Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Director Report Card: Chirstopher Nolan (2008)

6. The Dark Knight

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.

And then some stuff started to happen. Batman goes to China. Why? To get that one guy and bring him back to Gotham. Okay, sure, but did that need to be a huge globe-trotting adventure? Couldn’t this have been one scene in a back aisle? Liu, the character in question, doesn’t appear again until the film is almost over. His total screen time measures in around five minutes.

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?

All of this is before the film’s big second act turn, when things really fall apart. Nolan indulges his 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.

And what exactly is the movie’s point? Vigilantism is bad, except when it isn’t? Sometimes you have to sacrifice personal freedom in order to catch the bad guys and save the day? But, wait, people are inherently good and, despite telling us that chaos reigns for two hours, we find out it actually doesn’t at the very end. Maybe people need a hero they can believe in some times, even if isn’t true? And that hero somehow isn’t Batman? Except it is? What the hell does any of this have to do with comic book superhero blockbuster filmmaking?

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]


Sean Catlett said...

now it is thine turn to be the lone detractor mwahahahaha

It looks like we agree, for the most part. Certainly in the sense that this film gets way more love than it deserves. Perhaps I enjoyed it a bit more than you did (I do like Ledger's Joker) but a C isn't THAT BAD of a rating and for this film... ehhhhhh, I get it.

But I do like it more than Batman Begins, as a signpost. If only there were some sort of box I could use to suss out my feeling OH WAIT THERE IS HERE I GO I'M DOING IT!! And I'll delete any overlap from the review I did way back whenever, except when the cunt word strikes my fancy.

My overall opinion is that scenes in The Dark Knight work well in isolation, mostly the action scenes (this guy disagree with me: There's is perhaps a 45 minute continuous stretch in the center, leading up to the Joker's [first] capture, that is pretty fucking great. Otherwise it gets pretty uninteresting pretty quickly when it fumbles with lengthy transitions into the next act (it doesn't help that the bulk of these are filmed in shockingly uncreative ways, like the rooftop roundabout you mentioned) and has to struggle to get back to being engaging. Its biggest problem is that it tries to do too much, way way way too much, and fails. WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED??

My speculation is that Christopher Nolan exhausted himself with the amount of work he set out to do. This has manifested into getting certain scenes, mainly dialogue scenes, done quickly and cheaply. The script from my angle looks like an early draft, similar to the Matrix sequels and the Pirates sequels. It lacks focus and cohesion with its theme -- hell, it has several themes clashing with each other and sputtering out before they are resolved. The writer(s) should have taken another pass at it, but there was no time. And when it came time to film the scenes in the production schedule, there as also NO TIME.

And like you said, there's some paradoxical shit going on with the themes, shit handled so poorly that I don't think that it's accidental but another side effect of combining one full movie with half of what should rightly be its sequel. Batman has to work hard to defeat a powerful enemy just when Gotham was on the verge of possessing a Genuine Article in Harvey Dent. The Joker causes a bunch of ruckus, kills some innocent people and some criminals, and because Batman refuses to kill him, The Joker manages to corrupt the so-called incorruptable and ultimately wins what (should be) his REAL PLAN. Ergo, Gotham NEEDS Batman, and probably always will, and Batman needs to keep getting better. This is in the half-formed Harvey Dent spine.

Sean Catlett said...

The paradox comes in with the thematic thrust of The Joker, which is arguably the main theme but perhaps only because I think it is the strongest. Its failure is ultimately in its pathetic ending. The Joker sets up a complicated scheme that, for some reason, is dependent upon elements out of his control (grossly out of character at this point) and in the end is thwarted by the sudden manifestation of MERCY in the hearts of Citizen and Criminal. Heavy-handed and lazy, yes. Beyond that, it is actual proof that Gotham DOESN'T need Batman, that people will make the Right decision when pressed with an unsolvable quandary. This would only be true in a world where someone as cunning as The Joker didn't exist, or in a film that didn't spend 2:30 hours telling us the contrary.

Lastly, I'd be fine with Batman spending much of the film losing against a powerful enemy if he didn't fucking WHINE so much. One of those awkward act transitions I mentioned is when he "quits" and puts his suit in a fire, set on confessing his identity the second that things get hard for him. And I'm like "I just watched an entire fucking movie of you MAKING THE GODDAMN SUIT and now you're done?! Who is this pussy?" But to your point, Bruce Wayne quitting his job over a woman who clearly doesn't love him doesn't say much for his detecting skills.

Christopher Nolan is best when he ISN'T doing Batman. I thought so in 08 and think so now. The Dark Knight Rises might be better (especially considering reports that, in his Batman trilogy, Rises is going to be "The Prestige" part of the magic trick and somehow blow all of our fucking minds, I guess), but eh, I'd rather he do something original or at least unexpected. He is right to end it and wash his hands of the Justice League film.

This is Cunt Cuntington, signing off for now.

Bonehead XL said...

The more I think about it, the more I realized how fucked up the themes are in this movie. I agree, it really does feel like a first draft. It's all over the place.

And the ferry stand-off is terrible. It's the climax of the movie and instead of being the most exciting moment it fizzles out. When watching the film in the theater, I remember thinking, the person should press the button and their boat should explode instead of the other one. Or a piece of paper that says "BOOM!" will fall out of the controller and nothing will happen. Or both boats will explode. That's something the Joker would do, especially after spending the entire movie telling us he's an agent of chaos and doesn't have a plan. Even though, as I said, he obviously has an incredibly convoluted plan. But then the LEAST EXCITING, MOST RETARDED THING that could have possibly happened is what happens instead. The real Dark Knight is apparently actually Tiny Lister.

I agree that Nolan's sensibilities really don't line up with superheroes in general. Or at least not any of the A-lister characters. He probably could make a pretty awesome movie out of Grendel or any number of other indie things. But something from the big two? No, his outlook is too film noir, too cynical.

I'm sort of, kind of looking forward to "Rises." I don't really care about Bane as a character so I'm not worried about him getting fucked up. And Tom Hardy can be a total badass. I like Anne Hathaway and think she should be an interesting Catwoman. I hope she adds some humor and levity to the film. I like that they're bringing back the League of Shadows and things are coming full circle. I know Batman is still going to be an ineffectual pussy since I can all ready tell that the second act turn is going to be Bane kicking the shit out of him, possibly breaking his back. I've just got to accept that. So, yeah, optimistically cautious is I guess how I'd put my mood? Still seeing the midnight premiere.

As you pointed out, seems like so many big budget sequels are rushed in the scripting stage, leading to sloppy final films. Hopefully, Nolan can at least wrap things up on a satisfying note. Hopefully.