The Culture Beat

July 20, 2008

Movie Review: So Dark the Knight

Filed under: Uncategorized — Alex @ 6:23 pm

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I am still processing the experience of watching The Dark Knight at our local IMAX theater, so this is a preliminary assessment. Either IMAX sound mixing is just too loud and distorted to catch all the dialogue or our theater need fixing. The film ends with crucial lines spoken by a character which ties up the themes of the film and I couldn’t catch most of them because the background audio sounds spilled so much into the foreground words. But I caught enough to know that The Dark Knight is by far the most ambitious film ever adapted from a classic superhero comic. It take Batman’s eternal struggles against crime and raises it to the level of cinematic literature–if that makes any sense.

Following on director Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed resuscitation of Warner’s lucrative Batman franchise, Batman Begins, the film has broken all first weekend records and looks at the writing to make 155 million for the three-day opening. Batman Beginstotal domestic theatrical take was $205 million. The IMAX theater I saw it in last night was sold out and after the initial ticket taker, we had to show our tickets in the hallway outside our theater and again inside to show we weren’t sneaking in early to take someone’s seat. Several patrons male and female wore Batman T-shirts (no one I saw was in clown make-up) and there was a noticeably large number of twenty-something men, the much sought-after demographic in blockbuster films. During the final credits, around half the theater was still full–something I’ve never seen in a regular screening. We usually stay just to hear the score and read the credits and are mostly alone when we’re told that no animals were hurt in the making of the film. Not this one. Again, as in the 1989 Tim Burton Batman, the character has arrived on the screen as another pop culture phenomenon–rather than a manufactured hype machine–and it’s a worthy question as to why this character keeps creating this public effect.

What about the film? The end of Batman Begins saw Lt. James Gordon discussing a new killer who leaves a Joker card at the scene of his crimes and thus for three years, audiences have been primed to see what Nolan and company would do with Batman’s chief nemesis. The earliest Joker-centric Batman stories of 1940 had featured the white-faced character as a laughing killer and the body count, though mildly rendered by today’s narrative standards, was higher than in other Batman stories. It was the genius of writer Bill Finger that he had tapped into a mythic archetype of the Trickster, an persistent figure in legends and tales who, whether good or evil, uses his wits more than physical strength, to challenge his opponents. The Joker character has always struck a deep chord in readers because his chaotic madness is the natural opposite of Batman’s singular pursuit of order and control. Batman’s persona was created to scare criminals and nothing scares the Joker. In the film, as the Joker’s crimes escalate in horror, Bruce Wayne is sure that if he just finds out what the man wants, Batman can defeat him. Alfred, his wise butler, tells Wayne that this killer may not be susceptible to the usual crime-fighting methods. “Some men,” says Alfred, “just want to watch the world burn.” And in one incident after another, the Joker’s unpredictability puts himself one step ahead of Batman, confronting the hero with the challenge of what measures he will have to take to stop the maniac. Much due praise has gone to the late Heath Ledger’s performance–he executes Nolan’s vision of a killer clown such that the character is essentially reinvented for the screen–the Joker is truly scary again and provokes much conflicted laughter from the horrified audience.

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The plot is densely textured with interconnecting storylines, and moves swiftly, which is why it feels, at the end, more like a novel in structure, than a movie. It is made for repeat viewings, for me at least, since the themes and plotlines interact so closely and I know repetition will reveal greater levels of meaning. If that doesn’t add artistic value to a work, I don’t know what else would.

I will also need to adjust the inevitable preconceptions of what I had expected to the much bigger movie that it is. Nolan had warned early on that the film would be dark, hence the title wasn’t merely referencing one of Batman’s titles, it was an indication of the film’s tone and a warning. Despite the lucrative and ubiquitous merchandising, this is not a film that young kids should see and Nolan and Warner Brothers have and will come in for criticism for taking the Caped Crusader into very dark and violent places–but responsible parents should take heed of warnings in reviews that the situations and violence, real and implied can upset young children. I suggest parents consider seeing the film by themselves first if you can’t determine by reviews, clips, film information website such as Screenit (subscription required), or from friends who have seen it, whether it’s appropriate for their kids.

On the other hand, going so dark has allowed the film to take up big questions about the effects of crime and disorder on society and what we are willing to do about it– it doesn’t offer black and white answers but characters have to live–or die–with the consequences of the choices they make. And the conclusion isn’t what I expected but it fulfills the logic of the themes the characters have been wrestling with. Nolan’s conception of Batman in the more realistic film medium allows him to push the character to the edge of his commitment to justice, as any good story must test it’s protagonists values–but the film finds a unique outcome that is true to its vision and guarantees that, unlike the earlier cycle of Warner’s Batfilms, a civic-minded Batman will not be showing up at gala Gotham benefits in the foreseeable future, but rather stay in the shadows where he belongs.

Is the film fun, the reasonable expectation of a summer blockbuster? It has its moments of sheer thrills and excitement–but there were times I feared the murderous violence would artistically capsize the film (as the highly respected critic Leonard Maltin feels). But it’s the resolution, such as it is, that redeems the horror and rights the ferryboat taking us across dark waters to bring us to a place of hard-won hope, if not happiness.

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4 Comments »

  1. The Nolans and Mr. Ledger perfectly captured the Joker. My favorite Joker quote is from Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” and I reproduce it from memory:

    “This [his latest murder spree] isn’t enough. You could line up the bodies in geometric patterns like an endless June Taylor dance routine and it would never be enough.

    “No, I don’t keep count. But you [Batman] do. And I love you for it.”

    He is probably the greatest and scariest villain in comic books; all the other gore-spattered attempts at comic-book horror are pale imitations. The Joker is the archetype, a human Cthulhu if you will, and even in the company of Iago or Mephistopheles could hold his head up and laugh.

    Comment by Dan Berger — July 21, 2008 @ 10:10 am | Reply

  2. Great comments, Dan! The Joker, like Batman, has been immensely “scalable” in depiction–from 1960s era “Clown Prince of Crime,” to the lethal mischief-maker of the classic “Batman: The Animated Series,” to now, the chaotic killer that Nolan says was based on Alan Moore’s version in “The Killing Joke” graphic novel (not my favorite story by the way, but it works in the film.) I’m sure scholars and graduate students are pondering how it is that characters of such pulpy origins now command the imaginations of both screen visionaries and the moviegoing masses.

    Comment by Alex — July 21, 2008 @ 2:03 pm | Reply

  3. Alex, I like your comment on how “scalable” the Joker is, but the ’50s and early ’60s Batman, comics and TV, was an unfortunate (and fortunately non-canonical) departure from Bob Kane’s dark vision, with accompanying trivialization of the villains Batman faced.

    Fortunately for those of us who prefer our Batmen dark, since the late ’60s Gotham has been getting more and more shadowy.

    Remember, the first Batman carried a pistol — and used it. “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you” from Batman Begins is perfectly in tune with Batman’s origins.

    I hope they’re not too quick to bring in the Boy Wonder… Dick Grayson is a complex character and needs a good actor, unlike Chris O’Donnell. But he’s also needed to keep Batman from descending too far into the abyss; canonically, Bruce Wayne’s true identity has always needed sidekicks to keep him grounded. When he pushes them away he always becomes less human.

    Comment by Dan Berger — July 21, 2008 @ 2:38 pm | Reply

  4. The movie was a masterpiece.
    Indeed, a total phenomenon of film making. I have seen it twice now, and I was able to catch a lot more of the dialog the second time…including the end…

    but everything…EVERYTHING about this movie was perfection.

    Comment by Daniel Semsen — July 22, 2008 @ 1:40 am | Reply


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