Batman returns, but he has once again left his comic book beginnings in the closet with his tights and boy wonder sidekick. Picking up where Batman Begins left off, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is on the case of the Joker (Heath Ledger), an agent of chaos who has set his sights on Gotham and its knights: both white and dark. With Rachel Dawes (
Katie Holmes Maggie Gyllenhaal) struggling to choose between two tie-strewn jawlines, the plot mechanics are left to Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), who is being relentlessly undermined by the corruption in Gotham’s police force. Luckily, the Joker isn’t doing very much, contented at first to kill his fellow antagonists in an attempt to try and find out just what makes the man in a bat costume tick. Oh, and there’s a bit set in China.
Having spent nigh on three years now bemoaning the film’s popularity, I suppose it’s about time I revisited The Dark Knight with fresh eyes. Having refused to buy the film on account of not liking it very much, I was finally afforded the opportunity to give it a third and final chance upon arriving home to my brother’s own, different yet equally extensive DVD collection. And you know what, I’m glad I did. Aside from reaffirming my belief that it is not the masterpiece many believe it to be, this third viewing also let me warm to the film in a way I hadn’t expected to. It might not be brilliant, but it’s certainly not terrible either.
Christopher Nolan’s characters are very good at wearing suits. They parade around office blocks and court rooms and roof-tops completely at home alongside the other finely dressed businessmen and women of Gotham City, saying intelligent things and generally being suave and well groomed. The opening scene depicting a beautifully executed bank hiest smacks of Nolan’s trademark narrative prowess, the entire film an intricately crafted thriller which allows those same suited ciphers to trade machismos (“If you want to kill a public servant, Mr. Maroni, I recommend you buy American”/”No more dead cops!”) and pander to some ideological sermon on realism.
And then there’s Batman, our joyless playboy’s masked alter-ego: a bat-eared relic of a bygone superhero age. The Dark Knight is less an ode to a comic book icon than it is an apology, robbing a once great character of all that once made him super in the blind and boring pursuit of grit. A respectable – if unremarkable – crime drama is trundling along affably when all of a sudden a growly Welshman in a plastic fancy dress costume tumbles on-set with a stiff neck and a larynx full of gravel. At this point Nolan’s worshipers proclaim The Dark Knight to be the greatest superhero ever made, a claim I’d put more stock in if Nolan had the confidence to portray the character in all his bat-nippled glory, and not just the elements which gelled with his own personal dogma.
Don’t get me wrong, there are elements that work; Lucius Fox interjecting with “submarine” before Bruce Wayne can ascribe his sonar technology to the echolocation of bats is a nice touch. I’m not saying superhero movies can’t be well-made and tackle serious issues, but they work best as allegories, rather than locking their more fantastical elements in the closet and interpreting darkness as a less-than-subtle absence of light. X-Men works because it isn’t a lecture on equality, but a story which addresses it subtextually.
It’s as though all involved ploughed their quota of character complexity into Heath Ledger’s outstanding Joker, leaving Batman to shout incoherently, Michael Caine to play Michael Caine and Maggie Gylenhaal to flesh out Plot Point #13. You see, as able as Nolan is to pander to his largely male demographic with cool choreography, moral quandaries and big explosions, the director is less confident with his female characters; clearly viewing his women as a remedy to criticisms over his films’ sterility. Rachel Dawes emotes and swoons on cue, but without evoking very much of anything. The kiss she shares with Wayne smacks of storyboarding rather than any identifiably human affection; he never earns it and she then never alludes to it.
But my issues with The Dark Knight go way beyond its poor lighting and emotional negligence. You may see this as nit-picking, but when you put something up on a pedestal by calling it a masterpiece, any and all criticism becomes valid. I’m not some kind of gravitas-hating sentimentalist, I appreciate that there is a time and a place for a serious and considered approach – I was hardly criticising United 93 for its absence of laughs – but Gotham? If you want to make a serious crime drama then create one, don’t shoe-horn it into a superhero movie, apologetically brushing the titular character aside so you can have serious discussions about the nature of heroism. All I know is that if I’d been 12 and Nolan had made a Pokemon film about institutional reform, I’d be livid. Anyway, my concerns.
Where did Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow go? Considering how much thought has obviously gone into the screenplay, shouldn’t Dr. Jonathan Crane have been on the boat of criminals seen later in the film? I realise that after having recast Rachel and optioned to model Gotham on an entirely new city there was need for consistency, but it is a jarring omission nonetheless. Why “pretend” to kill Commissioner Gordon? It adds nothing to the film, except for yet another unneccessary plot development that ensures The Dark Knight rises is a few minutes short of neverending. What annoys me most, however, are the double standards required by the film’s supporters. So The Dark Knight is so amazing because it is so ruthlessly realistically? What about the flying? The skyhook? The voice? What about the ridiculous mobile sonar device? These things shouldn’t stand out in a Batman film, but they do.
The Dark Knight is perfectly serviceable; but as a crime drama it is undermined by a man in a bat-costume, and as a superhero movie it is heavily devoid of superheroes. It is over-long, one boat-set display of moral high-fibre too many. The character arcs – on paper – sound highly intelligent and complex, but in reality fall flat? The Dark Knight isn’t the best comic book movie ever made, it’s not even the best Batman film. It’s a good movie, an ambitious movie, but a flawed movie. Like Inception it is an idea, lacking the emotional resonance of a work of art. As a great man once said: why so serious?