Wednesday, July 30, 2008

HCDuvall on The Dark Knight [Guest Blog]

[Guest blogger HC Duvall has some thoughts on the Dark Knight, which really does provide endless discussion. Dark Knight is really like Morrison's New X-Men in that it is often really brilliant in spots and stretches but also overrated: the perfect conversation piece.]

The Joker should be a clown who robs banks.



That's certainly less menacing--but Dark Knight, big and serious and entertaining good movie that it is, exhausts the idea of a serious Joker. I'm going to glide over many good things: the acting (Even Morgan Freeman did more than chuckle this time) and Heath Ledger's Joker in general; and some bad things: that the Hong Kong escapade is a long-winded way to establish some gear and Joker's employment to the mob and the generally draggy fourth act. I'm going to fixate on a notion that tumbles in my head whenever a superhero turns extra somber. Boy, this kind of a dead end.

"Because 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."

Oh, what sloppy business that I might've let go. But Gordon intones it with such concluding meaning, this filmmaker's point of view. It took the wind out of my sails. So the Joker here has been a mass murdering terrorist, all crazy for chaos.* This very much the Killing Joke take. Batman and Joker are lonely lunatic bosom buddies, men who had one very bad day, snapped, and now share this bleak joke. Batman, disguised as Bruce Wayne, is alone, and fixated on saving people. Joker, no disguise necessary, is alone, and fixated of chaos (meaning killing people). Different enough in effect, but both victims of trauma of some sort.

Dark Knight's Joker supposedly has no established origin. He's a master planner of wheels-within-wheels (who else does that?) and with a speech--it's a meander that sets up the great line about burning down the forest--we are given the notion that some men are born for destruction via the poor robber example. A man who could, after all, be a thrill junkie. Or a Zorro figure set on embarrassing colonial powers. Or a man, raised by monkeys looking for delicious shiny things, who ends up throwing gems away because though shiny, they are not very delicious. Oh sir, there's many a ways away from someone who wants to see the world burn other than being born an arsonist. Fate, poorly supported as it is, is a clumsier argument yet.

Batman Begins had this clumsy shorthand as well: After the first Bat-tank chase, there was a voice over declaring no casualties. How could the audience enjoy the ride if people had died? How could you support a Batman who risked civilians so casually? Where would you be if you took it seriously? Hancock tried this approach this summer (before the interesting character arc was discarded for relationship allegory), and some of Hellboy 2's flaws are from the same vein. Iron Man's more or less neocon foreign policy style is palatable specifically because of it's disregard for this sort of study.

But Batman saves people, and for that they must be worth saving...but back to the quote above...the people, it says, despite making the right choice in the boats, are a cowardly and suspicious lot, and deserve a lie. They'll forgive a boatload of criminals,* but can't be trusted to forgive Harvey Dent, a man with half his face and all his life burned away who killed, eh...two of the people responsible? And if Alfred hadn't burned that note, you see, Batman would realize he's alone and snap again and starting popping some heads. Probably criminal heads, but still. Or maybe he'd just be really sad. Batman saving lives is arbitrary, really. Chance (hello Dent!).

Where else, after all, can this seriousity go? The Joker goes to Arkham? Gotham seems like a capital punishment kinda town. Is Batman going to rescue him from the chair? Not this Batman, he has limits to his belief in rehabilitation. He'll let you die, not that anyone would let him try otherwise. But if we're going to lock up one lone nut killing people, we should probably lock up the one who goes around beating people up, dropping them from buildings, who lets people die if he doesn't like them.** This is why societies don't actually want vigilantes. Incidentally, this is where I think the movie shines re:Batman. He's always paired with the Joker, but Harvey Dent as the opposite of Batman, that's good. The Joker and Batman both are totalitarian in their worldviews and its imposition on everyone else, and Dent actually believed in society. Trouble is, it's hard to fathom a motive for Batman this way, unless he's just fated to be heroic. Fate robs a lot of the cache of hard choices, though. Or he's a depressing symbol of pettiness of humanity then. The crisis of faith regarding cell phone sonar in the movie is supposed to be an example of a line Batman doesn't cross, but why he stopped other then nobody wants to disappoint a frowning Morgan Freeman is kind of opaque. I mean, I see a moral argument to stop, but I don't see why this Batman did. Good on him though, quit while he was ahead. When a character is does something suitably unheroic enough though morally gray enough to be justifiable (or say Dent kills the corrupt cops, but even Dent is a villain, albeit sympathetic), then it becomes a vigilante story rather than a superhero (one where despite all odds, heroism is done). I'll hazard to say that any story that fights this hard against its supposed genre confines is in the wrong genre, or is the wrong story.

Obviously the mileage on this sort of take is actually pretty good, Killing Joke and Nolan's Batman movies praised for reasons. But eventually, going this route of serious forces you to have to explain a crazy guy in a bat suit trying to punch crime in the face. Dark Knight called attention to this in the same breaths that we're supposed to accept a rich man trying to work out his childhood trauma flouting the law. Nothing that solipsistic in movies since The Game. Superheroes are a limited vehicle for this sort of thing, and such things (and Watchmen, oh lovely Watchmen) are end stories with nowhere to go but somewhere entirely different without costumes, or powers, or possibly even heroics, and I don't know, a superhero story needs some of that.

Or, less lament of the disgruntled nerd version:

Seriousness calls attention to silliness, and dressing like a bat is really silly. If the movie disagrees with me, it did a poor job of arguing it.


* I think a good joke for this Joker would be if the civilian boat hits the trigger and their own boat explodes.

** Even Frank Miller doesn't have Batman killing. And Frank Miller likes manly men killing things, no?

22 comments:

Troy Wilson said...

The civilian boat hitting the trigger and blowing up would've been a much better fit with the rest of the movie. Mind you, it would've made the Joker's living to laugh another day seem even more ridiculous. We accept it in the comics, of course, but this movie does its damnedest to persuade us otherwise - and then ultimately asks us to accept it anyway. Part of me would've loved for this Batman to have cut his batline and let Joker fall. Just after the Clown Prince's big speech about how they'll be doing this forever, just when we're absolutely sure Joker is safe. Yeah, yeah, I know that would've buggered up the tragedy of him taking on murders he didn't commit, but still...

Troy Wilson said...

Which again, proves your point, HC. The more they make it into a vigilante movie or a crime thriller, the more obvious and jarring it is when they wimp out and back off. The more you push Batman to cross lines, the stronger your characterization of him has to be - or we won't believe it when he doesn't cross them.

HoBs said...

So agreed completely that it feels overrated. Agreed the Hong Kong was unnecessary, and the 4th act interminable.

But it makes accessible, plausible and tangible some of the po-mo ideas that had been floating around for years in the comics, and for that I give it a lot of credit.

It makes plausible the idea that Batman created the Joker. That the two cannot co-exist without each other.

It creates interesting moral dilemmas for gothamites (a literal "prisoner's dilemma") to adumbrate and delineate the nature of man. Of how people use democracy to legitimize murder. Of how the people are sheep in the face of the Ubermensch, of Batman and Joker.

It acknowledges that Batman and Joker are in Nietzche's words, "Beyond Good and Evil" except that something in Batman hangs onto Harvey Dent, as a paragon of good.

And demonstrates the value of symbols. People need their symbols. And of course Dent could be forgiven, but that would destroy his symbolic value.

This Batman is consistent with not fully embracing his totallitarian "overman" self. Like the Batman in Miller's Dark Knight Returns, where Batman is able to resist the totalitarian impulses embraced by Superman, this Batman maintains a shred of moral humanity (perhaps due to his parents), the shred that allows him to cling to Dent, and cling to the moral values that causes him to destroy the Bat Sonar.

Agreed that all these ideas don't cohere as well as they could, but I was impressed by how tangible Nolan was able to make them. Miller in the past was able to elide the tricky issues you discuss by keeping many of these ideas vague and unformed, but a blockbuster movie requires more concreteness, and I think Nolan got much of it right.

Anonymous said...

This piece really needs another round of proof reading and editing. As it stands, it's a rather herky-jerky, slapdash read. Not a pleasant reading experience.

Certainly, it's not up to the standards of your other contributors.

Troy Wilson said...

I suppose the movie does throw out plenty of decent reasons for Bats not to kill the Joker (clinging to the ideal of Dent, honoring Rachel, etc). I think it would have been great, though, if one the police shot Joker in the head right after the big "we'll do this forever" speech. As you said, HC, Batman might spare the Joker, but I doubt this Gotham would, especially after being terrorized so relentlessly.

Anagramsci said...

it has some typos anon--but I certainly enjoyed reading it!

I think HC has done an excellent job of rounding up most of the bad things in the film. I particularly like the way the author has held the film accountable for the idiotic speech with which it concludes. There's no getting away from how dumb it is--and it took the wind out of my sails too...although, full disclosure, I didn't like much of anything in the movie, apart from Ledger's fantastic wacko, which has taken a place in my pantheon right next to Richard Widmark's amazing master-planner-shit-disturber Jefty, in Negulesco's Road House (finally coming to DVD this fall!)

also hateful, in the context of the film this is trying to be, is the "tale of two ships" feel good stuff... I actually couldn't believe what I was seeing, when I saw that it was really going to end on a "triumph of human dignity" after-school special note--this kind of scene is inexcusable in a movie like Spiderman 1 or 2 ("the people" rally on the bridge/"the people" rally 'round Spider-Jesus on the train)--but, in a film with neo-noir ambitions, it's beyond inexcusable, it's evidence that the filmmakers don't know what they're doing--or, worse, that they know exactly what they're doing, and do it anyway, because they know that people will eat it up as a way to have their grit, their fascism AND a nice super-cake too...

Dave

hcduvall said...

Anon: Sorry about that. I'm afraid I'm rambly when I think about things, and more tinkering (from me) would make it more unwieldy, as I try to include tangents...Verbal tics. Once again, sorry. I stand by seriosity though.

Hobs: I don't want to tie seriousness too closely to moral complexity, but isn't denying Dent his shot as a symbol because he'd be a fallen one, a tragic one, too simplistic for the tone Nolan's movies want to achieve?

Troy: Yeah, the movie has room for reasons for Bats to do what he did, but don't know if these crises manifested in Bale's Batman this time around. Your comments speculating about him bring up a good point...Dark Kngiht is a movie that very much says aloud what it means, but Batman isn't one to opine--other than sulking a bit, was there any convincing anxiety about his decisions? He's in the title, but he can't actually have a character arc as he needs to want to fight crime from beginning to end.

hcduvall said...

Dave: Thanks for the kind words. For what it's worth, taste wise I might not like seriousness with superheroes as much as the next guy, but really what an audience is owed is consistency. And as you said, Dark Knight wanted it a whole mess of ways.

Kenney said...

I swear, has there ever been anything in the history of the world that is widely received well, that someone doesn't instantly come out of the woodwork to say that it's overrated?

I feel like that word should be retired because it seems to exist almost solely for that purpose.

I would be interested in hearing people explain what was wrong with the Hong Kong scene. To me it was an awesome action sequence delivered right when the movie needed one, that also setup the lengths that Batman and his crew were willing to go to to protect Gotham.

Anagramsci said...

Kenney--

it might have been a well-staged action sequence--but it was ALSO a problematic (to say the least) declaration of international-vigilantism (with Batman as one-man extradition officer)...

and how, exactly, does capturing foreign-national-accountants-with-mob ties "protect" Gotham... this is part of the underlying logic of the film that no amount of technical brilliance could have mitigated, for me... capturing and punishing mob people DOESN'T help ANYONE in a city, except perhaps the "legitimately" rich...

it doesn't make cities safer, and it deal with real problems like urban poverty at all...

all of which is beside the point--I mean, it's pretty clear that Batman doesn't CARE about changing Gotham that way, which is fine, no one says he has to be a Marxist--but the people telling his story should have the guts to admit that what he's doing is entirely personal--i.e. not about justice at all, not even a kind of "dark justice for dark times," as the final speech would have us believe... he merely, as HC put it, wants to punch crime in the face (were you thinking of Dave Sim's Cockroach, and his "puncheminnaface" mantra HC? even if you weren't, it's supremely apt here--Cerebus #11-12 make a better satire of THIS Batman than any preceding incarnation of the character, because most of the "grim" takes on the character don't pretend that Batman is trying to "inspire" people to acts of civic virtue (which would be problematic enough, if that's what he was trying to do)

I agree that overrated is a lame term--but what other word conveys the sheer confusion one feels when everyone seems to love something that you know has severe problems?

Dave

Kenney said...

First off rereading my post, it seems like I'm attacking HC, and I want to be clear in saying that isn't my intentions. He feels how he feels about the movie and that's fine. We all can't love everything. I'm just tired of the overuse and over-reliance on the word itself.

"what other word conveys the sheer confusion one feels when everyone seems to love something that you know has severe problems?"

That's maybe the basis for why I can't stand the word. You absolutely have to setup your own guidelines for what you value and think has merit, but to say something is overrated (especially when it's heralded by many) is to say "Oh, well you all are wrong and I'm right." No you're not. Maybe the work in question doesn't work for you, which is fair, but don't go and impose your own "rating" over others...because at the end of the day every single rating out there is one persons opinion.

With TDK, I might say it's a 10/10 movie because I left the theater on a high and a head full of thoughts that stuck with me for days. Someone else might say it's a 5/10 movie because of the problems many people have pointed out the movie has (which I don't deny). So who's right? Everyone is, because everyone has their own personal criteria for how they rate stuff.

This is why I look at ratings differently from criticism. Rating something is a personal reaction, criticism is a more objective look at something.

Anagramsci said...

Kenney--

that's fair enough, I think... no one can rob you of your subjective enjoyment... but we might as well throw all thoughts of objectivity out the window right now, 'cause criticism is subjective too!

I'm not standing aloof and saying "from my Archimedean vantage, I can see that this is not up to snuff," and I don't think anyone who checks into this site would be that naive about what they're doing when they make judgments about a text.

I mean, I've got an interest in pointing out what I think is wrong with DK 'cause I think it's bad news politically--and the only reason I bother to talk about it all is because I see some major ideological inconsistencies in the face it is presenting to the viewer, a situation which could, with luck and the right arguments, help to cast some doubt upon a political program that I despise.

That's pretty subjective.

and I'm sure HC (and Geoff before him) has his own reasons (not necessarily as pugnaciously political as mine!) for needing to speak out against the consensus.

Dave

Kenney said...

Re: Hong Kong. I didn't take it to be a declaration of international-vigilantism at all. Lau took the mob's money to Hong Kong for safe keeping, so that Dent couldn't seize it to implicate the leaders in whatever crimes he wanted to charge them with (I forget why he needed the money exactly). Of course Lau would then try and steal the money, but the fact remains that he still had it and Dent needed him (and the money) to testify (or implicate) against the leaders.

How does prosecuting the leaders protect Gotham? Has the mob ever made it's money (in any situation) in a fashion that was healthy and helpful for a given city? I imagine that money was made through all kinds of illicit means that hurt Gotham, so by getting Lau Batman goes at the head of the monster that's hurting Gotham - the mob leaders.

You have to remember he doesn't have a whole bunch of costume criminals to chase after yet, which is when I think Batman becomes more of a bandaid for Gotham than a savior. Even in this movie he writes off Joker early on in favor of going after the mob, because they were the biggest threat to Gotham early in the movie (until the Joker proved otherwise).

I don't argue that what Batman does is maybe the most selfish and narcissistic act possible. He could have joined the force or became a lawyer, but instead he took matters into his own hands - like a petulant child. In the comics you can see how stunted Batman can be at times.

And the Nolan Batman doesn't care so much about Gotham's citizens as he does about Gotham as an idea. It's his city. His city handed to him before he was ready to own it from his father, who also claimed the city. With that in mind, Bruce does what he does to make a city where that won't happen to another child again. But a by product of that is in making the city safer in some regards, though ultimately the escalation overtakes anything Batman could fix on his own...and since this story can never end, his story becomes a bit pointless.

Kenney said...

"I'm sure HC (and Geoff before him) has his own reasons (not necessarily as pugnaciously political as mine!) for needing to speak out against the consensus."

And that's cool. Believe me this is the last place I would come if I didn't enjoy this kind of thoughtful dissection of popular culture.

You're right criticism is subjective, since we funnel everything through our own personal tastes and experiences, so strike that. I do still think ratings and criticism are a bit different though, at least for me, because I use different standards for both. To rate, is emotional, to criticize is to try and remove yourself a bit and look at something from all angles. But there is nothing saying everyone does it that way, so I shouldn't expect it to be that way.

HoBs said...

Hobs: I don't want to tie seriousness too closely to moral complexity, but isn't denying Dent his shot as a symbol because he'd be a fallen one, a tragic one, too simplistic for the tone Nolan's movies want to achieve?

Touche.

Though you might argue that a fallen symbol would push even further the message of hopelessness, and run counter to what "gotham needs."

"Dark Kngiht is a movie that very much says aloud what it means"

agreed!

Also agreed that taking out the mob clearly helps the poor. The drug trade predominantly hurts the poor (not saying the rich don't shoot up, but their lives don't get ruined by it). And crime related homicide is one of the largest killers for the poor.

Kamandi said...

Dave,

In regards to Hong Kong: I'm sorry, but I think you're reading far too much into a very minor sequence in the film.

Has it occurred to you that this plot point is likely just paying lip service to the globe-trotting adventures of the Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams era Batman, and not attempting to advocate "international-vigilantism?" The Dark Knight borrowed liberally from that period of Batman's published history, down to the fact that Bruce was living in the penthouse and NOT Wayne Manor.

I don't think the Hong Kong sequence was unnecessary in the slightest. It exposed the ever escalating nature of Batman's campaign against crime, mirroring the ever escalating threats found within the pages of the comic for the better part of a century.

Additionally, as I've mentioned before, I still don't understand how the film's coda has confused some of you.

Troy Wilson said...

I agree that the feel good boat sequence was out of place in this movie. And I have to correct myself. I said that, regardless of what Batman would do, I doubted this Gotham would spare the Joker. Well, given what happened with the boats, I guess we're supposed to believe that this Gotham would - and will - spare the Joker.

The fact that both ships spared each other is supposed to do a number of things. It's supposed to parallel the Joker and Batman sparing each other. It's supposed to show the Joker that, no, we wouldn't all make the same choices he would make when our backs are against the wall. And it's also, I think, supposed to suggest that either a) Gothamites have already been inspired enough by Dent to be this saintly, or b)Gothamites are good at the core, and therefore are capable of being inspired by the martyr that Dent will soon be.

If Gotham's citizens had opted to kill each other, it would seem far less likely that Dent the Symbol would be potent enough to help turn things around, and therefore it would seem far less crucial to preserve the White Knight image.

So I can see why they'd go all nicey-nice with the ships. It helps get them where they want to go. But just because they're selling doesn't mean I'm buying.

Troy Wilson said...

I do want to stress, though, that I did enjoy a lot of this movie. Like Geoff said, it's brilliant in some places (particularly the Joker stuff) and not-so-brilliant in others. But it's more interesting to debate the iffy bits than to sing Heath Ledger's praises for the gazillionth time.

hcduvall said...

I think it's clear that we've all spent so much time on this because we care about it enough to poke and prod. We could do this to Iron Man as well, but that wasn't as ambitious a movie that asked for critical thought about vigilantes/foreign policy. Dark Knight invites it, and for that ambition there's potential for bigger praise and criticisms.

I actually enjoyed the movie very much while watching it. I probably had some critical reserve in place, because that's the kind of viewer I am and because the whole "serious superhero" take is one of diminishing returns for my entertainment purposes. I'll admit that this pov means that even if the movie was consistent, I'd probably still like the movie less than other people. But, really it wasn't until the last speech that inconsistencies between crowd pleasing and serious began to annoy me.

The HK bit is a great action set piece, that does serve the story (Wayne as playboy, why the mob needs the Joker, the cool toys to show off). But seriously thinking about law and order means noticing he's going to a foreign country and the trouble that might entail, even if it could be a homage to a more globetrotting Batman. If it is that, I'm afraid its one that weakens the overall tone. Why not a fortress bank in Gotham, right before he's trying to escape? It wasn't unnecessary, but setting it abroad is more trouble than it's worth.

In hindsight, Wayne disappearing while Batman apprehends someone in HK, and a Wayne accountant saying he knows Batman's identity until he's saved by Bruce Wayne...Fox has a great takedown at the attempted blackmailer's expense, but it's a pretty crap plan. That's a lot of damning if circumstantial evidence for an enterprising reporter to use on Batman.

But the part that rankles me most about the coda is the notion that the city needs a Batman that is a lie, and a Dent that has been whitewashed. Precisely because I accepted the boat scene as Troy describes it at the time, the reversal back to the dark view of the mob registered as false.

Maybe I just don't a Batman who's so selfish? The Justice League Unlimited episode of "For the Man Who Has Everything" has Superman and Batman hallucinating their heart's desire because of a plant. Batman's is his father beating up the mugger who would've killed his parents in an infinite loop, for ever and ever. And that might be all there is to say about him.

Dave: I actually stole the punching crime bit from Tom Spurgeon's review of Batman Begins, but I'm not surprised that Sim got to it first.

jennifer said...

i love reading all the back and forth on these movies. i am more of a pure enjoyment movie-goer.
i see the flaws and easily forgive them.
maybe being an artist myself & knowing how hard it is to see a vision become reality is why.
& in the movie business it is so so hard to see a vision fulfilled because of all the money & hands involved.
but it excites me to see how much passion nolan has inspired in you all. that is what an artist wants. we don't really care whether you like or dislike a piece... nobody can please everybody... but if people are talking about the piece, arguing about the piece... that is the icing on the cake!
and, really, we don't really want a perfect movie because then why bother making another!

Geoff Klock said...

Let me take a share of the blame for typos, since I am EIC around here. I have a very ambivalent relationship to proofreading, as often I just want to type something out and let it go; often when I go through my own work carefully, most of the time it does not matter anyway -- and I still miss stuff. I recognize how important it is -- I TEACH it if you can believe it -- but I also often just say to myself (probably wrongly): eh, its a blog, blogs are messy, if someone wants to pay me to publish it I will clean it up later. So, Yeah.

The Dark Knight is the best thing to happen to internet conversations in forever, because it is a great mix of brilliant and very faulty, high profile and ambitious -- just like New X-Men.

Christian said...

Well, I loved it. But I have no energy to expand on that, especially since everyone else did it far better than I.

I will say though that while I thought the Sonar was a bit annoying, from a design standpoint I get it: It gave him white slits for eyes like in most of his comic book depictions.

And the armour sequence with Lucius in the beginning has a little fanboy nod that I didn't get till after I was out of the theatre: The new armour won't protect against dogs, but it will protect against Cats. Or other possibly Feline related mischeif.

And the dude blackmail him is called Mister Reese. (Can't figure out if that's a Mr. Freeze shoutout or a Riddler one. Mr. Reese (Mysteries) and Edward Nigma?)