So I saw the new Batman movies last week (how’s that for timely posting?). For the most part, they live up to the hype, but naturally I have a few bones to pick. My friends tell me I manage to find fault with everything, and J-rod (yes that’s a real person) thinks I get some sort of perverse pleasure out of it. He might have a point, perhaps life would be better if my reaction to everything was “wow, that was neat!” Actually, I saw Thank You For Smoking over the weekend (starring Dark Knight’s Aaron Eckhart) and thought it was pretty much a perfect movie, so to my dear friends: bite me. I’ll stop finding faults in movies when Hollywood stops copiously providing them! Anyway, on to what I what I thought of the two new Batman movies…
[NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD! Although I can't imagine anyone who reads this blog hasn't already seen it]
I have to admit, those folks at Warner Brothers are pretty clever… there I was, all psyched up to see the new Batman movie, when much to my surprise I was treated to two Batman movies! I don’t think anyone in the theater knew we were in for a double feature – hats off to the marketing people who managed to keep it a secret (although the two hour and forty minute running time should have been a tip off).
The first film (which I’ll call Dark Knight I), centers on the Joker and is nearly without flaw. While I’m not sure I’m ready to jump on the Oscar bandwagon for the late Heath Ledger, his performance as a serial-killing agent of chaos could be the best bit of acting in any superhero flick to date. Following suit, many aspects of Dark Knight I elevate the genre to new heights, proving that the film makers were not just out to make a good Batman movie, but a good movie, period.
One of the most astute observations about comedy films I’ve ever read came from Director Ivan Reitman, who said (and I am paraphrasing here), “the problem with most comedy movies is that they rely on the jokes to carry them; they ignore the importance of story and many other aspects of what makes a movie great; you should be able to strip away all the jokes from your favorite comedy and still be left with a good movie that has an intriguing story, sympathetic characters, good cinematography, music, etc.”
Certainly movies like Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day live up to this. You can often apply ”Reitman’s Rule” to other genres and it becomes easy to spot where they’ve failed; take sci-fi, for instance. Strip away all the robots and aliens and ray guys from Episode II and are you left with a story worth telling and characters you care about? Probably not. But do the same to The Empire Strikes Back and you’ve still got an entertaining movie. “I love you, I know” would have been a classic moment in any film, let alone a Star Wars chapter.
Dark Knight I stands up to this test in spades. Essentially, this film is a tight, suspenseful, psychological action/thriller that just happens to star Batman. It doesn’t even need Batman to be a good movie, but once you add that extra-special element to the mix, it just elevates the whole thing to a new level.
When the first film draws to a close, with Gordon returning to save Batman and nab the Joker, I was ecstatic. The movie simply could not have been better! I was grabbing my coat and preparing to leave when suddenly, without so much as a fade to black to warn the audience, the second film started (why Warners chose not to insert an official intermission and let people know a new movie was about to start is beyond me).
Dark Knight II literally picks up moments after the first film ends, with the Joker in captivity and the focus shifting to Harvey Dent/Two-Face. The tale of the White Knight’s fall from grace is a compelling one, and so it was with great sorrow that I witnessed this movie rush through his story in little more than an hour. To add insult to injury, I guess the Joker was so popular in the first film the producers felt they had to have him back, so a fair chuck of precious screen time in this chapter is wasted on more of the Joker’s cockamaime schemes (why not flesh out the Two-Face story more completely? I hope the DVD of Dark Knight II has a lot of deleted scenes put back in, if not only to turn this hour-long film into something more satisfying).
BUT SERIOUSLY, FOLKS
Ok, the joke’s over. If I’ve learned one thing from writing this blog, it’s that my tongue-in-cheek humor tends to sometimes fly over people’s heads. So, right now, I am officially letting you know that I do not really think these were two movies. But they should have been.
I don’t know what it is about Christopher Nolan that makes him so eager to throw in everything all at once. The only real complaint I had about Batman Begins was that it felt like he was trying to cram in every last bit of Batman mythos. I guess I can’t blame him, if it turned out to be a flop, at least he got it all into one movie. But I had no such expectation of Dark Knight, which I think everyone knew would be the second of many more films; Nolan could breathe easy and take his time.
So why the hell did he have to shoe-horn in the entire Two-Face story? Thematically speaking, since Harvey Dent is the one that undergoes a change, he is the main character of the film – but if that was the plan, why the fuck did you do it in the Joker movie? Ok, fine, I do really like the idea that the Joker is the one who pushes Dent over the edge and creates Two-Face. It allows the Joker, despite his technical defeat, to have the last laugh and beat Batman (without Dent to rely on, Bruce Wayne must give up his hope of hanging up the mask and having a normal life). But we didn’t have to go into a whole Two-Face movie this time around!
I think just about everyone walking into Dark Knight was expecting a story about the Joker and the set-up for Two-Face. The movie would have been more than satisfying if it ended (more or less) on the scene between Joker and Two-Face in the hospital; it’s one of the best moments in the film and tells us all we need to know about what’s to come. We didn’t have to see Two-Face twirl his moustache and go on a murderous rampage – just knowing he had been turned to the dark side would have been an ominous enough moment to end on.
This would have given us a shorter movie (which only could have helped) and left Nolan to really focus on the Joker/Batman relationship. Some people have argued that the character of Two-Face doesn’t have enough depth to support an entire film, but, as far as I’m concerned, Frank Miller cemented Two-Face’s potential as a physical and thematic foil for Batman on this page from The Dark Knight Returns:
A reflection. This take on the Batman/Two-Face relationship is just oozing with symbolism and metaphor, making it perfect fodder for another Christopher Nolan Batman film. But no, he had to have his cake and eat it too in this one, with a side order of doughnuts. Come on, Nolan, do the right thing and make movie history – recall all prints of Dark Knight from theaters, re-edit it into ONE movie and save the Two-Face stuff for the third film – the way it should be. I know, I know… ain’t never gonna happen. That’s ok, this DVD will likely be released for the holidays, which means everyone should check the Fan Edit sites around February ;-)
Despite my gripe, Dark Knight is a terrific film and catapults the genre light years ahead of anything seen previously. Iron Man was fun, but Marvel seems satisfied in making good comic book movies; hopefully DC will pick up the gauntlet and stay focused on just making good movies.
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What astonished me about the movie is how subtle it is. The entire film is about choices, and what those choices do to you. Now, mostly choices just arise in life and people don’t think much about how those choices arrive but in this movie, it’s the Joker who’s presenting those choices; his goal, as the agent of chaos, is to Sophie’s Choice every character in the movie.
He’s called a terrorist, but he doesn’t think of himself that way. Batman’s called a vigilante. Dent’s called a crusader for justice. The Joker (probably also called a paranoid schizophrenic, or whatever the DSM-IV would say about his psychology) is using those choices to take those roles and switch them. And Batman/Bruce Wayne is constantly changing places with the Joker and with Dent throughout the movie. He once again becomes the billionaire playboy, shining the light on Dent as the hero of Gotham. He becomes the outcast, when he’s trying to find the Joker. And then he becomes Two-Face, keeping Dent’s legacy pure, when he takes the blame for killing the cops.
The Joker and Batman fight over the soul of Gotham — in the form of Harvey Dent — through the entire movie. They split him in half and destroy him. And even though the Joker seemingly wins, it’s Batman who makes the ultimate choice (reclaiming choice from the Joker) and the ultimate sacrifice — he takes on the role of the villain. Because deep down (or maybe not so deep down), he realizes that it was his fight with the Joker that destroyed Dent. Sure, it felt like Two-Face was a set-up to be the next villain. But that’s something an unimaginative superhero movie would do. This was much more complex, and much more interesting.