Because life is a series of edits

Review: The Dark Knight

In Humanity, Movies, Thought on July 24, 2008 at 9:08 am

As it’s rare for me to see a movie in the theater within a week of its opening, I thought I’d celebrate the occasion by posting some actual thoughts here on The Dark Knight. For the sake of not spoiling things, I’ll try to refrain from plot details and instead focus on some of the mental gymnastics it takes to follow the movie.

This is a very complex film – the most of any superhero movie to date. A lot of folks raved about the emotional depth of the Spider-Man movies, but The Dark Knight asks questions that go far beyond Peter Parker’s personal struggle in figuring out his responsibility to his power; as other reviewers have noted, The Dark Knight is a morality play that poses huge questions about the nature of humanity and asks the audience to share responsibility in answering them.

The dominant perspective is the Joker’s. While Heath Ledger’s performance is indeed intoxicating, what I think audiences are really responding to is Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker’s horrifying authenticity in living so consistently by his belief that anarchy is the only logical response to a world that does not make sense:

“Do I really look like a man with a plan, Harvey? I don’t have a plan. The mob has plans, the cops have plans. You know what I am, Harvey? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one. I just do things. I’m a wrench in the gears. I hate plans. Yours, theirs, everyone’s. Maroni has plans. Gordon has plans. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I am not a schemer. I show schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are…Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fair.”*

The exception to the chaos, of course, is Batman (Christian Bale), who, though flawed, manages to make choices that go against his human nature. Still, Bruce Wayne (Batman’s alter ego) wants out of the Batman business, as it seems the cause of – rather than the solution to – the problem of freaks like the Joker coming out of the woodwork. Eventually, Wayne comes to understand (with the help of Alfred and others) that a flawed Batman is better than no Batman at all, but it takes some time (and a little melodrama at the end) to reach that conclusion:

“Bruce: People are dying, Alfred. What would you have me do? 
Alfred: Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. He’ll hate you for it. But that’s the point of Batman, he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the righteous. 
Bruce: Well today I found out what Batman can’t do. He can’t endure this. Today you finally get to say ‘I told you so.’ 
Alfred: Today, sir, I don’t want to.”*

Serving as a composite of sorts of the Joker and Batman is Aaron Eckhart‘s Harvey Dent, Gotham City’s new District Attorney. Not much has been made of Eckhart’s role in the film, but his seems the key to understanding the movie, particularly at the end after he becomes the coin-flipping, fate-tempting Two-Face. Up to that point, Dent represents an unblemished hope of law and order for Gotham City citizens (“a white knight” of justice as opposed to Batman’s “dark knight” of vigilantism); however, between tragedy and timely coaching – both at the hands of the Joker – Dent resorts to playing the blame game with fate:

“You (Commissioner Gordon) thought we could be decent men in an indecent world. But you were wrong; the world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance.”*

In many ways (and without trying to overanalyze things too much), The Dark Knight looks at the world through three lenses: the anarchy of the Joker (frightening in its degradation); the fatalism of Two-Face (depressing in its meaninglessness); and the brokenness of Batman (frustrating in its reality). One of these is how most of us tend to live life, and The Dark Knight provides an intriguing look at where and how these paths diverge and – when played out to their logical extremes – eventually end up. The question left for the audience to answer is, of course, which to choose?

(*Quotes from Internet Movie Database)

Other observations:

  • Christopher Nolan‘s direction is seamless, well-paced, and engaging; you forget you’re watching a movie.
  • Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon, Michael Caine as Alfred, and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox are always easy to watch; they bring acting credibility and great presence to the big screen.
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal is an improvement over Katie Holmes in the role of Rachel Dawes; the role itself, however, comes off more inspiring to the motivation of the romantically-involved characters (Wayne, Dent) than it really should be, which doesn’t ring as true as the rest of the film.
  • I don’t think it’s just because I’ve spent time there, but using Chicago as Gotham City was really distracting; Gotham City needs a darker, more New York kind of feel.
  • The lack of dependence on CGI for many of the action scenes and stunts was refreshing and made the movie more realistic; there was really only one scene (the extraction in Hong Kong) that I felt required too much suspension of belief.
  • Though I always liked (a lot) the arrangements of the original Batman movie soundtrack by Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer builds good suspense at just the right times; plus, I love the rich, bold sound of the trombones in his theme swells.
  • Overall the movie (2-1/2 hours) feels just a little long, but I’m not sure what I’d cut; it takes that kind of time to tell this kind of story.

For those who’ve seen it, what would you add/delete/change?

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  1. Oh my, you really do think a lot Craig. You make me almost wish I liked these kind of movies. You should review movies for a living! Wait, do you?

  2. the most popular reaction i’ve heard is one of despair, needing to digest the movie, not knowing what to do with it. i think the realities the joker & two-face present is simply startling. realizing they share the same basic beliefs regarding chaos, chance, no meta-narrative to speak of, one’s own inconsistency is underscored.

    interestingly, these villians are the only sane & honest people in the story while batman’s romanticism remains the real hero.

  3. and thank you for an excellent perspective on the film.

  4. No, Kara, I’m not a professional reviewer (though I play one on my blog occasionally). Thanks for making my day with the inquiry, though.

    You’re right, Tyler, if when you say “one’s own inconsistency is underscored” you’re referring to “ones” who see the movie from more of the perspective of the Joker and Two-Face. I’d love to hear thoughts on Tyler’s point from someone who doesn’t espouse a Christian worldview.

    I would hesitate labeling Batman as a Romantic. Isn’t Romanticism escape from reality? While the Joker and Two-Face are true to their beliefs, I think Batman is as well in that, while he struggles, he still embraces his place in a greater story (that of the people and place of Gotham City), as well as in the name of something outside himself (i.e., hope, which is the result and point of the ferry conundrum).

  5. Good thoughts one and all. I thought the best part of this film (and Batman Begins) is that we finally have a crew capturing the tragic and gothic nature of this comic. Despite all the camp with which these characters have sometimes been portrayed there are substantive issues being discussed at the core. (This is actually true of many superhero/supervillain comic scenarios.)

    In particular, Ledger has defined the role of the Joker and I’m not sure how long it will be before anyone comes close to the high-mark he set. The thought of meeting him face to face would certainly be more like dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight than Nicholson’s incarnation in the original.

    Regarding things I would change there’s not much I can say without spoiling parts of the movie. I think I can summarize by saying that I would have actually made the movie a bit darker and more bleak. In the final assessment I think the movie promotes an overly optimistic view of human nature.

    However, I disagree that Batman is a Romantic. As the character’s personality begins to become more bifurcated I think what we’ll see is that Bruce Wayne is the Romantic while his alter-ego is a different creature all together. I will be very interested in seeing what happens with number 3.

    In closing, what did people think about the Scarecrow cameo? And how about the hints of a future Robin?

  6. I agree, Travis – the “overly optimistic view of human nature” you mentioned is part of the melodrama I mentioned. Still, it felt good after 2+ hours of turmoil, I suppose.

    The Scarecrow has got to come back as “the” villain at some point – he’s too interesting a character to barely get used in two movies now. Help me with the Robin hints – I completely missed those.

  7. what young child looks longingly at the batman on several occasions. they will obviously have to change the original backstory for the character if they go with this one but they’ve changed them with a few other people so why not?

  8. I thought the film was plenty edited. It is indeed a final cut and nothing should’ve been added or cut. It felt like the 47th version of the film and it works. It is a great example of a film utilizing the edit room.

  9. Travis, I know what you’re referencing, but that seems a stretch. I actually hope they keep Robin out of this new franchise, so maybe I’m just in denial about the possibility.

    I agree, Tebor. The film was well-edited and easy to watch.

  10. I’m with Craig in hoping that Robin is not brought into the story. Among other reasons, I don’t think it would be consistent with Bruce/Batman’s disdain for both the need and existence of masked heroes.

    I think you’re pretty right on in your overall appraisal, Craig. Although, we should remember that the Joker is a liar, and so we can’t take that quote you included as truly representative of his views or motives. Of course the Joker has plans, of course he’s a schemer. Satan wasn’t so much interested in chaos as he was in glory for himself. I think the same goes for the Joker. If that is accurate, then the Joker isn’t so much responding to the madness of this world with chaos, as he is becoming Nietzsche’s superman. If the world doesn’t make sense, and there is no One to call us to account, then to pursue your own interests at all costs makes as much sense as any other response.

    My only semi-major critique of the movie was that I thought Harvey’s fall (even considering the Joker’s push) was a little too easy.

  11. i thought the ease with which harvey fell was part of the point.

  12. Yeah, I know it was the point, and I even agree with the point: “even the best of us can fall.” But within the context and flow of the story, within the parameters of reality that the movie had set up, I didn’t think it rang true.

  13. i don’t know; having to constantly watch my back for assassination attempts, watching a vigilante accomplish more good illegally than i can as a d.a., listening as the woman i love dies in an explosion, having half my face burned off, and knowing the last two things were enable by corrupt cops – this might be more than enough to push me over the edge.

    besides these things the movie hinted at harvey’s willingness to step outside the law earlier in the film. we all have our perspectives though so i respect the fact that it just didn’t work for you.

  14. in a movie it pushes you over the edge Travis but not in reality, but of course those things dont all come together in reality in the scope of a few days much less 2.5 hours

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