Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight

Of course, I must review this movie. I am morally obligated.

Ever since I knew who Batman was, I was enamored. The idea of a man, haunted by misguided guilt over his parents' deaths, donning the guise of the thing he feared most in order to strike fear in the hearts of his enemies, a fragile hero armed only with martial arts and an inventive mind, captivated my imagination like no other comic book hero has ever done. It's the psyche of Bruce Wayne that attracts me. He's a man obsessed; he's tortured, tormented by his own weaknesses, his inabilities. But in spite of that he presses on in his cause: relentless in his struggle against the madness of the criminals who assault him and his city.

This Batman has until 2005 not been the one portrayed in the movies. Tim Burton's movie gave a small taste of that man, but they paid more homage to the villains than to the man behind the mask, and they made his world into a clownish, cartooney, sort of Willie Wonka-esque fairyland rather than a gritty noire setting. Then with Forever and & Robin, both fell short of giving the Caped Crusader his due, and made his villains into fun-loving jokesters rather than demented amoral madmen.

And let it be known that I have never - never - been a fan of Jack Nicholson as the Joker. The only thing I saw when I watched him in that role was Jack Nicholson with make-up on. I didn't see him as the utterly anarchic madman portrayed in the comics, the brutal, ruthless killer who operates without rules or motivation, who acts on whim without rhyme or reason. Nicholson was too polished, too svelt for the role, and far, far too calm.

That being said, I loved Batman Begins. I felt that at last, here was a movie that did justice to the Batman I had come to love. Here was a movie that delved into his psyche, that established what it was that would make a man take up a cape and fight crime in a lost, corrupt city. And when it was revealed at the end that the next installment would deal with the Joker, I was ecstatic. I knew that Nolan and co. would treat the character with the seriousness he deserved.

The Dark Knight is everything that Batman Begins promised it would be. It treats the characters with the same gravity as any serious crime drama does, delving into their motivations and relationships and beliefs, dealing with the problem of chaos and order and the fragility of the systems we all buy into.

I don't want to say too much about the storyline of the movie, since there are hundreds of reviews out there you could go to and find out the main points. But I do think it is a fabulous commentary on heroics and heroism, human nature, and sacrifice. The ending is powerful, and as achingly bittersweet as any I have seen in cinema. Christian Bale only gets better as we see Batman/Bruce Wayne's character deepen, and Heath Ledger - well, it would be hard to be better in the role. And Maggie Gyllenhaal is far better than Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. I've also been a fan of Aaron Eckhart for some time, and he does a smashing job as the tragic character of Harvey Dent.

There's a discussion I'd love to have here about some of the implications of the themese of the movie, but at the risk of giving anything away for those who haven't seen it, I'll wait a few weeks. I'll simply end by saying that it made me think quite a bit about what we put faith in, and the responsibility of those in leadership to protect those in their care from certain kinds of knowledge. More on that later.


  1. We just watched this on Saturday...I thought it was tremendous. I was just saying the same thing to Jess afterwards, about how the previous movies were nothing more than cartoons with live characters. Although I should confess I haven't even seen them all - mostly just parts here and there. Because, quite frankly, they were so bad I couldn't stand watching. But as you so astutely reviewed, Nolan does a bang up job with his take on the characters. And Ledger's incarnatinon of The Joker was awesome. He quickly turned that villain from my least favorite (even in the cartoons I hated the over-the-top personality and horrible puns) to my I most favorite. The way he played it just made so much sense... Anyway, need to go rent Batman Begins again.

  2. I loved Batman Begins, one of my favorites for sure.... unfortunately I've gotten sensitive in my old age and I don't think I'll be able to handle Dark Knight. :>( I'm bummed because I was really looking forward to the sequal to Begins. But from the reviews I've read it sounds like it's going to be too violent for me. Four kids ago I would have been fine... now every time I see anything gruesome on tv I can think only of my kids....

  3. I'm curious to hear what you think of the themes in this movie, i saw it last week in reno and hated it. The action and acting was well done, but the underlying message, i thought, was terrible. So let me know what you think so i can compare it to my own thoughts.

  4. Well, by now probably anyone who's going to see the movie has seen it, so I'll unleash my thoughts freely. Be forewarned.

    There's a twisted reality going on here that ultimately centers around the resolution of what Batman and Gordon do with Dent's image. Batman's decision to take the fall for what Dent did in order to preserve his image as the White Knight of Gotham is morally dangerous in that it promotes a kind of totalitarianism. You can think that's a far step above what the movie is aiming at, but I can't say that's true, given the depth and seriousness with which Nolan treats the story and its characters. It breaks my heart to condemn the morals of this movie, because I love the story, the characters, and everything about this movie, but it seems to be promoting Nietzschean or Machiavellian concepts. Batman figures as a kind of moral superior, a sort of ubermensch, one who can make decisions that the public cannot, one who can decide what truths to reveal and what truths to conceal. He twists the truth for the "common good;" he supercedes the law for the "common good." Batman's ends justify his means. Even when he creates a device that maps the city using cell phone signals, we can trust him with it because his ends are good - such a device is needed to defeat the Joker. He is above the rule of law.

    While the movie does examine whether Batman is necessary, and whether his means are justified, it concludes, as far as I could detect, that they are. So we are left to believe that the masses of humanity are in need of an amoral figure like Batman who will do the work they are unable or unwilling to do.

    Were this a less serious movie, these concepts would not be so troubling. But exactly because this is a serious movie, and because it shares so many parallels to things that our own government does (warrantless wiretapping, Pat Tillman, interrogation methods, etc.), it's a little disturbing. Do we need figures like Batman? I don't think we do. Lies, distrust, and manipulations do not tend to decrease corruption. It's a war of escalation: the further one goes outside the bounds of civility to bring down the "bad guys," the more determined and ruthless the bad guys become.

    Anyway... those are just a few of my thoughts. I think that what they do with the next film will be very telling in the morals of this series in general. In the comic books, there's always that tension between the methods Batman uses and the demented criminal minds he struggles against, and whether or not the fact that he exists as such a dark figure doesn't in some way attract the kind of minds he battles against. That was touched upon in this movie, although only slightly. I think this needs to be examined in depth in the next movie, and I think if Nolan concludes that Batman shares responsibility at some level with the criminals he fights because of the methods he uses, it would go a long way to correcting the conclusions he seems to reach in this film. This could all just be set-up for a complete deconstruction of the myth of Batman, and perhaps the final redemption of Bruce Wayne. I certainly hope so.

  5. I think that a large part of Nolan's motivation for keeping Batman separated from the law (above it or below it) is simply to keep the series alive and fresh.

    I read a good review that noted that each of the incarnations of Batman through the years has fallen into the same broken cycle: Batman begins as a dark vigilante - a maverick, but he quickly becomes so closely tied into the existing structures that he loses everything that essentially made him "The Batman", and at that point the series all descend into corny irrelevance. They have to invent new "Bat Toys" and sidekicks, etc. to distract people from the fact that he's simply turned into a part of law enforcement. He comes when he's called by the bat signal. Or as the reviewer roughly put it - when you put Commissioner Gordon and Batman in the same room, all you've really got is two cops. One of them is just dressed up like a bat.

    I agree with most of your assessment - particularly the portrayal of Batman as some sort of "moral superior" - and it will definitely be interesting to see where Nolan goes with that. But moral implications aside, I felt that the ending was brilliant for this point in the series. They smash the bat signal, turn the dogs loose, and keep Batman on the "wrong side of the law." And by doing so, they avoid one of the biggest pitfalls with the Batman story, and allow Nolan the chance to develop the themes that were started. I don't think any definitive conclusions were made, just ones that were necessary at this point to keep the story alive.

  6. I absolutely agree that from a character standpoint the decision they made makes perfect sense. Gordon has a desire to see Gotham cleaned up, and he has put his faith in Batman to have that happen. Batman/Bruce Wayne is a tortured individual who seems to believe he ought to bear the burden of guilt for everything, and thus his assumption of guilt for Dent's crimes is a natural step for him to take.

    And that's an interesting observation about keeping him on the wrong side of the law. I hadn't thought of that.

  7. I honestly have never been so internally disturbed "creeped out" by a movie since I watched the Exorcist.