book film. Before I get too deep into that though, I should start from the beginning . . .
I’m not going to say too much about the plot, because enough has likely been said already. A new villain called The Joker emerges in Gotham, upsetting a lot of the good work being done by Batman and ace attorney Harvey Dent. Trouble and tragedy follow. That’s it in a nutshell, and the story has certainly been seen before (even in this franchise). The difference here is in the telling. The film opens with a bank robbery orchestrated by The Joker, in which he makes off with the money and kills his entire gang. Generally these summer roller coaster films start with a bang that announces you are about to see a thrill ride that’s going to be a fun, two-hour escape. The Dark Knight does start with a bang, but it’s a pretty ominous one. We see some brutal gunplay, chilling clown masks, and violence that would be at home in a gritty crime film. There’s nothing fun (or funny) about it. Furthermore the whole spectacle was achieved sans computer effects (at least none that I could detect), and the resulting “reality” ratcheted up the tension. It’s funny, but you really forget what it’s like to feel true tension in this era of the summer blockbuster, but The Dark Knight sure is a potent reminder.
From that point we get an introduction to Batman as he spoils a parking garage rendezvous by The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), the villain featured in Batman Begins. Again the action felt a bit more visceral than before, and there’s nothing fantastic about what happens. In fact, although Scarecrow uses some of his fright powder on a Batman impersonator, we are not treated to a hallucinatory CGI sequence as we were in Batman Begins on several occasions. It’s like Nolan is on a mission to avoid even the most obvious opportunities to engage in that sort of trickery. Perhaps even more than the opening sequence, this was a clue to me that something was up. Actually I also thought it was pretty cool that they would go to the trouble of having Murphy show up in what barely qualifies as a cameo. Kudos for that Team Nolan!
The last piece of the puzzle is Gotham’s D. A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and to a lesser extent Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). These two represent the official face of law enforcement. Dent is basically on a crusade to clean up Gotham using sanctioned means, while Gordon has gone the other route and begun working with Batman. Eventually he persuades Dent that it’s a good idea and the three form a sort of team. In the hands of lesser actors this could all have turned into a pretty shallow affair, but these guys are all on top of their game. I’ve never seen Eckhart in a film before, but he is a real standout here. In fact, part of me was wishing he was playing Batman. While I like Bale well enough when he’s in brooding mode, there’s a bit of depth missing. Eckhart on the other hand does a fantastic job in conveying a broad range of emotions, creating a character you feel for even when he crosses the line. And Oldman is terrific as Gordon, it’s just that the role provides him with a little less to do than Eckhart. In some regards, Gordon and Batman become peripheral characters in the film as compared to Dent and The Joker. It’s not that they aren’t important, it’s just that they are reacting to events rather than driving them. As such, whenever they take center stage it’s really just about them foiling plans rather than struggling with issues (with a few exceptions).
And that brings us to the subject of Ledger. Like Eckhart I didn’t really have a fix on this guy. I’d seen him in passing, but never taken notice. This is without question his movie, with Eckhart running a close second. Every time Ledger is on screen (which is quite a lot) he has your total attention. Unlike previous renditions of The Joker which skewed toward the fantastic, here Ledger plays him as a garden variety psychopath with strange (and disturbing) makeup. I mentioned earlier how this film is more grounded than previous Batman films, and Ledger’s performance is perhaps the best example of this. While he does have grand schemes as any “supervillain” would, here his plots are something you would see in the real world. Bank robberies, assassinations, and bomb threats. There aren’t any funny gimmicks to be found either (e.g. Smilex gas, balloons, squirting flowers, etc.). This guy is just a deranged fellow bent on causing chaos. In fact, this characterization and realism has invited commentary suggesting that Nolan is making a comment about terrorism and how we respond (e.g. by the book Dent vs. renegade Batman). I think it’s pretty obvious that this is the case, and in the end the suggestion is we may like to publicly believe in the straight and narrow, but absolutely need Batman. Or at least that’s what I came away with.
Despite the fact that the film makes a stab at social commentary, there are other facets related to the whole Dark Knight phenomenon that I find equally (if not more) fascinating. Firstly, this movie has been hyped beyond belief. Usually that’s a red flag for me as it’s rare that movies ever live up to massive hype. This one did but not in the way I expected. The hype I was hearing was stuff like “this is the greatest comic book movie ever” or “finally someone got Batman right.” And on this score I have to respectfully disagree. The film is a tremendous success as a dark, crime thriller that happens to feature interpretations of DC Comics characters. As a “comic book film” or a “Batman film” though I don’t think it succeeds. You see to me a comic book film plays by a slightly different set of rules than a fantastic film set in the real world. You might have exaggerated colors and production design, stilted banter between heroes and villains, dynamic battles, etc. See any of the previous Batman films (or better yet the early Superman movies) for an example of what I mean. They play like a comic book. Even Ang Lee’s Hulk for all the criticism it receives for being artsy played like a comic book. The Dark Knight never plays like a comic book.
What about the abduction in Hong Kong or the Gotham street chase you may ask? Granted those are incredible, but Nolan goes to painstaking efforts in grounding the tools and actions in military tactics and technology. And both of those sequences, while thrilling to a degree, are anticlimactic. In one Batman basically hauls someone out of a window and in the other he loses a game of chicken from which Gordon has to bail him out. Getting back to that whole notion of Nolan grounding the film, not only is The Joker portrayed in a decidedly anti-comic fashion, incredibly so is Batman. Yes he’s wearing a costume, but it’s really just a suit of body armor. There’s no iconic yellow bat symbol here, just a vague outline of a bat that’s barely visible. Even more disconcerting is that he’s using a voice modulator to disguise his voice. The result is that he sounds very mechanical. At first I really didn’t care for this, but as I came to understand the film was trying to be “realistic” to a degree I accepted it and moved on. Even his solutions to the various dilemmas involve hardware (e.g. the skyhook abduction and tracking The Joker using a form of sonar) as much as any sort of comic book crime fighter know how.
The bottom line is that from the action to the characterizations this is not a comic book movie. There’s no way this is a universe inhabited by the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, etc. Before I saw the film I had a brief conversation about it with Fantasmo All-Star Tony Mercer (who had also not seen it) and he brought up a concern about Nolan altering the iconography of The Joker. This speaks exactly to the realistic grounding of the film, and at the time I shared his concern to a degree. Too often studios and directors hijack comic book characters and translate them into something unrecognizable, operating under the faulty premise that the creators’ concept was somehow lacking. Usually such tampering results in lackluster junk such as The Fantastic Four. However, I would argue in the case of The Dark Knight the tampering produced an amazing product. It’s not a “Batman” film or a comic book movie, but it is an amazing crime movie that features great performances and lots of ideas to chew on by using a familiar cast of characters. So while The Dark Knight is successful, it is not in the way some fans have hyped it. It’s one of the great movies, but not in terms of its success in depicting comic book heroes and villains.
The second thing that fascinates me about The Dark Knight is that it is such an anti-blockbuster. I trekked out to see the film at an IMAX screening (which I would highly recommend), but as I alluded to earlier the spectacle type sequences are incredibly anticlimactic with regard to satisfying standard expectations of explosions and effects riddled action. Take the opening heist sequence for example. Nolan shot this specifically in 70mm (only six sequences were shot this way, the rest of the film is 35mm). It’s beautifully photographed, but there’s nothing about it that screams spectacle worthy of IMAX treatment. It’s like it’s almost absurd that this big budget alleged comic book film is denying us the whistles and bells we have come to take for granted. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few adrenaline charged moments relating to visual action, but they are truly few and far between. Most of the tension comes from character discussions, which is astounding given the nature of a project like this. I guess I was just a bit amazed sitting in an IMAX theater watching a movie that was more about the conversation than things going boom.
Lastly, and somewhat related to my previous point, it was also surreal watching the movie in a house packed with small children. You’ve got scenes in this thing with The Joker impaling foes on pencils, telling truly disturbing childhood tales, threatening to slice people’s faces, etc. And none of it is played for laughs as was sometimes the case in earlier installments. You could tell there was some discomfort going on in the theater with folks who realized they’d walked into something unexpected. I think this one squeaked by with a PG-13 simply because there’s not much in the way of language, but it is a LOT more intense than the likes of Temple of Doom (the impetus for the PG-13 rating). So it was a little weird watching a comic book film (that dispensed with all things comic) masquerading as escapist summer entertainment, replete with IMAX screenings, turn out to be a gritty cinematic metaphor concerning the war on terror. I guess you could say it has more in common with some of the more imaginative “alternate reality” type graphic novels that draw from the DC universe. When it turns out this good, I’m okay with abandoning the iconography. I just hope that Nolan keeps this up, as I can’t wait to see what happens next.