Three years after its release, I think we can finally separate “The Dark Knight” from the hype. It’s a movie about Batman and a sequel to a well-received film, so it was all ready going to make WB a gazillion dollars. Heath Ledger was an up-and-coming actor when he took the role of the Joker but his death before the film’s release transformed him into an icon, like Bruce and Brandon Lee before him. The film went on to be embraced by critics, beloved by fans, won an Academy Award, and become one of the highest grossing films of all time. I stepped into the theater having all ready being told by hundreds of people this was a great movie.
I hated it. I knew I was going to hate it. I don’t consider myself a contrarian. I’ve enjoyed plenty of popular films. The months of hype and praise and WB’s manipulative viral marketing blitz told me I was destined to love the film and that just made me skeptical. I knew going in I was probably going to hate it after reading so much about it. But I wasn’t passing final judgment until I saw the film. The film I saw was frustrating and annoying. There’s a new Nolan Batman movie coming out in a couple of weeks though and I decided that I need to give “The Dark Knight” a second chance. Two million movie goers can’t be wrong, right?
I still hated it. Where do I even start? The first twenty minutes are solid. The Joker is given a dynamic entrance that peaks your attention. Batman and Commissioner Gordon are kicking some mob ass. Batman actually uses his skills as the World’s Greatest Detective. The fight scene with the Scarecrow provides continuity to the first film as well as being a solid fight scene in its own right. There’s some humor with Bruce’s interaction with Alfred and the relationship between Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent. I wasn’t real crazy about the copycat Batmen concept but it was still early. On this second viewing, I even found the scene where Heath Ledger’s Joker confronts the mob bosses, really that character’s proper introduction, to be pretty effective.
This is the first sign that Nolan’s love of complicated, non-linear storylines have transformed into a bunch of narrative wheel-spinning. Further example: The copy-cat Batman plot line leads to one further scene. Joker’s threat that someone will die until Batman reveals himself seems like it will lead to juicy scenes of Joker reaping random chaos. Instead, he kills two characters that help out the mob and that plotline is promptly forgotten until it’s needed again. Admittedly, the death of the Judge and the first Commissioner being intercut is a pretty effective scene.
The Joker targets Harvey Dent and the Mayor. He reveals this plan in a particularly convoluted way, which I guess makes sense seeing as how he is a super villain and all. The movie spending that much time on it is just burning runtime. The scenes of Batman reconstructing bullet fragments in a grossly overcomplicated way in order to figure out a minor plot detail I can no longer remember is just plain unnecessary.
In the comics, Batman frequently makes complicated plans that might seem morally objective at first but work out okay in the end. The film employs this during its first major action sequence, which I’ll remind you is over an hour into the film. Nolan’s hand-to-hand fight scenes throughout the film slip into the similar theatrics of Batman blocking a punch and then making his own blow. He handles the car chases much better. The underground tunnel chase and the flipping semi-truck are cool. It’s also the first time Batman is a badass in the movie. Instead of failing to predict his enemies’ schemes, beating up defenseless goons, or just catching someone in mid-fall, he actually does something proactive. Even then, the central crux of the gambit involves him pretending to be knocked out. It’s more then an hour in before Batman does something badass. In a Batman movie. Am I the only one who sees something wrong with this?
Dead Wife Fetish. (She’s not actually anybody’s wife, but a fiancée and a love interest is close enough to count.) Rachel Dawes wasn’t that much of a character to begin with but any development she received was time wasted. She exists to die and inspire angst and other emotions in the more important male characters. The heroes are soundly defeated by the villain. They compromise their morals to get stuff done. That’s fine, fascinating even. What isn’t fine is that the film shows this action through needlessly convoluted plot machinations and talking. Lots and lots of talking. “The Dark Knight” is fifty-five percent monologue.
The movie builds up lots of tension with scenes of Batman dragging people out of buildings and the entire bomb on the ferries stand-off. Hans Zimmer’s score pounds away, letting everyone know they should be getting excited by this. Batman has his final confrontation with the Joker and… It comes down to him getting outmatch by three dogs, the second time that’s happen in the film, and getting whacked in the head with a lead pipe. Instead of any sort of resolution between those two characters, the audience is literally left hanging. “You and I are destined to do this forever!” Except you’re not because you fucking died in real life. Out of all the directors in the world, I wouldn’t have expected Nolan to write for the sequel.
And don’t even get me started on how the ferry subplot resolves. The day isn’t saved by Batman but by a random guy on a boat. After all that build up and talk about bombs, there’s no boom at all. The film throws out resolving plotlines in a satisfactory way in favor of more philosophical lecturing. None of this mentions the numerous plot holes lying around.
I wish the narrative issues were my only problem with the film. Batman sucks in this. With the exception of the one scene I mentioned above, he is outwitted at every turn, failing every time. Batman’s entire shtick in the comics is the fact that he’s ready for anything. I can’t accept an incompetent Batman. All of this ignores Christian Bale’s awful three-packs-a-day smoker’s voice, the goofy new costume, or that the inherent coolness of the Batcave is traded out for a plain white parking garage.
Heath Ledger maybe gives a good performance. But he isn’t my Joker. This Joker doesn’t tell any jokes. He laughs about murdering people and making chaos but is never actually amusing. That makes sense but it isn’t very interesting. He has no Joker venom, no caulk white skin, no killer joy-buzzers, acid flowers, razor playing cards, mallets, or anything else you actually associate with the character. This is like Batman without the ears on his mask, bat-a-rangs, a Batcave, or a Batmobile. (Oh yeah, the film doesn’t have two of those things either.) It might be an interesting character, but it’s not the Joker. This ignores the fact that all he really does is make huge speeches that lazily spell out the film’s themes. Or that he claims several times to not have a plan despite obviously having a very specific plan. I think Nolan read “The Killing Joke” and some parts and stopped there. Ledger’s constant lip licking is distracting.
Alfred is reduced to a wisdom-dispensing siege. Lucious Fox does whatever Wayne tells him to do, despite bitching about most of it. Commissioner Gordon’s family life, the character’s entire emotional core, is pushed to the sidelines until the film needs a damsel-and-some-kids in distress for its last act. Barbara Gordon, the future Batgirl and a hugely important character to the Batman mythos, is given one minor mention in the dialogue and stays completely off-screen.
Harvey Dent isn’t the actual character from the comics. His friendship with Bruce doesn’t exist. Two-Face is transformed into a vigilante, not a crime boss. His split personality, inner darkness, and his obsession with duality are ejected. His obsession with his coin, with imposing strict moral rules on a universe he sees as chaotic, which would have made a perfect juxtaposition with the Joker; are downplayed, barely featured at all. Two-Face is given the most inglorious death to a super villain imaginable. Changing aspect from the source material when adapting to the screen is fine. Removing the things that made the character memorable in the first place is not.
Disorganized thoughts: Nolan’s direction is fine, I suppose, even if he has a sudden obsession with Michael Bay round-a-round shots. Hans Zimmer’s score is a bland collection of pounding noise. The performances are beholden totally to the script. Bale’s intensity is restrained and Maggie Gyllenhall is underused. Gary Oldman does okay. There are times when I really think Aaron Eckhart would have made a better Bruce Wayne. He’s got a killer cleft in his chin, if nothing else. The film also makes the crime of putting Black Dynamite in the movie and not doing anything with him. The subplot about the Wayne Enterprises employee who figures out who Batman is just adds more stuffing to the story and, again, has no real payoff. The blue visual tone is sort of pretty. The movie deflates all of the awesome sequel hooks introduced in the first movie.
Say what you will about David Goyer. (Really, go ahead.) Without him adding a proper comic book sensibility to the script, the Nolan brothers indulge their worst tendencies. Feel free to call me a nit-picking comic book nerd but I swear I wanted to like this movie. I really did. Far too serious, “The Dark Knight” isn’t the Batman movie we need, but the one the majority of the public apparently believes we deserve. [Grade: C]