Despite my early reservations about the film, the Hollywood hype machine and a tsunami of hysterically positive reviews got me genuinely excited to see The Dark Knight this past weekend. Though I wasn't part of the initial wave of Friday's midnight zealots, I was able to catch a (packed) Saturday afternoon showing with my equally-stoked teenagers. What did I think? Well, the title of the post might have already tipped my hand...but let's break it down Two-Face style:
Heath Ledger as The Joker. Though I don't quite see the night-and-day contrast others are seeing with Nicholson's 1989 performance (both chewed copious amounts of scenery), Ledger's Joker bypassed the vaudevillian hand buzzers and acid-squirting flowers for an eerie, nonchalant nihilism and laser-focused ruthlessness. Recalling the earliest comic book version of the character, Ledger's Joker is a cunning and sadistic manipulator, and not the giggling, child-like prankster seen in other incarnations. Amping up the Joker's creepiness was the complete mystery of his background, made even more opaque by the divergent sob stories behind his mutilated face.
The Two-Face makeup: I find that whenever something from the comics is almost perfectly translated to the screen, I laugh out loud like a kid on a roller coaster. Despite the grotesque appearance of Harvey Dent's disfigured face, that's exactly what I did when I saw how close Two-Face resembled the comic book version...complete with the gaping eyeball, snarling teeth, and exposed tendons. An outstanding visual treatment of my favorite Batman villain.
The Bat-Pod: Shame on me for not making the connection between those plump tires of the Bat-Pod and the tires of the Bat-Tank (I refuse to call it the Batmobile)...what a cool surprise to see it popping into action from the tank's wreckage, and even cooler to see Batman's (mostly) expert handling of the bike and its weapon systems.
And thazzit. Now....hand me that chainsaw over there.
Christian Bale: Like so many actors before him, Bale's Bruce Wayne is a bland cipher of a character with almost no screen presence or feeling of who he is, what he feels, or what's going on in his head. With a permanently bemused expression, Bale's Bruce Wayne seems to have all the passion of a wet blanket, made worse by his bizarrely casual decision to hang up his Batman cape (since Harvey Dent was supposedly all Gotham needed to conquer crime). This is the guy who trained his whole life to be Batman? I get no sense of that from this version of Bruce Wayne.
Batman: Can I just say it? I'm completely fed up with the ultra-armored Batman of the movies. Sure, I get the "real life" necessity for that kind of protection, but in execution it's never, ever looked very good. I thought this time around might be different with the costume's new movable neck, but the new headpiece seems to cause more problems than it solves.The laughably tiny mouth area makes his head look even more rigid than before...which, paired with a rounded headpiece that looks like a giant rubber lightbulb, hardly makes Batman the imposing figure he's supposed to be. Also, haven't we solved the "fish lips" problems with the Batman mask yet? When the mask pulls Bale's lips up so dramatically, his exposed teeth gave him a horse-faced, Jim Carrey expression that, once again, hardly strikes fear into criminals.
Fights with this costume have always looked clumsy and flailing, with none of Batman's legendary finesse or jaw-dropping fighting skills. All I saw was Batman nailing guys with his ultra-padded elbows and then pummeling them like some drunken brawler. Oh, and where's something as simple as mace in Batman's utility belt to spray attack dogs with? Did you ever think dogs would give Batman as much trouble as they do in this movie?
Worse yet, Batman (like Bale's Bruce Wayne) was a frustratingly inert figure, with no real sense he ever knew what what going on around him or what to do about it. When he wasn't using that ridiculous "growly monster" voice (which elicited laughter not only from myself, but from most of the audience), he was rolling his Bat-Cycle following his "I can't run over the Joker" angst-attack, or stupidly botching the rescue of Harvey Dent (what, you don't carry a mini fire extinguisher on your utility belt, you blockhead?). Now, don't get me wrong...I'm not looking for the infallible Batman of the comic books...but come on. The Batman of this movie (as with all the others) is a curiously halting, incompetent figure with none of the "go for the jugular" intensity and cunning I'm still waiting for.
(Yeah, that photo of Batman above is actually Lego-Batman...but it reminded me so much of Bale's Batman, it seemed like the right thing to do.)
Rachel Dawes: The dull-as-dishwater character from Batman Begins returns, every bit the non-entity she was before, but this time played by a haggard-looking Maggie Gyllenhaal instead of Katie Holmes (the current robo-wife of Tom Cruise). Since her relationships with both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent are never made very clear (or convincing), there's really no emotional attachment to the character throughout the movie, including her afterthought of a death scene. Bruce then whines that his life as Batman caused her death, forgetting that her self-chosen career as a high profile Gotham City lawyer was already pretty dangerous (see "Batman Begins").
Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine: No these guys were't bad, but the great actors were given such inconsequential roles that the movie suffered a bit more from their virtual absence.
Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon: I'll take Oldman's Gordon over Tim Burton's befuddled Pat Hingle any day, but not by much. Like so many allegedly heroic figures in Chris Nolan's Batman films, he's more a passive onlooker (with those dorky Buddy Holly glasses) than a driven idealist. In fact, I wonder sometimes if Nolan is sending some kind snide message on authority figures in general, since all of the police officers and SWAT team members in the movie seemed to be nervous, incompetent stumble-bums who were easily tricked, frightened, or outmaneuvered. I realize a certain amount of confusion needed to be shown in order to bolster the Joker's chaos-agent bonafides, but things like the attack on Harvey Dent's police escort displayed such ineptitude from the whimpering SWAT team members (among many other examples), I wonder what Nolan's point was with that. If anything.
Harvey Dent: As much as I loved the Two-Face makeup, Nolan did a horrible job of setting up the character's transition from an incorruptible White Knight into a deranged lunatic. I'm not necessarily asking for Harvey to have had a pre-existing split personality or a similar deep-seated disorder, but at the same time, I think some seeds needed to be sown earlier in the film that made his embrace of evil a bit more coherent. The message that a tragic death or disfiguring accident is enough to turn someone around 180º in personality and motivation is a bleak one (perfect for this movie, I suppose), made even worse by Nolan's ham-handed handling of Harvey Dent's story arc. Aaron Eckhart did an okay job, but visually I thought the guy playing Gotham's "Mayor Mascara" would have been a better choice to play Dent (minus the mascara, of course).
Now that I've gone through the major characters, it's time to heap some scorn on director Chris Nolan's storytelling abilities (or lack thereof). While I appreciated many of his inventive shots and the bleak cinematography, the gaps, loose ends and nonsensical elements in Dark Knight simply overwhelm the good stuff. Let's count a few of them:
1. The entire sub-plot of the Asian accountant "Lao" and the Hong Kong junket was as incoherent as it was dull, devoting way too much screen time to a ridiculously over-wrought capture of the guy and to clumsily establish the lame sonar technology that would be used later in the film.
2. The staged "death" of Jim Gordon was itself so badly and confusingly staged, there was zero emotional impact when it happened, and zero emotional impact when he popped out of nowhere to save Batman's bacon (whom it's not clear if he was in on the scheme or not). Just a very poorly staged bit of misdirection.
3. The concept of Batman imitators running around Gotham seemed to be something Nolan was toying with, but never really developed to any sort of interesting or relevant level. Perhaps they were part of the idea that Gotham's crime level was dropping under Batman's watch, which itself wasn't clear to me. As with so many elements in this movie, things are thrown in...mentioned in passing....hinted at....or never followed up on. Some call that smart storytelling that encourages viewers to use their brains...I just call it sloppy.
4. Nolan was also incredibly sloppy when it came to the simple (yet important) business of connecting scenes and events together in a coherent fashion. A good example of this is the scene with a cop guarding the Joker in his jail cell. After the Joker taunts him for a time, the cop moves in to (presumably) rough up the Joker. The scene switches to events elsewhere in the building, crazy stuff starts happening, then the Joker busts in with the same cop as his hostage. Now, we can surmise the Joker got the best of the cop, but I think something like that needed to be shown in order to better "connect the dots". No, we didn't need an extended fight scene between the two, but it was important to show the Joker turning the tables on the cop and for the Joker to move out of the room. As it was, the Joker (and so many other characters) seemed to appear and disappear at random, with no sense of where they've come from or how they got there. Again, I don't need my hand held, but Nolan is leaving out important storytelling beats in too many places.
Another non-sequiter was when the Joker crashed the party for Harvey Dent. As you may recall, Batman jumps out the window after Rachel Dawes, grabs her in mid-air and then falls (unhurt!) onto a car in the street. The strain on credulity aside (Bruce's suit may protect his skin, but not the impact on his internal organs), what happened up in the suite? Did the Joker and his guys just kinda shuffle out the door? Did they go after Batman for the golden chance to finish him off in a weakened state? Nope. Nothing. End of sequence, I guess.
The worst instance of Nolan's sloppy storytelling came when Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent were both kidnapped....completely off camera! Again, we didn't need an extended treatment of this, but at bare minimum it needed to be established and shown that it was happening. As it was, their abduction was simply said to have happened...almost like a random scenario from a video game, making the emotional impact almost nothing when it finally becomes clear that's what's happened.
Adding to my irritation was Nolan's love affair with explosions. Now, it's a strange place for me to be in where I'm advocating fewer explosions, but really...after about the 60th or 70th gigantic fireball explosion, it was just boring...and something's really gone wrong if I think explosions are boring.
Okay....I think I've probably said enough about the lousy direction (though I could cite many more examples), but indulge me in a few more irritations. I thought the whole concept of the high tech sonar rigged throughout Gotham was ridiculous and not very "Batman"...and the sequence of Batman using it to find hostages was a bewildering, incoherent mess. As with so many of the other Batman movies, the "hero" is essentially Iron-Man in a cape with none of Robert Downey Jr.'s charisma. Yes, Batman has always relied upon gimmicks and technology to assist him in his war on crime, but not to the point where they prop him up to the extent they do in the movies....which makes us lose sight of the man inside the bat suit (except when he's talking in that ridiculous Scary Monster Voice, that is).
Also, could there have been less emotional impact when Bruce was shutting down his Batman operation? With the same "poker face" he maintained for the entire movie, Christian Bale made the (supposed) ending of his mission look about as dramatic and impactful as changing his socks. Some say "understated"...I call it "boring" and a missed opportunity for Wayne to exhibit something approaching an actual emotion.
Another thing: why in the world would Bruce Wayne think an aggressive DA would be enough to keep Gotham under control? Did he seriously think the Little Fish (you know, the type of street level criminal who killed his parents) would go away when Harvey Dent caught the Big Fish? Really? Whatever, Bruce.
Obviously, I'm in a very small minority here since everyone else I'm hearing and reading can't seem to say enough good things about the film. Where this is coming from, I'm not entirely sure...though I suspect the death of Heath Ledger may have made people want to like this film more than they normally would. But, whatever the reason, I'm just not seeing the masterpiece people are raving about. From my viewpoint, what could have been an exciting duel between Batman and the Joker was, instead, a dreary, meandering, and incoherent mess that was far too long and filled with characters I cared nothing about.
Overall rating: A harsh (yet well-deserved) Two out of Five Batman Heads