Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Seven Films for Seven Batmen, No. 2: THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

I’m not going to write a whole lot on The Dark Knight. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting somebody’s blogpost about this movie, and if you swing five dead cats, you will probably hit at least one very good one.

What I am gonna talk about is this: Why do I consider Batman Begins the second-worst (or, let's call it my second-least-favorite) Batman movie and this one the second best? I guess I feel that ultimately, Begins doesn’t commit the way Dark Knight does.

Batman Begins says it’s going to show you a Batman who could really be. So you get the cape that turns into a hang glider, the radios that fit into the ears, the heavy-duty military Batmobile. But it turns out you can’t really be Batman, and the filmmakers try to explain everything you can’t do with the magic ninja training. Except it feels like a cop-out, because the magic ninja training is so out of place in an otherwise realistic milieu.

Batman in The Dark Knight isn’t any more believable; in fact, he is even more fantastical a superhero. A Batman with some spectacle to him, again. But TDK doesn’t try to justify Batman the way Begins does. Batman can just appear and disappear because he is Batman. How does he turn everybody’s phone into that massive sonar grid? He just does, because he’s Batman. This Batman is not trying to prove he could exist, he just does exist.

Similarly, Gotham City in Batman Begins is boring and unengaging because you’ve got Wayne Manor and that neat el train and Arkham Asylum and the Narrows, but these fantasy locales are surrounded by what looks like plain ol’ Chicago. It feels a little incongruous to me. But The Dark Knight’s Gotham City is Chicago. No Narrows, no Arkham, no train, and Bruce Wayne’s living in a penthouse apartment. There’s not even a Batcave, more like a practical Bat-basement.

They’ve removed the more fantastical bits of Gotham City and the ninja terrorists, and what you’re left with is a completely real (at least as we experience it in film) environment … except for Batman, the Joker, and Two-Face. It’s a similar approach to what Frank Miller did on Daredevil, stripping away most of the comic book trappings and grounding it in something closer to resembling reality so that when people in costumes with superpowers finally do show up, their massive incongruity* lends them a real weight and power. The Joker is scarier all of a sudden because he appears in your world. Two-Face is freakier because you get the sense that nobody should be able to function with their face like that. There’s that wonderful scene where Gordon and Harvey Dent are on the roof of police headquarters, having a completely "normal" argument about procedure that you might see in any cop movie, but Batman is there, and he’s absolutely silent in this debate because someone like him has no place in it. He’s waiting for the ordinary people to finish so he can do what he needs to do, and what only he can do.

Of course, you couldn’t keep that tone up forever (and Nolan seems to have realized it, since he’s reportedly talking about not doing a third one), because the stated point of this movie is escalation; you’re watching the real world gradually get taken over by comic book people at the fringes. But while it lasts, it is actually wonderful. There’s almost as much difference between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight as there is between, say, Returns and Forever, or Batman & Robin and Begins, I’d argue. You’d think there was a whole new creative team on the movie. The Dark Knight makes Begins look so workmanlike, doesn’t it? (Although I'm not sure you could have TDK without first having done Begins. What do you think?)

One more thing I will say about this movie that I’ve not read elsewhere is to address a criticism of it. Some people say the Joker has no motivation. They say that a character who just wants to “watch the world burn” can’t be dynamic or truly interesting. This criticism extends to the comic book version of the Joker as well, and even I must admit that the “force of nature” Joker that Saint Morrison does can wear on me after awhile (the fallibility of the Joker in the Dini/Timm cartoon's pretty charming, actually, isn't it?). But this movie suggested something to me -- a possibility I can take or leave, but one I like to at least keep in mind:

The Joker is lonely.

It kind of explains a lot, right? The Joker doesn’t just kill you, he makes you look exactly like him. Remember in Miller's Dark Knight Returns how happy he is to see everyone in the audience with the exact same face? His whole “You complete me” thing in this movie? Him trying to make Batman understand, trying to make Harvey Dent understand, trying to make those people on the boat understand. Trying to make everybody understand. That doesn’t mean that he has to be honest. He makes up stories about his scars, he insists he hasn’t got a plan despite all the meticulous plots and reversals we’ve seen him carry out. Look, they say comedians aren’t as fun people to be around as you might think; that they tend to be lonely people who use humor to reach out to others. These big crazy crime sprees and conflicting stories are just to get your attention.

Understand, I’m not arguing for, like, a psychological realist approach to the Joker, because that is going to flame out real quick. I’m just suggesting that maybe the Joker could represent a certain kind of narcissistic loneliness, this sort of emotional void that swallows and destroys everything it comes into contact with. Watch the movie or read a Batman comic with this in mind and let me know if it works.

Next: One movie left, and it couldn’t be any other one. We haven’t a moment to lose!

(*-I know I called the “weak” Gotham City “incongruous,” and here I’m praising incongruity, but frankly, Wayne Manor and the train aren’t incongruous enough to have the same impact. Again, it’s a lack of commitment: either keep completely unified surroundings, or have Arkham Asylum be so incongruous that it becomes charmingly bizarre.)


plok said...

Yes, I like that quite a bit. Batman's lonely too, and Harvey is all melted-down by loneliness, as we know. It seems a little bit like the Batman Returns business, kind of. In a way.

Very elegant!

Justin said...

Thank you for the kind words, as always! I suppose it is a bit like Batman Returns, but maybe not spelled out so explicitly? I like when this sort of thing is hanging in the background like wallpaper instead of driving the narrative.

plok said...

That's a lot of my complaint about Burton, is that we don't need to see that stuff foregrounded...which is, strangely, also your complaint about Batman Begins, and what you like about Burton, isn't it?


Justin said...

Oh, I don't know. I *do* think that Batman Returns is too on-the-nose; it is, after all, just a tick up from Begins on my list with points for showmanship.

I don't know that there's all that much foregrounded in quite such a belabored way in Batman '89 ... or maybe there is and I'm just not reading it as such? I actually feel Batman '89 leaves a lot unsaid, which, paired with the heavy stylization, is what I really dig about it.