(Plot discussed in minute detail)
Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008) is arguably the biggest event of the summer, and not just because of the running time--it's got an endless variety of explosions, an elaborate interlude in Hong Kong, and enough underground, aboveground, interior, exterior, over-water and mid-air stunts, vehicle collisions and fight sequences to satisfy the most jaded of viewers (the only thing missing is a Batsub, with our hero donning a Batlung for underwater action).
All good and fine--summer is not the month for restraint and highbrow art in the multiplexes. Nolan presents Batman as a noir crimefighter in black Kevlar armor (with a titanium weave, for added strength and flexibility) and a multibillion dollar collection of nonlethal state-of-the-art weaponry (including a nifty device that turns all cellphones into sonar transponders). Where in Batman Begins (2005) the director was saddled with a weak, unmemorable villain (all I remember is waking up from a snooze in time to catch Liam Neeson riding a monorail), here he corrects the error with an altogether more life-sized, more believable, more vividly played villain.
Nope--not talking about Heath Ledger. Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent undergoes a dramatic character arc, from crusading criminal lawyer to anguished avenger. We understand Harvey, we sympathize with his situation; our feelings for him are more complex since we're aware of where he comes from, and why he does what he does. Shakespeare knew as much: his greatest tragic characters--Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet--were men lifted up to the level of greatness, then brought down by their own inner flaws. Harvey's flaw here (unlike in the comics, where he was undone by a rather callow vanity about his good looks) may be an undue fascination with the mysteries of chance (his coin flipping), and perhaps too much attachment to the life he presently enjoys (a promising crusader's career, the love of a beautiful woman).
Yes, Ledger's performance is good, his makeup design brilliant (reminds me of a neglected. life-sized Raggedy Andy doll after a bad thresher accident)--but once the Joker's introduced, what you see is pretty much what you get: random villainy, chaotic malevolence. Fear of what he might do next is the main emotion inspired in the audience, and that's about it; his unpredictability is his greatest weapon. To their credit writers Nolan and brother Jonathan come up with cute little plot twists that keep one guessing--but does the Joker inspire the horror of seeing a good man turned bad, of a great love turned inside-out. into an equally great anger?
It goes beyond that, to the very nature of the characters Bob Kane and the criminally unsung Bill Finger created in the early forties--as conceived by Kane and Finger, the Joker was a largely unexplained force for anarchy pitted against Batman's fascistic notions of law and order. The contrast was seductive--hilarity vs. gravity, madness vs. melancholy, bright clown vs. dark knight.
But Batman's villains often provided more than color contrast--the very best of them were victims of their own immoderate fears and desires (I'm thinking of, among many others, Ra's al-Ghul (Neeson's bloodless portrait was a travesty), Man-Bat and Clayface (at least in his third incarnation)); Batman himself had a reason for coming into being (parents killed by mugger). I've never considered the Joker's hazy origins to be anything more than a weakness--a failure of the imagination to come up with a compelling reason for his acting the way he does (his original story, as the master criminal formerly known as The Red Hood who goes insane after a chemical bath turns his face a ghastly white (he dove in to escape Batman), struck me as especially lame).
(Which may be why the best ever take on the character I've ever seen is from one of the finest writers working in the medium--Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, where Mr. Moore tackles the real reason the Joker's so wild (turns out that behind the Red Hood story is another story). There--and only there, I believe--was the Joker truly the Batman's archnemesis)
Hence my admiration--and preference--for Eckhart's Dent. I'd noticed Eckhart before, particularly in Brian De Palma's much-maligned, tremendously underrated The Black Dahlia (2006), where I thought he gave a memorably over-the-top performance, the motivation for which De Palma reveals at a fascinatingly crucial moment (motivation, always motivation--Renoir himself said in his most famous film 'Le plus terrible dans ce monde c'est que chacun à ses raisons,' and they do, and that's what compels me). To Eckhart's credit he's very fine here, before and after transformation (a makeup job that makes him look like a porterhouse grilled black-and-blue on a cast-iron skillet); he makes of Dent a persuasive hero and an equally persuasive villain, and for my money promptly steals the movie from under Ledger's nose.
Motiveless killers are quite the fashion nowadays, hence (I suspect) the Nolans' reluctance to give the Joker a backstory--witness the (almost as overrated) No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007), or Michael Haneke's smaller, leaner, far crueler (hence the critical drubbing, I suspect) Funny Games (both the original 1997 Austrian production and the 2007 American remake). Not, if you haven't guessed already, a big fan of the genre, but if one must have all-powerful psychopaths with inscrutable aims, make mine Haneke (both Austrian and American).
And if we're still talking Bat-villains, give me the characters Tim Burton created from a script by the oft-censored, oft-brilliant Daniel Waters. I'm thinking of the Penguin (another Finger creation), here turned by Burton and Waters into a pale-skinned freak straight out of Charles Dickens, driven by a thirst for vengeance (he'd been abandoned as a child) to kill all of Gotham's firstborn (he's like an unholy cross between Oliver Twist, Bill Sykes and Mister Micawber, blown to gargantuan proportions by a diet of sewage and bile); I'm also thinking of the glorious Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer)--yet another Finger creation--all sex and psychosis wrapped in tight black latex.
Was Burton's take more 'comical?' More lightweight, perhaps? I think not. He loved to amuse, he loved to horrify and I suspect he loved above all to mix both emotions in endless variations. He adored clowns, and I for one would have wanted to see his take on the Joker if Waters instead of Sam Hamm had written the script (Jack Nicholson playing the character from Hamm's script--now that's comic-book). Burton for all the visual and verbal gags is quite the sophisticated storyteller, sacrificing narrative drive for the odd joke, the striking image (the Batplane framed by a full moon; the Penguin escorted by his beloved Emperors; Catwoman confronting a handgun with whip in hand, reciting a nursery rhyme), the throwaway scene that's as revealing of the filmmaker's themes as it is an aside (Catwoman swallowing a bird; the Penguin chomping down on a nose; Batman lying helpless under a mistletoe, talking of being poisoned by its consumption). It's a nervy high-wire act, balancing genres with a deliberately flimsy script, and I think Burton collaborating with Waters succeeds to a startling degree.
(On the subject of substance Nolan pushes a lot of hot buttons--9/11 style terrorism, civil rights vs. national security, etc., etc. Burton's treatment dwells on less timely if more human concerns--the nature of identity, the fear of self-disclosure, the loneliness between fellow social outcasts, the irrational cruelty visited on cats and women (especially women))
Nolan for all his bells and whistles is a conventional filmmaker of the Syd Field school of scriptwriting who insists on a beginning, a middle, an end, on a plot that moves forward linear fashion (by way of innovation he gives us Memento (2000), where the narrative does the exact same thing, only backwards). He's got no feel for comic horror, a more difficult genre than one might think--his numerous scenes of the Joker menacing a potential victim are more about creating tension than they are about provoking giggles, and they have absolutely no interest in making gears really clash and inspiring both simultaneously (about the only moments when he's successful is when Ledger does that gila-monster lip-licking, and at the hospital, when Ledger struggles with a recalcitrant bomb detonator (it's more Ledger's timing, I suspect, than anything Nolan does that provides wit).
I can see where Nolan's coming from, of course; he's trying to tap into our anxieties about terrorists, our beleaguered sense of hope, our sense of being surrounded from all sides by a seemingly invincible, invisible foe (they're everywhere; they're nowhere), he has Batman, Gordon and Dent at wits' end, questioning the very validity of their methods (I'd question their methods too--didn't anyone think to put continued security on both Eckhart and Dawes? Why, if they know the Joker's so dangerous, did they lock other people in the same cell? And why, if Batman wanted the truth quickly and civil rights be damned, didn't he try sodium pentothal, or the serum codenamed SP-17? Not much more reliable, but it takes a heck of a lot less effort).
Nolan's dramatic highlight has Joker insisting that for Batman to beat him he has to become him, but this isn't any kind of elevation he's talking about, it's a diminution--Batman turned into a fellow agent of random chance. Contrast this to Moore's Joker, who explains himself not as some mere symbol of insanity, but as a perfectly human reaction to an insane world ("any other response would be crazy!"). Moore's Joker wants to bring Batman over to his appreciation of the world--it's one human being (or psycho, if you wish) reaching out to another.
I'm rather suspicious of the movie's politics--when late in the film Lucius Fox (a quite good--but the cast is excellent, particularly the supporting roles (Maggie Gyllenhaal is a gorgeous, far more talented replacement for the flavorless Katie Holmes)--Morgan Freeman) confronts Batman with regards to the way he's altered Fox's sonar technology (turned it, in effect, into a gigantic wiretapping effort), Batman partly reassures him by putting "all that power" into Fox's hands; Fox gives in "just this once." Oh, one wants to ask--was that the line the Bush administration fed the phone companies? Should they be hiring Nolan as press secretary?
Nolan writes a nice, conventionally Syd Field script (slightly right-wing, but you can't have everything); perhaps in some future movie he'll give us the driving force behind his Joker, and then maybe we'll have something. In the meantime, however, can he possibly hand the directing reins over to someone else? His fight sequences are pathetic; he doesn't know how to cut or shoot action, his shaky-cam trembles beyond coherence, and his big setpieces are merely big--there's no beauty or dark poetry or visual wit to them (by way of contrast, Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy 2 is all wit and dark poetry, wrapped around a script that reads more like an Altman film (all character interaction, not much plot) than a conventional summer blockbuster (I hear The Dark Knight has quickly outstripped del Toro's at the boxoffice. But of course; the latter is fine dining, to be savored by those with special appetites; the former I consider largely fast food wrapped in a serious case of self-importance)).
If Nolan's scriptwriting skills have a serious flaw (I mean, besides the linearity and literalism), it's his tendency to have his characters pontificate--witness the scene where the Joker tries to win over Harvey; he persuades by fiat, by plot necessity rather than by saying anything actually persuasive (he's no Richard III (that gun handed to Harvey was a dead giveaway) wooing Lady Anne)--"I'm an agent of chaos. I don't have a plan." Compare to Waters' Catwoman, and her pithy summation of herself: "Life's a bitch; now so am I."
And Nolan goes really over-the-top with solemnity when he has Gordon intone a requiem for Batman (to the strains of an unmemorable James Newton Howard/Hans Zimmer score): "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." I kept thinking this would have played so much better with some Cole Porter: "You're the top! You're the Coliseum. You're the top! You're the Louver Museum."
Don't get me wrong, I don't think The Dark Night is a bad movie; I just don't think it's The Greatest Comic Book Picture Ever Made (I'd rank it high above Nolan's earlier effort and far below del Toro's Hellbox sequel). It's a nice little diversion for the summer months, a sufficiently witty excuse for ducking into the theaters and enjoying their airconditioning for two and a half hours. But it's no Diabolik (Mario Bava, 1968); it's no Popeye (Robert Altman, 1980); and it's definitely no Batman Returns.