The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)
Not sure if you’re aware of this, as it’s all rather esoteric, but after years of development hell, the Batman series of films was revived and rebooted in the mid-2000s with Christopher Nolan at the helm, fresh from the modest success of Memento and his remake of Insomnia. His series, which turned out to be a trilogy, began in 2005 with Batman Begins, a mild-mannered enough comic book picture that sought to put the DC Comics hero into what felt like a “real” world — at least, a more “real” one than had been envisioned for him cinematically in the past. It was sequelled by a much darker and more complex film called The Dark Knight, dominated by the presence of everyone’s fave Batman villains, the Mob and the city council. Oh, and the Joker and Two-Face and like that. The Dark Knight, bolstered by one of the most aggressive marketing campaigns in the history of Hollywood cinema and by public interest generated from the unrelated death of one of its stars during postproduction, was considerably more popular than its predecessor and was, let’s be modest, a full-fledged phenomenon.
I remember looking forward to The Dark Knight quite a lot. Batman was the only superhero I ever cared much about as a kid, and there was sufficient nostalgic goodwill to get me in the seat on opening day for Begins, which I enjoyed — partially as a stress relief from a job interview I’d had that morning, but enjoyed indisputably. All evidence — trailers, hype, reviews, the lady who checked my books out for me at the library the day after its midnight opening — strongly pointed to Dark Knight being a triumph. In the interim, life events had derailed a bit for me and I didn’t see it for a month or so. By the time I did, I’d heathily collected myself into one of the vilest extended bad moods of my lifetime, and for years afterward I’d wonder if that mood had colored my perception of a film on which, to an extent I’ve experienced few other times, I found myself in a pretty extreme minority. I saw The Dark Knight for a second time in 2013 and discovered that, despite my excessive anger, I was entirely right about this competent, ambitious but surprisingly empty film. It indeed was less miserable an experience this time and I came away less bitter, but all of my conclusions about it stand except that I initially undersold Heath Ledger’s performance, which is nearly as lively as Jack Nicholson’s in the same role, if defiantly less pleasurable to watch. And I think I said in ’08 that the movie was too long, and I was wrong; it’s wayyyyy wayyy wayy too fucking goddamn unnecessarily long and could literally lose an hour with no story consequences.
By turns incoherent, bafflingly self-important, vaguely nihilistic, more than vaguely misogynistic, sadistic, incompetent, unspeakably dull, and just out and out silly, The Dark Knight models itself on the interpersonal chaos and loopy cliffhangers of The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part II more than on any prior superhero film. In either case, its ambitions are outsized — Nolan hasn’t the craftiness of Coppola or the chutzpah of Irvin Kershner, but say this for his film: it isn’t dumb. Imaginative? Fun? Ha. It’s entertainment if you think CNBC and board meetings are entertaining, interspersed with incomprehensible IMAX fight scenes. Concerned with the backbone and integrity of troubled and inexplicably isolated Gotham City as a darkness swells within it, it concentrates much of its drama in gatherings of suited lawyers and government officials. When it throws us out into the city’s terrors unaccompanied by such filtering, the effect can be actually harrowing, as when Nolan deftly picks up on post-9/11 paranoia with the Joker’s shakycam video of a tortured and murdered Batman impersonator. But unlike its own ludicrous sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, the film makes good on Nolan’s interest in sweeping, complicated plotlines that coalesce into several immediately pleasurable climaxes.
Hitchcock talked about the difference between surprise and suspense (quickly: surprise is when the bomb suddenly goes off under the table without anyone expecting it, suspense is when the audience knows the bomb’s there but the characters don’t); Nolan conflates the two adroitly. You don’t necessary know what’s coming at any given moment, but you know it’s big and bad, and as the twin dramas of Bruce Wayne’s ever-faltering personal slash economic life and the crime-ridden madness of the Joker’s Gotham intermingle, the tension is considerable if you can actually concentrate hard enough to know what the hell Nolan is doing at any given moment. As in his previous film, The Prestige, he is obsessively plotty here; there’s no opportunity to enjoy characters or situations, there’s always just the bid to move into the next thing in his flow chart. Even the action sequences seemed tossed off to reach more quickly the next negotiation or intense tongue-clucking discussion. Among other things, it implies that Nolan could make a pretty riveting movie about the beginnings of the Third Reich, wherein all the endless meetings and agreements and betrayals would be sufficiently consequential that one wouldn’t feel so silly for trying to comprehend them.
Rationalizing a comic book idea like Batman is an interesting enough experiment, I suppose, but I prefer Tim Buron’s brand of colorful levity, and even that crumbles next to the scathing satire in the ’60s version, on both TV and film. Of course, the world of Nolan’s Batman isn’t so wholly divorced from ours as was Burton’s. It’s a tired refrain, but The Dark Knight clearly launches from the particular paranoia of the Bush era, which has mutated but continued with sufficiently logical progression that that it remains disturbingly relevant. Batman fucks up so much we don’t even know what it looks like when he’s doing the right thing, he doesn’t always seem to have the best interests of the wider universe at heart, and Christian Bale presents himself as the frailest human ever to don such responsibilities as the protection of a city against an obvious sociopath. More broadly, though, the sweeping surveillance of common citizens and the use of widespread deception, at the finale, to promote the “greater good” render this a depressing but entirely valid critique of the U.S. in the 21st century. It’s not coincidental that the moments of parable in The Dark Knight are its strongest story points, the ones that have passed most subtly into the culture like great movies once so often did. The late monologue regarding the dichotomy between a society’s psychological needs and what it “deserves” is a sufficiently insightful and bold way to end this, and the announcement of a hunting of Batman and the smashing of the Signal are a brilliant “to be continued” moment, but it would be so much more resonant if either Batman or the belaguered Harvey Dent made sense as characters instead of just vaguely fleshed-out icons.
What’s especially odd about this is that Nolan already established Bruce Wayne as a somewhat believable character more than anyone before him (except in the old comic books) ever had, in Batman Begins; his fusion of spoiled rich kid and defiant justice leaguer was actually full-bodied and realistic, even with Bale playing (as so often) well below his abilities. It doesn’t seem obvious that Nolan has grown as a director since then — The Dark Knight is a stronger film on technical terms but the major progression so many viewers saw seems now clearly to just be a consequence of Nolan’s writing a busy, overstuffed script with his brother Jonathan. Laid out sans all the excitement and unexpected bigness of the New, it seems much more one-dimensionally an action movie, and an unpleasant and cruel one at that.
Nolan’s vision of Joker world as chaotic is reasonable enough, and if he were attempting to placate fans of the character and the comics there’s no way to “downgrade” his insanity to the degree he did with the painstakingly untheatrical interpretation of Scarecrow in the prior film (or Catwoman in the next one), but it seems in the film to be just chaotic enough to make an impression and not nearly enough to be really disturbing; all it finally becomes is just angsty and pointlessly dark. Bob Kane’s original vision of Batman obviously was dark, but in a fanciful way, and it’s hard to swallow the way Christopher Nolan tries to find a way to take all the humor out of every one of the classic characters. Matching that impulse with the inevitable kookiness of the Joker — in other words, envisioning a power-mad nihilistic nutjob but also wanting the film to be extremely gritty and believable — creates one of the strangest imbalances in a film full of them, with the upshot that Nolan has to spend all his time running around sealing up holes instead of crafting an interesting world, or even an engrossing spectacle. You can have a disturbing universe but for heaven’s sake, have some fun with it. There’s the rub: The Dark Knight is distressing, gripping, charged, and sophisticated, but it’s just not any fun — not even slightly. Like the Star Wars movies, it carries forth an agenda of recasting silly ideas that are supposed to be silly as “adult,” deep, high-art entertainment, and the result is labored and bizarre, clearly the misguided mark of a dreadful, dispiriting time.
Like ever-gawking Bale, Heath Ledger isn’t really permitted to do very much. Though his performance is impressive and funny, the movie’s dour self-importance stymies him. He shows up periodically, spouts dialogue in the manner of Norman Bates in the Psycho sequels with all pretenses to normalcy dropped, and, well, leaves. Some of that dialogue is quite effective, as when he repeatedly lies about the origin of his scars, but what is meant to imply his total, unpredictable absence of stability or sentiment in fact just makes him more of a nebulous non-entity, which is an uncomfortable callback to the endless reliance Nolan showed in The Prestige on his audience being impressed by absolutely nothing. The movie seems to argue that the vagueness of the Joker’s menace is the point; he’s unstoppable, man!!! He’s all things and no things! He’s you even, or something! His badass, villainous chicanery — part of the hallmark of the way his character worked in the comics — is often oddly benign, save some gangster madness in the first act: he blows up an empty hospital, stabs a guy in the eye with a pencil, and threatens to blow up some boats — is this the Joker, or some yokel from Magnum, P.I.? Ledger was a brilliant actor, but he won the Oscar either because of his tragic, too-soon death or because of Academy guilt for failing to recognize his work in Brokeback Mountain.
In fairness, Nolan may have intended to develop the Joker further in the next film, or for his presence to be more as mysterious calamity than actual character. That’s actually an understandable idea, and one that could also have been disrupted by Ledger’s death, which would have either circumvented the first idea or mounted pressure to include as much of his work as possible in the final cut. But the wispy enigma casting a shadow over Gotham is an almost arthouse conceit that only makes it harder to take the incredibly, uh, straightfaced treatment of Harvey Dent and his fate. This is the second time Warner Bros. have totally wasted a great opportunity with Two-Face, first in 1995 by not letting the great and terminally underused Billy Dee Williams play him, and again by giving it to the brutish yuppie Aaron Eckhart who looks like he’s doing an impression of Craig Kilborne doing an impression of William Hurt in Broadcast News. One of Bruce Wayne’s few victories in the film is making fun of Dent, only he’s really not, because our impulse is to do something to wipe the idiotic smile off the guy’s face too. Much as Nolan fakes his way through the idea of a guy like the Joker being capable of derailing the fate of an entire (major?) city, we only buy the idea that Dent is a hero able to boost Gotham’s morale, save its spirit and turn everyone’s life around because that’s what we’re told. Nolan doesn’t have time to really show us anything about his character that might persuade us in this direction, because perversely in a 153-minute film about a man in a bat suit, there’s not enough time.
I guess what I’m saying is, you guys have made your point! You can play Batman straight! Big fucking deal! You can probably play “Who’s on First” straight if you get a cast and crew with joyless enough lives! It’s not just that the ’60s Batman and, to a lesser extent, the first Burton film were funnier; they also had idiosyncrasies, peculiarities that went beyond a desire to be important and/or Huge. (Nolan may not be a particularly good director, but he has an outrageous knack for getting A-list actors together to recite some of the most long-winded and stilted exposition they will emit for the duration of their lives. Kudos, I guess.) But of course Time/Warner/Turner/DC/God have made a billion dollars (literally) off this thing so I suspect there’s no end in sight to the dogged stonefaced revival of fandom’s most hallowed mythologies. The Dark Knight found a broader audience with a wider swath of people than probably any other film of the past decade, with critics and audiences falling equally in line. It’s a noble enough effort, in the end, and one can admire things about it without enjoying it. One thing that doesn’t excuse, however, is the flippant misogyny it shares with nearly every other picture in its genre.
Bruce Wayne displays his cocksure status to his childhood lover sweetheart and eventual damsel in distress Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes) by wandering into his own party via helicopter with multiple women on his arm in an apparent impromptu reenactment of an Axe Body Spray ad. Later on he puts a bunch of women on a boat with his leering British butler (Nolan regular Michael Caine) as decoys while he wanders off to Hong Kong to hate on some capitalist Asians. Comic relief! Incidentally, Dawes is one of the few characters in the movie who gets killed off who actually is killed off, not just pretend, and as soon as the Joker shows up he’s all roughhousing with her and playing with her pretty little cheekbones and talking about sticking things in her mouth. Later of course she’s kidnapped and tied for S&M gamefoolery to a bomb in what looks like a movie theater showing a Vincent Gallo film and she’s, obviously, expendable. Independently, none of these things are horribly indefensible — but taken together in such a place of hallowed pleasure for enlightened movie buffs, it all illustrates one of the starkest problems with film culture, and fanboy culture. No, not all or even a lion’s share or even necessarily half of those who love Batman or this movie are male — for instance, three or the four serious fans of Batman I’ve met who’ve really been steeped in the culture of the comics have been women. But every woman who shows up in The Dark Knight fits a predetermined sexual mold for the equally predetermined pleasures of its audience except Gyllenhaal’s revival of the Holmes character, and she of course must be destroyed.
After a while it’s all so numbing. I had been (don’t ask me why) reading articles some time earlier about the ogling, worshipful but slimy treatment of female comic fans at conventions and how there’s apparently this glut of harrassment among brutes who think that the subculture they’re in gives them a license to childishly grope at anything they wish, and I couldn’t help thinking about this when I watched the gleeful porno-cam take on Ledger’s manhandling of Gyllenhaal, the film’s only major female performer. Again, it could just be my imagination. But perhaps the reason comics, cinema, gaming, whatever seem so male-dominated is not because these are lower artforms but because they attract so much leering, creepy condescendion as to make these places unwelcome and unsafe, savage and unfeeling. The Dark Knight is categorically cold, distant, nasty, but it’s also different from the other films it emulates in demonstrable and sometimes welcome ways (the downbeat ending, in particular), yet it reinforces the shallow gender requirements of popular cinema and its heartbeat seems sufficiently closed off that its own attempts at compassion and pathos seem as comically inept as those of the Home Alone movies.
I don’t really need a comic book movie to try and lecture me about loss of love or the meaning of having a family member ripped away or the base good nature of people, Even Crooks on Boats, and least of all about playing havoc with the emotions of people in turmoil. I’m not going to go so far as to say that it isn’t their place; I don’t put responsibilities like that on movies, nor would I on comic books if I gave a shit about them, but I just was afflicted more than usual with the “these people don’t understand what they’re talking about” syndrome, and it just seems like in a lot of cases, the people making this movie ended up on the wrong side of the taste barrier when it came to things they don’t know shit about.
Yet after all these years, I still see that woman’s face at the library on the morning of July 18. She had been up until three in the morning seeing the film as early as she possibly could, and she was bouyant with excitement over it. Maybe it felt to her like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Ratatouille did to me — giving that sense of walking on air after it ended. Perhaps Nolan’s ineptitude with emotion helps him in some way. Perhaps it allows people to put themselves into these films, even if I personally can’t; the fervent enthusiasm for this trilogy that got so many people trotting to midnight screenings thrice would suggest such. So would the fervent enthusiasm of some deeply troubled individuals who could ruin these movies, movies in general, even discourse on movies altogether if we let them. Perhaps the stakes are as high as Nolan seems to think they are in a simple story about good with traces of evil, good that becomes evil, evil that swallows everything. No one has a monopoly on understanding the world or on capturing the mood of a terrible, uneasy period. But when I contemplate The Dark Knight and my immediate memories are not of its dramatic tension or its impressions of established characters and ideas but of its casual violence and sexism and general unwarranted, meaningless macho dread, I don’t really think I’m the cynical one.
[As mentioned, I was in a really, REALLY bad mood the night that I first saw The Dark Knight in 2008 and it produced a pretty crazy rant about Nice Guys, Axe Body Spray ads and Nicholas Sparks. I culled some of the above from (a cleaned up version of) that initial writeup.]