The Dark Knight

With twin babies, and all, I missed The Dark Knight at the cinema and only just saw it for the first time tonight. It seems to me that (in a sense, like Memento) this is a movie that’s so good when it’s good that its more than occasional lapses are all the more disappointing. The Joker, played just as brilliantly as everyone says he was by Heath Ledger, is slightly more plausible than Nicholson’s version in the older Batman movie, but only slightly.

Here’s the problem: if you want gritty and realistic, stick to your guns. Why is it that the Mayor and Lucien Fox seem so safe and secure in their respective offices and workplaces when, for example, Bruce Wayne’s own fund raiser was taken hostage by the Joker only days before? Gotham City, under seige from a criminal worse than Al Qaeda, the Mafia, the Russian Mob, and Karl Rove all rolled into one doesn’t enter anything even vaguely resembling the state of paranoia we saw in Italy during the Mafia trials where judges were being killed with car bombs, West Germany when Baader-Meinhoff killed 34 people, or Great Britain after the IRA attacked 10 Downing St. with a mortar. Instead the police bumble around ineffectually and allow people to be slaughtered.

In the end, gritty and realistic will always founder on the Batman story’s fundamental problem: billionaires don’t make good underdogs. To begin with, how can an intelligent man truly believe it’s more effective to put on an armored bat suit and punch bad guys than to fix a corrupt political system. If Bruce Wayne stopped pretending to be a feckless playboy and actually used his legitimate muscle to fix Gotham city’s problems that wouldn’t make a good Batman story, even if it makes sense. So why not at least show him trying to do the obvious and right thing and being thwarted. Perhaps the decent people he backs for office all get assassinated. But in this movie Bruce Wayne doesn’t even try.

While the Joker’s motivation is somewhat plausible — he’s insane — his ability to recruit professional criminals and get them to perform incredibly well orchestrated crimes is just silly. Jack Nicholson’s Joker cheerfully murdered his own men for no reason — but that movie just plain sucked, so expecting any individual part of it to make sense is just silly. But here we have some kind of serious attempt to make a coherent Batman movie with a psychologically complex Batman and the bad guy is simply a logical impossibility. OK, that’s what he’d like to be, but liking to be logically impossible doesn’t make it not logically impossible.

Sometimes, to quote Nick the drug dealer in The Big Chill, you just have to let Art flow over you. When Nolan is firing on all cylinders, his writing and direction are top notch, and he clearly knows how to get good performances from actors. He invites us to think about his stories by, at his best, making us want to think about them. It’s sad that he isn’t able to keep walking the tightrope and put together a truly good piece of work. Yet. Oh well, maybe next time.

  • After Memento and The Prestige, I think the Batman movies are 3rd and 4th best Nolan movies. That doesn’t make them bad, just not as very good. My impression is he’s more constrained by the franchise than he’d like to be.

    I think you’ve nailed one of my problems with Batman movies. I find it very hard to sympathise with, or develop enthusiasm for a plot where a Richie Rich can throw money/magic at any problem.

    I think Nolan has worked best when the audience don’t know what type of film he’s created. That’s the magic of his re-imagination of Batman, but it’s not as good as when he he turns a murder mystery into temporal Cluedo, or when he turns a period drama into sci-fi without missing a beat.

  • I forgot he did The Prestige. I think you’re right about Nolan’s genre-bending being stymied by a fixed genre.

    It would be interesting to see someone do Batman as a thrill-seeking asshole. You can’t explain what he does as some kind of deep moral courage, adherence to a code, or whatever. But if he’s more of a “criminals are the deadliest game” kind of big dick jerk it would all make sense. There’s almost an element of it in The Dark Knight — he gets hurt by a dog so he spends millions on a new batsuit — but his employees’ genuine belief in his self-sacrifice undermines any attempt at the batman-as-dilettante-thrill-seeking-asshole concept.