Monday, July 21, 2008

A little thing called foreshadowing...

Tell them your name.

BRIAN (weak)
Brian Douglas.

Are you the real Batman?


Why do you want to be like him?

He's a symbol...that we don't have to be afraid of scum like you...

So here is my review of the Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's crime epic which, along with Favereau's Iron Man and Raimi's 2nd Spiderman, basically challenges every other writer of comic book material in the world to make stories with real world significance or don't show up at all.

For starters, comic book movies are terribly excessive works of art. By excessive, I mean they generally are made for a subgroup of art lovers, cater unapologetically to their demanding needs and are then translated into something with widespread appeal. Creating anything from this perspective naturally divides the audience into three very different and specific categories: those who will like it no matter what, those who will hate it no matter what, and those who don't know enough about it to have any feeling whatsoever before they come out of the theatre. I will confess I would have probably liked this movie regardless. The character of Batman, his singleminded determination... his stubborn, selfish demand that the world be better than it is, his willingness to stake his life in that pursuit, has a deep appeal for me and it always will. But I am confident in the quality of the work despite my natural bias because of the reaction that those with no real stake in the character have had to the film.

I don't see how even the most biased detractor of the film can deny how much more ambitious it is over the standard comic book fare. This isn't a fun, juvenile, mach-auvinistic, man-beats-bully, hero-gets-the-girl fairy tale that has been told a million times before. The Dark Knight is a tragedy in the best tradition of the genre, offering a story that is a unique and largely seemless blend of three of the best Batman comic books ever, namely Loeb and Sale's Long Halloween, Moore and Boleland's Killing Joke, and the comic book that inspired this entire new Bat-franchise, Miller and Mazzucchelli's Year One. The merits of the story aside, I can't seriously consider those who effectively dismiss the film as a "comic book movie". Take the Caped Crusader character out and put in its place a 10 year old girl and the movie around the title character would still be a dramatic dialogue on law and order, anarchy and chaos, vigilantism in the face of public corruption, terrorism and civic responsibility, fear versus faith. You'd have to be pretty daft (or deliberately daft) not to see or recognize those elements in the film and I'm hard pressed to think of depiction of civil terrorism done better on screen.

Secondly, I want to address the talk of Heath Ledger's receiving a posthumous Oscar for his work. The dissenter's opinion on this has largely taken the position that criticism of his performance as the Joker is all but censored from the mainstream media, that it has become taboo to speak out against the role and that the building pressure upon the Academy is going to be a disservice to the other actors nominated. To this, I acknowledge that the performance is garnering a lot of attention from Ledger's death but, who cares? Were the Oscars ever something other than a popularity contest? The quality of the work is reflected by its popularity: whoever was most popular was the best. These critics seem to think that to win an Oscar means you have to meet some sort of standard of acting. Where is that standard to be found? Did Marisa Tomei meet that standard in My Cousin Vinny? Has Harrison Ford not met that standard in his 3o year career? When actors like Gary Oldman and Michael Caine say the boy should win an Oscar for this performance, are we really to think that they're saying it solely out of mere sympathy? That's a pretty condescending assumption. There is a unique and perverse type of hubris whereby someone can say that an actor did a bad or undeserving job in a role when (or perhaps, because) 50 million people went to see it and (conservatively speaking) 25 million of them thought it was brilliant. The big uproar the past few years has been that Oscar is becoming more alienated from the average moviegoer who rarely sees the films nominated for the big prizes. How about Oscar going out on a limb to nominate the most celebrated actor in the most popular movie of the year for a change, dead or alive...

Finally, I want to mention what I think is the real achievement of the Dark Knight which coincides with what I've been finding is one of the biggest and most consistent criticisms of the movie: that The Dark Knight is not a 'feel good' movie. It has a depressing and demorallizing tone, with an ending that leaves you more exhausted than exhilarated. I agree with this assessment entirely. I am confused, however, as to why anyone has expectations that it should be someway else. Did The Empire Strikes Back's have a happy ending? Did The Godfather II? Was Schindler's List a 'feel good' movie? The English Patient? For that matter has Nolan even made a feel good movie. And why should this one be, when so much depends upon these stories not being wholly happy endings? Nolan is having a serious discussion of why we don't or shouldn't have vigilantism (copycat Batmen), what are the circumstances which would compel people to resort to it (breakdown of civic security and institutions), and most directly, what are the personal dangers of taking the law into your own hands (crossing the line between crimefighter and criminal, are you listening Minutemen?). He's having a serious discussion about the effect of terrorism on the civic psyche and how easily people can transfer their anger in stressful situations from root cause to symptoms (ie calls for Batman to reveal himself in the face of the assassination instead of calls to stop Joker, assassination attempts on Reese instead of attempts to aid the hospital evacuation, Afghanistan where the 911 terrorist trained instead of Saudi Arabia where they all came from). But more than anything the movie is best summed up in two specific and rather brilliant lines about escalation uttered by Michael Caine and Aaron Eckhart, respectively:

"You spat in the mobs' face. You knew there were going to be consequences. Things were always going to get worse before they got better."

"The night is always darkest before the dawn. But I promise you, the dawn is coming..."

This movie is the dark (k)night before the dawn. This is the worse-before-it-gets-better. The next movie will be the dawn in Gotham. Its a little thing called foreshadowing, people. Look it up!

P.S. Listen to these guys, they were paying attention.

P.P.S. If you ever think for a second that there is anything everyone can agree on as either good or bad, I kindly refer you to movie reviewer/critic Robert Roten who gave the Dark Knight with a 94% RT aggregate the same rating as 10,000 BC, which currently sports a 9% aggregate. 9%! In his world, those two movies are of equivalent quality. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but there is no accounting for taste.