Thursday, July 19, 2012

Retro Review (Part Two): The Dark Knight

 As I was preparing to put this retrospective of way back four years ago, I went digging to see what I wrote about The Dark Knight in 2008. The Blogorium existed in a proto-form at the time, mostly as a byproduct of a Myspace page I no longer update, so I knew I must have said something about the film. 2008 was the summer of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Happening, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and The X-Files: I Want to Believe, all of which had accompanying reviews. But for some reason my write up for The Dark Knight never made the transition, so I thought I'd share it with you now:

The Joker Begins...

You have a bad day at the movies. Something you hoped to really enjoy doesn't go that way, and you feel bummed. You start doubting the ability of a movie to actually deliver what everyone says it does. Especially when the same people who loved that movie you didn't start ranting and raving about the second coming, arriving at a theatre near you this Friday. But you already have a ticket, because you hoped. Maybe you still have hope that one bad apple didn't spoil the whole basket. But you're still worried that you're being set up for disappointment again.

And then you watch The Dark Knight.

Folks, I'm not going to sit here and hype this movie up any more than you've already heard. By now you've fallen into one of two camps: 1) the die hards who will be seeing this no matter what, or 2) the casual viewer, curious about the Heath Ledger connection who will make up most of the matinee audiences.

The point is that both of you are already going to see it, so I don't need to tell you that of the four sold out auditoriums at the Grande tonight, I didn't hear one bad word about The Dark Knight. Not even lukewarm. I can tell you that The Dark Knight is exactly what you were hoping it would be but not in any of the ways you were expecting. Truthfully.

Yes, a BIG chunk of that comes from Heath Ledger's Joker. Neil has been saying for a few months now that the reason you see so many of the same clips over and over again in the ads is because they can't show you anything else. He's right, but not totally. While it's true that The Joker is an agent of chaos and does some truly heinous things on-camera, what Ledger and Christopher Nolan did with the character doesn't translate in "bite sized" clips. If you could hear one of his monologues about "where I got the scars", you'd understand. Or, will understand.

Or the magic trick. Jesus, the magic trick.

What may surprise many of you is how much of the film focuses on other elements, particularly leading up to why the Mob(s) hand control over to The Joker. The less I tell you about Two Face, the better, but let me say that Harvey Dent's arc in the film is possibly more interesting than Batman's, Gordon's, or even The Joker.

I know, I know; I promised no hysterics, or hyperbole. Once you've seen the movie you'll understand the "Oscar" push for Ledger, and I'm not exaggerating when I say he'd deserve it. No one's made this comparison to my knowledge, but it might help if you think of The Joker like Anton Chigurgh. The only difference is that he talks more and might be more terrifying for it.

There are so many things I'd love to tell you about The Dark Knight, but I think it's better you see it for yourself. Know that it's exceptional filmmaking, and while I couldn't possibly imagine calling it The Godfather Part II or The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight is miles beyond Spider-Man 2.

A warning: Please don't take your children to see this movie. In fact, even though The Dark Knight is rated PG-13, this is in no way a movie for impressionable youngsters. The title is VERY appropriate, and the film is at times relentlessly bleak. The ending, while wholly fitting with the film, is not one of hope, and it doesn't give you the kind of thrill to see the next film (or really give you any idea who Nolan wants Batman up against). It's the ending that a film called The Dark Knight should have, but the middle and end have more than enough thematic material to traumatize the youngin's. Not to mention the Two Face makeup. Just a heads up.

So yeah, my batteries are recharged. I really want to see it again, and to figure out if The Scarecrow was doing what I think he was doing, or if Lucius Fox really did hint at Catwoman...


Okay, back to the future, and let's take a look at some reflections four years later, in anticipation of The Dark Knight Rises.

 Let's start with the last paragraph, because yes, there is a throw-away joke during the scene where Bruce Wayne is talking to Lucius Fox about the new armor, and Wayne asks about dogs. Fox says something to the effect of "Are we talking about Rottweilers or Chihuahuas?" before offering "It should work against cats," which if you want can be taken as knowing foreshadowing of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway)'s presence in The Dark Knight Rises, although every review is making a point of saying no one ever calls her Catwoman.

 The other part, the one about the Scarecrow, came from misunderstanding what Jonathan Crane said after Batman ties him up with the Russian mobsters and imitation Batmen. Instead of taking his line about Batman's mental state not being "my diagnosis," as a snarky comment, I mistakenly believed that Crane was somehow behind the fake Batmen who show up before the Tumbler arrives. By the second time I'd seen The Dark Knight (which was about a week later), it made sense, but when I wrote that initial review there was some confusion about Cillian Murphy's cameo.

  Very quickly, while I couldn't possibly know that Heath Ledger was going to die when he did and the way he did, this initial review leans heavily on the "Joker" side of things. I was very impressed by Ledger, an actor I hadn't really paid attention to beyond Brokeback Mountain, and the execution of the Joker's "plan" was so much more interesting than Ra's al Ghul's in Batman Begins that I fixated on it. That, and the "magic trick," which comes out of the blue the first time you see it but I realize now was sort of the "Order 66*" of The Dark Knight: bloggers used it as way of proving they'd seen the movie.

 I want to clarify the The Dark Knight to Spider-Man 2 comparisons, because I think I know what I meant to say, but it didn't come out clearly at all. Spider-Man 2 is a great comic book movie, like X2 or Iron Man or even The Avengers. This is not diminishing those film in any capacity, but The Dark Knight surpasses great comic book movies and stands among great movies. It deserved its Academy Award nomination, even if there was no chance it was going to win (quick, who can name the Best Picture for 2008?)

 One of the reasons that I'm continually impressed by The Dark Knight, including this past weekend, is how well it works beyond being adapted from a comic book. Later reviews, particularly ones that arrived after the backlash began (one you can see being played out in early reviews for The Dark Knight Rises, but also Inception) pointed out that The Dark Knight is a lot like Heat or other Michael Mann ensemble pieces. It's more of a police procedural that happens to feature a guy dressed like a bat, a dude who wears "war paint" and self-inflicted scars (I think), and eventually a dude with a half-exposed skinless face.

 That's not to say it downplays the comic book component, but there's something about The Dark Knight that feels like Gotham City is a real place, with actual neighborhoods and city blocks and that functions without Batman. We spend a lot of the film with the police, Gordon's crime unit, the District Attorney's office, the Mayor (Nestor Carbonell of The Tick and Lost fame), and on the flip side, with the various criminal enterprises, headed up by the likes of Eric Roberts, Chin Han, and Michael Jai "Black Dynamite" White. There's even a Gotham City talk show hosted by Anthony Michael Hall (not actually Hall, but "Mike Engel") that figures into the second half of the film in a not-so-trivial way. Two ways, in fact.

 Compared to Batman Begins, the Joker's ultimate scheme feels miniscule but is no less important to the film. After all, he's already done the damage he planned for Batman - he killed Rachel Dawes and corrupted Harvey Dent - so what if a demonstration of human nature at its worst backfires? I like that it seems like something a guy who chooses to have limited means could pull off, and that his smaller acts of terror have more impact that Ra's al Ghul's sweeping attempt to level Gotham City ever did in Batman Begins. It helps to ground The Dark Knight in a reality that makes the crime more visceral, more potent. You don't need the splash of Jack Nicholson announcing that "This town needs an enema!"

 Oh, can I pick a nit quickly? It's something that sticks with me every time I see The Dark Knight, because while it doesn't need to be explained, necessarily, it might have helped to have a passing line between Gordon and Batman after he arrests the Joker to explain that someone knew Jim Gordon wasn't dead. It's fair to assume Batman knew, because why would he put himself in the position where the Joker had him dead to rights if there wasn't backup? Harvey Dent clearly didn't know, based on his reaction, and no one else involved in the escort did either. To be fair, this is Christopher Nolan using a cheat based on the assumption that because the audience doesn't know he's alive, it doesn't matter that no one else seems to. The surprise is for our benefit, even if the plan seems vaguely defined after it happens.
 Since the film and its villains were announced, I always assumed that The Dark Knight Rises would be more like Batman Begins than The Dark Knight, if only because there were continuous rumors that Liam Neeson would appear and accordingly Ra's al Ghul would be somehow involved in Bane (Tom Hardy)'s plan to be "Gotham's reckoning." I've avoided as many spoilers as I can, but I do know the film opens eight years after The Dark Knight, where Bruce Wayne is physically and mentally out of the picture as a result of Rachel's death and the deal he made with Gordon to cover up Harvey Dent's death. Beyond that, I know very little, but it seems like Bane is trying to finish what Ghul started on a broader scale than the Joker was ever interested in. That, or it's Knightfall.Then again, with Bane being involved, and Knightfall being what comic readers know Bane for the most, I kind of always thought it was going to be Nolan's variation on that particular arc. We'll see tomorrow.

 The Dark Knight is a movie I've watched several times over the last four years, and I find I continue to enjoy the film and discover little things here and there (I still love that the entire time we were watching Batman Begins we could see the Batpod, we just didn't know that's what it was). It's not just a better movie than Batman Begins, it's a damn fine movie period. Not just as a comic book movie, or as a sequel, but as a film in its own right, The Dark Knight works.

 * Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. If you look up early reviews, including Kevin Smith's, you'll see Order 66 mentioned in every single one of them, even if it's apocryphal at best in Star Wars lore.

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