Thursday, July 24, 2008


In late June of 1989, I wrote a full nine handwritten pages in my Movie Log about a film that I wanted to love so much I convinced myself it lived up to its phenomenal hype. I defended against its detractors, professed my admiration for its novelty and came up with excuses for its faults. That film, of course, was Tim Burton’s BATMAN, a movie that over the years, I have come to admit is pretty damn awful. But in 1989, maybe BATMAN was as much as we could hope for in terms of a dark comic book movie.

Cut to: Tuesday night. Ten friends and I line up inside the Union Square Regal Cinemas for a sold out showing of a movie that (to its credit) doesn’t have quite the ubiquitous cultural presence of BATMAN, but is unquestionably a phenomenon. Finally, five films and nineteen years after Burton’s Batman, comic book fans can revel in an unqualified masterpiece.

THE DARK KNIGHT succeeds on every level, as an action film, a superhero movie, a crime drama, and most of all, an intense psychological character study. And at the center of the film is a basic tenet of the character that’s been downplayed, if not outright ignored in many previous incarnations of Batman: The line he will not cross, his refusal to take a life, no matter how vile. In THE DARK KNIGHT, almost every character is forced to examine how far they would go to stand up for their beliefs, what they would sacrifice and what they would not. Everyone is tested: Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent, Jim Gordon, Rachel Dawes, Lucius Fox, even the citizens of Gotham City are put to the test. Some prevail. Some do not.

As for the Joker, yes, Heath Ledger’s performance is a tour de force. He manages to wipe away four decades worth of spurious depictions from Cesar Romero’s slight gag-man through Jack Nicholson’s likable Dadaist and craft a truly primal force of malevolent chaos. Even his most mannered choices, the tics and grunts and long fingernails all work; nothing feels forced. He is, as I had hoped, sans backstory or any logical motivation for his madness, the perfect adversary for the Batman. (Still, would Ledger be getting Oscar buzz had he not died in January? Probably not.)

Finally, it feels like “THE Batman” is the correct vernacular. Christian Bale’s performance is every bit as impressive as Ledger’s, perfectly straddling the line between obsessive dedication and psychosis. His bored playboy shtick is hugely entertaining and he deftly traverses the separate aspects of Bruce Wayne’s personality, creating the most sympathetic and believable superhero ever put to screen. But EVERYONE brings their A-game to the table in this movie. As the love-triangulated Rachel Dawes, Maggie Gyllenhaal is an improvement over Katie Holmes so vast it cannot be measured (in fact, I wonder if I’d have felt anything but joy at her ultimate fate had Holmes reprised the role). Gary Oldman again gives Jim Gordon an endearing sincerity so great that a bunch of us applauded along with the characters onscreen when he’s promoted to Commissioner. Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine all give performances as good as anything this side of MICHAEL CLAYTON or NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Yes, seriously.

Of course, a lot of credit goes to the man behind the camera. The real star of THE DARK KNIGHT is Christopher Nolan. Working closely with his co-screenwriting brother and producing wife, Nolan kept this project close to the vest, and while it’s inappropriate to refer to Warner’s biggest franchise as an auteur project, this feels as singular and indie as a big budget blockbuster can. This is not a compromised movie made by committee. This is a work of art by a brilliant visionary (as opposed to the drama-challenged one-note Burton).

The action sequences are spectacular. Limiting the use of CGI as much as possible, Nolan is one of a handful of filmmakers who realizes that an audience can tell when something’s real and when it’s not, and in this gritty, realistic Gotham he’s created, the more in-camera FX the better. Batman’s battles are wince-worthy, his (real!!) perches atop skyscrapers vertiginous, the chases befitting of Steve McQueen and the destruction bone-rattling. The entire Hong Kong sequence is worthy of the best James Bond film. I only wish they’d have left the tractor trailer flip out of the advertising, as it lost some of its contextual impact after seeing it so many times.

Even the soundtrack is something at which to marvel (whoops, to DC). Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s score eschews the typical confluence of character-based recurring themes in favor of a more subliminal, haunting escalation of staccato strings and booming brass. It’s as if Bernard Herrmann scored a Batman movie!

For fanboys, there are a few particularly nice bits. Bruce Wayne’s residence in the penthouse atop Wayne Industries harkens back to a period in the late 1960s and 70s when the comic book Batman, upon Dick Grayson’s departure for college, sealed up the Batcave and moved to the heart of Gotham, the better to keep tabs on the city. And for the first time EVER, we get to see a live action Batman with whited out eyes! You may think this a silly detail to get geeked over, but, well, we are geeks.

Still, the overall arch of Batman’s limitations, both innate and imposed is what endears this film most. Nothing made me angrier about BATMAN and its sequels than the filmmakers’ cavalier dismissal of the edict that Batman DOES NOT KILL (“These are darker times, they call for a darker hero,” sneered one screenwriter in an interview, basically taking a dump on the very essence of the character). At the climax of TDK, when, in direct contrast with the ending of BATMAN ’89, the Joker is saved by Batman as he plunges from the building, I let out a loud, enthusiastic “YES!” and punched the air.

If I have any complaints, they are mostly minor to the point of nit-picking. While esthetically, I’d prefer a simpler costume, I understand the medium’s need for the complicated armor, but still, I wish the chest bat-emblem were larger and more prominent (and the nose on the cowl a bit smaller). I’m still not crazy about the Tumbler, so I was happy to see its demise (I liked the Batpod, but worried about Batman’s cape getting caught…). It might’ve been nice if Anthony Michael Hall’s newscaster character were Jack Ryder (even if they’d never follow up on it). And this is another movie that continues the sad prevalence of no main titles at the beginning of the film.

But my primary (and only real) complaint is that we barely got to know Harvey Dent. Killing off Two-Face may have been necessary to fulfill the movie’s destiny and pull Gotham back from the brink by replacing its fallen White Knight with the Dark that it still needs (as well as set up some conflict for the third film), but Two-Face is such a great character that his short screen time seems a cheat. I really thought the movie was going to merely set up the villain to be the adversary in the next movie, but even with Two-Face dominating the final act, this feels nothing like the overcrowded bad guy menagerie of BATMAN FOREVER or SPIDER-MAN 3. And who knows, maybe that fall didn’t actually kill him…

Still, we have to wonder, where do we go from here? If Nolan continues as the franchise’s guide (please, please, please) it’s a given that none of Batman’s more fantastical enemies will make the cut. We’re not going to see Clayface, Man-Bat or Mr. Freeze. A far more human Killer Croc is unlikely, but not impossible (it is a skin condition, after all). Catwoman could work, but there’s almost too much of a been-there, done-that vibe to her (yes, even more than the Joker, whom had never been done right before). The Riddler is just too slight. Poison Ivy could feasibly fit if she used external chemicals rather than powers gained from a blood infection, but her motivation still seems off for the more urban crime of this series.

No, it feels like if Nolan’s going to raid the comics for the next adversary, it’s probably going to be another more grounded villain like the mob boss Black Mask, super assassin Deadshot (sans costume) or Hugo Strange, the twisted psychologist who longs for Batman’s identity. It’s a shame Ra’s al Ghul was altered to use in BATMAN BEGINS, as his comic book incarnation would be the perfect villain for a third, globe-spanning epic (with Talia in tow, of course). Then again, the character has risen from the dead (thanks to the good ol’ Lazarus Pit) many times in the comics, so who knows.

Fanboy speculation is fun (and unavoidable), but it’s hard to imagine Christopher Nolan topping THE DARK KNIGHT. But based on the movie’s record breaking performance, it’s a sure bet Warner Bros. is going to do whatever they can to keep him in the Batcave, and, along with millions of other thrilled Bat-Nerds, I really hope he rises to the challenge.

With the success of the smart IRON MAN earlier this year, THE DARK KNIGHT reaping almost universal critical praise and WATCHMEN building buzz for next year, maybe the inundation of comic book flicks over the past decade has finally inured the general public to the idea of a superhero movie not automatically being kid stuff. It’s worth noting the relative lack of DARK KNIGHT kiddie fare on the shelves… if you hit Party City looking for Bat-Decorations (as I did for a pre-TDK Bat-tacular last weekend), all you’ll find is plates, cups and napkins adorned with the comic book or animated Batman. Sure, there are DARK KNIGHT action figures and dress-up cowl / cape combos in the toy aisle at Target, but compared with the onslaught of Batcrap in 1989, the pickings for the kiddies are slim this time around. And, happily, that goes most of all for the movie itself.

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