Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Dark Knight

I went to see Batman: He's Coming For Your Wallet this afternoon at a packed theater in Union Square and left feeling predictably underwhelmed. I’ve gotten used to pre-release hype, but post-release hype is another thing. It can sometimes mean that a movie actually exceeds expectations, but not in this case. I can understand longtime Batman geeks getting excited, because it’s their guy. But I have to believe the wider twitters are tied up in a combination of Heath Ledger’s legacy and a need to believe in summer blockbusters again.

Admittedly, I’m not currently a comic book nerd. I’ve seen most of the movies based on them that have come out in recent years, but I can’t say I understand any deep love for comics that isn’t rooted in nostalgia. There are books for grown-ups, after all. But trust me, I understand the nostalgia -- in Texas last week, I was quite excited to find several old comics I thought I had lost years ago hiding in a remote closet. I even did a little dance.

And it’s true that superheroes can make good fodder for the big screen. (To my mind, the best of the genre remains the first X-Men movie.) The Dark Knight is a fine way to spend two and a half hours out of the humidity, as I did today. There are a few thrilling scenes, some genuine scares, and the cast is excellent. (Why does it feel like Aaron Eckhart is still underrated?)

That said, after a swift, excellent opening scene (a bank heist), things generally turn into the muddled, overlong mess that most blockbusters are these days. The details of Gotham's crime problem had me thinking unlovingly of the intergalactic council meetings from The Phantom Menace. Christian Bale, when he’s wearing the Batman suit, speaks in a ridiculous thick whisper. (If people don’t recognize his distinctive mouth -- settle down, ladies -- why can’t he just use his undisguised voice, too? Do they think that last inch of suspended disbelief is going to break us when we've already given in to the idea of a crime fighter in a rubber bat suit?) The dialogue is mostly pitched at a middle-school reading level, and characters scream things at each other like, “Goddammit, will you stop pointing that gun at my family!!??”

The movie’s supposed depth comes from an over-explained theme of what motivates men. If it’s news to you that some people are attracted to evil without purpose, The Dark Knight will blow you away. Otherwise, the final third of the movie will leave you itching. Poor Ledger gets shackled with a couple of late scenes in which he painstakingly describes to others how he just loves anarchy. Plans aren’t for him. No, sir. Of course, most of his escapades require Rube Goldberg-level planning. (And why can’t anarchy be someone wanting to live off the grid in Maine to avoid the taxman and just fish? Why does it always have to be someone in face paint intricately wiring hospitals to explode?)

Most critics I’ve read have miraculously argued that the movie’s relation to current events is tangential at best. Ahem. The Joker’s actions, and the language used to describe them, are clearly the stuff of terrorism, and Batman eventually hooks up an (absolutely ludicrous) sonar system that allows him to listen in on all of Gotham, leading to an oh-so-subtle debate about privacy vs. security.

Aside from the surrounding circumstance of Ledger’s death -- and his admittedly charismatic performance here -- The Dark Knight was nothing special that I could see. Ledger has a lot of fun, and the establishment will presumably reward him his young passing with an Oscar, but he was more deserving for Brokeback Mountain, which will still, rightfully be his longest lasting work. I think he had a brilliant career ahead of him, but his Joker is a hammy, tic-ridden performance, perfectly enjoyable for a comic-book villain -- the bogeyman to Nicholson’s buffoon -- but hardly the stuff of transformative legend. (Again, see his Ennis Del Mar for that.)

I don’t mind having contributed my $11.75 to the movie’s haul, which could climb to a billion or so if the crowds on this Wednesday afternoon were any indication. I’m less surprised by the box office it's generated than by the passion.


Blogger Dezmond said...

Predictably" is right. I could have told you that you would not have liked this movie, based some of your criticisms before you saw it. But I'm glad you did go see it.

It is not a perfect film, but it is about as good as comic book films can get. I think you've got to give it props for at least besting its admittedly limited genre. You've read my review, so I won't argue details here.

I can say, as a fan of the Batman graphic novels that started in the late 80's and continue to this day, that it captures much of their spirit quite well. And I'm a sucker for great villains, and Ledger's Joker is really up there.

10:20 AM  
Blogger amy lineburg said...

This was the most intelligent review of this movie that I've read so far. My only question is if you liked Iron Man.

10:29 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

I did like Iron Man, Amy. I prefer the occasional humor of Downey and that movie to the dreary seriousness of Batman.

Dez, I thought Iron Man was very good. And the first X-Men movie was pretty terrific. I don't think the Dark Knight is "as good as comic book films can get," but that's certainly becoming the conventional wisdom at warp speed.

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Josh said...

disliking The Dark Knight seems to be a uniquely New York thing


10:21 AM  
Blogger Mrs. White said...

Great points, John.

And Josh, I don't think disliking the film is a distinctly NY thing. I live in Michigan, and yet still found plenty of things to criticize. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the movie, but I also didn't take it as seriously as everyone else seems to be taking it.

1:55 PM  
Blogger amy lineburg said...

I'm glad to hear it. I was really impressed with Iron Man, but thought maybe it was because I'd seen it on a whim without having heard any hype about it. (I live in South America.) I hope future comic book films follow the Iron Man example instead of whatever new frontier Dark Knight has taken us to.

12:09 PM  

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