Sunday, July 27, 2008

Review of The Dark Knight

Mere hours after viewing the film which stirred up so much hype, I'm still trying to figure out why it is I don't like it. And when it comes down to "did you like it?" I have to answer no, but hesitantly.

Christian Bale's arrest for assault and Heath Ledger's untimely death merely heaped more fuel onto an already-existing inferno of publicity and expectation, and that was just the status updates across the networking site Facebook.

The film had the biggest opening ever, and quickly recouped its $180 million costs and rapidly continues to stock up profits bigger than the piles of cash featured in the film. Critics gave it good ratings, and the scuttlebutt about town is that Heath Ledger is being pressed for a posthumous Oscar for his performance.

So why don't I like it? The reasons aren't simple, but I'll try to spell them out.

Basic plot, Batman's crime-fighting capers coupled with "White Knight" District Attorney Harvey Dent's fearless prosecution (aided by Batman/Bruce's former flame Rachel Dawes, played by a new actress who is less impressive than Katie Holmes) is starting to make a serious "dent" in Gotham City's crime. Batman's heroics are even spurring minor league imitators trying to prevent crime. (Batman reminds a protesting would-be vigilante of the difference: "I'm not wearing hockey pads!")

Usually, I make sure the movies I see aren't needlessly brutal and decidedly light on "adult" content and check reviews at ScreenIt and PluggedIn. These promised the film would be darker than its predecessor(s). PluggedIn's reviewer wrote "The Joker forces us to imagine every cut and tear. He makes Jigsaw from the torture-porn Saw flicks look positively ethical ... the violence here feels more real, visceral...painful."

And later, "It's not just kids who'll walk out of the film shaken."

There's some truth to it, but the film fell short of living up to the hype, and I don't just mean the violence. I didn't find the film to be as dark or as brooding. Parts of the movie show us a Batman who is close to giving up because "a hero with a face" (Dent) is stepping up. Then the Joker steps in...a villain who is so incomprehensible that even the villains begin to turn against him. He has no clear motivation other than dystopia and laughs even as Batman "interrogates" him - with his fists.

"Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money," Alfred explains, relying on obscure war experience (who knew?). "They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men...just want to watch the world burn."

But the Joker doesn't just want to plant incendiary devices around Gotham City. His goal seems to be to disprove the idealism of Gotham's heroes (Dent, Gordan and Batman) by pitting citizens against each other. Joker takes control of two large ferries, one full of criminals, one full of regular civilians, and pits the one against the other in a "social experiment" of his own invention, offering each the chance to survive by killing the other.

And of course, the other trick all super villains must resort to when dealing with the seemingly indestructible; presenting two mutually exclusive threats, and demanding the hero choose between the two. (The original Superman movie's two missiles, for example, or the Green Goblin's much shorter-ranged threat to Spider-Man.)

But we still haven't gotten to why I didn't like it. So let me try to explain.

First off, there was no clear victory, and no clear climax. I noticed even in the soundtrack (which I got before I saw the movie) there wasn't a definitive "buckle up, here we go" moment. (At least the tracks were more clearly labeled than the Batman Begins soundtrack.) There was no satisfaction gained. We see that the citizens of the city are brought very close to the brink of proving Joker right. Not fully pushing them over the edge of anarchy could be considered the Joker's only defeat. The only true defeat is bereft of true victory, because the villain spent most of the movie being a hero.

We're certainly not hard up for superhero movies in the past decade. Spider-Man, X-Men, Hulk, Iron Man, Superman, Hellboy, and the Fantastic Four have all been brought to the big screen, in addition to less successful attempts such as Daredevil, Catwoman, Ghost Rider and Punisher. New heroes are even being created in Hancock and The Incredibles.

So we've seen all kinds of sides to superheros, their strengths and their weaknesses. Batman's values never waver, but they do get lost in a seeming cloud of moral ambiguity, and I wonder if that's something that expectant audiences neither need nor deserve.

I found myself asking, "Why did you make this movie?" To foster an unfulfilled loathing for a man too psychopathic to even muster a good, sound hatred for - and rob us of any true triumph in the end? Joker's not an enemy you can love to hate nor even one you can hate to love. He just exists for the sake of creating chaos. The entire film seems to assume his completely nonlinear personality.

In the end, Batman keeps his virtues. Even the Joker is forced to admit it; he's incorruptible. But at what cost? Sacrificially taking the blame for crimes he didn't commit, Batman sadly explains "sometimes, truth isn't good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded."

Batman may be the dark knight, but there were two knights who shone as brightly - Gordan, and an unnamed prisoner whose silent act of heroism was perhaps one of the most memorable moments in the film.

So okay, that's two reasons, lack of satisfying conclusion, and a haze of moral ambiguity. Is that enough? Maybe not to some. To me, if you're going to set up a villain, you'd better bring him to some sort of justice in the end...some sort of satisfying conclusion. Batman foils the bad guy's scheme, and hauls the villain's protesting butt to jail, or manages to see them meet a timely end. Neither happens. One friend shared with me a reviewer's take that Dark Knight is to Batman Begins what Empire Strikes Back was to the original Star Wars film - but we're hardly left with any indication of a third sequel that redeems the story. In addition to no clear victory, various high-profile characters meet their death in the film.

In the end, the film failed to live up to any expectations - neither as violent nor as menacing as we were told, nor as satisfying. I can't say I'm compelled to go back for a second helping, or to rush out and buy the DVD. The movie was certainly a respectable attempt, but for me, it just didn't cut it.

"He's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now...and so we'll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he's not a hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector...a dark knight."

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At July 29, 2008 at 6:40:00 AM PDT, Blogger Dr. Elwin Ransom said...

Well, I just had to comment, and not because I want to persuade you somehow to appreciate the film for what it was (similar to how you initially disliked Batman Begins as well). Each to his/her own. The Dark Knight is not a cool-superhero film you can really "enjoy," but one that's intended to leave one shaking and silently mouthing whooaaahhh ... on the way out of the theater.

It's funny that you've taken the opposite perspective to that of my own, on exactly the same two points as well. ...

Ted Baehr is one of the Christian folks who said the film had "a relativistic, deconstructionist ‘truth does not matter’ sentiment." To me, he couldn't be more wrong -- he's identified presentation of moral complexity with moral ambiguity. The film makes you think, but never at the cost of deciding truth is relevant or ethics are impossible to follow!

Baehr also complained because the Joker didn't have "a little character growth." But the Joker has no character, and no motivations, no "good" reasons to do what he does. ("We thought we'd steal a lot of money, and then we'd be rich, and we wouldn't have to work anymore!") He's total evil. Totally depraved. And both the late Ledger and Nolan said that was their goal. That's also why they don't even try to Explore His Origins Story, and why he lies several times -- "Do you want to know how I got these scars?" -- he's making it up and doesn't care at all. Neither hurt because of a father's abuse nor any other reason motivates him, as Roger Ebert (perplexingly) claimed. The Joker is insane and depraved; he only wants to "watch the world burn."

Should you be interested, my fuller (quasi-)review is up at FaithFusion: Heroes, sin and the Knight's dark doctrine. The Speculative Faith posting also got several comments.


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