Thursday, August 14, 2008

Batman: The Dark Knight

I waited to see this until I could get tickets to see it in IMAX.

It was worth the wait.

I already discussed that Christopher Nolan's achievement in Mememto sold me on his bona fides to direct a proper Batman, and I have already approved Nolan's work on Batman Begins. Batman Begins is to the Batman franchise what Martin Campbell's Casino Royale is to the James Bond franchise: a rebuild, from the ground up, of a story obliterated with gimmicks and camp, in order to show a gritty fable with enough blatant truth in it to make you squirm in discomfort about where the line of plausibility lies.

(In the case of The Dark Knight, the plausibility isn't in the roomful of criminals all lining up to let a Chinese fund manager secure their cash, but in the twisted machinations of the minds of desperate people. The loss of Tim Burton's glow-in-the-dark ammunition clips is, it turns out, no loss at all. In James Bond, plausibility was enhanced by loading most of the comic tech into the ejection seat, and sticking with gritty and brutal confrontations instead of the clean stage-fighting of earlier Bonds -- and we see Bond betrayed, wounded in the heart, and we understand something about the callous figure we assume he's destined to become. The tech that's there -- say, the automated defibrillator unit -- turns out to be unreliable; the Aston Martin may be essential for cover, but the lifesaving equipment is supplied to the government by the lowest bidder. Oh, yeah.)

The street philosophy in The Dark Knight may be a bit beyond people who think a college degree is needed to follow a Batman story, but the Batman of The Dark Knight is cast from the mold formed by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns and its three sequels ending with The Dark Knight Falls. Although Robert Downey Jr. doesn't seem to understand the reason Batman is depicted to the public by government officials as a bad guy, this is straight out of the legitimate Miller Batman canon. The guardians of law and order find it easier to chase Batman, who is honor-bound not to hurt supposed purveyors of justice and proponents of civilization, than to face genuine evils plaguing the city. Chasing bad guys is, you know, dangerous.

(Note, this post hereafter mentions certain characters' development and survival, which are fairly serious spoilers. Proceed accordingly!)

The story is at once uplifting and depressing. The city's acknowledged white knight, its new District Attorney Harvey Dent, is driven to do evil to achieve vengeance -- he is unmade as a hero by the Joker. Gotham, deemed unable to handle the truth about its hero's demise, is given a scapegoat for Dent's evils in for form of Batman -- with Batman's consent. With the fall of Dent, Gotham's Dark Knight loses his chance to resign the mantle of public protection to a hero able to stand in the light, his face known to the world. But, there's a good side: the Joker's scheme to have two ferries full of passengers kill one another, each convinced the other is evil enough to destroy the other first, fails -- neither criminals nor indignant civilians are willing, in the end, to commit the murder the Joker sets them up to commit.

The movie isn't as dark as Nolan's finely-executed The Prestige. If you want a dark movie about magic that turns out all right in the end, go see Neil Burger's at-least-as-spectacular The Illusionist. (The Illusionist doesn't posit genuine supernatural activity, incidentally, merely illusion -- though, admittedly, world-class professional illusion; The Prestige, by contrast, turns very dark as genuine 'magic' ups the ante in a competition between rival performers.) The Prestige honestly can ruin your whole day. I do not say this because The Prestige is bad but because it examines driven men dying to outdo one another, and follows them to their truly desperate ends. Basically, it's a lesson in the principle that in a zero-sum game in which no-one permits another to win, everyone must lose. No-one cooperates so, unsurprisingly, everyone is destroyed. Ta-da. It's a lesson straight from game theory; it has a human truth that's hard to face even though you know the plot turns on magic. It will turn your stomach.

The Dark Knight, by contrast, shows mercy. The love of his life rejects Bruce, but friends protect him from the brutal fact and leave him to enjoy his illusions about his dead beloved. The Joker sets up good people to be killed, and has some success, but in the end he cannot make ordinary people into monsters; he can only fertilize the monsters hiding in ordinary-looking people, who already have the evil seed germinating within them already. Ordinary people turn out to have much better common sense than they've been given credit for. The Joker is hauled off by the police when they find him bound and trussed, in classic Batman style. Batman is scapegoated for crimes he did not commit, but he gets away.

When the credits roll, you realize the movie's ironies aren't yet done. Aaron Eckhart (whom you must see in the hilarious Thank You For Smoking) lives, but cannot reprise his character because the character is dead. Heath Ledger's Joker is carefully orchestrated to live on, presumably behind bars in Arkham Asylum, but the deceased actor cannot reprise the role; one wonders who could make a Joker worthy of the mantle.

Unlike the evilly entertaining eccentric millionaire genius so brilliantly voiced by Mark Hamill in Batman The Animated Series, Heath Ledger's Joker is a lowbrow psychopath (What have gasoline and gunpowder got in common? They're cheap.) whose genius lays in ruining the plans of better men. He manipulates people into exposing their true colors -- and behind many cops are criminals, and within seeming saints mere mortal sinners. Ledger's Joker is a maniac with a death wish, living to enable destruction. He arms the villain Two-Face and calmly waits for a coin-toss to determine whether the Joker will live or die. Ledger's Joker is disappointed when Batman, on principle, declines to kill him, instead risking himself to avoid running the Joker down. He can hardly believe it when, at the end, Batman merely immobilizes him for the police rather than finish him -- and concludes in surprise that Batman is truly incorruptible.

The movie closes with the thought that (a) Gotham needed a white knight it did not deserve, a hero who was lost to the Joker's schemes precisely because Dent was the best of Gotham; however, (b) Gotham deserves a hero as unlawful and brutal and terrifying as Batman, and will have to make do with what it deserves. I disagree. Dent certainly was willing to make use of due process when it seemed to produce results, but when the pressure was on, he quickly yielded to passion and was willing to try terror and unlawful threats to get what he wanted even on people from whom he could not hope to learn anything useful. Only Batman really stood up to pressure with his principles intact. Dent was the hypocrite-waiting-to-happen that Gotham on a bad day might be thought to deserve, but principled heroes with enormous assets and the power to bring foreign threats within the jurisdiction for prosecution were frankly what Gotham seemed to need.

The Dark Knight is a great visual feast, and you should take every opportunity to stop off at an IMAX theater to see The Dark Knight in all its glory. It's dark, it's violent, and it's not suitable for little ones, but in the end it's uplifting. Heroes who don't also require credit -- and stand willing take the blame for their fallen comrades' wrongs -- just don't grow on trees. Moreover, the people of Gotham turn out to be less worthless than some would have us believe.

NOTE: If you like to watch graphic novels brought to the big screen, you may be interested in Alan Moore's Watchmen. An animated version was advertised prior to the Batman showing, which I thought was pretty good placement.


Stephanie said...

This was a really great analysis of the movie, and was a lot of fun to read! You might consider a spoiler warning though? I know nearly everyone has seen the movie by now, but... there's always that one guy...

Jaded Consumer said...

Thanks for the compliment, and the warning. I thought I saw the movie so late I had to be the last one, but you're right about the spoiler problem, and I've inserted a warning accordintly.