Here is a shocking thing: Dark Knight is not a great movie. It's a good movie, yeah, that I'll give it. Is it the best Batman movie? Maybe. I'll have to give both it and Batman Begins a few more viewings, but my initial reaction is that each had positive qualities lacking in the other, but both also had flaws lacking in the other, and I came away from Batman Begins focused more on what I liked about it, while I left Dark Knight thinking a lot about what bothered me about it.
Now, this isn't to say I didn't like it. I like comic books, even ones that aren't that great, and I like comic book movies, provided they aren't terrible. (Which many of them are.) But in order for a comic, or a movie, to be great, it has to transcend what it is and what it's about, and become something more. Very, very few superhero comics do this, and with the very possible exception of the first two Spider-Man movies, no superhero comic book movies have done it. To be great, it's not enough to just not be stupid; you have to be more than what you are. And a failure to do this is not a total failure: Iron Man, the first two X-Men movies and Superman II are all examples of superhero movies that were not great or profound things, but which I love very deeply. They fulfilled their goals of being superhero movies admirably, and if they tried to toss some profundities at us that didn't quite stick (the X-Men flicks are the main offenders here), at least they didn't do so in such a ham-handed way that they embarrassed themselves or us. I very much enjoyed Batman Begins, and I enjoyed Dark Knight, too; I'm sure I will buy it when it comes out on DVD and watch it again.
But here's the problem that the Christopher Nolan Batman movies had that these other superhero films didn't. Because he chose to go in a dark, somewhat sinister direction with these movies; because this direction coincides with the tone of some of the superior Batman comics of recent years that also tried to transcend genre and become something profound; and because he has shown (with Following, but especially with Memento, one of the most philosophically interesting mainstream films of recent years) that he is capable of dealing with meaningful material -- because of all these reasons, people have an expectation that his Batman movies must, therefore, be more than what they appear. They must be profound, because they are dark and because the good comics about Batman are also dark and because Christopher Nolan does not make big action blockbusters.
But dark doesn't always mean deep, and we have to judge things for what they are, not for what they aspire to be. It's funny: as much as I love Batman, as much as I can (and do) expound at great length about why the character is so great, that great, deep, psychologically profound Batman barely exists in any portrayal of him. There have been almost no profound portrayals of the character anywhere, meaning that the image of him that I and a few other people lionize is at worst a product of our own imagination, and at best a cannibalized creature made up of bits and pieces of the few stories in which he was written by someone who shares our vision. The deep Batman appears almost nowhere: in The Dark Knight Returns, to be sure (for even an ugly portrayal can be a meaningful one), and in Year One. In Knightfall, especially the parts written by Denny O'Neill and Doug Moench. And in shreds and tatters of stories by O'Neill, Morrison. Paul Dini, and even some of Finger & Kane. But nowhere else, really. And yet this dark Batman is the one on which people -- certainly including myself -- base their notion that this is a worthwhile character, so we are easy prey to the mistake of thinking that if we are presented with a Batman story in this mode, it automatically must be taken seriously. It must, by necessity, be more than it seems.
Batman Begins wasn't more than it seemed. And neither, I fear, is Dark Knight. It certainly tries to be; but because, thanks either to commercial demands or limitations on the part of the storyteller -- I suspect the former, though I can't discount the possibilities of the latter -- it limits itself to telling a story that is bound by the tropes and necessities of blockbuster storytelling, it can't be, and because it's trying to much harder to be profound than other superhero movies, because of the very 'darkness' that makes us expect so much, it ends up falling on its ass a lot more. The first movie asked us to consider the thin line that separates the good fanatic from the bad fanatic; but because the storytelling constraints of big-budget action movies don't allow for much subtlety or moral ambiguity, we're denied the R'as al-Ghul of the comics (an environmental terrorist whose intentions are so noble that he often questions why Batman even opposes him) and are given instead a gentlemanly lunatic, an educated Travis Bickle who wants only to bring the real rain that will wash the scum off the streets. Because such movies demand a romantic female lead, we are denied the profound sadness and loneliness of Bruce Wayne's life; romantic leads don't work for Batman, because Batman is not a human at all, and Bruce Wayne is a little boy. (And it's for this same reason that Rachel Dawes is such a failure, even with the upgrade in casting: since she is invented for the film, and has no backstory -- and hence no resonance -- there is no real reason for her to exist. And any character in an action movie who has no reason to live is there only to die.)
In Dark Knight, we are asked to consider, in a handily executed but necessarily rather shallow metaphor for the war on terror, how a good man can win against the forces of evil when he is unwilling to use the same methods that the forces of evil employ. In the comics, this theme can be developed quietly and subtly over time, so that they add even further depths of tragedy to Batman's character (it makes him all the nobler that he is so tragic: he goes on fighting with every ounce of his life, even though he knows he can never win, than he can never save everyone, than he can never bring back his parents), or, given the right storytelling circumstances, we can see the frightening consequences if he does take that final step, as in Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. But here, we receive only hints of it, little bits and bobs that float to the surface only to be swept away by explosions, story twists, and the demands of the plot. Where it seems like it will come most to the fore -- in the Joker's final speech to the Batman -- it is immediately subsumed to the depths when we are given the final showdown with Two-Face, which not only makes no plot sense (why on Earth make Batman take the blame for Harvey's handful of murders? Why not pin them on the Joker, who's probably killed hundreds of people by this point and isn't likely to quibble about a few more?), but which sets up Commissioner Gordon's hokey speech at the end, which I will bet my cost of admission came from the pen of that hack David S. Goyer.
In the end, it's not enough. Not deep enough, not dark enough, not bleak enough -- but especially not deep enough. There is a profound and meaningful Batman story to tell, and Nolan is possibly the man to tell it, because he clearly wants to, but he hasn't told it yet. Which is, again, not to say that I didn't hugely enjoy the movie: I did. But it goes in the same category as Iron Man, a very successful entertainment that in no way should be considered any more than that. It tries to be something more, and God bless it for trying. But it isn't.
A few other random things I didn't like:
- While I don't agree that the movie fell apart at the end -- I think it was all part of a coherent, well-framed narrative, even if it didn't necessarily go the way I wanted it to -- I never much bought Aaron Eckhart as Two-Face. As Harvey Dent, sure; but with the exception of the scene where he yells at Gordon in the hospital, he never seemed crazy as Two-Face -- more irritable and peevish. He seemed like a guy who'd lost his car keys, not a guy who'd lost his fiancee.
- The death-metal voice on Batman has gotta go, at least when he's just speaking casually to people. I can see why the dramatic choice was made, and I still love certain incidences of it (like when he's intimidating Bullock on the first Nolan movie), but when he delivers a joke line with it, as he does early on here, or when he employs it in a normal conversation as he does with Gordon and Dent, it just sounds asinine.
- Some of the callbacks in this thing were absolutely atrocious, and I can't get over how much I hated that speech at the end. Also that bullshit deus ex machina cell phone sonar thing. David fucking Goyer, man.
Just so you don't think I'm a terrible person -- and again, I reiterate, I thought this was a fantastic superhero movie, it just wasn't anything more than that even though it really wanted to be -- here's some stuff I liked:
- Yeah, Heath Ledger. He's easily as good as people say he is. He's not quite the way I've always pictured the Joker in my head -- I think you lose a little something when you make his psychology entirely alien, rather than making him just enough the same kind of crazy as Batman that the latter can figure him out in time -- but boy, he's compelling as hell. Every scene he's in is hugely satisfying and when he's not on screen you want him back. He also gets, such as they are, the most psychologically insightful moments in the script (when he's taking a beating from Batso, and his final speech in the skyscraper), and his 'funny' moments are creepily hilarious (the much-lauded pencil bit and his whole schtick at the hospital).
- One of the things I was impressed by was that the things that usually sink a big action movie -- the action scenes -- were actually pretty good here. The chase scene with Dent in police custody not only had actual story consequences, and provided a neat twist, but also was cleverly executed, with the Joker's constantly escalating weapons. The transportation of the corporate toady who knew Batman's identity was well done, the standoff on the boats was very suspenseful (although, really, didn't it play a lot more like a Two-Face scheme than a Joker one?), and, largely due to Ledger's performance, his escape from jail was a real winner. I usually skip over the big action scenes in movies like this -- the last 15 minutes of Batman Begins were totally disposable -- but I can see watching all these with interest again.
- Oldman had a greatly expanded role as Gordon, and he carried it out well, which did a lot for me, because it's important to remember that in terms of the mythos, Jim Gordon is the real identification figure in Batman stories. He's the man Bruce Wayne might be if his parents weren't killed, the kind of man Thomas Wayne was. So it's important that he be more than a facilitator of getting Batman on the case, that he be sort of a father figure/conscience to Bats in a way that the enabling Alfred can't be. This came through nicely in the movie, which I appreciate.
And finally, two random things:
- As I was leaving the theater, these two adolescent dudes in front of me were loudly "spoiling" the movie for the huge line of people waiting to get in to the next showing. They kept repeating variants on "Dude, I can't believe they killed Batman! I never would have suspected they'd kill Batman! Can you believe they killed Batman?!?". And absolutely no one was responding to them. You fucking jackasses, at least pick a REAL spoiler, or a semi-plausible one. No one is gonna buy that one.
- There's been a lot of talk about how good or not good the Watchmen trailer is or isn't, but where's all the bitching about the Spirit trailer? I saw that for the first time today and it looks STINKO with a capital STINK plus a capital O at the end! Apparently Denny Colt spends all his time fucking, and then there's Samuel L. Jackson as Rudolf Hess, and then we play Elevator Action for a few minutes and Frank Miller drops another line he stole from Mickey Spillane, the end. Hey Frank, get back to drawing things, will you? We're not gonna miss you here in the theater, believe me, we already got David S. Goyer.