Thursday, July 31, 2008
4 Color Cinema
The Dark Knight
You guys may have heard about a new Batman movie coming out this summer. Yeah, I know, I was surprised too, although I guess that the last one did good enough business to warrant a sequel. Unsurprisingly, the villian is the Joker, and there's some Year One-ish stuff with Harvey Dent in there as well. Anyone else catch this? It sorta flew under the radar.
Ah who am I kidding? Even a deluded weirdo like me could only keep that gag going for one paragraph! The Dark Knight, Nolan's even more nightmarish and nihilistic follow-up to Batman Begins, has hit and hit hard, smashing records at the box office and breaking new grounds for darkness and maturity in a Superhero movie. Any residual taste leftover from the lukewarm (Aside: I used to really hate that word as a kid. Now I don't mind it. Anyway.) reception of Superman Returns has been swept away as the the monies are continually poured into Warners' coiffers on the bent back of the Bat-Man.
The story of our film involves Gotham City's new "white knight," District Attorney Harvey Dent, and his crusade to shut down the mob which has controlled the city for so long. Well, that's the "main" story, anyway. The "real" story is that self-same mob hiring the bizarre psychopath known only as the Joker to kill Batman, making Gotham safe for their shady operations once again. But Joker is not some mere hitman -- his plans call for nothing short of anarchy and chaos in the streets, pushing the already on-edge city off the proverbial cliff into barbarism. Batman has to not only deal with the mob, but also this "wild card" thrown into the mix, all as Bruce Wayne sees any chance of a normal life slipping through his fingers.
So yeah, you can see that Nolan is not exactly producing something Bill Fingerish here. This is a story about broken people in a broken world, where redepmtion seems impossible and that light at the end of the tunnel really is a train heading for you. But in this darkness we find that the struggle of a hero is not lost, it's just harder to see.
The script functions as more of a series of setpieces than as a whole -- this is a series of issues in a major storyline moreso than a one-shot -- but as we move from one to the other we get a sense for the hopelessness of the citizens of Gotham as well as the upward struggle it's saviors have to face. Bale's Batman remains unyielding and intense, without the hesitation he had initially, while his Bruce Wayne is more introspective and contemplative. Aaron Eckhardt shines (no pun intended) as Harvey Dent, a man who knows he can that he really can't trust anyone, but knows that to do his job he puts himself in the crosshairs. Dent's driven pursuit of the mobsters of Gotham ably demonstrates his belief in justice, a belief which puts him squarely at odds with the still-overtly-corrupt GCPD. Dent emerges as one of the true "heroes" of the film.
The supporting cast all handles things pretty nicely. Michael Caine doesn't have as much to do as Alfred this time out, but he handles it with aplomb. Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox similarly has less to do, but still has a great series of interactions with Bale, refining their relationship to the next logical step. And what can I say about Gary Oldham as Jim Gordon except that he IS Jim Gordon -- and seeing the character as truly the Only Honest Cop in Gotham is something we don't get to see that much anymore, but shows off why Gordon is such a lasting character.
Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over the role of Rachel Dawes for Katie Holmes, unfortunately suffers the exact same fate as her predecessor, as Rachel feels tacked on and obligitory; her presence in the film is limited to removeing accusations of the whole affair being a sausge-fest and being a MacGuffin. Frankly, this character was just plain ill-concieved.
And yes, the real star in this 4 Color epic is indeed Heath Ledger's insane (or perhaps, "hyper-sane?") Joker, a harsh and mean-spirited clown in the most evil sense of the word. His constant ticks and twitches keep the audience's eyes on him whenever he is on screen, and his constant twisting of phrases in his delivery and unpredictable behavior makes him the obvious focus. The inspiration for this take on the Joker comes from all over the board -- liberal amounts of Killing Joke, for example, but also Arkham Asylum -- and the result is one of the most visually and psychologically arresting film villians since the debut of Jigsaw (whom, most fans will not want to admit, this Joker shares some characteristics with). He pushes everyone around him to the edge, whether they are his allies or not, because he has no allies. His side is his own, and frankly, that's pretty much as expected. Joker is THE star of this film; Batman and the rest play second fiddle to the Clown Prince of Crime.
The effects and stuntwork are top-notch. The use of physical stuntwork wherever possible, including bank robbers zip-lining across rooftops and Batman base-jumping off a skyscraper, add a weight and tactility to the imagery which sells the believability. The appliance on Ledger looks natural and second-nature, and the other major character effect (yeah, at this point I am going to go vague for spoilers... I suppose SOME people may not have seen it yet) is disturbing and deeply effective. There's also plenty of stunt driving and explosions to keep you entertained.
Now, the inevitable part of this post: was it better than Iron Man? I don't think so. But, as I am more than willing to admit, I'm biased. I don't like Batman nearly as much as I do Iron Man, but even when taking that into consideration, as a film I liked Iron Man better. It was more cohesive overall and more focused. As an adaption of comic book sensibility to film, The Dark Knight wins hands down. This is still one of the best superhero movies ever made, but I am going to say that we comic book fans are lucky to have TWO such films released in one summer. And let's be honest, Tony Stark would not only have bagged Rachel by this point, he'd be dodging her calls too.
In closing, The Dark Knight delivers everything it promises and more. This is the only logical extrapolation of the "Nolanverse," and if you liked the first film you will eat this one up like Mike & Ikes. It's not good for the kids (hold out for the new The Brave And The Bold for them), but older viewers will be alternately wowed by the action, repulsed by the depravity, and intrigued by some of the moral implications. This is a superior effort on all fronts, and succeeds not only as a superhero adaption or a genre film, but as a cinematic experience in general.