Sunday, July 20, 2008

The League finally saw Dark Knight

I think this is Part 1 of 2

So... Let us discuss The Dark Knight. This is relatively spoiler free, I guess.

Jamie and I got up and went to the 11:35am show at The Alamo. And, really, there is a heck of a lot of material out there for The Alamo to pull from for their pre-show. I highly recommend hitting one of the Alamo locations, for no other reason than seeing Prince's "Bat Dance" on the big screen.

It's actually an interesting contrast to see some of the decades' worth of Bat material prior to the film, as a reminder that Batman has changed so much, so frequently over the years, and how those different versions are so embedded in the public memory, a bit like different versions of King Arthur hitting TV, movies, the Broadway stage, what have you. All of them work (to a degree), and all of them serve a purpose.

Dark Knight throws off the last remnants of the Tim Burton era of Batman, and is able to take Bale's Batman into a world that is much, much closer to our own than any previously seen in any medium. And the movie is that much more powerful for it. There's still Batman's fantastic toys, but we've moved past the world of ninjas from Batman Begins, and the world no longer looks as if the director let the artistic director go kooky. It's an aesthetic choice that I think informs the viewer of the presentness of the characters and the very human dilemmas they face.

I won't go into discussing the performances of the various actors. Yes, they're all devoid of camp or irony. Yes, it is a pleasure to see Ledger's mad dog Joker, Bale's Wayne/ Batman, and Caine as an Alfred with a bit more mettle than most.

There's something exhausting about the new film, clocking in at over 2.5 hours with wall-to-wall story, and nary a quiet moment. But it was a familiar exhaustion. The kind I get when I kick back with a graphic novel or trade paperback collection that doesn't mind taking you through the ringer. Think "Long Halloween", "Watchmen", the original "Sin City"... stories that you can read in a single shot or two, but that are fairly densely packed and leave no one unscathed by the end of the story.

As much fun as I've had with super-flicks coming out this summer, its best that the super-offerings ended with Dark Knight rather than started with this movie. And I'm not saying this lightly, but Dark Knight has changed the game for superhero movies, just as Burton's Batman did in 1989. As I've mentioned on this site a few times, when Burton's Batman appeared, people were still thinking "Bam! Pow! Ziff!" when they thought superhero comics and movies (despite several Superman films, each of which still had no small amount of camp and humor tucked in for good measure). Nicholson's playfully deadly Joker wasn't necessarily frightening, but he was a darn sight more interesting than Romero's cackling criminal. And, more in spite of Keaton than because of him, it gave the public a new and far, far different take on Batman than Adam West.

Batman Begins acts as a great transition, setting up the newly pragmatic take on Batman, while still keeping him with a toe, if not a foot, in the fantastic.

I may be alone in this, but I felt The Dark Knight isn't just a huge leap for the Batman franchise, its a quantum leap for superhero movies in general from popcorn action flick to serious (crime) drama. Perhaps it's not Godfather II, but the movie operates on such a completely different level from this summer's other flicks such as "Hulk", "Hellboy II" and even "Iron Man".

This isn't:
-Hero has to stop Doomsday device (Superman, Spider-Man II, X-Men)
-Hero has to fight his equal (Superman II, Spider-Man)
-Hero has to explore their origins to solve the mystery (Hellboy)
-or some combination of the above (Superman Returns)

As much as I liked Hellboy II and Iron Man, they were both pretty pat stories that worked in the easy morality that usually makes up summer flicks. And, in fact, made up Batman Begins, in its way.

Nolan and Co. set out to push the boundaries of the accepted superhero norms of white hat heroism, and looked at exactly the way you make those involved pay. Structurally, it balances between superherodom and movies from guys like Michael Mann, De Palma or other film makers who've successfully delved into the morally gray territory of criminal and crime fighters. At least that's the basic world the film emulates far more than one of Bat-nipples and the possibility of anyone mistaking Alicia Silverstone as competent enough to drive a car, let alone act as an unlicensed crime fighter.

What's interesting is that the film does what I sort of suspected from the trailers: it manages to bring to the screen the busted, broken, fever dream of Gotham that I've known since middle school. Since the post COIE launch of Batman: Year One, this is the Gotham I've seen on the page, this is the Joker I've seen (in the more memorable stories), this is Harvey Dent (crusading DA), and this is the Batman I've known. For the first time, I white knuckled, both knowing exactly how this would play out, and having no idea what to expect next...

But more than that, its a Batman that makes sense on the screen, with walking, talking humans rather than humans trying to emulate a cartoon, and believing their story fits within the confines of children's entertainment. All while keeping the essence of Batman intact.

And after years of people in Batman costumes who weren't really Batman, and a promising start with Batman begins, its positively rewarding.

It's a unique thrill to feel the genre of superhero film being taken as a bit more than escapist fantasy (even when, like Iron Man, it has some interesting underpinnings). And it gives me hope for the future of superhero films. Can they move beyond the usual mad scientist schemes and doomsday devices? The comics all too rarely manage to do so, so it seems a bit premature to think that the next Hulk movie will do much more than open a can of whup-ass on some other over-sized muscled mutant, or that if they do a Flash movie, it will be about much more than the joy of moving far faster than the speed of sound. And I certainly don't think all superhero films NEED to go this direction, and Batman is uniquely posed to do so. But the fact that the window has been opened...

I don't want to overstate all of this, and I know I'm at risk of doing so. Dark Knight isn't going to ping on the cultural radar in the same manner as something either like Godfather or Star Wars. Because parents may wisely avoid taking their children to see Dark Knight (and I recommend this movie only for kids 12 or older) it's going to miss out on the humongous box office numbers of something like Spidey 3 (which, by the way, wasn't very good and mostly rode the goodwill of Spideys 1 &2 ). But I do see it as a shifting point for superhero movies.

Hopefully Dark Knight will give WB and DC the courage to take more chances on their own properties, mining them for the stories and characters that they already own.

Now, if the Superman team can figure out how to get that level of action and drama with their already developed story telling...

So, what'd you think? Chime in!

6 comments:

Steanso said...

Well, I'm not sure you're right about Dark Knight missing out on the humongous box office numbers...

http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/lifestyle/chi-boxoffice-story-0721jul21,0,1792761.story

...just beat out Spiderman s for best opening weekend ever...

Steven G. Harms said...

I'm no comics guru, but I liked it a lot.

Here were some additional ideas:

1. The Joker as a Loki, the agent of chaos, the null mirror. That is, he's absolutely unhinged and when, invariably, anyone looks closely at him he's not there— he reflects the other.

2. The Joker as Socrates. Socrates was certainly a joker as well, but the “Saw”–like setups that were used to induce the difficulties in moral evaluation were excellent.

3. The “how to handle the events of the last 10 minutes of screen time” certainly put me in mind of “LA Confidential”

4. Continuing on the morality theme. I think Jonathan Nolan takes us through an interesting dialectic on what Michael Corleone called “the same hypocrisy”.

The avenger, to avenge, must be above the law...

The law, to protect itself occasionally transcends itself ( torture / etc. )

et. al.

I think that this ambiguity hits the heart of what “The Dark Knight” is about: that ambiguity between those who follow the law, those who love the law, and those who must betake a mantle of lies to protect civilization.

In some ways it was a great next-round in the thought of the League of Shadows from “Batman Begins”.

5. In some ways it makes me think of the Sophoclean tragedies where the heart of the tragedy is one moral order ( ancient ) coming in conflict with a new moral order ( the city state / the polis / the king ). Invariably the tragic action hinges on the intersection and our lack of a roadmap of how to navigate the difficulty.

Carla said...

Here's an article from the Wall Street Journal comparing favorably Batman to George W. Bush.

http://online.wsj.com/article_print/SB121694247343482821.html

Thoughts?

The League said...

I think this is a fairly typical reaction to people getting excited about fictional characters. To an extent, you can see this writer making certain assumptions about those darn, dirty liberal surrender monkeys versus the virtuous conservative and chucking the constitution in the name of good. And ignoring how this could possibly be taken another way.

Couple of points;
a) the point of Batman's anonymous do-gooding is that he ISN'T an elected official sworn to uphold the law. It could just as easily be said that George Bush is, perhaps, Harvey Dent in this scenario. Elected with people who believe in him, and ultimately becoming vengeful and violent when he is unable to control the situation. George Bush COULD have been the Jim Gordon in this scenario, sticking to the letter of the law, and even partaking in subterfuge if he knew it was for the benefit of Gotham/ The US. But Gordon ALSO can't break the law, and he has to hope that the agents working around him will follow suit, even those who've played outside the boundaries before. I don't think it's any mistake Nolan's trinity of the movie is the guy outside the law, the guy inside the law who fails and the guy who has to compromise from inside the law in order to make things work. Again, Bush ISN'T outside the law. Many of us just believe he's been more than willing to act outside the law and compromise the law and make it work for us.

B) If this guy wants to draw the line between Batman and the Joker, he should consider that the point of the Joker was that Joker was a natural escalation to the Batman's strongarm tactics. Which suggests that the nature of Batman/ Bush's methods has done nothing but make things worse for all the bystanders.

C) I've been on comic message boards long enough to posit a sort of theory on this.
We all sort of see in our heroes what we want to see, but the magic of superheroes is that they have the technology/ ability/ etc... to do what we can't, but to fix the things we'd like to. We tend to think of others on the other side of the political aisle as folks who aren't as clever or smart as us, or see "the truth". We often forget that its our methods that are different, but our goals are often the same.

Comics have left me to think about things that way. I know Superman and Batman have different methods. I know Batman and Gordon have different methods. But they all want the same things.

But that's the point of heroic tales. You find a hero who is fighting a threat we can all agree must be stopped. But whether you go after the threat with a black tank, or a police force, or pick him off with heat vision from low orbit... that's all methodology.

I think this writer is being more than a little disingenuous in his assertions, and he's seeing something in this movie that reinforces his assumptions

Simon Mac Donald said...

My wife and I finally got a chance to see TDK and while both of us really enjoyed it Kate echoed the sentiment that it was an exhausting movie. I don't mean the fact that it was 2.5 hours long but more along the lines of emotionally exhausting as the tension did not let up for a moment.

I thought this movie was truly a Harvey Dent movie as he is the character who the story arc resolves around. Aaron Eckhart did a great job as Harvey.

Ledger's Joker was fantastic as well. Am I alone in reading the sub-text as the Joker being an analogy on America's fear of terrorism? Very scary to think what anarchy one can wreak with such simple building blocks.

Major Spoiler ahead, do not read the rest of my comment unless you've seen the movie. Who else thought that whatever boat choose to detonate the bomb would end up blowing themselves up?

The League said...

Simon, we're so neck deep in our paranoia here in the US, I'm not sure if the Joker as terrorist was part of the zeitgeist, or intentional, but its certainly true (in my book). But I think its also the natural parallel of the Joker and terrorism. He IS the threat you can't contain because you have nothing he wants, aside from his desire to break you and remind you how fragile you are.

And, I agree with your final question (spoiler alert) to such an extent that a sick, small part of me felt ripped off that I didn't find out if what you suggest were true.