Thoughts On The Dark Knight

Despite many other tendencies that qualify me as a complete social outcast, I do not burn with the love of comic books, nor the cinematic abortions they often spawn. But in this business of show that we love so much, any source material is fair game, and many fine motion pictures have been made on the flimsiest of premises. Even freakin’ songs, although that might not be the best example. (Something To Talk About, anyone? I didn’t think so.)

Before I’m buried in a nerd-alanche of fanboy rage, let me state clearly I have nothing against comics, per se. Any time I come off that way, it’s usually to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes, namely, busting  my friend MDG’s balls about his disturbing attempts to cling to his long-vanished privileged childhood.

I doubt there’s a large number of folks who developed a passion for comics in adulthood. It seems to be a seed that’s planted in the formative years, and as the comic-reader matures, he (or she…nah, who am I kidding, HE) can indulge himself in a wide variety of material designed with the adult reader in mind. Having read Scott McCloud’s excellent Understanding Comics some years ago, it’s pretty clear that the text + art storytelling style either clicks with a reader, or doesn’t, and as any proselytizing comic fan knows, it’s a difficult task to convert the unbeliever. Usually they will tell you they liked something about the pile of books you loaned them, just to get you to shut up and leave them alone.

Apart from the occasional copy of “Batman” or “G.I. Joe” purchased at the grocery store, or tucked as an afterthought into a Christmas stocking, I led a comic-free childhood, which is NOT to say I led a Batman-free childhood. I loved Batman from pre-school onward, and I honestly have no idea where I picked it up. Those Batman comics I acquired were a result of my Batman love, not the cause. The 1960s “campy” TV show was not showing in reruns at that time on any channel I watched. I guess my interest was sparked by a combination of Superfriends on Saturday mornings, and the fact Batman drove a bitchin’ car, and my pre-school friend Stuart. Stuart and I would gallivant around the playground playing “Batman & Robin” constantly. I was quite content to be Robin. Stuart was an excitable, short, pudgy fellow, and it must have been quite a sight to see a Boy Wonder towering a full head over a lisping, waddling Dark Knight, prattling about his “thuperpowerth.” (I even knew at the time Batman had no real “thuperpowerth,” but Stuart was the only playmate I hadn’t yet alienated with my ill-tempered nastiness, so I was not about to call him out on canonical technicalities.)

Batman is, of course, the favorite comic book hero of people who don’t read comics. A good, dramatic back story, the cool “dark outsider” persona, and the aforementioned bitchin’ car, all contribute to Batman’s iconic status across the popular culture landscape. For these reasons, I have heard some complain that the average movie-goer’s appreciation of Batman is “shallow.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The Fantastic Four did not really affect the average movie-goer because everyone could give less than a shit about Reed Richards. Batman moves people.

So yes, I am still a Batman fan. Yes, I liked the 1966 Batman movie (I was about nine when I taped it off TV, and wore out the tape). My sole “graphic novel” purchase with my own money was The Dark Knight Returns at age 13. I liked the Tim Burton films. I definitely liked Batman Begins (with a few reservations, see below). So I was predisposed to like The Dark Knight.

And, like most folks, I was not disappointed. The film carried itself with the air of a serious crime-drama, more like Heat or The Departed (in keeping with Batman’s origins in Detective Comics.) It dramatically utilized real Chicago locations, and made the most of small settings and character moments, like Dent’s desk and bookcase planted in what appeared to be a busy hallway (parking him at the heart of the action in the DA’s office), or Wayne’s disgusted tossing of his champagne when no one was looking (keep the temple clean, Bruce). All the real carnage happens just off-camera (ensuring the PG-13 rating), but edited in a Hitchcockian way to make the audience’s imagination fill in the grisly blanks.

The idea of someone donning a costume and running around (like me and Stuart) fighting crime is so patently ridiculous that Batman Begins was obsessed with credibility and a “take-this-seriously” tone, to the point where it over-explained and over-rationalized everything. It made for a much more interesting Batman/Bruce Wayne (about time!), but at the expense of the villains, who were ciphers. Liam Neeson spent the first part of the film as semi-sympathetic mentor to Bruce Wayne, and Cillian Murphy? Out of his league. His fifteen minutes of screen time was not enough for even a good actor to make anything out of the underwritten Scarecrow character.

The Dark Knight is unencumbered with any back story, so it’s able to take off at warp speed and never look back. I can’t tell you how happy I was that The Joker had no “origin” (besides the multiple ones he bullshitted up himself). It made it all the more scary and unpredictable that this monster just came out of nowhere, and started shaking things up for no reason. I can’t add anymore superlatives to the universal praise of Ledger’s performance, except to say that the little touches of self-loathing and masochism than ran through the portrayal (“Hit me! … Hit me!”) really sold it. He goes into the Hall of Great Movie Villains, along with Robert Mitchum in Night Of The Hunter, Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, and Anthony Hopkins in The Silence Of The Lambs.

A few quibbles: Nolan has yet to be able to film a coherent fight scene. He’s improved quite a bit since Begins, but he can still stand to make things a little more lucid and a little less choppy (and just because this is the “go-to” criticism for nitpickers doesn’t make it any less true.) And also, like Begins, the third act is a little flaccid. The ferry situation was a brilliant idea, but not paced with enough tension. And Batman’s “sonar vision” just added to the viewer’s disorientation during the final bouts of fisticuffs. After awhile, I was able to roll with Batman’s Cookie Monster voice, and the mayor’s eyeliner was not too distracting.

I loved everything else. The script was intricate and engaging, and the emotions felt real. Bale (as Wayne), Ledger, Eckhart, Caine, and Freeman never gave us a false moment or wrong step. Gary Oldman is a god among men. And Gyllenhaal? Well, Maggie didn’t clunk things up quite as bad as Katie Holmes did.

Let’s talk for a moment about the ladies of the Nolan’s Batman films. Katie Holmes delivered every line reading like a true veteran of Dawson’s Creek. This little bubblegummer was in no way suited to portray a fast-rising attorney in a city like Gotham. And that whole talking-out-of-one-side-of-the-mouth thing? Cute on Drew Barrymore. Holmes comes off like a stroke victim. Gyllenhaal has the gravitas and acting chops to pull off the role. But as the object of two men’s obsessive desires? Sorry, Droopy. You do not exude glamor. (By movie standards, I mean. Especially by comic standards, where all women have the pouty, chiseled features of Nicole Kidman’s younger sister and breasts like gravity-defying honeydews. With that in mind, if anyone who looked like Maggie Gyllenhaal showed the slightest interest in me in real life, I would dissolve into fits of bad quips and barely-suppressed nervous flatulence.)

Despite its ultra-realism, there are a few times when TDK tips its hand to its comic book origins. You can just picture Gordon’s flowery, overwrought final monologue coming out in voice balloons in the last few panels of a comic. And Nolan’s decision to leave the main villain alive at the end could have led to an ongoing, complex story arc for who knows how long (just like the comics). The Joker lives…but Heath does not. So we, the audience, lose that possibility. Damn. (Heath, if you’re listening somewhere, you know that little window you go to when you pick up your prescriptions? They tell you how much to take and how often. YOU SHOULD HAVE PAID ATTENTION!)

To sum up, The Dark Knight was awesome.

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