Sunday, January 11, 2009

Movie Log: The Dark Knight

So many barrels of ink have been spilled about the subject of The Dark Knight -- before and after it opened, about Ledger's acting and his death, about the left- or right-wing politics of the movie, and on and on and on -- that there's nothing new I can say at this point. So, if I end up reiterating what some writer said better four months ago, I hope you'll forgive me.

I was not overly impressed by the first Christopher Nolan Batman-reboot movie, Batman Begins, which felt to me like a stew of elements from classic O'Neil/Adams '70s Batman stories, the Miller/Mazzucchelli Batman: Year One, and some unreconstructed Hollywoodisms. Dark Knight is more unified, and draws from a wider group of influences, but those Hollywoodisms are still there, and they kept the movie from being the masterpiece that some reviewers have called it. (Actually, my one-liner about Batman Begins applies equally to Dark Knight: "overlong and massively enamored of its own melodrama, but undeniably stylish.")

First, the obvious point: Heath Ledger's fearless performance makes Dark Knight just as much as Robert Downer Jr.'s equally fearless acting made Iron Man. Dark Knight has a grittier, real-world feel, and stronger support around that one central performance, which makes it a stronger movie. But, still, I don't see it getting escape velocity from "a really good comic-book/action movie" to the level of "a great movie." (Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great movie, despite being an action film. I remember Superman II being one as well, though I haven't seen it in at least fifteen years.)

Dark Knight doesn't really follow Batman Begins closely, which is no bad thing in this case: over-concern with continuity is the bane of most superhero-themed properties in all media. The joker card at the end of Batman Begins doesn't really lead into the feral Joker of this movie, but it didn't need to. (And using Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow in the cold open does clearly establish the continuity -- though Scarecrow, done well, could be as frightening and disruptive and anarchic as Ledger's Joker. All of the best Batman villains, in fact -- I'm sure many people have said this before -- are forces of anarchy and randomness.)

Anyway, the plot of Dark Knight can be summed up quickly: Batman (Christian Bale, using that annoying I-need-a-cough-drop-badly voice once again) is well along the way to bringing order to Gotham City, with the aid of a crusading D.A., Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and a tough police detective, James Gordon (Gary Oldman). But then a frighteningly and randomly violent gang leader calling himself the Joker (Ledger) appears out of nowhere, whose aim is apparently just chaos and anarchy. Thing get worse and worse until Batman finally captures the Joker for good. (Though there's no real reason why it should all stop then, except that we've hit the running time of a movie; Ledger's Joker is uncontainable and unstoppable this side of death.)

Those who know the comic-book Batman will already know what must happen to Dent along the way, and Gordon undergoes his own changes as well. Dark Knight does go over the top a few times, but it mostly concentrates on the Batman/Joker dichotomy -- justice and order vs. anarchy and random terror -- which makes it work.

The Joker's claim not to plan things doesn't entirely ring true, particularly after a massive set-piece attack that required the work of dozens, at least. A more focused, less summer-movie-ized version of the story could have stripped out the gigantic explosions and tightened the portrayal of the Joker as a force of anarchic destruction -- but that version of the movie wouldn't have made nearly a billion dollars. Similarly, the movie provides no reason at all from criminals to want to work for the Joker: he casually murders them and their bosses, torches money and other valuables, has no plan for them to get out rich or even alive, and is a scary lunatic. Dark Knight has the henchman problem in spades; the only way to take the Joker-as-ganglord seriously is to resolutely ignore all of those problems.

But Ledger's Joker is mesmerizing; every line reading is perfect and even his body language is disturbing. Ledger inhabits this madman from the core out; while he's on the screen there's no way to disbelieve in his power and potential. Without him, Dark Knight would be a solid entertainment, but probably not anything more. (Much like the first Nolan movie, in fact.) But with Ledger, Dark Knight is a must-see movie for anyone concerned with the fascination of terror and the limits of fear.

1 comment:

Lou Anders said...

no reason at all from criminals to want to work for the Joke

They establish that at least a portion of his henchman are the lunatics freed in the mass outbreak from Arkham Asylum in the previous.

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