Retro Review: THE DARK KNIGHT

In honor of the 10th anniversary of the release of The Dark Knighthere’s my original review, unedited. This review was seen as so negative at the time that I received death threats serious enough to report them to the police.

Someone get the Batman a lozenge.

Of all the improvements that Christopher Nolan has made from Batman Begins
(and there are many), Batman himself (and his stupid, stupid raspy voice) seems to have gone unfixed. If anything, Batman has taken a step back from his center stage role in
the first film and allowed much more interesting characters like The Joker, Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon to claim the spotlight. And in many ways, that’s an improvement in itself.

Nolan’s second Batfilm almost doesn’t even feel like a sequel – it feels like a reboot. Gotham City, presented in Begins as the only major American city ever founded on a soundstage, now has an outdoors. It feels like… a real city, which makes sense, since it was all filmed in Chicago. And that realness extends beyond the exteriors; for the first time in a Batman movie I felt like I understood what being a Gothamite was like, and I felt that the city was a once glorious place in a bad time, as opposed to the almost Boschian depiction in previous films, including Nolan’s first. This is Gotham City by way of The Wire.

A lot of people are talking about Heat and Martin Scorsese when it comes to this film, which is a crime epic more than a standard superhero story, but it’s The Wire that is the most apt comparison. Nolan and his co-writers, brother Jonathan and David Goyer, come at their story from many slices of Gotham life. They come at it from the criminal element, they come at it from the police point of view, they come at it from the courts and they come at it from politics and the media. And of course they come at it from the fetish vigilante angle as well. But it’s this angle that feels least developed and, frankly, least interesting. Nolan and company are talking about living in the modern city (just like the people behind The Wire were), and they’re just using the superhero thing as a way to approach it.

It’s the viability of urban life, the way that it affects and impacts us, that Nolan is interested in. The Joker is the anarchic chaos of a city given form, while Harvey Dent is the way that we’re worn down and destroyed by it. Jim Gordon stands tall as the good man at the heart of the system, battered and abused but eternally decent. He’s the only life-sized figure in the film, standing simply human amidst the huge freaks and archetypes, almost the audience identification character. This interest in the city as central to the Batman mythos is not new for Nolan – it’s sort of the same themes that he visited in Begins, but more crystallized.

I appreciate the film’s ambition, the fact that it looks to sprawl, and I like it for that. But that sprawl turns into flab very quickly, and it becomes apparent that Nolan et al, charmed by their own themes and ideas, never sat down and cut a single thing out of the script. The film gets involved in digressions that never come back around to or inform the main story or character arcs in any meaningful way. As the film begins, not long after the ending of the first one, a group of concerned citizens have taken up the mantle of the Bat (and the pads of the Goalie) and begun fighting crime as faux-Batmen. There are a lot of intriguing thematic elements to this concept – Batman’s main (mostly unbelievable) arc is about him coming to grips with the impact he’s had on Gotham, and these guys (along with The Joker and the reactions of the city’s crime bosses) personify that. But they appear at the beginning of the movie and never again; during the third act Gotham is being evacuated and I kept expecting to see these Batmen show up in some form, a bit of closure or at least follow-through on their story. Do they show up in costume to help out? Do they leave the costumes behind and just become good samaritans? Or do they look out only for themselves after Batman rebukes them? Who knows. They only add up to extra minutes tacked onto the running time.

There’s the same problem with the film’s foray to Hong Kong. It presents Nolan the opportunity to do a cool action scene, but that’s it, and that scene ends up costing ten to fifteen extra minutes of screentime just to set up. Actually, the scene also introduces a Batgadget that seeks to rival Begins‘ microwave steam generating villain plan in idiocy, so there’s another strike against Hong Kong. Another subplot, about a Wayne Industries employee who figures out his boss is the Batman, similarly dead ends itself with a cute resolution that would have been better served fleshed out into a real story in another movie. At any rate, just one more draft of the script could have tightened these things up, leaving The Dark Knight to be just as sprawling and epic a crime story as it wants to be, just without all the bloat.

You almost don’t mind all that bloat. Nolan manages his pacing in such a way that you don’t even realize that he’s getting caught up in digression after digression. And he’s populated his meandering story with characters that engage, played by actors who are performing at the top of their game. This movie belongs to Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart and Heath Ledger; Christian Bale is a guest star in their show. Every time the movie would go back to Batman and his immediate family of butlers and wise black men, I would wish that we could get back to these other three, the characters who drive the story along.

Oldman has the trickiest role – after playing so many over the top, scenery chewing characters here he’s relegated to the most normal guy, the calm center of all the madness. The movie almost goes over the edge with him in a long sequence in the middle (spoilers ahead: if anyone can tell me why Gordon fakes his death, I’d appreciate it. Why is his family so much more at risk than the families of everyone else in the police force?), but after teetering on that cliff Oldman manages to return Gordon to his modest humanity. In Begins Gordon was almost extraneous, an exposition machine, but here he’s not only a plot motivator, he’s a real character.

Working with (sort of) Gordon is Harvey Dent. The film’s title isn’t really about Batman’s nickname, it’s about Batman’s relationship with Dent – over and over again Dent is called Gotham’s White Knight. He’s the city’s Obama, newly elected as DA and cleaning things up from the inside in a way that Bruce Wayne could only dream about. Eckhart, all jaw and blonde good looks, plays Dent as the kind of good guy we haven’t seen in movies in decades. Honest and ethical yet funny and sexual, he’s a hero with almost no darkness, no repression, no hesitation. He’s straight but not square; Dent accepts that the city needs Batman. He understands that some rules have to be bent for the greater good. This is a superhero movie, but the superhero seems to be the DA.

It’s not Eckhart’s fault, but I found Dent’s turn to evil in the third act to be unconvincing. Forgiving the impossibility of Dent getting those wounds and running around being a bad guy, his change into that bad guy feels rushed. And what’s worse, the very nature of Two Face is once again misused; in Schumacher’s take on the character he was just a lunatic all the time, and here he’s just using his scarred coin to decide whether or not to kill people. There’s no feeling that he’s torn about it, and at one point when the coin doesn’t allow him to kill someone, he flips again to get a chance to kill another character in an attempt to kill that first person after all. I wanted to see this Two Face be torn, to be a slave to that coin. Instead he feels like a villain with a gimmick.

There’s not a single complaint I can raise about Heath Ledger’s Joker*. This is the most iconic presentation of the character I have ever seen; eschewing the theatrics of almost every other iteration, Ledger finds terrifying humor in quiet moments. This is a Joker who wouldn’t be interested in acid squirting flowers or electric hand buzzers. His humor is ironic, subtle and always cynical and bitter. What Ledger understands is that the Joker isn’t scary when he’s a cackling madman, but rather when his irrationality slowly peeks out from behind what appears to be a veneer of sanity. This isn’t just the best Joker seen yet, it’s one of the all-time best screen villains.

Weirdly, he feels more like a villain for Harvey Dent than for Batman. The film tries to bring Batman and The Joker into eternal pas de deux, but the clown is really the opposite of Dent, who stands for justice and order while The Joker is chaos personified. In fact, since Batman is an agent for chaos in this story – his actions have riled up the hornet’s nest of Gotham’s criminal elite – The Joker sees Batman as more of an accomplice than anything else.

Which brings us back to Batman. I’m on the record as finding the character among the least compelling superheroes in the world, and The Dark Knight does nothing to convince me otherwise. It plays like a movie where Nolan came around to my way of thinking, in fact. The movie needs to give Batman some kind of arc (a nicety the comics long since dispensed with), so Nolan makes Batman want to give up the cowl right from the start. I think this is standard second superhero movie bullshit at this point, and it really doesn’t fit here. At one point Bruce Wayne fantasizes that Dent in office will be what’s needed to allow him to retire, and I couldn’t help but wonder whose vision of Batman this was. It takes a certain megalomania to put on a rubber suit and beat up criminals, and one dude getting elected doesn’t seem like it could cure that megalomania.

But that’s just there to give Batman a story – otherwise he’s simply a catalyst for the plot’s beginning, and the star of the many incoherent action scenes (Nolan continues to be an uncompromisingly bad action director. The first time Batman fights a dog (he fights three or four in the film!) I only knew he fought the dog because someone putting a yelping sound effect over the blurry, quickly cut image). Presenting Dent and The Joker as opposing figures for order and chaos is great, but since Batman never feels like he’s actually in the middle of them, the hero becomes redundant.

One of my biggest problems with Batman Begins was the fact that Batman essentially breaks his no killing rule while saying he doesn’t kill anybody. I hoped that this sequel would pick up on the moral aspects of that scene, but it doesn’t. In fact, it continues to give Batman bizarrely free range when it comes to morality. This goes back to that immensely stupid Batgadget from Hong Kong: Batman has a device that can act as a sonar or some shit, allowing him to somehow see through walls. Using the technology of Final Draft, Batman turns every cell phone in Gotham into a sonar transmitter, and while trying to thwart The Joker’s plan (which requires impossible levels of planning – there’s no way an entire hospital could be rigged to implode without SOMEONE noticing. The Joker has an almost supernatural ability to rig shit to blow up under the radar) he uses that ability to spy on every citizen of Gotham. Or something, it’s sort of dumb and vague. It’s an obvious allusion to the whole wiretapping thing now going on this country, and Morgan Freeman’s character, being wise and black, takes offense at it all. This seems like it’s shaping up to a good moral conundrum for the Batman, and to be exploring his fairly fascist side, something no movie ever wants to do. But the movie demurs, having Batman self-destruct the system after using it just the once when he really, really, really had to. Morgan Freeman smiles, and you almost expect him to say, ‘Oh Batman, you scamp!’ before freeze framing and having the sitcom credits roll.

What a wasted opportunity. Again and again the movie comes back to the question of Batman’s relationship with Gotham and its people and how he impacts the world around him, yet Nolan refuses to explore the darker aspects of that. I wanted to see a legitimate debate about what tactics are allowable in what situations. I wanted to see Batman maybe crossing the line a little bit and being presented as a possible threat to the people he’s supposed to protect. At the very least, I wanted to see repercussions of his actions. What’s worse is that this dumb sci-fi concept never even gets used in any meaningful way; when Batman does use the sonar in an incoherent fight scene he uses it in a way that it could have been replaced with heat sensing goggles or something.

There’s this condescending notion that The Dark Knight transcends the superhero genre, as if it needed to be transcended. I don’t think that film transcends that genre as much as it seeks to not be in it; Nolan’s made a crime movie that has a guy in a stupid suit smack in the middle of it. Of course that’s the beauty of superhero stories, much like westerns or science fiction stories – you can meld them with other genres. A cowboy can investigate a murder just as two people can fall in love on a space ship. There’s an even more condescending notion that The Dark Knight takes itself more seriously than other superhero movies – as if this is an inherently good thing. I do think that the film takes itself more seriously than, say, Spider-Man 2 (although much less seriously than its turgid forebearer), but I don’t think it’s any more of a serious movie than Spider-Man 2. The tones are all that are different to me – both films take their characters and their worlds very seriously. It isn’t like the superhero genre has been, to date, a series of parodies or something. On top of that, judging a movie based on how it ‘transcends’ its genre defeats the purpose of transcending that genre, as you’re just lumping it back in with the others in the end. ‘This is much better than a superhero movie should be,’ isn’t judging the movie as just a movie. As just a movie, The Dark Knight is very good, but not great and certainly not a masterpiece. As a superhero movie… well, it’s no Spider-Man 2.

* except maybe to mention that for a guy who is all about anarchy and disorder, The Joker is really good at long term planning and organization building.