The praise for this movie was enormous enough to make me pretty skeptical. To my friends who constantly nagged me to see it, I would say things like, “But don’t you think it’s just hyped because Ledger died? I know that’s not politically correct, but come on… if he hadn’t died there wouldn’t have been this much talk about it.” Friends would tell me, “People aren’t exaggerating. He’s that good.”
A friend and I argued about whether it would be inappropriate to see a comic book movie (a sequel, no less!) get selected for an Academy Award. I insisted, as un-snobbishly as I could, that a Batman movie is fundamentally in league with “fun” juvenile action flicks. You know, popcorn blockbusters that might entertain and fill theaters, but are not thematically deep enough or artistically accomplished enough to show up on any Oscar lists. But then remembered that Denzel Washington won Best Actor for just that kind of movie: Training Day, which, sure, was a great flick, but remained an exciting action movie that made no great statement and broke no cinematic boundaries. And yet still, it was a movie that delivered an Oscar for Denzel. I chose to keep this counterpoint to myself. Still, my friend pleaded with me, I had to accept the possibility (probability, it now seems) that Ledger would be nominated for a posthumous statue.
After seeing the film, I can now say that my doubts were ungrounded, and that Heath Ledger completely earns every bit of wild, hyperbolic praise he is currently receiving from reviewers, scholars, bloggers and fanboys. His Joker is more than just a memorable villain– he is a fully developed, very real person. Ledger’s performance is nuanced and researched, and we see the Joker’s mind working away in every single scene. He is both terrifying and funny, and he shatters the traditional clichéd flatness of comic book bad guys. He does this mostly by creating a persona who really is not just “the bad guy” but rather an actual human being, with psychoses and neuroses and a zest for life that somehow coexists with his disregard for the lives of others.
And here’s the best thing I can say about the performance: Heath Ledger disappears. Sure, Nicholson was a great Joker as well; he inhabited the part with a fun, zany enthusiasm. But Ledger doesn’t inhabit the part– he becomes the man himself. The only time I was actually thinking about the actor playing the Joker was in the interrogation scene when his makeup is mostly rubbed off and we can actually see the face beneath, and for the first time in the film he is recognizable as Heath Ledger. Otherwise, the man on screen, who is completely and horribly nuts, is no one other than this conniving villain, the Joker.
So yes, he steals the show. Although “steals the show” isn’t truly an appropriate phrase here, since his death pretty much automatically made his performance the show. Ledger is what people are going to see, and he delivers. However, I don’t think he is the only star here. There are a number of other players who aren’t receiving the praise they deserve.
Most importantly, Aaron Eckhart is getting a tough deal from some reviewers. Joe Kugelmass has written that Eckhart has “considerable limitations as an actor.” That may be, but I don’t see it in this particular film. In fact, even with the menacing Joker running around, Harvey Dent’s transformation into Two-Face is horrifying. I think specifically of the scene in which Commissioner Gordon stands by Dent’s bedside and Dent says softly, “What was that name the boys used to call me over at Internal Affairs?” Gordon plays dumb and mumbles, “Oh, I dunno…” and Dent says firmly, “Say it.” Then there’s a silence, and he shouts, “SAY IT!” I pulled my knees up to my chest and huddled in my seat. He was scary. And terrific.
A brief article on the NYMag‘s Vulture blog today confirms my belief that Eckhart is not getting the credit he deserves. At least they agree with me!
…if it wasn’t for Heath Ledger, it would be Aaron Eckhart whose breakout performance and Oscar hopes we’d all be talking about right now. The actor, who’s long underwhelmed us, gives one of those where-the-hell-did-that-come-from? performances as Harvey Dent, going so far beyond anything we’ve seen him do in the past that it’s as if he’s on some kind of performance enhancer. He’s vivid, specific, and energetic in a way we haven’t seen before, and the performance is the first in his career that perfectly taps into Eckhart’s weird mix of handsomeness and creepiness.
I admit that the power of this twist was probably stronger for me and anyone else who was not an expert in the comic; that is, I did not already know that Harvey Dent is Two-Face, and so the transformation came as a surprise. I’m sure for many fanboys with high expectations, the moment may have been disappointing. For me, it was everything I could have imagined, and as he went around killing cops with one eye bugging out of its socket and tendons exposed on his cheek, I thought he was nearly as strong a character as the Joker, although I admit I did not like the coin gimmick. As if we didn’t already guess that the thing was double-heads, they reveal it by his bedside like a shocking twist. Come on. Maybe the recent success of No Country didn’t help; we’ve all just seen Anton Chigurh run around flipping a coin to decide the fate of his targets, and his gag was a whole lot more chilling.
During that pivotal scene, when Dent finally did turn his head to the side and we saw the burn damage, and the music swelled, and a new villain emerged, I turned to my friend and said, “Aah, so that’s it! That’s so awesome. He’s going to be the villain for the next film.” But then they killed him off! This I couldn’t understand, but regardless, it has led me to conclude that I hope they don’t do a third movie. There is no question in anyone’s mind that no actor can ever play the Joker again, and with Two-Face dead (he better be, come on, we saw his body, they better not bring him back) I don’t see how a third installment could possibly top this one. What are they gonna do, bring in The Penguin or Mr. Freeze? Those baddies are going to look like characters from a Saturday-morning cartoon compared to Ledger’s Joker, no matter who plays them.
Back to the performances. In addition to the obviously outstanding Ledger and the surprisingly good Eckhart, I felt that Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine all prove crucial to the movement of the plot. Chief Gordon’s fake-dead trick got me good, and Alfred’s machinations involving Rachel’s letter were considerably moving. His important decision to burn the letter after Bruce Wayne’s cheesy, faux-teary line (“She was going to leave him, Alfred, for me”) was compelling and had me seriously wondering if it was the right move (is ignorance bliss?). Finally, Freeman was naturally fascinating to watch, as he always is. When his Lucius Fox objects to Batman’s new spy machinery, I didn’t cringe at the obvious political overtones, because Freeman plays it so well that it just seems part of the story; you don’t necessarily need to analyze the anti-Bush implications (however, I will analyze the politics of this film later).
But two of the four “stars” of the film– Batman and Rachel Dawes– fall flat as intriguing characters. As Batman, Bale is all breathy growls and silent heroics. He doesn’t really get a chance to stretch his acting chops, because no great feats of dramatic emotion are really required of the hero. As Bruce Wayne, I was even less impressed. I can’t tell whether it was Bale himself who made this choice or the writers by forcing stale lines on him, but the Bruce Wayne character was completely unlikeable this time around.
In fact, in the two scenes in which Wayne goes “out on the town” (the dinner with Dawes and Dent, and his cynical fundraiser for Dent) seemed to give us a Christian Bale straight out of American Psycho. Bruce Wayne was an asshole in this film. He acted arrogant, and not even in an intentional, must-do-this-to-cultivate-public-persona kind of way. No, Bale’s Bruce Wayne was almost laughably dickheaded. He trotted out three bimbos to his fundraiser, spoke with an affected air of cockiness and condescension, and boasted the same exact hairstyle as Patrick Bateman. Did Bale get confused during filming and think it was 1999? Perhaps verbally attacking his mother and sister threw off his method.
And by the way, Batman’s voice annoyed me far more in this movie than it ever did in the first. That ridiculous low growl just sounds silly. I know, I know, he has to use a different voice so that others won’t identify him as Bruce Wayne. But I don’t care, it still made me want to laugh at him.
As for Maggie Gyllenhaal: No, she was not a fabulous Rachel Dawes. But it’s not her fault, because I’m not sure any actress could play the part well with the lines they give her. In addition, I didn’t like that they replaced Katie Holmes. Now, hear me out first: I think Katie Holmes sucks. She has little talent, and any films she gets casted in from here on out are solely the result of her newly-elevated celebrity, thanks to the contract she signed with Tom Cruise to marry him and pretend he’s not gay. Still, Gyllenhaal wasn’t so much of an improvement, because the character herself just isn’t interesting. She’s there as a stock figure– the love interest– and she doesn’t do (or need to do) much else. She has a few “important” lines like when she tells Bruce she’s going to marry Harvey, or when she hisses back at the Joker defiantly. But she’s a two-dimensional character in a field of confident, relevant leading men. I don’t know what that says about how female characters are treated in cinema today, but I’m sure Manohla Dargis would have something to say about it.
So Katie Holmes sucks, but replacing her annoyed me, because it ruins the continuity of the series. Get her acting lessons, or get her to stop making that god awful lip-curl expression; do something. But don’t just replace her with a different actress and act like nothing happened. I think it’s foolish, I mean, are we all to pretend we don’t notice? It’s a different person! They did this same trick with The OC: In the first season, Ryan’s brother shows up in a single episode, when they go to visit him at prison, and appropriately, he’s some beat-up, unglamorous kid. Then, when they bring the character back in the second season, he’s suddenly scruffy, handsome, and well-spoken, and he’s played by the better-known Logan Marshall-Green. The obvious switch didn’t work then, and it didn’t work for me in The Dark Knight.
There are other similar moments of implausibility in the film. An early scene in which the Joker busts into Dent’s fundraiser ends up with Batman sliding down the roof to grab Rachel, and the two of them falling about nine stories down to land on the roof of a car. First of all, the fall itself is ludicrous. Both Batman and Rachel are completely unharmed (sorry, but Batman is still just a man, he’s not indestructible, that’s what makes him an appealing superhero). This is just fantasy. The fall looks especially stupid in retrospect when Batman and Two-Face later fall from much less of a height (maybe two stories) and end up lying on the ground, immovable, with Two-Face dead and the Bat considerably hurt.
But the fall itself is not the main gripe that I had with this scene. The problem is that the scene itself just ends. Batman is lying there on the ground with Rachel, and meanwhile we know that the Joker, whom he fled, is still up there at the party, terrorizing the guests, looking for Dent. And yet, the next shot gives us Bruce Wayne back in his home with Alfred. What the hell happened? Did the Joker just decide to leave the party? Was this a case of bad editing that accidentally made it through? I understand the movie was originally 3+ hours and it took a lot of cutting to get it down to its current lengthy length, but this is one scene that they couldn’t afford to cut. But they did, they left it just hanging there, and it was obvious.
Another glaring bit of absurdity was when the Joker is terrorizing the city, blowing up hospitals, causing enormous destruction all over the place, and the city officials decide to load all these people onto the barges, filling two giant steamers with “normal citizens” and convicts, and they don’t think to check the boats for explosives? This guy has been surprising the police at every turn, revealing bombs all over the city in places that they can’t imagine he could have rigged, and they just hop onto these boats and set sail?! It was illogical.
Having pointed that out, I do think the boat scene was one of the most compelling of the entire movie. The ethical dilemma that the convicts and the “normal” people face is gripping and clever. It reveals thoughtful writing, and it leads to captivating, edge-of-your-seat viewing (actually most people were on the edge of their seats for the whole movie). The scene actually had me wondering (and everyone else, I imagine) what I would do, and even after I concluded that I would push the button and blow up the convict boat (hey, what can ya do, gotta survive) I was turned around when the guy who represented my view stepped up to take charge, all gusto and pomp, and couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Now we need to address the political face of this movie– and it’s undeniably there. As I mentioned earlier, I thought the subplot of Lucius Fox and Batman’s spy machine was an overt jab at Bush and the government. However, a guy I work with who has some knowledge about film studios asked me today, “Did you get the movie’s political message?” I said of course I did: the spying thing was totally anti-Bush. He gaped and said, “Wait, you thought it was anti-Bush?” He then explained to me that film studios today are getting very political, and that most in the business are well aware of which studios lean in which direction.
Warner Bros, he explained, is known to be conservative. He then pointed out that even though Fox objects to Batman’s call tracing, he ultimately gives in and uses it to help him. And what happens? His help allows Batman to find the Joker and at last catch him for good. Fox’s use of the spy program proves indispensable. The message, then: “Sure, this is morally questionable, but sometimes measures such as these are needed to get the bad guys. It does the job.” It’s the Patriot Act.
Furthermore, most of those contributing to the online ‘chatter’ seem to glean the same general message from the film: the superhero (good guys) often needs to break some laws and become “dark” in order to have any chance against the villain (bad guys). This element, too, can easily become the power-abusing, Bush ethos of today’s conservatives: The forces of Good (America) often need to go rogue and jeopardize some civil liberties, if that’s what it takes to conquer Evil (terrorism/Saddam/Al-Qaeda).
As a contrast, my friend explained, take a look at the other recent superhero movie this summer, The Incredible Hulk (I know, we don’t want to compare this shitfest to Nolan’s gem, but hey). Hulk was from Universal Studios, which my friend claims is a very liberal company. And who/what is the main enemy in that movie? The government. It is government officials and military leaders who cause every single problem and disaster for the innocent hero, Bruce Banner.
I know, I know, it’s no fun to analyze a movie as genuinely entertaining as The Dark Knight on a political level. I didn’t want to do it either, and after writing this I’ll hope and try to forget all about the conservative agenda. But it’s still useful to discover these thematic elements, and to point out obnoxious political statements when studios are lame enough to put them in their films.
Bottom-line: Apart from the lackluster efforts of Bale and Gyllenhaal, and discounting a few implausible details and gaffes, this film is fabulous. The performances are mostly incredible, and Ledger does indeed shine brightly. The twists are daring and surprising (I was shocked and impressed that they had the balls to kill off Rachel Dawes; it made us believe the Joker’s threats in the future, since he said Batman would have to choose one, and in the end he was correct, Batman didn’t get to save the day as we expected). The action is gripping, and the moral questions raised about the line between good and evil are compelling and clever.
Finally, the film leaves the typical superhero story mold completely shattered. Batman is too conscientious to inflict the lethal brutality on criminals that his opponents are willing to enact on him (I loved when the Joker shrieked, HIT ME! and Batman pussied out and turned his motorcycle to the side at the last moment). His moral uprightness actually makes him vulnerable and makes us lose faith in him, and this is what’s truly scary about the film.
It’s a terrific movie. It’s not going to be the Best Picture of 2008, and it’s not a masterpiece, but it’s damn good. It might be the best comic book movie to date.