Thursday, July 31, 2008

At The Movies

The most important thing you need to understand about the success of The Dark Knight can be summed up very simply by my girlfriend's reaction to the film. Coming in, her total combined lifetime interest in Batman could probably not have been measured with an electron microscope. But she had heard a lot of good things about it, and was prepared to like it. But she didn't like it, she loved it, and in fact, she raved about it for hours afterwards. She was the first to admit the movie had some problems, but she loved the performances, loved the characters, and even didn't mind the plot. (It's probably the best compliment that can be imagined for these types of movies if it can be said simply that the plot doesn't spoil the action.)

The action, in this instance, was the Joker. It's his movie, and even though he's not onscreen for very long -- not in the context of a very long film -- he's a presence throughout, the presence. I don't know whether or not you could accurately parse how much of that stemmed from Heath Ledger's actual performance and how much from the ghoulish aroma of the actor's real-life fate. Ask us again in a decade. But the fact remains, as ghoulish as it may be, the spooky X-factor represented by Ledger's ghost certainly didn't hurt the Joker's effectiveness.

There's nothing quite so creepy as death threats from a dead man.

But with that said, it's still a problematic film for a number of reasons, most of which stem from a weak script. For everyone who will tell you that this is simply an amazing movie that defies all comic book conventions and blah blah blah, you have to ask, why the hell wasn't the movie about 45 minutes shorter? I'm a patient man, but I started to get squirrely at about the 90 minute mark. These movies always make the mistake of trying to shoehorn way too much plot into too small a vehicle -- the proverbial 20 lbs of shit in a 10 lb bag. The Dark Knight never met a plot twist that it couldn't turn into a Rube Goldberg device, even when a simpler, more elegant solution would have been far more satisfying.

(Some spoilers ahead, but if you haven't seen it yet I'd be willing to bet you don't care.)

And a lot of these problems boil down to one very simple distortion of Batman's character: the Batman in The Dark Knight just isn't that smart. Sure, he's clever, and he's able. But the most interesting thing about Batman -- if anything can said to be truly interesting about an almost-70 year old character who has been exhausted in almost every way possible -- is that he's smart. Isn't that the whole point of Batman? Sure, he's been the Dark Knight for twenty years, thanks to Frank Miller, but he's also the Dark Knight Detective. Of all of Batman's multitude of tricks, this one is perhaps hardest to translate to the medium of film. After all, being a real honest-to-goodness detective is quiet business, in that it requires thinking. Thinking is a hard thing to do in the context of a summer action film. So Bruce Wayne outsources his thinking, to the likes of Lucius Fox and Alfred. The one bit of actual "detective" work he does in the movie is some phony-baloney CSI shit with bullet fragments that the movie, thankfully, doesn't dwell on because it doesn't make sense even in the context of a film with an evil circus clown fighting a man in a leather bat costume.

But no, the Dark Knight in this film is a grunting, monosyllabic thug, with barely a hint of the smooth, commanding authority conveyed by the likes of Michael Keaton, Kevin Conroy, Rino Romano and even Adam West. I have to confess my interest in all things Batman is so low that I still haven't bothered to see Batman Begins, so the first time I heard Christian Bale open his mouth in costume on screen I almost laughed out loud. It doesn't sound threatening, it sounds like Batman's got a three-pack-a-day habit.

In order to get past the fact that Batman wasn't that smart -- for whatever reason they chose to stress this questionable decision -- they introduced a MacGuffin in the form of some magic supercomputer radar imaging system to track down the Joker. This plot point exists solely to introduce a ham-fisted "Statement" about privacy rights in the War on Terror, and has the added benefit of giving Morgan Freeman something to do. But besides that, it's just confusing. I swear, when they introduced the whole magic super radar thing one of these magic MacGuffins? If they had just written Batman as a real detective they could have figured out a much easier way to get Batman into position for the climactic three-way battle with the Joker and the police. As it was, the constant jump-cutting between the onscreen action and the weird glowing radar vision made that same scene just about unintelligible. And the confusion even allowed the Joker to get the one-up on Batman.

Also, while I didn't necessarily mind the addition of Two-Face as the film's second villain (third if you count the brief Scarecrow appearance), I think the final confrontation was spoiled somewhat. Would it have been that bad simply to leave Two-Face for the next film? As it is, the last few scenes left Harvey Dent's status naggingly ambiguous -- is he dead, as is implied by the final funereal speeches, or just shuffled secretly to a room in Arkham? To say nothing of the fact that the cover-up Batman concocts with Gordon in the film's final moments is about as flimsy as tissue paper -- if Harvey Dent killed seven people on a psychotic rampage, including a handful of cops, are you telling me no-one in Gotham would actually investigate beyond taking Gordon's word for it? Things like cop cover-ups usually get a lot of unwanted attention when they happen in the real world. Hopefully this is setting up a plot point for the next film, because otherwise that's just a stupid way to end an otherwise decent film.

So yeah, a pretty good film, hobbled by a weak third act and the insertion of wholly gratuitous and extraneous plotting. Eliminate Lucius Fox's character and the magic radar MacGuffin and you'd have shaved 30 minutes off the film, in addition to strengthening Batman's presence and cutting a totally 100% superfluous detour into privacy rights. I know people like Morgan Freeman, but c'mon, how is it OK that the movie Batman depends on this support staff to tell him what to do? Batman should know what a fucking skyhook is if anyone on this planet does.

It's become something of a cliche in the comics, but it remains a cornerstone of the character: with just his skills and intelligence, Batman can defeat just about anybody, and solve just about any kind of problem. That's what makes him so dangerous: you get the idea that even if he broke his back and were confined to a wheelchair (as he was very briefly back in the 90s), he'd still be the most dangerous man in the room. But Christian Bale's Batman would probably need Lucius Fox to remind him to use kryptonite against Superman.

Tomorrow (or thereabouts): I saw two trailers in front of The Dark Knight that gave me indigestion. Guess which ones.

No comments :