Tuesday, July 26, 2011
The Dark Knight
Don’t freak out or anything, but I don’t really like this movie all that much. I know we all sat down and took a vote and the unanimous decision was that this was the greatest movie ever made, except for maybe—–maybe—–Empire Strikes Back, but then the whole Special Edition debacle kind of split the vote so Dark Knight came out on top by, like, a swillion miles. Then there was another vote about whether people who didn’t like it were either “fucktards” or “douchenozzles,” and that went back and forth a couple times before cooler heads prevailed and we went with “douchetards,” just to make sure all the bases were covered. Then we were gonna vote on which part was the best, so we popped in the DVD, but then we got distracted when it got to the part where Christian Bale says “I’m not wearing hockey pants!” (#21 on AFI’s list of the 100 Most Awesomest Fucking Movie Lines Of All Time, right after “You had me at hello”). Then the one handicapped guy who was there was suddenly able to walk again, so then all the lepers started pressing their open sores to the screen to absorb the movie’s healing light. I also hear it cures racism and brings the passion back to sexless marriages.
So I don’t know if I was born an asshole or if I worked at it my whole life, but either way it worked out fine because The Dark Knight is really just not all that great. I mean, it definitely puts out the vibe of greatness. And there are definitely lots of moments when it’s got the coordinates of greatness locked into its tracking system. But then somebody must have spilled some Mountain Dew into its guidance module or something because it suddenly veers off course, missing greatness altogether and instead landing right in the middle of pretty goodness.
I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what irks me about this movie, which by all rights I should probably love. I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it in the theater, but almost immediately my memory of it soured. I forgot all of the awesome parts and only remembered Christian Bale’s stupid Robert Loggia voice. Through multiple online arguments with various non-douchetards, I realized that the character of Batman is at the heart of my dissatisfaction. I’m a big fan of the Batman comics (or at least I was until the Scottish Dadaist Grant Morrison killed him off in the recent crossover event Final Crisis, possibly the worst-told story ever published in any medium), so I know Batman. And Mr. Bale, sir, you are no Batman. The suit looks dumb, the voice sounds like Corey Feldman in The Lost Boys trying to act grown-up, and the fights are so clumsy that it looks like they filmed the rehearsals. The guy just isn’t badass. He has a few moments, but then he opens his mouth and I just can’t take him seriously. He’s trying waaaaaaaaaaaaay too hard to sound tough, and it's frankly laughable. I can see what the Joker finds so funny about him. I keep expecting him to pull an inhaler out of his utility belt. It’s fucking distracting.
But I am, above all, a reasonable motherfucker, so I decided to give it another chance to see if maybe I was just being a joyless curmudgeon. I know that sometimes one’s recollection of a movie can take on a life of its own that is quite different from the actual viewing experience. Also, if I was to be the only douchetard on a planet of angry Dark Knight fans, I Am Legend-style, then I wanted to restock my ammunition for the lifelong battle that lay ahead of me.
Well, for the first two hours I wondered what the hell my problem was. I still didn’t like Batman, but I enjoyed every scene that he wasn’t in, and I’m counting the scenes where Bale is out of costume. The robbery at the beginning is hardcore, all of the secondary characters are likeable and well cast (particularly Gary Oldman, who so disappears into the role of Jim Gordon that I stopped thinking of him as an actor altogether), and it has fucking Eric Roberts in it, for christ’s sake. This is a dude who has credits like Raptor and Fast Sofa on his résumé. I mean, I like The Wrestler and all, but this is the comeback of the century.
And of course, the Joker is awesome. Heath Ledger totally nailed the character’s use of nihilist humor and unmotivated violence as a means of existential terrorism, and I will forever treasure the shot of him tottering away from the exploding hospital with his weird Crispin Glover/Frankenhooker gait. He also made a surprisingly sexy nurse. Just saying.
However, despite its many strong points, Batman himself is still a problem. For one, there's the fact that Christopher Nolan simply refuses to shoot him like a badass. Instead of using shadows or dramatic angles, he just points the camera at the poor guy in full light so you can see how chintzy the suit is. I used to think that the main reason I didn’t buy his tough guy credentials was because he didn’t do anything in the movie, but on rewatching it, I can see that I was wrong. He fights attack dogs, performs a daring raid on a Hong Kong highrise, jumps out of a perfectly good building, rides a motorcycle with monster truck tires, violates the Joker’s civil rights, and dangles a bunch of cops off a building like a human wind chime. So he does plenty of stuff. The problem is he doesn’t accomplish anything. He’s the most ineffectual hero of all time. He fails to save his childhood sweetheart from a fiery death, lets Harvey Dent get his face CGIed off, can’t protect the mob witness, gets his secret identity uncovered by a nerdy accountant (who really should have been played by a bigger actor, since the name “Mister Reese” is clearly code for the Riddler), and has to take the rap for the murders committed by Two-Face, which, consisting as they do entirely of mobsters and dirty cops, constitute the only progress for the side of law and order in the whole movie. Even those attack dogs kick his ass—twice. True, he saves those people on the ferries (Most obvious trap ever, by the way. When someone like the Joker warns you about the bridges and tunnels and there’s only one other way out of town, maybe you should be a little suspicious) and he catches the Scarecrow, but come on, that guy’s a has-been, a washed-up holdover from the last movie. It’d be like if the only person Jason killed in Friday the 13th Part 2 was that one survivor from the first movie. I recognize that maybe the filmmakers were attempting to make some kind of statement about the futility of vigilantism, but I don’t buy it. If you’re trying to subvert the superhero paradigm, you can’t show the protagonist fucking up for two and a half hours and then end the movie with a money shot of him riding off like a conquering hero while Gary Oldman delivers a soulful but uncharacteristically poetic monologue about how fucking awesome he is. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. When you try, it’s called vomit.
And that’s really my problem with the movie. It violates the #1 rule of storytelling: Show, don’t tell. It’s constantly telling me things that it fails to illustrate. It tells me that Harvey Dent was considered duplicitous by his colleagues in the police department, yet fails to show him being anything other than sincere and well-meaning. It tells me that Batman is a meaningful symbol of justice to the people of Gotham City, yet fails to show him doing anything for them besides blowing up their cars and trashing their streets. (In fact, we never see the citizens of Gotham at all, and we especially don’t see any of the poor neighborhoods where a self-appointed guardian angel might do the most good. All we see are glistening office towers and pillared government buildings, but what’s the state of the ghetto that the escaped Arkham Asylum inmates burned down in Batman Begins? How do its residents feel about Batman’s crime-busting efforts? Has he made an appreciable difference in their quality of life? Do they feel safer, or would they rather be left in peace with their cheap recreational drugs?) It tells me that Dent has some kind of obsession with the capriciousness of fate, yet he seems to have a Type-A take-charge personality that leaves little to chance. It tells me that the Joker is a seat-of-his-pants engine of chaos rather than a planner, yet he concocts absurdly intricate schemes incorporating intimate knowledge of the response times of various law enforcement divisions, hospital evacuation procedures, and the Gotham City municipal school bus schedule. It tells me that Maggie Gylenhaal is beautiful, yet Wally Pfister’s harsh lighting leaves her looking like Pumpkinhead in a dress. There always seems to be a disconnect between what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing.
Basically, I’m saying that the movie bites off more than it can chew, so it takes shortcuts. It brings up interesting notions like the ethics of privacy invasion, the expediency of dictatorships, and the occasional necessity of shielding inconvenient truths from the public, but immediately drops them after its ham-fisted, flagrantly schematic screenplay has paid them off with a line or two of dialogue, usually delivered by Michael Caine, who has made a career of sewing silk purses out of sows’ ears. However, this ideological confusion is not readily apparent until the unnecessarily protracted ending. Bottom line, if the movie had stopped after the Joker blew up Maggie Gyllenhaal (spoiler), I would not be a douchetard today. It would have left the movie at the perfect length, at the perfect pace, and with the perfect Empire-style downbeat set-up for the more triumphant Jedi-style trilogy capper, The Dark Knight 2: Knight Moves, in which they would replace Heath Ledger with Jake Gylenhaal because he’s the only actor the public would accept, what with him basically being the guy’s ex-girlfriend and all.
But instead it goes on for 40 more minutes, and that’s when all of the chinks in its Kevlar open up and let its true sloppiness spill out. Two-Face is too interesting of a character to fob off on the end of a movie, especially when his corruption seems to be the entire point of the Joker’s Jigsaw-like morality play. The climax, despite its gratuitous length, feels rushed, because it’s trying to cram an entire sequel’s worth of character arc into the third act of a movie that already had a perfect ending: Batman has lost the love of his life and is forced to see the limitations of his ideals, which sets up a movie-length confrontation between a pushed-to-the-edge hero and Two-Face, a fallen angel who represents the dark side of the vigilante coin. I rarely fault a movie for having too much ambition, but I feel that The Dark Knight’s overbusy and thematically muddled endgame squanders most of the goodwill that its first three quarters engendered. For its opening two hours, I wondered why I’d disliked the movie, but its final 40 minutes reminded me. They took a tightly paced and ruthlessly plotted battle of wits and turned it into a confusing mess of half-baked ideas. Sort of like this review, which started out debating the merits of the word “douchenozzle” and ended up bandying about phrases like “flagrantly schematic” and “thematically muddled.”
In the end, I don’t really dislike The Dark Knight anymore. I regard it as an ambitious failure, like communism or Crystal Pepsi. But that’s just one douchetard’s opinion. Take it for what it’s worth.