CRM Special Review: The Dark Knight

If you follow me around the dark corridors of the internet, you know I am not much interested in the 2005 Batman movie, Batman Begins. That one had so many problems with editing, pacing, and casting that I scarcely paid attention to it.

A haha! So, initially I didn’t care much about the new movie, save for the always-excellent Gary Oldman and the rumored magnificence of the late Heath Ledger. Everyone in my paltry social sphere took a keen interest to this new flick and I absolutely could not escape the constant cries of adoration. So, I expected it to be watchable.

All in all, I was fairly satisfied. It is the most intoxicating Batman movie to date, and as a film is almost on par with the Tim Burton ones. It far usurps those in the action department and this is the first Batman film where the audience actually feels a little bit scared, due in no small part to Heath Ledger’s surprisingly effective performance.

This film explores some pretty good thematic elements. Whether or not they’re intentionally present, I’m not sure, but certainly this is the first Batman movie that actually rewards a hindsight analysis of the character’s symbolism. A notable difference here, consistent with the Frank Miller renditions of the series, is that Batman is no longer an eccentric character in line with the Tim Burton films. Bruce Wayne is almost unlikable — a well-mannered alpha-male playboy who is the product of exceptional grooming and breeding, but is a little unbalanced by his parents’ untimely death. This film starts to investigate the way that Bruce Wayne is morphing into the Batman persona. That Bruce Wayne is becoming the alter ego of Batman, and Batman is a little nuts.

Akin to the Tim Burton Batman films, this recent series based on the Frank Miller comics plays the story like an epic tragedy. Which is really how Batman plays out, if you think about it. In line with The Punisher or Berserk, (comics which probably owe a part of their existence to Batman), Batman’s story is a modern mythos and epic. Really, of all North American comic book characters, Batman is the sole inheritor of modern noir and classical tragedy.

Batman is human; he is not an alien, an immortal or a gifted freak. Bruce Wayne is obscenely wealthy and yet all forms of contentment and satisfaction continually elude him. As a grandiose operatic tragedy with hints of The Great Gatsby, it makes me strangely disappointed that all Batman movies have to be action-oriented summer blockbusters. I mean, Shakespeare’s famous tragedies were all replete with action too, but the action was only the icing — a little bonus for the audience.

And therein lies one shortcoming of the new Batman film — the romantic drama is simply not effective enough. By all means, the romance and heartbreak and tragedies should be entirely affecting, and yet they generally cease to be. I found the best dramatic interaction in the movie to be the interrogation room scene with Batman and The Joker. That scene comes closer to real romance and chemistry than any portion of Bruce Wayne’s love triangle with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, formerly Katie Holmes).

And here are my major criticisms of the film: the pacing/editing and some of the casting. I think director Christopher Nolan has demonstrated that he does not know how to pace a film. The action and editing is so damn choppy and we’re hardly ever exposed to drawn-out panning shots. Considering that when viewing a film, your eye needs a split-second or two to identify what is on the screen before following it, the constant jumping of the camera becomes disorienting and a little bit nerve-wracking.

As far as the casting, Maggie Gyllenhaal does not fulfill the love interest role whatsoever. Her acting is not very dynamic, she comes across as somewhat one-dimensional (as do her character’s on-screen relationships; not a fault of the actress), and as one of my pals pointed out, “she’s not nearly hot enough.” She’s probably a notch above Katie Holmes (who is married to a rich psychopath in real life; yikes!) in the acting department, but the role really needed some fleshing out with a better actress. (I don’t necessarily know who… maybe Jennifer Connelly?)

I was also a bit skeptical of Aaron Eckhart’s portrayal of Harvey Dent. He didn’t seem completely… comfortable (?) with the role and it made me feel like the character was supposed to be hiding some kind of ugly secret or corrupt background. But Dent is instead a paragon of virtue in Gotham’s cowardly, corrupt criminal justice department. This is certainly what sets him up to fall so hard, but the combination of the casting and script along with the stark “perfection” of character seemed unrealistic in contrast to everyone else in the cast. It made him somewhat unlikable in my eyes.

And that’s almost a problem with this rendition of Bruce Wayne. Patrick Batema–I mean… Christian Bale’s role comes off a little bit like a more serious version of the stuff from American Psycho. Bruce Wayne is supposed to be a brooding, melancholic loner, whose intentions are philanthropic and decent. A guy a little too socially alienated to really connect with anyone. Maybe that’s the case here, but the shots of him with the Russian ballet dancers… I don’t know… are those attempts at humor? Those touches made him seem a little bit too infallible, unreachable and paper-thin. Especially when you have some hunky white male lead doing the bit.

Ah, but maybe that’s the fantasy modern Americana and teenagers clamber after: hopelessly unrealistic avatars (not even archetypes) of the human experience. It seems to be the case with modern video-game protagonists: they’re consistently the product of mondo alpha-chimp fantasies. The megalomaniacal photo-shopped equivalents of the touched-up women found in aggressive marketing ad campaigns for female products. Masculine renditions of those corporate presentations that reduce feminine beauty to the appearance of a retouched, starved mannequin (this is an amusing aside when you consider one of my primary complaints about Gyllenhaal was that she isn’t hot enough).

I don’t actually have a problem with heroic alpha-male dynamics. It’s just… Batman is something of an underdog despite his superficial greatness. He’s another archetype of humanity’s lofty but melancholic ambitions: Prometheus, Icarus, Gilgamesh, Faust… as I said, Batman is a modern manifestation or adaptation of great literary tragedy and theater. I don’t know if it was intended that way from the beginning, but it has become this springboard for so much modern culture.

But in The Dark Knight, the story also symbolizes a number of modern cultural phenomenons. Some critics have mentioned the film is too bleak. In fact, it is frightening. It is enthralling, but not uplifting. I think it does reflect somewhat accurately the lost desires and ambitions of modern post-technological culture. At some point we have to admit that we are lost, and it is during these gaps of faith that characters like the Joker appear. Actually, a sinister facet of the Joker is the pleasure he derives by engaging Batman in his moments of self-doubt and self-loathing.

The Joker is chilling as a character who is almost true to life: a psychopathic terrorist with frightening social and criminal influence. He is steps shy of a real-life despot; his social influence is only sabotaged by his tremendous appetite for self-amusement in anarchy. He comes from nowhere, he is nobody, he has nothing, and he is exceptionally clever in his love of chaos. Heath Ledger really steals the movie, but honestly I thought the final act was a bit of let-down.

But what is most authentically scary is that the Joker might have consumed Ledger and in turn consumes us. I was reminded at times of the rumors that surrounded the famous silent film, Nosferatu — that people were actually being killed or consumed by the vividness of the main character (interestingly enough, Christopher Walken’s villain in Batman Returns, Max Shreck, is the real-life name of the actor who played the vampire in the original Nosferatu). The Joker carries the movie, hypnotizing us during his presence and the fear is very real when watching this movie. As it is said in The New Yorker’s review of the film:

“The Dark Knight” has been made in a time of terror, but it’s not fighting terror; it’s embracing and unleashing it—while making sure, with proper calculation, to set up the next installment of the corporate franchise.

Yet for all my complaints, it seems to be one of the most exciting and scary Hollywood films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s certainly the most captivating Batman movie, although the shortcomings in pacing make it pale a little bit overall with respect to the Tim Burton Batman movies. In other words, I don’t know if it’s actually a better movie than the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton ones, but it is certainly more exhilarating, exciting and scary.

It is also well worth seeing in a theater, even though I hate theaters. The music by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard is surprisingly restrained and effective (I really did like the little synthesizer flourishes, such as in the hospital scene). The film isn’t something that middle-aged or senior folks will enjoy, as the violence and noise ratios are pretty high and constant. And it’s not a kids movie either; this one comes closer to horror than any other superhero movie (even Hellboy), and in that light the PG-13 review seems like a greedy touch.

But for what it is, it is totally unique and far more engaging than the prior film in the current franchise.


~ by chaosrexmachinae on August 6, 2008.

4 Responses to “CRM Special Review: The Dark Knight”

  1. “That one had so many problems with editing, pacing, and casting that I scarcely paid attention to it.”

    Well put. I felt like I was watching a 2-hour long preview. And Katie Holmes as a District attorney? Has there ever been an elven-like DA named Katie?

  2. Elven? How about troll-like? Ahahaha!

    But honestly, I’d imagine female DAs don’t fall in love. Ever.

  3. i still wish Katie Holmes had stayed on board as Rachel Dawes for the Dark Knight; it was as though all that time spent getting familiar with her character in Batman Begins was lost…

  4. ‘Tis true — but then I didn’t think she fit the part too well to begin with.

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