Thursday, July 21, 2005

No Country for Bat Men (interacting with The Dark Knight)

Instead of the normal review I am going to try something different as I talk about The Dark Knight today. I am going to interact with the film in a personal and typically fanboy opinionated manner. However, my analysis and criticism, praise of the film must include spoilers. Since that is the case, I will only post a preview here and you can click at the bottom to continue to read the entire post.

While I will be rewatching The Dark Knight in IMAX on Wednesday (it demands multiple viewings), I cannot get the film out of my head. Of course, that is the first mark of great film making. Does it get inside your head and refuse to leave? Not because of the inanity, but because the plot twisted and turned and you need to make sense of it and because the characters were 3D and complex, like friends you spent too little time with and care for. The Dark Knight is the kind of film.

TDK has been called No Country for Bat Men, with comparisons made to the latest offerings from the Coen Brothers, Scorcese and classics by Coppola and Mann. On initial screening, I would not disagree. In fact, I would say it is a superior crime drama to No Country for Old Men and The Departed (the last 2 Oscar winners). Make no mistake; this is not a kid friendly super hero film (it should be rated R). It is a immensely brutal, almost sadistic noir masterpiece that would not fly for the average American viewer, if not for the black tights and bat signal.

Basically, the filmmakers have chosen to bait and switch the viewer. “You want action, super heroes, cool gadgets and Jack Nicholson as Joker? I will give you a sense of dread that permeates everything driven by a super hero that wants to quit, a madman equal parts Osama Bin Laden and Anton Chigurh with a splash of Hannibal Lector for good measure, gadgets causing moral quandaries and brutal deaths of main characters.” But, somehow the center holds. Barely, but it holds; which, once again, is the mark of great, dangerous film direction.

Whereas some well meaning and fairly knowledgeable commentators, including Mark at Jesus Manifesto have mistakenly put the main influence for this film series in the hands of Frank Miller’s epic masterpiece, The Dark Knight Returns, comic book fans will notice the influence of Miller’s seminal history of Batman: Year One to be the source material, along with Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, which (I assume) was the impetus for Ledger’s dangerous portrayal of Joker (along with Death in the Family).

(mea culpa time) I, for one, was disappointed with Ledger’s casting. The role had been rumored to be given to Adrien Brody, which I thought was genius. He looks like the Joker and a wonderful actor. Alas, he lost the part. I was disappointed and I was wrong.

As everyone has stated, Ledger is THAT good, so much better than Nicholson, who I hated in 1989 (I had wanted Peter O’Toole for the role). To see Ledger’s portrayal is to see how much of a joke Jack’s Joker was. He was a slightly menacing camped out version of the 1966 rendition. Ledger is the Joker of the comics, the one that has killed or maimed hundreds of people with no regard, the one that killed Robin, paralyzed Gordon’s daughter and attempted to kill off the people of Gotham on numerous occasions. He is not the Joker our parents told us about. He is the Joker Miller, Moore and Starlin told us about, an Anarchist psychopath and terrorist, scarier than any other villain in comic or film history. Thank you Heath. Rest in Peace. Plus, that nurse outfit and Dent for DA pin was delicious.

Strangely, Batman/ Bruce Wayne (as one reviewer said, Dirty Harry meets Hamlet) is not the lead character in the film. He is the protector, but he is not the protagonist in many ways. The protagonist is Harvey Dent, played to perfection by Aaron Eckhart, who (if not for Ledger) would be considered for an Oscar for his portrayal. He is the most complex character of the film and (once again) bears little resemblance to the joke that was Tommy Lee Jones’ version. This is the Two Face of the comic, the one for whom Batman mourns the loss of humanity. Two Face was absent in the 60s and for Saturday mornings. He is too dark, disgusting and you cannot lighten him up, like you can Joker.

(spoiler alert)…

For once, I believe a character has been improved by a film. The second most important criminal in Batman’s rogue’s gallery, Harvey Dent/ Two Face makes much more sense as a vigilante out for revenge than he ever did as a criminal mastermind from Day 1. Had he been given time to develop, this would be a natural progression, but I liked what they did to him, except it happened too fast and ended too suddenly. To bring in such an integral part of the mythology in the last act of a film and kill him off 30 minutes later is insulting to Two Face’s legacy. He should have been introduced in this film and given his due in the 3rd (worst part of the film, in my estimation- as a fanboy).

In fact, the film reminded me of Casino Royal and Return of the King, an ending too long (or 8 endings too long, in ROTK). I am still digesting that ending, deciding if I agree with arc the story is now taking. I can see why they did it, I can appreciate it, but I disagree with it and think it could have been done better. I am just hoping they have the guts to leave Robin in mothballs another film (the weak link in comic and film versions).

Another cringe worthy moment is the handling of Jim Gordon’s “death.” My wife and I debated this for a long while. In the end, it made no sense and was unneeded, other than the payoff (which is a cheap trick in a film with few). When the scene happened and in the aftermath, I could not get it out of my head...thinking, “I cannot freaking believe he had the nerve to kill Gordon!” for 20 minutes, halfway disengaged from the film and trying to figure out how they get him back. “Once you kill Gordon, just go on over and kill Alfred. You already broke a cardinal rule, do it again.” Is that the reaction Nolan wanted? I think not.

I also have mixed feeling about the amount of daylight. I like Chicago, but the city was radically different from Batman Begins. There was a bit too much Metropolis and too little Gotham. Heck, I am just being picky. No one else cares.

Anyway, I am sure the Christians will be looking for Jesus in the film, attempting to turn it into another Matrix, an allegory for sin and redemption or some such stretching of it beyond recognition. However, the film has its lessons. Like Gone, Baby Gone, this is a wonderful teaching tool for ethicists, teachers, political science classes and historians. At what price do we give up freedom for security? Do we live in fear, run away or stand and live on our terms? What makes a person heroic? What would we do to survive? What would we do when threatened? Would we give up our morality? Would we choose to die, if living meant killing another? I could go on. The questions are endless and the answers are not handed to us by the filmmakers (I am sure the pastors will do that).

So, there it is a “too long” review for a “too long” film. Though, I doubt mine will stick in your craw and keep you up at night.*

*I may give my opinions on the future direction of the franchise, but not today


james said...

Well done my friend, well done. I have been waiting for this post for some time now. Totally agree with your assessment on Harvey Dent as the protagonist. As i've thought over my dual viewings of the film, i've wondered if this could also have been titled, "Batman: The Rise and Fall of The White Knight" Probably wouldn't work from a publicity angle but makes sense.

That we need to see this film multiple times is a mark of Christopher Nolan. His only film to date that doesn't necessitate a second viewing in order to attain closure is Insomnia. And this still is a phenomenal film one wants to see again.

After seeing the film a second time, I believe the Gordon death works. It emphasizes the depths to which both are willing to dig into order to get this guy. As long as it is understood that only Gordon and Batman were in on this plan it helps to lend realism. Dent did not know about this.

I'm linking to you on my blog.

Mike Murrow said...

Just came home from watching the film, so I haven't had multiple viewings. I will likely wait for the DVD on Netflix.

What I came away with was that for one thing, I was disappointed that one of the boats didn't blow up. I was hoping the "innocent" people who voted 350 to 150 to blow up the "bad" convicts would pull the trigger and in a twist it would be their boat that blew up.
The other thing is that I felt that the real hero was the Joker. He was the only character who saw things clearly and acted appropriately. Everyone else's actions were dictated by what they perceived to be true or good. The Joker was the only free acting agent, everyone else came off as puppets compared to him.

As far as the acting, they all did well. But I have a huge crush on Maggie Gyllenhaal so I would have to pick her in my fantasy married to Maggie Gyllenhaal world.

My buddy I saw the flick with felt the biggest "moral" (and he saw it twice) was that the Bat became the real bad guy when in the end he decided that he knew what was best for the people. The whole absolute power thing.

Anonymous said...

After chewing on it a few days, I liked it a lot. Possibly best crime film of the year so far, not best film of the year. Possibly best superhero film. But it's hard to put it in that genre, because the original Superman had a totally different feel, totally different message. That film makes you stand up and cheer. This one, not so much.
- Entire ensemble cast, amazing. I love Q-ish Lucius Fox, I love the British Special Forces Sergeant kick-ass Alfred, I love screaming melt-down in the hospital Dent, I love Rachel mocking the courtroom assassination attempt of Dent.
- Ledger... yeah not much more to add all the love that's already out there, loved the deliver of the line "This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets and immovable object." Hmm, which is Batman, and which is the Joker?
- I agree about the Gordon death scene, I was pissed. It happened too fast, and for ten minutes the brain was all caught up, "WHERE'S THE BULLET PROOF VEST? WHERE WAS THE BLOOD? WHERE WAS THE HOSPITAL SCENE? WHY DID THEY IMMEDIATELY ASSUME HE WAS DEAD? WTF???" I was also pissed because I have a serious emotional attachment to this Gordon. I never thought I'd have such a soft spot for such a good guy, but since the BB scene between him and young Bruce when he was still a uniform officer, I have dreaded the moment he'd get caught in the cross-fire. I also thought, "they're gonna kill someone else, this isn't over, hide Alfred, hide Lucius!!" After 10 min I knew it had to be a trick, but I fully admit, when Gordon shows up again, I jumped up and cheered. Cheap, yes, but in a film with no victories, it was a necessary emotional release.
- I disagree about the ending, I thought it was very appropriate, and kept with the tone of the entire story. Gotham was conflicted during the whole story and had it in for Batman. Batman needed to go away. They needed someone else to step into the White Knight role, and there was no way for Batman to be that, so he plays the other role. The true test of Nolan will be in the execution of a vindication story, without devolving into cheese.
P.S. Best use of IMAX by feature film ever.