By Adam Nayman
The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan, U.S., Warner Bros.
A catch-22: Christopher Nolanâ€™s The Dark Knight demands, in a mean, raspy voice, to be taken more seriously than your average comic book movie. But when one endeavors to do just thatâ€”to analyze its loudly explicated themes of duality and ethical impasse; to parse the implications of having its villain be referred to and self-identify as a â€śterrorist;â€ť to consider the use of invasive surveillance technology as a postâ€“Patriot Act plot pointâ€”one is reprimanded for bullying a defenseless Pop object. Hey, guys, why so serious?
Itâ€™s a frustrating double standard, and while it shouldnâ€™t preclude an examination of whatâ€™s wrong with The Dark Knight, it does give a critic pauseâ€”and so does the astounding volume of angry correspondence generated by the filmâ€™s fans on message boards and website comment threads. Those critics who didnâ€™t see fit to acclaim the film a masterpiece, or at least a genre high water mark, find themselves perched precariously above an angry horde calling for their heads (or worse), much like â€”SPOILER ALERT! â€”Batman at the end of The Dark Knight. For the eight people reading this who didnâ€™t see the film on its record-breaking opening weekend, the filmâ€™s final moments find Batman manfully taking the rap for the crimes of the deceased Two-Face/Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) so as to make the latter a martyr for good in the eyes of a populace reeling from the brutal crimes perpetrated by the Joker (Heath Ledger).
Itâ€™s arguable that Gotham City is the real protagonist of The Dark Knight, and that the aforementioned trio function as a kind of externalized psychic apparatus, with Batman as the ego, the Joker as a mad-dog id, and Dent as a brutally bisected super-ego. If that sounds insufferably pretentious, itâ€™s in line with the general tone of the film, which is heavy on psychologizing but light on actual, plausible psychology. Itâ€™s obvious, for instance, that Nolan and his co-writer (brother Jonathan) have read Alan Moore and Brian Bollandâ€™s landmark 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke, widely acclaimed for its lacerating take on the Joker/Batman relationship, and apparently presented to Heath Ledger before shooting for reference purposes. This correspondence surely helps to account for the impressively demented bent of Ledgerâ€™s performance, which is easily the least comic screen take on the role to date, but it also points to why this incarnation of the character is so unsatisfying: The Dark Knight gives us the vicious, intractable Joker of The Killing Joke without any of Mooreâ€™s carefully prepared backstory.
In fact, the filmmakers make this elision a point of pride: itâ€™s a running gag in the film that the Joker likes to confuse the origin of his facial scars. He does the same thing in The Killing Joke (â€śif I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!â€ť), but even if Moore intends his star to be an unreliable narrator, the details of his pastâ€”a stifled stint as a stand-up comedian, exploitation at the hands of criminals, the tragic, accidental deaths of his wife and childâ€”imbue his subsequent descent into insanity with some dimension.
Perhaps fearful of burdening their film with too much exposition (an oft-cited flaw of Batman Begins), the Nolans take a shortcut, presenting a prefab psychopath whose lack of a conventional criminal agenda allows themâ€”and acquiescent criticsâ€”to make bold allusions to a terrorist ethos. Except that the last time I checked, the issue with jihadists was not that zey believe in nossing, Lebowski; equating the Jokerâ€™s pseudo-Nietzchean ramblings about the fragility of the social order with real-world terrorism is at best specious and at worst offensive. The filmâ€™s stance on surveillance technology is similarly problematic. While I wonâ€™t venture into Dave Kehr territory by suggesting that Nolan is endorsing warrantless wiretapping, there is something disconcertingly easy about the way that particular plot strand gets knotted: Batman rigs his all-seeing TV Eye to self-destruct once its purpose has been served. A neat trick, but also pretty easy, ideologically speaking.
Actually, a lot of The Dark Knight is easy. The Joker blows up hospitals but not before weâ€™ve been reminded (several times over) that the structures have been evacuated; he sticks pencils into the eyes of criminal confederates (at which point Nolanâ€™s camera cuts away so as to maintain the sort of rating that allows for the breaking of box-office records); he crows that heâ€™s blackened the soul of an entire city when the people weâ€™ve seen die are, with one exception, mostly low-level thugs and crooked cops. As for that one exceptionâ€”SPOILER ALERT TWO!â€”while it may be gutsy for Nolan to pin The Dark Knightâ€™s emotional heft on the murder of perky D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, unflatteringly photographed and doing a half-decent Katie Holmes impression), itâ€™s also unsuccessful. Rachelâ€™s â€śtragicâ€ť relationship with Harvey Dentâ€”conveyed through a series of utterly conventional dialogue scenes in which love is bandied about but never expressed through performanceâ€”seems like a device, another shortcut, an easy sacrifice.
And it doesnâ€™t jive with the roots of the Two-Face character, either. In lieu of giving us a Joker created by Batman (a scenario looped all the way around in Burtonâ€™s film), we get a Two-Face created by the Joker, a sly bit of rewriting that allows for the filmâ€™s best sceneâ€”in which Ledger successfully holds our attention while acting against Eckhartâ€™s phenomenal, CG-assisted makeupâ€”but also doesnâ€™t lead to much of a payoff. For the purposes of convenience, the film manufactures antipathy between tarnished white knight Dent and ever-decent Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), with Batman reduced to cameo duty in their final standoff.
This showdown is rendered even more perfunctory by being placed after an extended sequence in which the Joker, who has spoken at length about his dislike for planning, lays out a complicated scheme in which two ferryboats are rigged with explosives. The passengers on each boat have been charged to blow up the other vessel (one of which is populated almost entirely by convicts) in order to save themselves. This is supposed to be the gesture that breaks Gothamâ€™s brain, that proves that its citizens are capable of anything once theyâ€™ve been pushed to the edge. Onscreen, thereâ€™s much hand-wringing about just how close these ordinary people come to committing murderâ€”each boat holds a vote, and there are lots of shouted lines along the lines of â€śitâ€™s them or usâ€ťâ€”but those of us in the audience who are not entirely impressionable know that there is no way, in a $150 million dollar franchise film that a ferryâ€™s worth of bystanders are going to be blown up. (Maybe if Tony Scott had directed it.) So we just wait out the inevitable revelation that the Gothamites are inherently decent folk above such provocationsâ€”and, of course, the biggest, scariest, blackest of the convicts is the one who throws the detonator away, after making like he was going to push it. What a twist! And how insulting, both that Nolan would try the old reverse-racism trick in the first place, or that he expects anybody to feel chastened by this feeble little feint.
That The Dark Knight is perfectly well-made by the standards of movies in its budget range is not exactly a compliment: should we expect less from talented people working with basically unlimited resources? And itâ€™s certainly not much more than well-made. For every nicely executed imageâ€”a semi-truck flipping over in the middle of a city street; the Joker doing his best golden retriever impression out the window of a police car; a beautifully shadowed Dent giving us his â€śgoodâ€ť side while excoriating Gordon; Ledgerâ€™s final monologue, in which the Jokerâ€™s topsy-turvy worldview is given obvious but still eloquent visual expressionâ€”thereâ€™s a botched sequence (the opening bank job only superficially suggests Michael Mann, who understands how to delineate space and cut on movement), a ragged transition (a bit where Batman/Bruce Wayne leaves the balls-out insane Joker alone with a roomful of helpless party guests is gracelessly handled), or a wasted major actor. Neither Freeman nor Caine, both of whom were peripheral highlights of Batman Begins, have much to do. Nor, for that matter, does Bale, who essentially cedes the movie to Ledger and the wittily cast (and perfectly game) Eckhart.
Reviewing Guillermo Del Toroâ€™s Hellboy II in Reverse Shot, a colleague wrote that â€śwhatâ€™s most obscene about this pop-cultural mythmaking is that it works so resolutely against expanding taste or knowledge about movies. By focusing so obsessively and voluminously on the most readily, tyrannically available items, critical discussion is not simply reflecting the commercial film distribution situation in North America, but actively contributing to it.â€ť On this note, Iâ€™m not sure that I can really divorce my sincere disappointment with The Dark Knight (and I was disappointed; check my three-year-old Batman Begins review for my optimistic guess about the seriesâ€™ direction) from my irritation with its critical reception: a veritable ticker-tape parade, with enough bullies lining the route to shout down even the more nuanced voices of dissent. That a lot of viewers honestly like and love this flawed and overrated movie is fair enough, but the endless superlatives being hurled by critics high and low help to make perspectiveâ€”a rare commodityâ€”a casualty of hype. And whereas resurrection is a regular occurrence in the comic-book universe, in reality, whatâ€™s dead stays dead. Maybe we need to take The Dark Knight seriously after all.