A while back, Devin issued a call for thoughtful discussion of The Dark Knight that didn’t take the form of a top ten list. Was he referencing the questions I asked myself while watching The Dark Knight? Who knows. But with Batman slowly backing out of the box office and making room for the post-Labor Day dregs (a few notable exceptions aside), maybe it is time to line up a nail and hammer it into the coffin that is my disdain for this movie.
First of all, I love Batman. I just recently got off the phone with the seedy toys and games company that’s supposed to be sending me a frame for my Batman/Martian Manhunter/Dr. Fate jigsaw puzzle. I bought the puzzle with my own money in the full light of day, and I’d do it again. (Although next time I’ll be more careful about pieces falling off my dining room table and into my dog’s digestive system.) A battered copy of a World’s Finest annual teaming Batman, Superman, the Justice League, and the Outsiders against a plant-based alien menace was the first comic book I ever owned, and I read and re-read it like it was Finnegan’s Wake. I was a kid. Batman was fun. Simple, but not simplistic.
Of course, as I grew up I switched to Marvel, where the heroes became characters, and their stories were about redemption instead of vengeance or protection or any other primal, childish call to action. I still enjoyed DC, but in a different way. An adult can’t take DC superheroes seriously as characters, because they aren’t characters. They’re defined by what they do, not who they are. And this is a strength. I would never build a jigsaw puzzle of Spider-Man for my wall. There’s more to that character than the costume and the image. There’s a context. Superman, Batman, the Green Lantern—these are icons, not people. They’re devices for telling stories, but that doesn’t mean their stories have to be anything short of transcendent. I can relate to Peter Parker, but the kid in me can fantasize about being Bruce Wayne. Hell, the adult can do some fantasizing. Dressing up in a cape and swinging around Gotham City with my grapple gun sounds like a damn good time.
The Dark Knight isn’t a good time. In its dark reality, it loses everything that makes Batman interesting. There’s no joy. There’s no humor. There’s not even any wit besides the occasional trailer-made pithy line from Michael Caine. But putting aside the fact that the Batman concept has been neutered, the movie doesn’t even hold up under its own weight. Take the opening scene, for instance. The Joker and his henchmen rob a bank in the clear light of day. This doesn’t feel like a set. There’s no swinging neon or rubber nipples. This is the kind of place where you apply for a loan. It looks like Heat, and it doesn’t look like anything we’re used to in a superhero movie. This is all fine—admirable even—but the content doesn’t stand up to the concept. The Joker’s henchmen (though, in a pretty clever twist, don’t all realize their henchman status) talk in the kind of bank robber clichés you’d expect from an episode of Miami Vice. Why not take the time to write a line or two for these guys that sets them apart from the kind of disposable fodder a less “serious” superhero movie would give us? Is this supposed to be a commentary on banal villain dialogue? And if it is, what could be more banal than asking the audience to believe the Joker could simply drive away in a school bus? Why don’t the other bus drivers in line notice that this thing just emerged from a hole in a wall?
Yes, leaps in logic are acceptable in a superhero movie. I’m willing to buy that a yellow sun can negate Superman’s gravity. I’m willing to buy a lot from a movie, but Nolan obviously doesn’t want us to buy anything. This is why so much of both this movie and Batman Begins is devoted to explaining ad nauseam how Batman’s silliness isn’t really silly. He hides his antennae in his ears. His cape uses electricity to stiffen. The thing is, these explanations are sillier than the tropes they’re trying to explain. And no level of explanation can justify the fact that we’re dealing with a man who dresses in a rubber bat suit and punches people.
Of course most of us would love to dress in a rubber bat suit and punch people, so why doesn’t Batman? There’s the argument that The Dark Knight is meant to be operatic. It’s supposed to be an exaggeration, and the characters are supposed to be symbols. It’s the DC way, after all. Except that nothing about the movie’s deadened tone, laborious pacing, or gritty detail serves that purpose. Grandiosity is no excuse for bloat, and it’s no excuse for absent or stilted characterization. This is the same argument George Lucas uses to defend his prequel trilogy. It’s meant to be heightened. It’s meant to be big. This doesn’t forgive the fact that no one in the Star Wars prequels can have an emotion without saying it out loud, and it doesn’t forgive the same thing in The Dark Knight. There’s nothing operatic about a detailed explanation of Batman’s mass listening device.
Speaking of the listening device, let’s talk about the themes on display here. Putting aside whether the movie is supposed to be more about theme than character, do the ideas even make sense? Batman’s illegal wiretapping is a symbol of the line between good and evil. Is it acceptable to use the tools of evil to defeat evil? It’s an old concept, but an interesting one—not to mention a timely one. And it would be interesting to see a superhero movie explore the concept, since it’s intrinsic to the very idea of vigilantism. But instead of dealing with the ethics of Batman’s device, Nolan opts to simply destroy it. This seems good enough for Morgan Freeman, but it’s not good enough for me. If Batman crossed that line once, what’s to stop him from doing it again? And really, should he even have crossed the line at all? It’s an adult question given a childish answer that really isn’t an answer at all.
The Dark Knight offers nothing but childish answers to adult questions. It’s disposable entertainment dressed like serious art. So much effort goes into detailing the makeup and functionality of Batman’s costume, but literally no effort is afforded the transformation of Harvey Dent into an insane killer. Only in comic books does acid make a Two-Face out of someone, and only in comic books does the death of a loved one turn a good man into a snarling killer. Using the Marvel comparison again, there’s a reason Peter Parker didn’t turn into a murderous psychopath after the death of Gwen Stacy. He grieved, he stored a little pain, and he moved on. That’s life. That’s reality. And for a movie so obsessed with reality, it’s unforgivable that The Dark Knight chooses to toss it just when it could elevate the material to something more than funnybook drama. The birth of Two-Face is the only legitimately operatic beat in the entirety of the movie, but it comes too late to matter. It’s device instead of development. And in the end we’re left with another bad superhero stereotype. The villain holds hostages—in a warehouse, no less—while explaining his evil. The hero is shot dead—but is he? The villain is pushed out a window and dies. It’s all beautifully shot, and it’s all morosely delivered, but there’s nothing serious about this nonsense. In the end, Gordon is kind enough to state the obvious for us. Batman is a symbol. But he fails to mention that every character in this movie is a symbol that stands for nothing—with no heart, no soul, and no life.
I really wanted to like The Dark Knight. I’d never been a particular fan of Christopher Nolan’s, but The Prestige is rising on my list of favorite movies with every viewing. There’s a story where the ideas are large, the characters are small, and the emotion is real. It’s a good yarn, and it moves without dragging you along by the hand. The car/truck/Batpod chase was pretty damn thrilling—shot and cut beautifully—and definitely an improvement on any of Nolan’s action from the first film. Of course, all of that craftsmanship good will was sucked right out after the epileptic shadow play that was Batman’s final takedown of the Joker. Speaking of, Heath Ledger’s Joker deserves all the praise it’s received. The Joker is really the only character done right, and he’s a perfect example of inhumanity as characterization in itself. His hospital scenes are the best in the movie, and the image of him limping away in a nurse’s uniform as the world explodes around him is one of the greatest images I’ve ever seen on film. Too bad everything else about The Dark Knight pales. You can do without emotional or thematic maturity if you offer some verve or some wit. And if you’re making a Batman movie, you’d better give us something more than the pretentious.