Thursday, July 19, 2012

Batman Movie Batdown Week 8 - The Dark Knight

"The Dark Knight" is the biggest, boldest, hugest, and most Batmanest movie ever made.  Its also one of the most successful films of all time, singlehandedly making more than a billion dollars worldwide - a figure that absolutely dwarfs the previous record held by 1989's "Batman", which only hit 400 million.  Today if you go on the Internet and hear a reference to something Batman-related, nine times out of ten its going to be a "Dark Knight" quote.  "He's not the hero we deserve, but he's the hero we need."  "Some men just want to watch the world burn."  "WHY SO SERIOUS???"  This is the Batman movie that has defined the current generation, and probably will remain for decades a classic.

In many ways, "The Dark Knight" dwarfs the other Batman films, because its just so big, so amazing, that its hard to remember that the other Batman films have even happened.  Even Tim Burton admitted recently that his Batman films feel like "Batman on Ice" compared to Master Christopher Nolan's epic.  And epic is indeed the term to use for "The Dark Knight", more than any other movie, this is the story that really drives Batman to the very wall.  Its not merely the biggest Blockbuster spectacle, its a brutal story that shoves Batman beyond his limits, where Bruce Wayne loses the only links he had to a normal life.  No superhero movie before or since has ever tested it protagonist so deeply, forcing them to almost abandon their capes and mask, and then lose everything.  If you're wondering why I was so disappointed with "Iron Man 2" or couldn't call "The Avengers" a timeless classic, its because "The Dark Knight" raised the bar.  This is a new class of Blockbuster, chillingly bleak, frightening in how it pushes its hero right to the very wire.  And above all, well-crafted, inventive, and constantly exciting.

You really cannot deny the simple fact:  "The Dark Knight" is the best Batman movie ever made... for now.  In a few hours, that fact may change forever.  The new interpretation Master Nolan began with "Batman Begins" was truly perfected in "The Dark Knight", to the point that this film actually transcends simply being a Blockbuster or a superhero movie.  Those terms are too pedestrian for a movie like this.  "The Avengers" is just fanservice with a plot, "The Dark Knight" is brutal.  It doesn't want to just give comic book fans the same stories they have been reading for decades, it wants to test the Batman idea, to place him in the most extreme circumstances conceivable and see if he can survive, to see if Gotham can overcome the full force of a supervillain on the loose.  The Joker isn't a cackling bank robber, he's a terrorist, trying to destroy everything he sees.  What is the Batman if not a costumed guardian of civilization?  Order vs. Chaos.  For that reason, this is really the ultimate Batman movie.

For once, the cast of "Batman Begins" was left largely intact for "The Dark Knight".  The only major shift was Rachel Dawes, who lost Katie Holmes and instead picked up Maggie Gyllenhaal, which was general a plus.  Ra's Al Ghul remained dead, despite what the comics and cartoons would tell you, so no more Liam Neeson.  Christian Bale, Michael Cane, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman all back.  Even Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow managed to make a short return, then get pathetically taken down in just seconds.  An insult, I say!  The new additions are of course, Aaron Eckhart as Gotham's White Knight, Harvey Dent, Eric Roberts as the crime lord, Moroni, and of course, Health Ledger's The Joker.

I guess I need to discuss the Joker right now, because he's honestly the star of the show here.  Yeah, this is a Batman movie and the film struggles to stay focused on the Batman character instead of devolving into the villain shows that were the Burton-Schumacher films, but its hard to see much when the bright shining Joker is right there.  And yet, the actual honest truth of the Joker's performance is deeply overwhelmed by the tragic death of Health Ledger from a drug overdose just a few months after "The Dark Knight" stopped filming*.  Some people have even theorized that Health Ledger's performance as the Joker so unlocked some kind of hidden darkness within the actor that he become unhinged and turned to dangerous drugs.  I am not so sure, personally.

Health Ledger absolutely nails the Joker part, there's no doubt.  If you remember, when Master Nolan first announced that Health Ledger would play the Joker, we all kinda laughed and said "Brokeback Mountain" is playing Batman's greatest enemy?  The Hell?  Then the first teasers came out, and you heard Ledger's laugh, you heard him say "WHY SO SERIOUS???" and you knew it, immediately, this guy was perfect.  However, as to whether his part as the Joker was exactly life-altering, I have my doubts.  The only reason - the ONLY reason - Health Ledger posthumously won his award for Best Supporting Actor was because of his death, not because the role was exactly all that deep.  In the end, no matter how well-written, the Joker is a fun role, he goes around laughing like a maniac and being hysterical.  Its pretty one-dimensional.  This is the easiest acting in the world, just be as hammy as possible and have the time of your life.  Is it Oscar-worthy?  Not really.  Still, its the best performance of any Batman movie, putting poor Jack Nicholson's version in 1989 to shame.

Now, I'm not saying I don't like Master Nolan's Joker, he does bring something very new to the character.  Instead of the usual tricks with Joker Laughing Gas and Harley Quinn and big silly traps involving oversized toys, this Joker is far more grounded.  He's a loner with greasy hair and faded make-up, absolutely insane to the very core, just running around causing mayhem.  There's no toxic waste backstory, no Harley Quinn, but there is a Glasgow Grin, probably self-inflicted.  This Joker doesn't run a criminal empire, he's a terrorist working with former mob enforcers and escaped mental patients, whose tactics are simply unsophisticated bombs and knives.  Still, he's a terrorist genius, endlessly inventive and able to actually challenge Batman and the entire Gotham Police force with just a few stolen trucks and machine guns.  If you capture him, he'll have henchmen with bombs in their belly.  If you got him cornered, he'll blow up a hospital to get away.  And he does all this basically while making it up as he goes along, coming up with new strategies to escape every day.  Not even his mafia employers can contain him, he does more to destroy the Gotham mafia than any of Gotham's protectors.  The Joker is simply so intense, so dangerous, that its hard to imagine that anybody will ever be able to overcome him and create a bigger threat.

The plot of "The Dark Knight" involves the trio of Batman, the soon-to-be Commissioner Gordon, and the new DA, Harvey Dent, coming together to finally finish the Gotham mafia which ruled the underworld for decades.  (If you've read "The Long Halloween", this and a lot of details here should be very familiar.)  With Falconi gone, the remaining mobsters come together in a big "group therapy session" to hide their money from the police and hold onto their positions of power, allying themselves with a Chinese plutocrat named Lau.  Batman manages to catch Lau, and Dent brings forth a huge RICO indictment against the entire criminal force.  With their backs to the wall, the mafia hires the Joker, the craziest guy they know, to kill Batman.  This causes the Joker to unleashed Hell against all of Gotham City, killing judges, killing the police commissioner, locking down the entire city in a grand reign of chaos.  Somehow the Joker's moves of attacking every layer of Gotham's government manages to be far more frightening and threatening than Ra's Al Ghul's rather silly plan to gas Gotham into madness.  This is a full revolution against sanity.

Bruce Wayne's greatest hope in this movie lies with Harvey Dent, who represents everything he wanted to inspire with his Batman monster.  Harvey Dent is what Batman cannot be:  a legitimate crusader against criminals, somebody who works within the law to make Gotham a better place.  He's also got Bruce Wayne's girl, Rachel Dawes, but for now, Wayne is willing to overlook that issue.  Unfortunately, that also means Harvey Dent is a natural target for the Joker, and in the crossfire, Rachel Dawes is killed.  With her goes Bruce Wayne's only real hope for any kind of life, she was his only female interest at all**.  Dent himself is burned in a Joker bombing, and thanks to losing everything, he goes insane and goes on a killing spree of revenge, flipping his coin to decide who should live or die.  Technically he never becomes a supervillain, he never calls himself "Two-Face", but the implication is there.  Even though he never goes full comic book villain, this Two-Face is obviously an improvement over the Tommy Lee Jones version.  For one, his make-up actually looks like he's been burned, instead of appearing like a Goosebumps cover.

"The Dark Knight" is largely an endless series of new attacks by the Joker, to the point that the movie comes off somewhat exhausting.  Its two and half hours of assault, with Batman scrabbling every scene to try to save something of Gotham before the Joker can destroy it all.  You actually get the feeling of living in a city under siege, where at some point the entire thing begins to suck away your soul.  Every time the movie seems to fall into some level of stability, suddenly the Joker manages to up the ante.  Then even when the Joker is captured, he throws another gambit, throwing Two-Face into the ring to give Batman the final test.  I'll note, by the way, that the Joker actually does manage to get Batman to break his One Rule, as Batman throws Dent off the roof in the climax to save Gordon's son.  At that point, Batman has to jump to the next level, he has to take the credit for all of Two-Face's crimes in order to save the White Knight's reputation.  And Commissioner Gordon has to chase after the hero.

He then gives a perfect description of the Master Nolan Batman:  "Because he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.  So we'll hunt him.  Because he can take it.  Because he's not our hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector.  A Dark Knight."  Damn, Gordon.  That's almost as good as "I am vengeance, I am the night, I AM BATMAN!"

The best scene, by far, is the huge chase in the streets of Gotham, where the Joker launches a full offensive against Gotham's SWAT teams.  This leads to all of the most exciting and awesome moments in the movie, such as when the Batmobile is damaged and Batman escapes on a BATBIKE.  And that Batbike (or "Batpod" if must use lamer terminology) then swoops around the Joker's truck like a Speeder taking down an AT-AT and FLIPS THE FUCKING THING OVER!!  HOLY SHIT.  Even today I can't resist the urge to cheer when I see that.  Unfortunately, this scene takes place about halfway through the movie, and the remaining fight scenes are less impressive.  Master Nolan did thankfully learn to direct action scenes with annoying shakey-cam though, so this movie is much better to look at.

But in a less positive tone, the entire movie is filmed in a Blue-Orange contrast!!!  NOOOOOOO!!!  What is wrong with natural light?  Seriously?

My main complaint with "The Dark Knight" is that the movie grows very bloated.  The first hour largely exists to set up the Batman-Joker conflict, when that easily could have been begun much earlier.  Why did we need to travel all the way to Hong Kong?  That entire adventure is twenty pointless minutes.  Later on, Batman manages to find a bullet hole, and using the shards, is able to reconstruct the original bullet with a fingerprint attached.  Yeah, Master Nolan did build a new level of realism and grounded tactics to his Batman franchise, he sure did his best to cut out all the magical and most fantastic elements, but this bullet trick is a pretty long sequence, and its completely ridiculous.  Like, Adam West ridiculous.  Bullets don't just shatter, they're warped and melted in the chamber, its completely impossible to do what Batman did.  Couldn't he just find a spent shell?  In the end, Batman builds a use sonar-system to monitor all of Batman with Batvision, so he can find the Joker anywhere.  Morgan Freeman immediately reacts with horror, claiming this is too much power for one man.  Now, I guess its fine they're making a moralist argument against unlimited surveillance, but this is BATMAN!  He was just wiretapping phones an hour ago, since when has he cared about the right to privacy?  He's a superhero!  Use whatever you got.  Worse, "The Dark Knight" proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Batman needs this power, since its only through that technology that he was able to catch the Joker.

That leads me to the final climax on the two ferries.  What the Joker does is rig both boats to explode, then gives them each other's trigger, telling them to blow up the other one or he'll destroy them both on the hour.  One boat is full of refugees, the other is full of criminals.  You have to blow them up, or they'll blow you up, that's the assumption here.  Ultimately Batman stops the Joker and neither boat destroys the other one, its pretty much the most idealistic moment of the movie.  It is a clever use of the Prisoner's Dilemma in Game Theory by the Joker in a sadistic application of choice.  Now, this being a movie, neither ship blows up the other.  I, however, being a cynical person, am 100% sure that one of those boats was going down.  There's an excellent article about this here.  Because even factoring in the chance that the Joker is lying, and that Batman will save them, with the information they have, both boats would detonate the other.  Especially when the passengers know the other boat is full of sociopaths.  I'm betting on the passenger boat killing the prisoners, since the prisoner ship is already divided between the wardens and the prisoners, will oppose each other as a force of nature.  The only thing that even saves the prisoners is that this isn't a pure Prisoner Dilemma, the passengers can't bring themselves to kill the others because their fellow man is watching.  And the passengers are only saved because of Saint Tommy Lister, the purest sociopath to ever walk the Earth.

All I know is that it wouldn't take me a minute, boom goes the other ship.  I'm a hard man.

Either way, "The Dark Knight" was immediately regarded as the best Batman movie of all time, a major new step in the sophistication and maturity of superhero films.  It also broke numerous box office records, brining in a stunning billion dollars, making it one of the most popular movies ever made.  Why was this?  Part of the reason, obviously was because this was an incredible movie that everybody wanted to see, a true cultural phenomena.  But the gross was definitely helped because of the sleeping popularity of "Batman Begins", and the elephant in the room:  the death of Health Ledger.  Everybody wanted to see that A-list star's final movie, especially when even in 2007 people were talking Oscars.  For that reason, four years later, "The Dark Knight" is still regarded as the best Batman movie by most audiences, and of course, there was a sequel.  For my money, I still say "Batman Returns" is better, but that's me.

Unfortunately, here is where the Batman Movie Batdown will have to end.  Its been a long eight-week ride, a wild ride at that.  We've seen campiness of all kinds, we've seen darkness of all kinds.  Batman is not merely a film franchise, not just one man or one story, he has a thousand faces, a thousand stories.  He's the Dark Knight.  He's the Caped Crusader.  He's half of the Dynamic Duo.  He's the World's Greatest Detective.  And he's a millionaire playboy.  He's American, he's Filipino, he's a woman.  Batman is whatever we want him to be.  And for that reason, he is eternal.  Batman can be a valiant warrior against the Axis Powers, a self-parody, a vengeful warrior fighting his own demons, or the last hope for a world gone mad.  He is above all, a Superhero.  Maybe one without powers, but still just as fantastic and inspiring.  The Batman story will not end tonight at midnight when "The Dark Knight Rises" comes out, it may never end at all.  He'll continue on as long as Western Civilization enjoys him, evolving constantly to be whatever we want.  In just a few years, there will be a new Batman movie, one hopefully very different than anything we've seen before.  And when that happens, I'll be there, watching, judging.

Because I may not be Batman, but I am BLUE HIGHWIND.

Now, I only have a few short hours before I have to go to the midnight release.  I know exactly what I'll be doing to prepare:  reading over the Batman Batdown.  (And taking a shower, but you don't need to know that.)  TOMORROW, the moment you've all been waiting for, "THE DARK KNIGHT MOTHERFUCKING RISES!"

Same Bat-Channel, same Bat-Time!

* Which, as we all know, deeply hurt the production of Terry Gilliam's, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus".  Luckily that movie managed to survive thanks to other actors stepping in to play the part, and Gilliam was able to brilliantly work the actor-shifts into the plot.  Health Ledger's character is con artist, so he has no true face, which explains why he keeps on changing into other people inside the Imaginarium.  I know I should be talking about Batman, but that really is a great movie.

**Then again, she was also a master of mixed signals, since she loved to give Bruce Wayne a huge Hollywood kiss right before telling him, "I'm sorry, I'm Spider-Man, this can't work."  In this movie she even sends Wayne a letter to tell him that his balls must remain blue, because she's marrying Harvey.  Alfred is wise to burn that letter.


  1. Im surprised You barely talked about the animated series. oh well at least you talked about the mask of the phantasm.

  2. I'm seeing it late tommorow with the family, and I expect the theater to be packed. I'm also expecting to be about as amazed as I was with Dark Knight.