Saturday, July 26, 2008

With All Due Respect to Heath Ledger . . .

Dark Knight was actually right good.

See, you thought I was going to pan it, didn't you? Friend Bartcow was disappointed that I was not scathingly critical while I slumped in my chair watching the credits roll. Next to me, girlfriend Svetx said she felt like she had felt right after Schindler's List. This is not to belittle the holocaust or exalt the exploits of the Joker and Batman. But Knight did weigh us down psychologically. To relate it to another movie, midway through Knight she and I looked at each other as we had during There Will Be Blood, feeling what we felt then. The distasteful sides of humanity portrayed in the movie were making us uneasy, and there was no indication how, or if, the movie would get us out of that state.

Granted, Blood was a far better movie, but Knight is a superhero movie. You judge it on a different scale. Click "Continue" only if you've already seen it, or don't care if it gets spoiled for you.

I'd say it was better than the first two X-Men in terms of characterization, and those were good. The interplay between Commissioner Gorden, Harvey Dent, Bruce Wayne, and Batman was excellent, and the admiration Batman and Gorden have for Dent even after he goes through his trauma and becomes psychotic reminds me of many a rooftop conversation between Gordon and Batman in the comics. They miss the old Harvey deeply.

The feeling of desperation over a large population being threatened by an evil villain was the best I've ever seen it in a superhero movie. It got to a point where I could not tell where the Joker and his henchmen would turn up next. As long as I'm not belittling major real-world tragedies and calamities, I'll go ahead and say the Joker's aggression was like an insurgency, and the police could not deal with it using traditional methods. Actually, the insurgency was within the police force as well -- sound familiar? And here's Batman, the guy who doesn't have to play by the rules, who is interesting because he walks a thin line between justice and barbarism, starting to delve into the barbaric. He gets brutal with the Joker during an interrogation session, and I was disturbed. I don't view this as my hero beating up the bad guys, like I had when I was little. This was a good guy being driven crazy by a crazy guy, thereby granting the crazy guy homefield advantage. The Joker knew how to get under everyone's skin, how to send them into a rage and get battalions of police dispatched to abandoned warehouses and banks and hospitals, only to find that they had been duped, distracted, their resources depleted with little gain.

Sound familiar?

Parallels continue when the Joker's final scheme was foiled in part by an extensive domestic spying endeavor over which Lucius Fox almost resigned.

Batman does use his wits. He makes plans, he thinks and reacts quickly, he does unpredicted things, he gets stymied, he gets mad, he jumps into fights and off of buildings and never gives up. A crime boss says, "You're not scaring me. This is two stories. The fall won't kill me." Batman says, "I'm counting on that," and drops him, breaking his legs. Now that's the Dark Knight of Frank Miller and the good comics! And, the writers, director, and Christian Bale showed a pretty well-rounded Bruce Wayne/Batman that held firm as the centerpiece of the movie. Wayne has to fake his way through daily life while his nighttime antics are the "real life" for him. And he pays the price in relationships. But banal speeches about this state of affairs were kept to a minimum, thank goodness. And a lot of the cliche dialog and gratuitous "heroic" shots that burden superhero movies were not present. Though some were.

Like Schindler's List, it also had some stupid stuff. Did he wreck the Batmobile yet again? Yep. Was there a smaller vehicle inside the Batmobile that afforded him expensive, elaborate escape from the silly wreck? Yep.

Did Batman, in the space of 5 minutes of movie time, decide to divulge his identity and give up crime-fighting, then get re-inspired and decide to continue as Batman? Yep -- although the circumstances that lead to his re-inspiration were not predictable and were well grounded in character.

Did Batman, in one of his high-tech vehicles complete with armor and machine guns, charge at a pistol-wielding Joker in a game of chicken as he had at the end of Burton's 1989 movie? Yep. And while this time the Joker did not shoot, Batman lost the game of chicken by veering, for no good reason, and crashing his vehicle, and being knocked unconscious. Our highly skilled, armored, and technologically advanced hero lost that little face-off with the unarmored cackling clown and had to be rescued by the regular old police. It's like the writers just wanted to pay homage to the 1989 movie.

And after surviving bullets and beating countless thugs and S.W.A.T. team members to pulp, was our hero staggered by a little tussle with the Joker? Kind of. It wasn't as stupid as the showdown in the 1989 movie, but it was there. But at least, in the end of that battle, Batman did win by his own devices, pun intended, and not just by luck. And in a welcome reversal from the 1989 movie, Batman did knock the Joker over the edge of the building; the Joker did not fall by accident. Then, in a welcome reversal from the barbarism that had been infusing Batman's character throughout the movie, he shoots a grappling hook down, snags the Joker, and prevents his death.

I don't like Batman destroying so much property. In Begins and Knight, he's pretty wanton when he gets in one of his vehicles. I much prefer the time in Batman: Year One when Batman escapes from the cops in a cloud of bats, and later, a mens clothing store is found to have been broken into and robbed -- but payment for damages and the suit was left on the counter.

More on the good aspects: The mystique of Batman as viewed by criminals was well developed. The 1989 movie had a trace of this in the beginning, when one crook asked if his partner has heard what happens to someone else. "I heard the bat got him," he says. This aspect of Batman was lost in the movies until now, when Knight begins with a couple of scenes of crooks and mobsters talking in their usual style about "money" and "the boss" and dropping last names of mob leaders. (Scarecrow shows up in a few of these scenes -- he's gotten loose again! And his tiny amount of screen time in Knight is far better than anything he did as the main criminal in Batman Begins.) But now, the name of Batman crops up too as one of the players in their larger game, an antagonist to them separate from the police but also separate from themselves.

Heath Ledger was great. It's not that he changed his voice. It's not because he has tragically died. Bartcow said it best: Ledger seemed to really be a psychotic serial killer, not a caricature like Nicholson was. He was part of the story, not overblown as if the rest of the movie were just a setting for him. Thank you for this, writers, director, and Ledger!

There was interesting pacing overall in the movie. Lots of filler, transitional stuff, that a lesser movie would have included, was left out. Sometimes, when violence was about to occur, the scene was cut short and the outcome indicated in a later scene. That's cool -- we all need to cut back on violence. Anyway, there was still plenty of it.

The next day, the movie was staying with me. I was dwelling on it. Not as much as I had after There Will Be Blood, but still. This is a superhero movie. I'm not really supposed to dwell on it at all. Some of the movie's haunting nature comes from some pithy lines uttered by the Joker. One is, "Insanity is like gravity. Sometimes all it needs is a little push." For folks who have dealt with mental illness in themselves or others, this is not funny. And, when Harvey Dent is lying in a hospital bed, newly two-faced, Joker tells him, "Chaos is fair."

I agree. Not that this is a comforting thought. We spend a lot of time worried about whether rules and laws and societal structures are fair, and usually they are not. All the Batman stories, when well done, are about breakdowns in a structure, subversion for both good and evil ends. Often a trade-off is necessary. A price is paid somewhere. The only thing that is truly even-handed is absolute random chance.


pauldude said...

Hi Ben. Can't wait to see it. I did not, therefore, click on the continuation link. Thanks for that.


pauldude said...

Ben, I have posted my own review and referenced yours. I loved your review--much more than I loved the movie.