I have been taken to task recently over my opinions about the film The Dark Knight. Apparently I shocked co-hosts and viewers alike on the second episode of the Biff Bam Popcast when I declared that I despised the film. So much so that in the third episode, JP Fallavollita read a statement, indirectly to me, that pretty much said, “What universe are you living in, buddy?” It was all meant in good fun, and JP is a great online friend whose opinions I respect a lot, but it might be time to defend my opinions on this one.
Now my buddy and editor-in-chief of Biff Bam Pop, Andy Burns, has punished me before for my movie opinions. Upon learning my not-so-fond thoughts on Alien 3, he immediately assigned it to me to review. Guess what he did to me again? Yep, I’m watching The Dark Knight again, for the first time since suffering through it in the theater. I’m a masochist. Just for a reminder, here‘s what I thought the first time.
Writer director Christopher Nolan and writer David Goyer recreated a new origin for the caped crusader in 2005’s Batman Begins. This new take establishes Bruce Wayne as a student of Ras Al Ghul during those mysterious years he trained to be Batman. They fill in some wonderful if minute details in the origin, and pull off one of the greatest switches on movie audiences that I have experienced. The identity of Ras Al Ghul is at first Ken Watanabe then revealed to be in fact Liam Neeson. That one plot point gave me much respect for this movie and its creators.
After training, Bruce returns to Gotham and prepares to become the Batman. Assisted by the terrific actors Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Gary Oldman as James Gordon, and Michael Caine as Alfred Pennysworth, he slowly builds his Bat-empire. He goes to battle with crime lord Falcone and insane super-villain the Scarecrow, and finally the real Ras Al Ghul. The final fight ends with Wayne Manor burning to the ground, and we are left at the end of the flick, planning reconstruction.
There were things that bothered me. First and foremost, Christian Bale’s Batman voice, a gravelly growl that sounds like a lion whispering irritated the hell out of me, and was indecipherable much of the time. I didn’t like Alfred and Lucius doing so much – they should be support staff, not point men. I like my Batmobiles as slick racecars rather than Frank Miller-inspired tanks. I also wasn’t down with the name change of the League of Assassins or the omission of Ras’ immortality or his daughter Talia, but for the most part, I loved this movie.
And then we got The Dark Knight in 2008.
Major cast members Bale, Caine, Oldman, and Freeman were all back. There was a replacement in the character of Rachel Dawes however, with Maggie Gyllenhaal pitching in for Katie Holmes, a step up in acting as far as I was concerned. Christopher Nolan directs again, and also writes, along with David Goyer once again, and brother Jonathan Nolan joins them. Never let it be said nepotism doesn’t live in Hollywood. Joining the cast are the Oscar winning Heath Ledger as the Joker, and Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent/Two-Face.
The Joker’s heist of the mob bank that begins the film is brilliant, and done like a well done heist movie. I gotta give Nolan props where he deserves them. I also like the idea of the Batman imposters out there on the streets although the depiction could use some work. I wonder what the point of Cillian Murphy’s reprisal of the Scarecrow is about, other than a bridge to the previous movie maybe. Did Nolan owe Murphy a favor. It adds very little.
From Batman’s first appearance there is the voice again, this time further modulated by electronic means. Really? Do we need this? There are many deceits in storytelling about such characters that just are – the costumes, the secret identity, do we really have to have this voice thing? Can’t we just selectively suspend disbelief on this one. I don’t know about you, but I want to know what Batman is saying, don’t you? At least it’s easier with the closed captioning on.
Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal have good chemistry, unfortunately they aren’t together all that much. Eckhart and Oldman are superior in this film, and it pains me that they were not nominated along with Ledger’s Joker. Ledger’s scenes early on are positively electrifying. That’s a well deserved Oscar. But where were Oldman’s and Eckhart’s? Ledger’s Joker is psychotic in a way movie audiences have not seen. Shocking, scary, and after too long, adding in a nurse uniform, far too over the top. And this is part of the movie’s undoing, along with the bad scripting to come.
The Batman sequences in and leading up to Hong Kong are brilliant. I loved these parts. It was like a James Bond-ian version of Batman, but also very Batman. There is some slippage in that Alfred and Lucius are again more than support, they are actually doing the legwork. This is not the Shadow. Batman does not have agents. Batman is the Batman, he does it alone, one scary dude in a bat suit doing his thing. Lucius can make the tech, Alfred can stitch the wounds, but it should not extend further.
When the Good Turns Bad
A third of the way through the film, it begins to fall apart. I could be mean and lay the blame on the writing of the Nolan brothers since I have seen Goyer do so many better things – but then again, there is Dark City, but I’ll be quiet about that before Andy asks me to review that (Editors Note: Loved Dark City – guess who’ll be rewatching that one soon). The Wayne fundraiser for Harvey Dent is where it starts. When the Joker shows up, I am left clueless why Bruce doesn’t immediately change to Batman rather than hide Dent and Rachel (who gets in the way anyway, how did she get out of a barred door?). If you’re a superhero, be one, and save the day as soon as possible. He does, but not soon enough, he dilly-dallied.
A brilliant scene follows where Alfred outlines the concept that in the Joker they are dealing with some sort of nihilist who just wants “to watch the world burn.” For the rest of the movie however, they try to overlay logic onto the Joker’s actions. Seriously? The attempted assassination of the mayor required a lot of organization and planning. Who is helping the Joker? Especially when it is apparent how he operates, and what happens to his underlings, who would follow him?
With very little foreshadowing, if at all, we see Harvey Dent break. Perhaps if they had mentioned what they call him behind his back, we might believe it. But when Dent loses his temper and crosses lines, it’s out of character. You say I’m wrong, but I’m not. This is the second movie. We are no longer working with comics continuity, this is movie continuity. If Dent is a psycho, show us, don’t assume we already know he will become Two-Face.
When Bruce Wayne contemplates revealing his identity to stop the Joker from killing, he jokes he will say that it was all Alfred’s idea. But how much of a joke is it? Batman almost seems to follow orders from Alfred and Lucius almost as much as he gives them. I really don’t think Nolan understands who or what Batman is. He isn’t this.
The Hand of the Filmmaker
Any time that as a viewer I start questioning the methods of the filmmaker as opposed to the motives of the characters, I am out of the film. This should never happen. A viewer should remain in the world of the movie, absorbed in it from start to finish. As I said, I pop out forty-five minutes in, and rarely re-enter. One wonders if this is the point where David Goyer left to finish Blade: Trinity and the Nolan brothers finished the script.
The chase scene dead center in the middle of the film bothers me a great deal. In the last film, Nolan makes a firm statement against fantasy elements, choosing to ignore the immortal background of Ras Al Ghul. He wants his Batman to be set in a realistic world. This chase scene of Batpods blowing up tracker trailer trucks and tripwires trashing helicopters seems like something more at home in a Michael Bay Transformers sequel than a reality-based Batman movie. Just sayin’.
I also figure that the Joker playing chicken with Batman in the street with the Batpod is an homage to Tim Burton’s first Bat-film where the Joker shoots down the Batwing in one of the more silly moments of that flick. Why emulate such a moment?
The Frustration Interrogation
This all leads to the big reveal that Gordon is still alive and ultimately the capture of the Joker. All this is set-up for the Joker interrogation scenes that are so infamous for their YouTube mockeries featuring Christian Bale’s guttural growling that I ‘love’ so much. I have to stop and wonder what director Nolan was thinking.
Nolan made a commitment not to reveal an origin for the Joker, why reiterate that? We’ve already seen how dangerous and unpredictable he is, why beat that point into the ground here? If nothing else, it makes Batman look like the insane bad guy, rather than the other way around. It also tells, rather than shows us that the Joker is the Batman’s opposite number – bad writing, boys, that’s Fiction 101 – show, don’t tell.
There is also the thing with the Joker implying he knows who Batman is. This bugs me a lot. In the comics, some writers have assumed that the Joker knows, and has always known Batman is Bruce Wayne, but the point is that in ‘the game’ the Joker can’t use this information to his advantage. I have always liked this insight. Nolan uses it to enrage Batman by taunting him with Rachel. I dislike that.
Now, the real problem – the choice between saving Harvey or Rachel. Quite possibly, the Joker could have kidnapped Rachel, but who kidnapped Harvey? Harvey was there when the Joker was arrested. I find the whole idea of Joker’s henchmen absurd in this movie, thanks to the opening scene. Surely the man has a reputation for killing his underlings, and as soon as he gets put behind bars, one would assume all his henchmen breathe a sigh of relief and go back to whatever they were doing when he scared them into following him, right? They don’t continue doing his dirty work, right?
There is far too much planning required here for a nihilist, and especially for a nihilist whose henchmen might just be itching for any chance to get out from under his thumbs. I view the Joker’s behind the scenes magic machinations much like I view JFK or UFO conspiracy theories. Too many people would have to be involved for it to be true. The Joker could not have done any of this alone.
Too Many Villains
We witness another big screen origin of Two-Face. Neither time has it been done right, and that’s a shame, because it’s a good one. The tale of Harvey Dent, one of Bruce Wayne’s best friends, a fellow defender for justice, turned into a split personality monster whose every decision turns on the flip of a lucky coin, is one of film noir horror brilliance. And it’s one that I maintain should have its own movie, not having to share time with the Joker or the Riddler (as in Batman Forever). That’s how powerful the story of Two-Face is.
The CGI evil half of Harvey’s Two-Face face is horrific here. It is a wonderful visual for a comics fan, but I still remember the kids in the theater audience screaming the first time we saw it. It’s pretty over the top. Over the top is also what best describes the Joker’s pep talk with Harvey in the hospital. What is the point really? Two-Face’s presence is diluted by the Joker, and the Joker is diluted by Two-Face. Why have both?
Speaking of over the top, have I mentioned the Joker is nurse drag? Over the top? I really think the Nolans were horrifically going for laughs in the hospital destruction scene. That’s makes me really wonder who the real villains are here.
Ferries, Clowns, and More Bad Writing
We’re to assume at the end of this movie that Batman has access, through Lucius of course, to ever cellphone in Gotham City. If this is so, wouldn’t he have known about the ferries being rigged beforehand? Not to even get into the idea of when did the Joker ever have time to set up the ferries with explosives (let alone the hospital, or any other buildings or scenes so far), it just seems to me Batman would have disarmed the bombs ahead of time. He’s Batman, that’s what he does. Batman outthinks his foes before he has to outfight them. That’s why he’s Batman.
Who took out the cops and dressed them as clowns? Again, we’re back to the henchmen question. The ‘social experiment’? All that did to me was make me angry at the stupidity of many people at once. It is one thing for Nolan to project that Batman, and a handful of other characters are stupid, but now he suggests that hundreds of Gotham City citizens, good and bad, are dimwitted as well.
The showdown with Two-Face is so unsatisfying. It shouldn’t be Gordon vs. Dent, it should be Wayne vs. Dent. We’re back to Fiction 101. This scene, and the one before it with Joker vs. Batman are ruined by Christian Bale’s growl. Without it, these scenes between fine fine actors would have shined. That grumbling noise destroys them.
The end still doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s almost as if Nolan wanted very badly to have a catchphrase, his very own “With great power comes great responsibility.” He went with the very weak “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” What does that even mean? Here, it means Batman takes the rap for killing Harvey Dent, and the people he killed, leaving Dent a hero. Riiight.
After watching this movie a second time, I’m sorry, I still don’t get it. I liked the first forty-five minutes. I liked Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart… but very little else. I have to say I am even less enthused at seeing The Dark Knight Rises now…