“Long as you keep them way off balance, how can they spot you got no talents?”
Yes, this is indeed a quote from the musical Chicago. However, it works splendidly for the movie The Dark Knight. As I watched, I could not help but think that the constant growl from Christian Bale or the twenty car crashes per frame were the only things that had kept the world at large from realizing what an unmitigated piece of crap this film was. Well, that and the fact that there are currently worms making a meal of Heath Ledger.
That’s right – I hold the unpopular opinion that The Dark Knight not only wasn’t one of the greatest comic book movies of all time, but that it sucked. Now, before I go on, let me say that I will be reviewing this movie, not as a Batman movie, but as a movie on its own. Don’t write me off as a comic fan complaining about how they dared to change the sacred text.
I suppose the late Mr. Ledger would be the best place to start, as his role is the most-praised, the biggest cause of the hype and, naturally, the most over-rated. Compared to other Jokers, Heath Ledger’s Joker was not impressive at all. A good Joker should pose a challenge to a writer, extreme sadism with a genuinely funny (albeit extremely dark) sense of humor. In contrast, this Joker was a series of gruesome acts, followed by an occasional smile. He would have gotten along well with the guy from Saw.
As a character, Ledger’s Joker is awkward and one-dimensional. Worse, the basis of the character can’t seem to follow its own logic. The make-up designer has said that that they gave Joker gritty, messy make-up to show that he doesn’t care about his appearance. Would he really be wearing that whole get-up if he didn’t care about his appearance? The Dark Knight constantly wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to be uber-realistic and gritty and essentially above more comic-booky ideas like a villain with acid-spraying flowers or a sleek, phallic Batmobile, but it is in the end a comic book movie, and every attempt to get away from the comic book nature only makes everything else seem more unrealistic and silly.
This problem first occurred to me with Batman Begins, but came back with a roaring vengeance with Joker’s pencil scene. I could not help but wonder: why is this guy wearing a clown suit and make-up? Aside from the fact that he was Joker in a Batman movie, I could not really see any reason. He did not act like a clown; he acted like a normal crazy guy. The “pencil trick” and bomb joke only seemed like desperate token lines by the writers to justify his being the Joker. The scene played out as uncomfortably as if I were watching The Breakfast Club and Emilio Estivez was, for some unexplained reason, wearing Greek hoplite armor the entire time. While a more stylized, kookier character might have been unrealistic, he would have been more believable than this relatively lifelike character dressed up the way he was.
I could not help but think that Christopher Nolan decided what he wanted the Joker to act like, and then tried to shoehorn that idea into the role. That’s why the behavior does not fit the look. And that’s why the attempt at explaining the make-up (war paint?) seems half-hearted at best.
Why would the Joker then go out of make-up to disguise himself as a police officer? If disguise takes precedent over war-paint, why didn’t he do that as the nurse? Is he a master of disguise or a showman? Do the screenwriters even know their character? And, why oh why did the police not take off his make-up when they had him in custody? They clearly had him remove his clothes to inspect them (the line about them all being hand made, no labels). The obvious choice would be to wash off the make up, put him in a jumpsuit, and essentially neuter him. But they don’t. Why?
A. The Gotham police have the combined intellect of a busty blonde in a slasher flick.
B. The movie wants to keep Joker as an other-worldly figure despite already setting him up as a more grounded psychopath. And, really, who wants to see Batman interrogate a guy in a jumpsuit…even though, that would follow the rules set forth by the movie and the overall premise of this more-realistic, gritty Batman. Essentially, lazy writing.
Both of these reasons really. In fact, A is caused by B. A also comes up when the police leave Joker in an unlocked cell with one guard (yeah, leave a sole guard in the same room with someone who is known for playing mind games…great idea) and don’t even bother to clean up the shattered glass (erm…doesn’t this guy have a penchant for cutting?). And really now, could any police officer think that the Joker’s requested phone call was innocent?
Of course, if the police were competent, the Joker would have a harder time escaping. Either you would need to make him a bit more of a SUPER villain (hidden capsules of laughing gas perhaps) or, god forbid, put effort into your script and not just have events occur out of convenience to the writer.
Now, let’s look at the character itself. One moment I remember laughing was when Rachel Dawes yelled to Joker amidst his umpteenth scar speech, “Okay, stop!” That was because I was half-expecting her to follow that with “For the love of God, we’ve seen this scene five times already! This character is one-dimensional and boring!”
There, I said it. Joker was not a good villain. The emperor has no clothes. He was an averagely written psychopath who struck one note repetitively for the first half of the movie, and then in the second half turned into a pop-psychologist who has taken a course on ethics in night school.
As for Ledger’s acting, it was okay. I thought it was excessive instead of over-the-top (which would have been better). The lip-licking would have been a nice touch if done a few times every other scene instead of every line (I could not help but shake the image of 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy telling Ledger, “That’s great! Do it nonstop! If it’s great with that line, it’ll make every line better!”). He was a decent psychopath in some scenes, especially considering the horrible dialogue and speeches he was given, but his performance just kind of seemed to be him shouting “LOOK! I’M ACTING!” at multiple points and I wonder if he’d be nominated for a Razzie were he still with us. To be honest, about halfway through the movie, I began to think that maybe Joker licked his lips so much to catch the bits of scenery that fell out during all the chewing.
There was one nice Joker moment in the movie: when he blew up the hospital. For a few seconds, he pretended to not know how to activate the explosives (while in drag, mind you, cause, well, drag’s always funnier), fiddled incompetently, then seemed surprised when he got the most excessive explosion I’ve seen in a while. On one hand, he blew up a hospital. On the other hand, the scene was hilarious. That dichotomy is not only hard to write, but brilliant, creepy, and captivating at the same time. I wish the rest of the film had been like that.
But enough about the Joker. Let’s look at Batman. As Bruce Wayne, Christian Bale seems to know what he’s doing. He’s arrogant, yet charismatic. That’d be great if this were Bruce Wayne: The Movie. Unfortunately, his Batman makes Toby Maguire’s awkward Spider-Man look like the best casting match known to man.
To start with the obvious: Someone please send Batman a note and let him know that he’s not Jack Bauer. And let Christian Bale know that imitating that voice might work for a line or two at best, but whenever he is giving a speech (oh the speeches…) or is in an extended dialogue, he ends up giving the best unintentional comedic performance since Faye Dunaway arched her eyebrows and became Mommie Dearest.
I also couldn’t buy this Batman not killing the Joker. This was yet another problem brought on by the combination of lazy writing and a more realistic, less stylized setting. This Batman breaks bones, levels city blocks, probably puts hundreds of lives in danger with his car chases and truck flipping…yet, he won’t kill the Joker on two separate occasions. Why? Because he doesn’t want to prove the Joker right? I can hardly believe that this character would allow hundreds of more lives to be endangered just so the Joker would not get those 5 seconds of satisfaction between the beginning and end of his death. The comic book Batman would…but we’re leaving the comics out of this, right? Just like Joker’s attire, the only reason this did not come off as asinine was because the public has in their consciousness that Batman does not kill.
Oh, and I’m just not going into the pointless Hong Kong excursion. For everyone’s sake, let’s pretend that never happened and move on to Harvey Dent, shall we?
I wanted to like Harvey/Two-Face. Honestly, I did. Aaron Eckhart did a great job in the first half and I could almost see myself championing him as the under-appreciated actor amidst the “ZOMG! Posthumous Oscar!” clamor. Unfortunately, his descent to Two-Face was rushed. Sure, he’d had a traumatic experience…but does that make everyone automatically give up all of the ideals they strived so hard for and try to kill their former allies?
I think someone in Gotham City had control of the trade-marked Anakin-Skywalker-Evil-Switch: “Sure to turn any good character evil with just one lame excuse!” Even when I forced myself to make that leap, I could not get over the fact that he hated Gordon more than Joker and spared Joker. If Dent’s change had been more gradual, maybe it would have made sense. If he’d killed Joker, maybe I could have forced myself to believe he so abruptly became evil. But again, in this fight between the Clown Prince of Crime and the Caped Crusader, the only true winner is plot convenience. Logic and coherence were the greatest casualties.
As for Rachel Dawes, I found her an enigma. Was Maggie Gyllenhaal trying to provide depth to a 2-dimensional character or was she flattening a more developed character? It was definitely one of the two, because in the end Rachel was about a 2.5 dimensional character.
But, aside from characters, what did I think? The dialogue was an encyclopedia of bad action movie clichés. A few of my favorites: “You’re the symbol of hope I could never be.” “You can’t give in!!!!!!” (yes, all those exclamation points were necessary) “People are dying. What would you have me do?” And of course:
Joker: I like you. There’s some fight in you.
Batman: Then you’re gonna love me.
I guess with an unfunny Joker, Batman has to be the one making the jokes.
Also, you gotta love all of the speeches explaining the character’s motivations and the point of the movie. Usually, just one of those speeches is a flashing light that someone spent about a week on this screenplay and was not willing to put in the time for subtlety. However, Dark Knight had the boldness to put at least five such speeches – from Joker, Batman, Harvey, and even Gordon.
"But, Devin," you might say, "you’re being unfair. This is a summer blockbuster. Lighten up."
I suppose you could have a point. I mean, this movie is almost the perfect homogenous summer blockbuster. At times, I forgot that I was watching Batman and not, for example, 2003’s SWAT. The difference is, this film took itself unbelievably seriously, as have fans and critics. The last scene (the confrontation between Two-Face, Gordon, and Batman) reeks of the film’s love for itself.
Despite being “realistic,” this movie falls back on tons of bad comic-book clichés. The policemen robbed of their uniforms (that all fit the Joker’s men?) and tied up in their skivvies? The comedic court scenes? The nonstop use of pseudo-scientific technology that does not exactly make sense? The criminals all meeting together and referring to themselves as criminals and reflecting on how much better the “criminals” were in the good ol’ days?
Stuff like this stood out in the realistic Gotham like the animated weasel gang stood out among the live-action setting in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The criminals were cartoon characters, a lingering aspect from Batman’s comic book origins that just didn’t fit. Even Batman himself came off as a bit silly amidst all the realism. I remember another moment of unintentional comedy early in the film as Gordon and Dent argued as Batman just awkwardly stood there in the background. In this supposedly realistic setting, I could not get over the hilarity of the fact that IT’S A FREAKIN' GUY IN A RUBBER BAT-SUIT!
And what do we get in return for this realism? Chicago as Gotham, with its average skyline that Nolan insists on reminding us of with a long, sweeping establishing shot every five minutes. A Batman that can’t decide if he is Jack Bauer, James Bond, Bruce Willis, Rambo, or someone action star in between. No Batcave, but instead the White Room of Exposition! I know I said I was not going to bring in the comics, but I was DYING for something to look at (a dinosaur, a car, a giant penny, ANYTHING!). So what do we get? A non-stop cavalcade of the boring and mundane.
But not everyone was bored. Or found it stupid. Am I special? No. I can understand how amidst the hype and the dead celebrity and the constant explosions and the general roller-coaster ride of the plot, people could walk out and not think of the various problems. I must admit I went in not expecting the best. But dear god, even I was shocked by how bad it was.
I was convinced that Batman could not be done realistically. Batman is a stupid concept, built on absurdities. “An overgrown kid in a playsuit crying for mommy and daddy” says the Joker in one episode of the cartoon. A father who is both a surgeon and a billionaire owner of a multinational corporation? And why are they walking home from a movie playing at the worst neighborhood in town? Why is Batman waging a one man war on crime? That can’t be the most practical method. But, because the whole world is so stylized, because all the absurdities fit together so well, there’s no reason to question it. It’s not our world. Those aren’t our rules. Batman Begins tried to fit that world to our rules, only to make every part that couldn’t come off as ludicrous.
However, after seeing Dark Knight, I have to reassess my position. I realize that I would not be fair to judge the possibility of a realistic Batman on the sloppy Batman Begins or its sloppier successor. That would be like saying Batman cannot be a superhero because of the failure of Batman and Robin. Perhaps a more competent writer and director could do it…but judging from this movie’s grosses, that ain’t happening any time soon.