Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008
So, after unsuccessfully trying to navigate the tumultuous waters of other people’s busy schedules, I grabbed the first available friend I could find and went on Sunday to see Dark Knight. The unspoilery opinion is that I enjoyed it thoroughly, but not in the way I expected to. To understand what I mean by that, you’ll have to go beyond the cut, where the spoilers live.
The Dark Knight is not a typical Batman movie. In fact, it isn’t really structured or written or filmed like your typical comic book action movie at all. Most telling of this is that the climax of this film isn’t an action climax — the largest and most delicious action sequence comes half way through instead of at the end. Instead, at its centre is not the journey or character of a single man; rather, the actions, choices, and journeys of three equally main characters have been crafted into a broader thematic tapestry. The journeys are not pivotal in and of themselves, but taken together they communicate a larger thesis. This is the first Batman movie not to have the word Batman in the title, perhaps foreshadowing to us that it was not meant to be entirely his movie.
Batman and his counterpart Bruce Wayne disappear for stretches of time in this movie that would typically spell disaster, but I was so engrossed in the story that I never found his absence conspicuous. In fact, if I had to pinpoint the weakest link of this strong chain, it would likely be Batman, which perhaps seems like a bad start for a Batman movie.
Don’t get me wrong, Christian Bale’s performance was as good this time as it was last time around, but in Dark Knight he’s given only a third of the storytelling meat to play with instead of the full plate he had to sink his teeth into for Batman Begins, and if anything it’s the smallest of the three portions. He is largely reactive, and his character rarely propels the story forward; rather, he spends most of the film being swept along by other forces, nearly always a step too far behind to change the trajectory.
Whereas Batman Begins was largely a story charted by the actions and choice of Bruce Wayne and their affect on his life, The Dark Knight is more a story of the fallout of that original, and the larger impact of one man’s decisions to “let the joker out of the box”. Though Harvey Dent directs this line at Maroni, it’s clear that Nolan is directing it at Bruce Wayne; if one man creates a mythic hero such as Batman, what sort of larger than life villains does he dare to come out from the shadows to meet him by doing so?
I love that Nolan has continued to portray the man as much as the myth, and has given Bruce Wayne as much (if not more) screen time as his alter ego, taking great effort to ensure we are constantly reminded that the vigilante is just a man in a mask, as human, mortal, and fallible as the people he fights for and against. We are given a Batman that is fully realized from Gordon’s perspective, appearing and disappearing at the turn of a head, but we also see the figure half-transformed and uncowled. It is just as jarring to see the face of Bruce Wayne perched on a narrow window ledge at the top of a tower as it is to see Batman sitting and brooding in the sunlight Wayne penthouse, and it better connects the two figures into one character that blurs and blends together rather than as two opposing personalities that can be switched on and off at will. Nolan’s Batman continues to be the most complex and fascinating comic-book anti-heroes as yet realized in film, and I feel again in The Dark Knight as I felt in Batman Begins that Nolan is more preoccupied with the story of Bruce Wayne than he is with Batman. It’s certainly always been the story that’s intrigued me the most, and I’m pleased as paint to find out someone agrees with me.
My only true complaint with Bale’s performance is that I feel he pushed his Batman voice too far in this film, and that it became at times distracting and almost comic, like a man trying too hard. I like the idea of it, that Wayne is actively distorting his voice to be unrecognizable and more menacing, but it worked in the previous film better than this one, perhaps because there were fewer over all lines of dialogue given to Batman.
I also think Nolan and Bale missed a key place, where they could have once again broken down the division of the two personas, in the interrogation room when Batman is attempting to get Rachel’s location from the Joker. I would liked to have heard more Bruce at the point where Batman rages, since the motivation at that point in time are less driven by Batman and more driven by Bruce Wayne’s concern and love for Rachel.
Killing Rachel Dawes (I warned you about spoilers!) and the method of her murder was very carefully thought out by both Nolan and the Joker, the message tied to it unmistakable. Bruce reveals his major weakness when he dives out his penthouse window to save Rachel, thoughtlessly leaving a roomful of other people at the Joker’s mercy. His selfish decision to again attempt to save Rachel at the expense of a possible broader good is ultimately what kills her; punishment for choosing his own happiness over the higher morality he’s professed to subscribe to.
Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent is in many ways the more central character, and his journey from light to dark is one of the more deliberate foils in the film (sometimes anviliciously so). From a man who uses a two-headed coin to consciously control luck to one that cedes every action to the 50/50 chance of a legitimate coin toss, Dent falls without ever becoming truly mad or truly criminal. He retains an amoral honour of sorts even at his lowest; dealing out death not by whether or not he perceives it is deserved, but where chance determines it so.
Some people have noted in their reviews that this movie has two villains, but I would argue it has two heroes. Two-Face doesn’t surface long enough to become truly villainous — again, he foils against Batman as the vigilante, taking justice into his own hands and perverting it with a need for vengeance and closure that echoes Bruce’s own journey quite closely.
Yet, though Dent’s heroic rise and tragic fall as Gotham’s White Knight clearly illustrates the Joker’s point that every man can be corrupted, Nolan counterbalances the lesson with another that is played out simultaneously between the two ships, taking care to point out that we are not always as susceptible to corruption as seems obvious.
Others might argue this point (and feel free to in the comments, I like honest debate) but there is both bravery and cowardice in the actions of the two men highlighted on the ferries. Blow up one ship and one will be saved, or do nothing and both will be destroyed. Is it braver to die unsullied, or braver to bloody your hands to save hundreds of lives? Is it more cowardly to send twice as many people to their deaths to avoid a guilty conscience, or more cowardly to kill half to save yourself and hundreds of others? Neither solution is an absolute right nor wrong, a point Nolan punctuates effectively by having the convicted felon come off as more idealistically noble than the law-abiding business man, who seems the more selfish and weak-willed; though they come to the same conclusion, their journeys to that decision are very different ones, and it affects the way we see them.
I wonder about which bombs those detonators were really linked to. The Joker lied about the locations of Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes, and I wonder whether or not he might have done the same to the people on the ferries, if perhaps they had their own detonators all along and if in choosing their own lives over the others they might have been punished the same way Batman and Dent were. Neither would have surprised me, and either would have been fitting to the story, I think, which makes it all the more possible that either could have been the case, and suits the unpredictability of the Joker’s character.
In a film that has been constructed to portray every moral shade of gray imaginable except white and black, the most interesting and captivating of those shades is the one that painted this version of the Joker. All Oscar buzz aside, Heath Ledger performance as the Joker underpinned by Nolan’s deliberate writing and directorial choices for the character combine to make this one of the most memorable villains I’ve seen on screen to date. Whatever else can be said about Ledger, it is true that he completely disappears into this thing he and Nolan created to the point that I regularly forgot I was watching an actor at all, and had difficulty picking out Ledger’s familiar face even though it was only just barely disguised with a thin layer of makeup.
and others have described The Dark Knight’s Joker as less a character or person than a force of nature, and I honestly think they’ve hit the nail on the head there. He sweeps in fully-formed and then vanishes the same way, having neither won nor lost but having simply been. Nolan lends to this defining characteristic by having resisted the temptation to give us an origin story for the Joker; he is, in Nolan’s words, an “absolute”. You can’t call him quite human in the same way that you can’t call him quite mad. There’s a method there, underneath the green hair and purple suit — a carefully calculating and deliberate Xanatosian intelligence that is motivated by something just beyond what reason and logic allow us mere mortals to understand. A force of nature, or perhaps a trickster god — a personification of anarchy and chaos — come to Gotham to dissect the darkest level of the human psyche for his own amusement.
He is, right to the very end of the film, one step ahead of the protagonists and never beaten back or truly captured. Everything is on his terms, on his time, and according to his grand plan. He seems at times as innocently wicked as a child stirring up the ant hill, just to see what happens. He gains nothing, but also loses nothing; in most comic-book action movies, this might play as anti-climactic, and here some people might think it holds true, but for me it couldn’t have gone any other way, because the story was never really about Batman versus the Joker. It’s telling that the very final confrontation in the film isn’t between them, but rather between Wayne, Dent and Gordon.
Somehow, I feel like the origin story for the Joker is a more organic affair, like perhaps he just came into existence after Batman did, as a natural balancer of some kind, fulfilling the law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I think Nolan very clearly conveys his idea that it was Batman who raised the stakes, and the larger than life villains that will haunt him have come into being because he upped the ante in the first place. Bruce Wayne dared the corrupt and the darkness, and it answered back, which ultimately leads us to ask whether Batman does more good or bad by being. Certainly in this story there are grounds to argue the latter, Gordon being the only one spared tragedy.
I felt after watching The Dark Knight less like I’d seen a movie and more like I’d just finished a particularly thought-provoking Faulkner or Ellison novel, and I want to go back and read it again. Then I want to go and sit with my high school English class or my university comparative literature class and talk about it for hours. Then I want to write a paper on it. Then maybe read papers written by other people, and then talk about it some more. I mean, I’ve written over 2,000 words on it here already, and I haven’t even started to talk about Gordon, Rachel, Alfred or Fox. I could probably go for another 2,000 on the Joker alone if I set my mind to it. I liked this movie, not because it was a Batman movie, but because it made me think about things I hadn’t thought of before, and I like that. A lot.
I have only one further question about this movie to pose to the interwebs in general, and it is this:
Why — why — was the mayor wearing such thick black eyeliner and mascara? Why?