Sunday, July 20, 2008

Panic Attack

I stopped reading comic books when I was eleven -- a sound decision, based on the arrested development of some of the commenters that greet the slightest criticism toward any film adaptation. (Unless the consensus is the movie stinks, in which case lock 'n' load.) Perhaps that is because, with few exceptions (Superman 2, Spiderman 2), comic book movies have never done it for me. This summer, even the ones that received good reviews (Iron Man, Hellboy II), have left me underwhelmed. Not cold exactly, but simultaneously hyped-up and deadened, like a kid after devouring a bag of Smartees.

The Dark Knight has received similar descriptions in a few quarters, and I have to admit that my head was pounding after seeing it. Today, brooding on the movie, I think that's because it has an abundance of ideas rather than an absence. By far the most compelling and disturbing Hollywood blockbuster of the summer (the competition is not fierce), The Dark Knight is Christopher Nolan's sequel to his own Batman Begins (2005), a film I enjoyed tremendously despite its flaws. Nolan couldn't stage a decent action scene, the editing was choppy, there were too many characters, and the movie not infrequently stopped dead in its tracks to hamfistedly address its theme. (In a nutshell: "Fear.") But it forged the link between Bruce Wayne and Batman -- and developed the character's arc from one to the other -- in a way that was convincing and stirring. The Dark Knight has many of the same problems yet is superior in almost every way. The previous film merely spoke of fear; this one makes you feel it in your bones.

This is largely due, of course, to the Joker -- both in the conception of the character and Heath Ledger's performance in the part. In Tim Burton's still overrated original Batman (1989), Jack Nicholson's version charted the character's trajectory from petty thug to supervillain, but the Joker was still all Jack, an extension of the actor's persona. Part of the impact of this Joker may be the fact that he's already complete at the start of the film, fully formed yet frighteningly elusive -- he has no arc. (A more pretentious review might suggest that he's the product of our collective id, but I'll just paraphrase Bruce Wayne's own observation that he springs into Gotham like a demonic Jack-in-the-box.) Yet I suspect most of the character's effect comes from Ledger himself. For all the publicity surrounding his tragic death (at the grocery store last week, I overheard one teenage employee repeat to another the apocrypha that "Playing the Joker killed him") and his popularity in other movies, I'm willing to bet that most of the audience will find him virtually unrecognizable here: fluid; grotesque; over-the-top yet exactly right. From Brokeback Mountain to I'm Not There to now The Dark Knight, Ledger was an unpredictable young actor with astonishing range, and his Joker puts to shame the Tolkien-reject bad guys in Hellboy II: The Golden Army. He's a rarity: a villain who feels like a genuine threat.

Batman, in contrast, looks considerably less a hero this time around. In Chris Nolan's script (co-written by his brother Jonathan Nolan), the character's own trajectory is more internal, a serious questioning of how far he's willing to go -- how far he needs to go -- to stop a madman. My mother has often said that you can't rationalize an irrational person, and Batman/Bruce Wayne spends too much time in the early stages of the movie doing exactly that. Distinguishing this threat from Gotham's patented mobsters, Bruce's butler Alfred explains that "Some men just want to see the world burn." (For all the criticism of Michael Caine's dialogue, this line has been quoted with great frequency.) Indeed, the Joker appears to have no interest in money or vengeance or anything tangible. His primary objective is to cause panic in the streets, and in the strong middle section of the movie he does exactly that. Another reason that the Joker is such a terrific villain is because Batman, the police force (led by soon-to-be Commissioner Gordon), and the newly galvanized D.A.'s office (led by "Two-Face" Harvey Dent) have become highly formidable. In a refreshing change of pace in movies, they do their jobs well, and this ups the ante for the Gotham underworld to raise their game.

Unlike the bizarrely underpopulated Iron Man, The Dark Knight has a sprawling ensemble that features bit players having big moments even if a few of the major actors get short-shrifted. As the dashingly blond Harvey Dent, whose transformation is the film's most tragic element, Aaron Eckhart turns in what may be his strongest performance yet. (I've never been a fan.) Maggie Gyllenhaal adds maturity and mischief in replacing Katie Holmes's high-school talent-show shtick as Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes. Monique Curnen conveys much emotion with little dialogue in the small but key role of Detective Ramirez, and Philip Bulcock has a startling scene as a square-jawed cop who gets his buttons pushed by the Joker in a police station interrogation room.

As the titular character, Christian Bale is less effective than he was in Batman Begins, perhaps because, as at least one commenter elsewhere has noted, we don't see the full impact of the events on Bruce Wayne. Nevertheless, Bale, always a resourceful performer, doesn't get nudged completely offscreen the way Michael Keaton was in Burton's Batman and especially Batman Returns (where he was nearly a non-entity compared to Danny DeVito's Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman). The Joker may be in-your-face but Batman remains under-the-skin, even as the film unravels in the final act and gets a little relentless. I'm not sure how I feel about the final choices made by a few of the principal characters in The Dark Knight, a pair of lies -- one political, the other personal -- designed to give both the citizens of Gotham and Bruce a reason to keep living and keep fighting. Regardless, the climax keeps the movie real, yet fixed squarely in the realm of myth. The odd thing about Christopher Nolan is his uncanny knack to botch the execution of his message yet render it meaningful anyway, a talent perhaps similar to that of Batman himself.


Ed Howard said...

An interesting review. I liked Batman Begins more than you, I think, but I agree that this one blows away its predecessor. I share your concerns about the ending, especially Gordon's melodramatic speech, but it doesn't do much to wash away the film's profound moral ambiguity. This is a Batman film where Batman is not an unquestioned hero, and Nolan definitely wants audiences to think about whether or not some of Batman's actions are justified, necessary, and morally correct. I'm not sure if the film itself comes to any conclusions on that front, but the fact that a summer blockbuster is even posing such questions at all is worthy of note.

I do have to take exception with your opening paragraph, though -- comics have a lot to offer to readers over 11. For one thing, I can't understand the continuing tendency to equate "comics" with "superhero comics." In a cultural climate where Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Dave McKean, the Hernandez Brothers, and many other talented artists have earned deserved acclaim for making smart, sophisticated comics with nary a cape or superpower in sight, it's important to make a distinction between these comics and the bland dreck coming out of Marvel and DC. For that matter, though, there are worthwhile superhero comics around, too. Nolan's film basically couldn't exist without Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Year One, and especially Alan Moore's marvelous The Killing Joke. The motivations and attitude of Ledger's Joker are right out of the Moore story, which I'd highly recommend to any fans of the film.

Craig said...

My opening remark about comics was aimed at the crazies attacking Keith Uhlich, David Edelstein and others. I was also saying that I don't know much about the genre, so I can only approach these films in a certain way. In the abstract I can admire the art and creativity and talent that goes into these works, but for some reason I just can't get into them. Yet one of my favorite movies is American Splendor, so I must be able to appreciate them on some level.

I like Batman Begins quite a bit too. It had me from the first shot of that wintry Chinese landscape, something I wasn't expecting to see in a Batman movie.