Sunday, August 03, 2008

James Wheeler Defends The Dark Knight

[We have had a great series of discussions on the Dark Knight, which I think is a movie with a lot to recommend it. But it was so universally praised by so many in and out of the comics community (it had a 94% metacritic rating) it fell to us to swing the pendulum the other way -- and perhaps we went to far. But I think it was a lot more than "hating" on a movie that everyone loved. Overpraise can be as much of a problem as under-praise, because in both we are in danger of loosing sight of the thing, and dulling our senses for the next thing.

Nevertheless, I think we could use something fully positive on the Dark Knight here, and James has written a very smart piece to that effect, one that nicely takes into account some of the things we said around here. The Hulk comparison seems particularly apt, as I have to admit to hating that movie, then turning around and seeing its brilliance years later.]

So it turns out it's impossible to overstate how good Heath Ledger is as The Joker. I know because I only just saw The Dark Knight, and if nearly a month's hyperbole isn't enough to oversell the performance, then nothing is.

But what of the movie itself? Geoff has said, and others have agreed, that by keeping the tension dialled up to fever pitch for the solid 2.5 hours, the movie ends up being exhausting. I think this is 100% accurate. I also loved the movie for it.

The Dark Knight in no way resembles the Summer Blockbuster it is supposed to be. It's too long, too intense, too upsetting. It reminds me of Ang Lee's Hulk in its ambition, refusing to conform to the expectations of a superhero comic adaptation. Where it beats Hulk however, is that I wasn't entertained only when the title character was onscreen.

It's a million miles away from the uncertain, try-to-please-everyone concessions of Batman Begins, which attempted an uncomfortable marriage of Year One's stripped-down realism and explosive action movie excess. This time out, I'm thoroughly convinced by Nolan's hyper-tech Batman, because now it's clear that Nolan is. Where Batman Begins seemed at pains to use technology to explain or justify the less plausible aspects of the comic book character, The Dark Knight is fully committed to the idea of a gadget-powered Batman. In hindsight, it's the ninja stuff that feels like the concession.

A lot of people have complained about the unexpected fourth (fifth, sixth, twenty-eighth?) act, but I found myself grateful they didn't cut the story in half: any other superhero franchise would've just ended the movie with the birth of Two-Face as its coda, teasing the next installment. Oh wait, I guess Spider-Man 3 doesn't, so we can be grateful that Harvey's treatment was infinitely superior to Venom's.

And then there's Gordon's speech, the hero Gotham deserves and the hero Gotham needs. My first thought was that this is the second time Nolan has ended a Batman film with a meaningless distinction (remember "I won't kill you but I don't have to save you"?). HCDuvall said he couldn't overlook the speech because it's given such import, and must therefore be Nolan's point of view. But it could just as easily be Gordon (and Batman) trying to impose meaning on a world where answers are cruelly lacking. There's a great discussion over at Neil's blog, about whether the Joker is truly a force for anarchy or whether he is in fact, another schemer, who's master plan was always to turn Dent. I have to agree with Omar Karindu and take the Joker at his word. He's so effective because he's a master of improvisation, and all the other players cannot fathom him. I read the hero deserved/needed rationalisation as an extension of this lack of understanding, and a pithy way to end the movie with its title, rather than a true statement of authorial intent.

We're told in both movies that the new breed of evil (that finds its apotheosis* in the Joker) is brought about by the Batman's existence, so he cannot be the answer to Gotham's problems. This irony is heightened in The Dark Knight when we see that Harvey Dent could have been the man to save Gotham, but is thwarted and corrupted by the new evil Batman brings with him. The film does offer a solution however; Gotham is saved, at least for the moment. But the Joker isn't defeated by Batman, or Dent - he falls when he realises that the people on the boats have not been corrupted, and refused to play his game. Maybe Nolan is telling us not to wait for Batman to save us, but to get on with saving ourselves.

(I mean, I don't know, I just really liked this movie. A!)

*Word of the blog?

[Editor's note: Yes, it is one of my favorite words. I got it from Bloom, of course, the master of the portentous].


scott91777 said...


You're absolutely right... The Dark Knight's 'flaws' are all related to the fact that it is more challenging than the typical summer blockbuster.

For example, I would have to say that, so far, my favorite movie of the summer has been Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull... but that movie made absolutely no attempt to 'challenge me' it just 'entertained me'... Dark Knight tried to do more than that... and, as a result, I think it makes it more ambitious picture and one that is definitely worth a closer look.

James said...

Right? In the cinema, I couldn't believe the movie I was watching was the kind of thing they use to sell hamburgers. Then yesterday, I saw a commercial for the "Dark Whopper", and realised that this movie is literally being used to sell hamburgers. That does not match up to the content at all, and is nuts.

neilshyminsky said...

James wrote: "There's a great discussion over at Neil's blog, about whether the Joker is truly a force for anarchy or whether he is in fact, another schemer, who's master plan was always to turn Dent. I have to agree with Omar Karindu and take the Joker at his word."

Which is, I think, a fine stance to take. The problem, as I noted in my response to Omar, is that the Joker contradicts himself - if you take the Joker at his word in one instance you're required to invent excuses as to why you find him unreliable in another, and so the exercise becomes rather arbitrary.

Which isn't to say that I don't think we can ever build an argument around what the Joker says/means. But it's not easy.

Stefan Delatovic said...

Using this movie to sell hamburgers to children is just horrid.

Jason said...

Ang Lee's Hulk is better than The Dark Knight.

Oh yeah. I went there.

James said...

Neil: "if you take the Joker at his word in one instance you're required to invent excuses as to why you find him unreliable in another, and so the exercise becomes rather arbitrary."

Oh yeah, definitely. The Joker's unreliable, and I didn't mean to imply that I saw "his word" as evidence at all, just that (in that instance) what he says happens to match up with the reading I favour.

Anagramsci said...


yes, I would agree that Lee's film is much better than DK.

I don't know what I can add about the Nolan flick, other than voice my opinion that I don't think it challenges the status quo or its audience in any way at all (other than by being long)... I'm sure I could name 50 summer action films that are more thought-provoking (although I will agree that NO summer action movie has ever congratulated ITSELF quite so extravagantly on the depth of its political/philosophical insight--and this seems to have worked like a charm)


James said...

Dave: You'll notice that I don't praise The Dark Knight on the basis of its "political/philosophical insight", or claim it marks itself out by being "more thought-provoking". But just for kicks, care to name any of that 50 here?

Anagramsci said...

no, for sure James--I was more responding to Scott's comment

let's see now:

Starship Troopers for sure, and other Verhoeven stuff like

Total Recall

Alien Resurrection

The Siege (1998)

the aforementioned Hulk

he first two X-Men

I really do feel that many more could be added to the list...


hcduvall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
hcduvall said...

Oh man, I love Verhoeven and all his glories.. I don't know if any of the X-Men's were terribly ambitious though, in terms of challenging the audience. Their success was in how satisfyingly competent they were--that's not meant as faint praise, though I think it may sound like it...

Nolan pulls off quite a bit within the confines of a blockbuster, satisfying a lot of expectation and setting up quite a bit more it seems. And just to add to the chorus, I do appreciate the ambition put in it. During the other discussion I did start thinking that I was perhaps taking the speeches too much at their world, that Nolan was making the movie show one thing, and that the narration and dialogs and the like were something different. I'm not quite there, it still feels more sloppy than that, but I'll be there when the third movie premieres to hash it out. Which, by the by, I think should be Poison Ivy.

Harvey Dent (last speech about ignored) was great. Maybe his arc felt weaker just relative to Ledger, and Joker et al.

Anagramsci said...

I wouldn't say that I was tremendously impressed by the X-Men films, but, simply by virtue of their subject matter, they raise questions that no Batman movie (and especially not THIS Batman movie) can raise--i.e. what are the costs and benefits of assimilation? when is social revolution justified? etc. (all of the stuff that X-Men comics have been dealing with for ages)

again, all of this is coming from a person who thinks that ANY political agenda which places a lot of emphasis on "crime" is hopelessly reactionary--so people can feel free to discount my opinion, if they really believe that all our world needs is a "clean up"

the idea floating around that we are supposed to think of Batman as representative of the PROBLEM with America (and virtu-based Republicanism in general) is an interesting one, but it doesn't fit with the movie I saw... Verhoeven could have done it, but Nolan pushes very hard to make us see Batman as a tragically compromised hero--and that makes me very unhappy.


hcduvall said...

Ah, that makes sense re: the X-films. Might be the long familiarity with X-Men comics (and having been a teenager) that makes me gloss over those ideas. Maybe because I'm clearly personally sympathetic to the "good guys"argument and Magneto offers no compelling dissent--but I'm just making excuses for missing the obvious.