Thursday, July 19, 2012

movie review: 'the dark knight' (RETRO REVIEW)

I remember the first time I saw The Dark Knight.

I remember the hours of waiting in line with my friends, where we talked, argued, played cards, and tried to coordinate with our friends who were arriving later. I remember getting some of the best seats in the theatre for the movie, and I remember the audience bursting into shocked applause at the end of the film, still working to take in what they had seen. 

Yes, The Dark Knight was that good. For me, it was something of a formative experience - I know for a fact that scenes in a few of my stories were shaped by those in that film. It was also the first film that appealed to my thinking on political issues - as I suspect it was intended. It also did wonders in defining the superhero blockbuster and was part of the sequence of fantastic films that came out in 2008, which was one of the best years for movie geeks since 1982. Both critics and audiences hailed it, and the choice by the Academy to extend the Best Picture category was driven primarily by the refusal to nominate this film. It wasn't just a formative film for me - it was a film that reshaped elements of the cinematic landscape. It catapulted Christopher Nolan to stardom, provided additional fuel for the revitalization of comics along with Iron Man (which would lead into The Avengers), and gave Heath Ledger the Academy's first posthumous Oscar-winning actor since 1976.

And to be completely honest, while I have seen The Dark Knight dozens of times since it was released in 2008, it's a little hard to talk about - mostly because for a contemporary superhero blockbuster, it has been one of the most intensely analyzed and discussed film in recent years. And it wasn't just film critics this time - Nolan's clear emphasis of themes and symbols have made the film accessible, so everyone could talk about it. My issue will be having anything new to say on the subject.

So, let's clear some things out of the way first. Yes, The Dark Knight, sequel to Batman Begins, is a great film. It's one of the best superhero blockbusters of all time, propelled by a tight (albeit not error-free) script, excellent cinematography and direction, and great acting across the board. If you've seen any movies in the past four years, statistics indicate you've probably seen this one. And while there are problems with this movie (I will get to them, don't worry), there are so many things about this movie that are iconic and powerful that make it a true touchstone in modern cinema so that it can't be dismissed. 

But part of me wonders whether or not a film like this couldn't have succeeded or resonated with people so well if it hadn't played directly to the discussion of issues that have dominated the American psyche for over a decade now. Not only is this film very modern in design and technology, but also in culture and theme, and I wonder whether or not this film would have struck a chord with so many people if it had been released in, say, 1992, particularly with American audiences.

Enough beating around the bush (bad pun intended), let's make this very clear: The Dark Knight is a film about terrorism. Not only is the Joker considered and openly called a terrorist in this movie, most of the second and third acts are actively exploring how the law and those who safeguard it might respond to terrorist acts in the modern age. It's a post-9/11 film in every sense of the term, and you can tell through the language and style that the film was intended to resonate with anyone who was deeply affected by the events of that tragic day. Now, granted, this isn't a new observation - a number of articles accused The Dark Knight of being pro-Bush and pro-PATRIOT Act when it debuted, and most of those articles somewhat missed the point. Nolan was indeed making a statement about terrorism, but his broader themes involved power and its abuse, most of which can be summed up in Harvey Dent's speech delivered to Bruce Wayne and Rachel Dawes in the restaurant early in the first act. It's a speech that directly applies to the very powerful Bruce Wayne, and if we continue the feudal motif from Batman Begins, it makes a shocking amount of sense. Batman becomes Caesar, refusing to give up his chosen duty (something Rachel realizes midway through the movie) and lordship over Gotham, despite every attempt the Joker makes to destroy it. The statement, 'You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain', is one of the penultimate statements of the film. 

But if we continue with the feudal motif, we also have to consider the city of Gotham itself, and its population - the vassals in Bruce Wayne's fief. When he can't protect them from the Joker, they demand he turn himself in, hold himself accountable - and when he doesn't in a desperate scheme to capture the Joker, he burns the bridge with Rachel. But even despite the very real anger that Gotham has for Batman, he still believes in them and their inherent goodness - the principles he claims to represent. And indeed, they don't disappoint him.

However, even as Alfred gives speeches to Batman, suggesting that he's taking a principled stand by not turning himself in, by asserting his will above the others and ultimately taking the responsibility for the deaths, you really can't say that Bruce Wayne is acting out of the plain goodness of the heart. His psychological dependency on the Batman alter-ego is consuming him, and it's important to consider that he's not hunting the mob because he wants to save Gotham or make it a better place, but because he wants to continue his long, fruitless task of avenging his parents. He considers criminals uncomplicated - because, in his mind, they're simple targets for his revenge - and the Joker, well, complicates things. Alfred knows this and recognizes Bruce's damage, and yet he burns Rachel's letter - a letter that might have persuaded Bruce to put aside Batman and move on with his life - because he believes that Bruce's Sisyphean vengeance is indeed doing good for others, despite the horrible things it's doing to Bruce.  

Now I admit this paints Alfred in a pretty bad context, but keep in mind the man was a former soldier/mercenary according to Batman Begins - and if anything, he's the one who knows about the horrible things Batman might have to do to stop men like the Joker (he gives a speech about it near the end of the first act). If we're looking for the man who might have been Jack Bauer in another life, look no further than Michael Caine's Alfred. Don't get me wrong, it's a fascinating portrayal of the character, but I can't help but be very much aware of the dark side that Alfred is guiding Bruce towards - a fact I suspect weighs very heavily upon the old butler, and one I suspect will be addressed in The Dark Knight Rises. But a very interesting counter-point is Lucius Fox, played by Morgan Freeman (it's amazing how well-cast the supporting cast is in these films, I have to say). Despite being the head of a corporation, Fox has maintained his wry sense of humour and his ethics. The scene with the cell-phone sonar technology in the third act and his rejection of it is one of the best damn scenes in the movie, because it shows a man with profound integrity even in the face of calamity. It's a damning indictment of Bush's wiretapping and the PATRIOT Act, showing that there must be moral standards in the search for justice, and while Fox opts to help Batman in the most extreme of circumstances (out of some loyalty, I think, to Bruce, and that's about it), he swears that he won't remain at Wayne Enterprises as long as that machine is. It's a statement of how, like Bruce, he believes in the good of the people of Gotham, and that he will not impinge on their freedom.

Now, granted, Fox isn't the only other one besides Batman who believes in good. We also have my second favourite actor in this film, Gary Oldman, playing Lieutenant and later Commissioner Jim Gordon. Once again, we have the necessary everyman, the guy who supports Batman on the ground, the cop who does whatever he can to protect his family and the city where he lives, all with the hopeless burdens of bureaucracy, crime, and the task of maintaining Gotham's precarious hope. Without a doubt he's the most human character in the story, the only man who could deliver statements like 'he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now' and sell it. He's the kind of guy who might lose hope after everything he's seen as he maintains the hopeless task of keeping peace in Gotham City. He also realizes - at about the same time Batman does - that the man really isn't a hero (and if you read the paragraph's above and the last review, you'd agree that Batman is far from the traditional brand of hero). He might have been the 'hero' Gotham deserves, with festering corruption and the omnipresent mob, but not the one they needed to make things better. But who was that? Who was the hero Gotham needed?

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce Harvey Dent, played superbly by Aaron Eckhart, my personal favourite actor. Two years earlier, Eckhart had played a sleazy lobbyist in my personal favourite movie of all time, Thank You For Smoking, and he steps into the role of Harvey Dent like he was made for it. He's the white knight to Bruce's dark knight, he's got the same charisma, intelligence, and ruthlessness that Batman has, only practised in the light of day. And of course it's no damn surprise he's also dating Rachel, to complete the parallel. I'm not going to lie, while most people say they love The Dark Knight because of Heath Ledger's Joker (which I'll get to, because I have a lot to say), my liking for the Dark Knight comes from Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent. Part of this is personal preference - I'm a huge fan of Aaron Eckhart, the character of Harvey Dent is one of the best in the Batman mythos, and Two-Face, without a doubt, is my favourite Batman villain. But what makes Harvey's character work so damn well in this movie is the symbol he becomes - he becomes the symbol of hope for Gotham, the symbol that the law so maligned in Batman Begins can indeed work with honour and dignity. To draw an analogy to my last review, he's the blend of Superman's ideal of hope and Batman's ideal of justice, complete with a clever smile and a massive chin. 

And let's make this clear - for the first act of the movie, Harvey Dent is the real scene-stealing hero. He's witty, he's charming, he has swagger but still humility, he's clearly a threat to both Bruce and the Joker, and the man has the raw confidence to own every second of it. He's probably one of the few men who could have made the Spartacus statement, 'I am the Batman', and he did it in front an entire press junket, all as a plan to bring the Joker to justice! He's in love with Rachel, but unlike most male characters in Nolan movies, he doesn't let this love handicap him - in short, in Nolan's eyes, Harvey Dent is the ideal man. 

And thus it's perfect symbolism when the Joker takes great pleasure in utterly destroying his sanity. He knows Batman will go after Rachel, so he lies and has her killed - and in a wonderful side-effect, he leaves Harvey horribly scarred. And then the Joker shows up and delivers a speech to Harvey in the hospital which not only exploits Harvey's grief with Rachel's death, at failing to stop the mob and the internal corruption of Gotham's police, but also points out that sometimes being the loose gear in the system can be the only way to achieve the purest sort of justice - raw chance. The loaded coin - often seen in the background, yet never used by Dent to scam or cheat anyone - is damaged to its iconic status and now becomes his method of justice, which now relies only on chance. It's a perversion of true justice, and you get the feeling that Dent knows that, but he doesn't care - he just wants everyone to feel the same pain he feels. He's done the best he could to save Gotham, and now that the city failed to live to his standards, he's going to exact the form of justice he feels the city deserves. 'We were decent men, living in an indecent time!' indeed (that final scene, with Gordon and Dent and Batman makes me tear up every  goddamn time). 

The sad thing is that the city as a whole always did live up to Dent's standard of honour and justice - the scene on the ships proves that - it was just the criminals who never did. In fact, I suspect the Joker was only able to convince Harvey of anything because he appealed to Harvey's sense of honour and reason and justice, and his hatred of traitors and those that evade justice. He's not purely a bad guy, which makes the final scenes in the movie so damn tragic. Hell, the fact that his likeness is still used as a symbol even after his death proves the power of hope that Harvey Dent represented, a new dawn for Gotham (ten to one in The Dark Knight Rises, this symbol will somehow be perverted). 

And with that, I think we're finally ready to talk about the role that earned Heath Ledger an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. To prepare for that role, Ledger holed up in a hotel room for around a month with a small diary, trying to create the perfect representation for the role. Later, he would admit to a reporter and to fellow actor Christopher Plumer that he was having a lot of trouble sleeping after the completion of the filming, and began taking prescription medication - from which he would eventually overdose. Whether or not the creation of the persona led to his insomnia (comments from his former fiancee Michelle Williams suggest otherwise), one cannot deny that The Dark Knight would not have been nearly as successful if it hadn't been for Ledger's death (as tragic as that is). 

But make no mistake, Heath Ledger's version of the iconic Joker (my second-favourite Batman villain, cemented by this performance) is certainly deserving of the Oscar win, and also earns the right to being one of the all-time best villain performances anywhere. In The Dark Knight, the Joker is an insane sociopath with zero empathy. Nothing scares him, little fazes him, and everything is a joke. The character is a constant liar, with no consistent story about his history and life, and nothing to suggest that his entire 'not-having-a-plan' schtick wasn't total bullshit. 

However, Nolan chose to implement something new with his version of the Joker - a hard, violent anarchist bent, and enough visible intelligence to become truly terrifying. Speaking honestly, I was more surprised than I should have been with the Joker's political side, but it makes complete sense with his character. The contempt for authority, the belief that humanity is nothing more than animals that will ultimately fall when the law fails them - this is anarcho-nihilism given to a character who 'just likes watching the world burn.' Sure, he might put together elaborate plans to prove his point, but that doesn't make him less of an anarchist in the correct sense of the word (it always annoys me when people mischaracterize anarchism as wild/barbaric behaviour, when it's really significantly more complex).

What I tend to find interesting about the Joker, though, are his views of the other characters. For starters, he has just as much contempt for the mob as he does for the police - namely because the mob is an organization that is content with being 'small', all things considered. All they care about is money, and the Joker has never cared about cash - he wants humanity to destroy itself, and he wants to enable it and watch. 

His feelings about Harvey Dent, on the other hand, are a little stranger. Let's consider something here: if we think about the police van chase through the undercity during the second act, why doesn't the Joker just open up with the rocket launcher on the van if he wants Harvey Dent dead? Well, outside of the meta-logic answer ('uh, it's movie-logic, go with it'), I think the Joker understands how much of a symbol Harvey Dent represented at that time. Not only was he Gotham's symbol of hope, he also 'was Batman' at the time, so if he had actually managed to kill Dent, he would have made him one hell of a martyr - and plus, Batman was more fun to play with rather than kill. Instead of destroying the symbol of hope, he had to pervert it. 

And this brings us to the Joker's view of Batman. Let me make a hypothesis here: all of the analysis I did of Batman's character above, that he's not doing his crime-fighting purely for saving Gotham and instead acting out his endless task of revenge, the Joker knows. Obviously, he can't know some of the finer details, but considering how Batman refused to turn himself in early on - which, if Batman was a martyr working solely to protect Gotham, he may well have done, and which Harvey Dent did do - it's not difficult to believe the Joker figured out the Batman pretty well. When he says things like 'You're not like them... even if you want to be' and 'You're just a freak... like me!', he's not referring to the costume or the vigilantism - the Joker knows that Bruce Wayne is just as fucked in the head as he is, just in subtly different ways. 

And the Joker loves this. He knows that Batman's belief in the ultimate good of Gotham is the only thing that's keeping him sane, and he wants to push that belief as far as it will go.  And to break him, he's going to push every button Batman has to forcce him to kill, force him to sink to the Joker's level, because he knows that 'madness is like gravity - all you need is a little push.' That's why he makes the comment that maybe he and Batman could share a padded cell together - because the Joker knows all too well that it would take very little to push Batman from his precious moral precipice and into the same insanity that the Joker inhabits.

All of these factors constitute less of a man than a force of nature - and this is intended, because the Joker's best weapon has always been the fear that his actions create, driving people to greater and greater extremes (the hospital threat is pitch-perfect proof of this). The character is arch and is intended as heavily symbolic - as are all of the characters in Nolan's Batman movies, if we're being honest - but what makes the Joker work are the human tics, the little gestures, and the general insane humour of the character. It might be a force of nature, but he's still recognizably human, his scruffy unkempt make-up revealing skin beneath it, revealing the man behind the paint. It's what makes him such a deeply, deeply affecting villain, and ultimately what elevates him over pretty much any other live-action version of the character.

But let's face it - all of the broad symbolism that I've spent paragraphs and paragraphs going on and on about would not have worked if the movie was filmed poorly, or lacked tight direction, or didn't have an exceptionally good script. But fortunately for us all, it does. There are problems, mind you - when the Joker crashes Bruce Wayne's party and then Batman goes out the window, how did the Joker get out of Wayne Enterprises, and why didn't he kill more people while he was up there? And once again, we have a film that fails the Bechdel test dramatically - if my count is correct, of the five women in the film who get any real screentime, Rachel Dawes and Judge Surillo are killed, Jim Gordon's wife is abducted and plays a 'damsel' role, Natasha the Russian ballerina is something of a bimbo, and Ramirez is a traitor. 

And I have to be honest - the film goes on for a little too long, and feels a little overstuffed. Granted, everything in the film is good, but it does drag a bit at times. Some critics have condemned the film for being too bluntly obvious with its themes and messages, but that was part of the point - Nolan didn't want his themes to be lost behind the mechanical artifice of his filmmaking, and like all good filmmakers, there are layers beneath the initial themes that lead to plenty of analysis.

Make no mistake, I think The Dark Knight was a superb film, one that I sincerely believed could complete the series - and while I do expect good things out of The Dark Knight Rises, I have my doubts it can top this film. Sure, I expect the supporting cast to be good, and I expect the script to be complex and interesting, and I expect that Christian Bale will do well, but there are two factors that I feel might hurt that movie that I'd like to mention in comparison to The Dark Knight.

First is the casting of Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle and Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate. The latter casting choice intrigues me, because as much as Cotillard has denied that she's not playing Talia al-Ghul, I can't help but think there's some sort of connection with the League of Shadows and her character (particularly considering the loose ends left with the League and the rumoured cameos). But then again, that's the obvious and predictable choice, and I'm fairly certain Nolan might throw a curveball here.

As for Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, otherwise known as Catwoman... ugh, I've mentioned in all of my Batman reviews that Nolan films tend to dramatically fail the Bechdel test, and here, I can't help but feel I know exactly the role Hathaway will play. Here's the deal: Christopher Nolan in previous films has tended to denigrate the role of women in his stories, preferring a hyper-masculine view of logic and reason, and this does apply to his filmmaking as well (see: The Prestige and Inception). So I can't imagine how on earth Nolan's going to write Catwoman - one of the most famed sex symbols in comic book history - other than as the femme fatale that somehow seduces Batman off the track which leads to some sort of attack. Of course, the other element in Catwoman's mythos is that she's a burglar, and I suspect Nolan might focus a bit more on this, perhaps casting her as some sort of champion of the lower classes (it's high time a character like this shows up to challenge the Wayne family fiefdom over Gotham).

The second big problem is Bane - and yeah, I read Knightfall and Secret Six, the only two comics where Bane has ever been relevant. The problem is, he's only ever been an intelligent brute of a character - and that's really, really not that interesting. The only interesting thing he's ever done is break Batman's back in Knightfall (that's not a spoiler, the comic's been out since the 90s, and I suspect Nolan will do something different with it if he tries that storyline), and while I can't deny that it would make for pretty horrifying stuff to watch Bane do that in live-action...

Look, I'm sure Nolan's got a plan for something - hell, from pre-screenings, the critics have really liked The Dark Knight Rises, so they must have found some way to make Bane work. But right now, I just don't see how Nolan's going to make Bane more interesting than the average supervillain, and certainly not interesting on the level of the Joker or Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight.

But once again, I'm sure Nolan has a plan. I'm sure the script will be tight, the action will be well-shot, and the symbolism will be heavy and plentiful. That's how Nolan does things, and it's worked for him so far. Let's hope it works tomorrow, when I take a look at the finale of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, The Dark Knight Rises.


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  2. Ok... I am a little late to comment on this, but I only found out you reviewed Batman today. I have 2 issues with your review:
    1) "The only interesting thing he's ever done is break Batman's back in Knightfall (that's not a spoiler, the comic's been out since the 90s,"
    I really didn't expect you to be one of those and I hope you changed your mind. So what if it’s been out since the 90s? Nobody has ever watched every movie there is, much less read every book there is. I am actually not a person who goes out of her way to avoid spoilers (I’d actually say I go out of my way to find them – patience is not my virtue; and I’d even argue that that’s not really a spoiler – that’s kind of the only reason Bane is known), but that excuse is really lame. Like I said no one ever read or watched every book/movie/series there is. It’s not even possible to do that. Also, some people might not want to read a book which they know is going to be adapted to a movie and they’ll probably watch it. While no film is 100% faithful to a book, I can kinda see how it could feel redundant (specially in comic books) or how reading the book will (almost) inevitably cause the movie to fall short (my fav book is “Wuthering Heights” and there is a reason why I avoid every single adaption of it). Also, people have jobs and things to do and other interests – why can’t they prefer occupying their time watching movies than reading books?

    2) You mentioned the Bechdel test a lot...
    I’ll acknowledge that Nolan is not particularly kind to how he portrays women (can anyone even deny that?). This should be concluded through the analysis of his work, which you do in a summarized way. However, the Bechdel test is not the right test to be applied to just one movie, which you do mention over and over how it fails it. The Bechdel test requires only two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man – however, it has no real applicability when it comes to just one movie. I mean, whether or not one movie passes it or not, it doesn’t really matter. What it does matter and reveal the lack of representation of women in the 7th art is when it’s applied to several movies. I know that you reflect that this is a problem in Nolan’s films in general, but I think you put too much emphasis on this one.
    BTW, just in case you’re interested in representation of women (and minorities) in the movie industry:
    (I hope this doesn’t treat my links like youtube).