Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Dark Knight, Better Late than Never

Review: The Dark Knight

Finally time to get around to this one. Even if I had absolutely no desire to see this movie (which I did, at least a little), the Pop Culture Powers that Be would have had my head if I didn't. Now, I'm not a comic book person, really. My extent of Batman knowledge can be summed up pretty much in one paragraph:

Bruce Wayne is a billionaire by day, but by night he's the conflicted vigilante Batman. Batman lives in Gotham City, which is deliberately contrived to be the very worst place possible so that he never runs out of greater and greater evils to combat. Some of these villains include the Joker, Mr. Freeze, the Riddler, and Two-Face. In the vein of Iron Man, rather than Superman and Spiderman, he's a technological superhero. One critical piece of technology in most renditions of the Batman mythos is the Batmobile.

The remarkable thing about this is that for not being a comic-book person, I know a respectable amount about the setting and the characters. And this is a part of the superhero movies' massive success in the past eight or so years. Most of the people in a given X-Men, Spiderman, or Batman movie have never read the comics in question. Maybe they've been exposed to a movie or a cartoon in an earlier incarnation of the setting, maybe it's just a trickle-down cultural effect that's brought them the touch of knowledge that's necessary to get them excited about the new film.

Give some credit to the superhero movies here, too. All of them, The Dark Knight being no exception, walk a specificity tightrope beautifully. By that, I mean they're tuned so precisely between regurgitating the earlier interpretation of the setting, and setting off into some abstraction of it, that non-comic-book people feel like they're not hopelessly lost and that diehard fans of the setting feel like they're seeing something new and worth their time.

In my limited knowledge of Batman history, I sort of knew who the Joker and Two-Face were, and I'd heard the names Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent in some vague connection with Batman, but that was about it. And like in most superhero movies, you didn't have to know even that much to get something out the the story, but if you knew that and a whole lot more, it was still a fresh take on those characters and their place in the setting. This is something that gets the movie major points right away.

That's of course not the reason that anyone pitches to see the movie. They talk about the special effects, which have long since ceased being a reason to see a movie for me. They laud Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker, which is a performance I can't help but liken to a Schoenberg composition: unsettling and not at all pleasant, but technically masterful, in a way that you're forced to appreciate intellectually even if you can't say you liked it. But Ledger executes it impressively, disturbingly well. In truth, of course, there's nobody who's as 1) evil, 2) deranged, and 3) successful as the Joker. (Okay, maybe Joseph Stalin.) But it makes sense that a true "superhero" needs something that thoroughly vile to battle against.

A less compelling reason, at least for me, to see the movie, was Heath Ledger himself. But then I've never been the sort of person to care about who's starring in the movie as much as, say, how good the movie is. To me, the hype surrounding Ledger's death is just another reflection of the deification we grant to movie stars in modern culture. Had that been anyone but a celebrity who met the end that Ledger did, it wouldn't have been "tragic", it would have been stupid. So forgive me if the mere fact that this guy showed up in a movie was far from a driving force to motivate me to watch it. Fortunately, his performance lived up to all its hype, which is really the only thing that matters when assessing a movie's worth.

I wouldn't even say that his acting was the strongest in the movie, actually. That would go to Maggie Gyllenhaal, who does something remarkable. She plays her role as if Rachel is a real person. It's the same sort of thing that I praised in Iron Man, especially the interactions between Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow. Very, very well done, because it doesn't seem like these people are going off a script. There's no overly dramatic lines, nothing that would make you roll your eyes, just watching characters that seem like anything but characters.

It's an enormous problem in movies. We, as real people, get tired of watching actors deliver lines that are impossibly witty, seeing the perspicacious come from what ought to be the mundane. Maybe it's good script writing, maybe good acting, but it's long been a mantra of Isoceleria that you must have both to get good cinema. Here, only Gyllenhaal actually pulls it off. Aaron Eckhart almost gets there as Hervey Dent. Christian Bale doesn't even come close as Bruce Wayne.

The only other major flaw in the movie is its pacing of the Two-Face story. One minute, the shining white knight is burned in an explosion, the next minute the Joker shows up, and hey! It's time for Two-Face! This is the sort of internal conflict that's almost impossibly difficult to portray in a movie, but at the same time, it's one that's integral to this particular character. I would have much rather seen Dent slowly transform into Two-Face over the second half of the movie, and have him stick around into the inevitable third installment. The version we got felt horribly rushed, and it's a story that deserves more development.

So what worked? Commissioner Gordon felt appropriately pulp and hard-boiled. (The parade commemorating the previous commissioner's death was one of the most excellent scenes in the movie, too.) Richard freaking Alpert (Nestor Carbonell, for non-Lost fans) showing up as the mayor was great. I liked the Joker's psychological experiment with the boats at the very end, despite the fact that if it should have had some sort of philosophy behind it, I clearly missed it. (And no, political commentary enthusiasts, this movie is not commenting in either direction about the war on terror, no matter how much you'd like it to be.)

Yes, this was a good movie. No, it was not "AMAZING" [sic on the caps], as some friends of mine would have had me believe. And as good as it was in places, I found myself longing a couple of times for the good old days of May, when Mr. Downey Jr. was screening what turned out to be the superior superhero movie.


Currently listening: "Saving My Face", KT Tunstall

1 comment:

Katie said...

I do have to agree on the part of Harvey Dent. I mean how could anyone just be good and turn so badly so quickly. I think they would have took some time to explain it, but it would have taken too long and you know the movie was already long