Someone get the Batman a lozenge.

Of all
the improvements that Christopher Nolan has made from Batman Begins
(and there are many), Batman himself (and his stupid, stupid raspy voice) seems to have gone unfixed. If
anything, Batman has taken a step back from his center stage role in
the first film and allowed much more interesting characters like The
Joker, Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon to claim the spotlight. And in many
ways, that’s an improvement in itself.



Nolan’s second Batfilm almost doesn’t even feel like a sequel – it
feels like a reboot. Gotham City, presented in Begins as the only major
American city ever founded on a soundstage, now has an outdoors. It
feels like… a real city, which makes sense, since it was all filmed
in Chicago. And that realness extends beyond the exteriors; for the
first time in a Batman movie I felt like I understood what being a
Gothamite was like, and I felt that the city was a once glorious place
in a bad time, as opposed to the almost Boschian depiction in previous
films, including Nolan’s first. This is Gotham City by way of The Wire.



A lot of people are talking about Heat and Martin Scorsese when it
comes to this film, which is a crime epic more than a standard
superhero story, but it’s The Wire that is the most apt comparison.
Nolan and his co-writers, brother Jonathan and David Goyer, come at
their story from many slices of Gotham life. They come at it from the
criminal element, they come at it from the police point of view, they
come at it from the courts and they come at it from politics and the
media. And of course they come at it from the fetish vigilante angle as
well. But it’s this angle that feels least developed and, frankly,
least interesting. Nolan and company are talking about living in the
modern city (just like the people behind The Wire were), and they’re
just using the superhero thing as a way to approach it.



It’s the viability of urban life, the way that it affects and impacts
us, that Nolan is interested in. The Joker is the anarchic chaos of a
city given form, while Harvey Dent is the way that we’re worn down and
destroyed by it. Jim Gordon stands tall as the good man at the heart of
the system, battered and abused but eternally decent. He’s the only
life-sized figure in the film, standing simply human amidst the huge
freaks and archetypes, almost the audience identification character.
This interest in the city as central to the Batman mythos is not new
for Nolan – it’s sort of the same themes that he visited in Begins, but
more crystallized.



I appreciate the film’s ambition, the fact that it looks to sprawl, and
I like it for that. But that sprawl turns into flab very quickly, and
it becomes apparent that Nolan et al, charmed by their own themes and
ideas, never sat down and cut a single thing out of the script. The
film gets involved in digressions that never come back around to or
inform the main story or character arcs in any meaningful way. As the
film begins, not long after the ending of the first one, a group of
concerned citizens have taken up the mantle of the Bat (and the pads of
the Goalie) and begun fighting crime as faux-Batmen. There are a lot of
intriguing thematic elements to this concept – Batman’s main (mostly
unbelievable) arc is about him coming to grips with the impact he’s had
on Gotham, and these guys (along with The Joker and the reactions of
the city’s crime bosses) personify that. But they appear at the
beginning of the movie and never again; during the third act Gotham is
being evacuated and I kept expecting to see these Batmen show up in
some form, a bit of closure or at least follow-through on their story.
Do they show up in costume to help out? Do they leave the costumes
behind and just become good samaritans? Or do they look out only for
themselves after Batman rebukes them? Who knows. They only add up to
extra minutes tacked onto the running time.



There’s the same problem with the film’s foray to Hong Kong. It
presents Nolan the opportunity to do a cool action scene, but that’s
it, and that scene ends up costing ten to fifteen extra minutes of
screentime just to set up. Actually, the scene also introduces a
Batgadget that seeks to rival Begins‘ microwave steam generating
villain plan in idiocy, so there’s another strike against Hong Kong.
Another subplot, about a Wayne Industries employee who figures out his
boss is the Batman, similarly dead ends itself with a cute resolution
that would have been better served fleshed out into a real story in
another movie. At any rate, just one more draft of the script could
have tightened these things up, leaving The Dark Knight to be just as
sprawling and epic a crime story as it wants to be, just without all
the bloat.



You almost don’t mind all that bloat. Nolan manages his pacing in such
a way that you don’t even realize that he’s getting caught up in
digression after digression. And he’s populated his meandering story
with characters that engage, played by actors who are performing at the
top of their game. This movie belongs to Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart and
Heath Ledger; Christian Bale is a guest star in their show. Every time
the movie would go back to Batman and his immediate family of butlers
and wise black men, I would wish that we could get back to these other
three, the characters who drive the story along.



Oldman has the trickiest role – after playing so many over the top,
scenery chewing characters here he’s relegated to the most normal guy,
the calm center of all the madness. The movie almost goes over the edge
with him in a long sequence in the middle (spoilers ahead: if anyone
can tell me why Gordon fakes his death, I’d appreciate it. Why is his
family so much more at risk than the families of everyone else in the
police force?
), but after teetering on that cliff Oldman manages to
return Gordon to his modest humanity. In Begins Gordon was almost
extraneous, an exposition machine, but here he’s not only a plot
motivator, he’s a real character.



Working with (sort of) Gordon is Harvey Dent. The film’s title isn’t
really about Batman’s nickname, it’s about Batman’s relationship with
Dent – over and over again Dent is called Gotham’s White Knight. He’s
the city’s Obama, newly elected as DA and cleaning things up from the
inside in a way that Bruce Wayne could only dream about. Eckhart, all
jaw and blonde good looks, plays Dent as the kind of good guy we
haven’t seen in movies in decades. Honest and ethical yet funny and
sexual, he’s a hero with almost no darkness, no repression, no
hesitation. He’s straight but not square; Dent accepts that the city
needs Batman. He understands that some rules have to be bent for the
greater good. This is a superhero movie, but the superhero seems to be
the DA.



It’s not Eckhart’s fault, but I found Dent’s turn to evil in the third
act to be unconvincing. Forgiving the impossibility of Dent getting
those wounds and running around being a bad guy, his change into that
bad guy feels rushed. And what’s worse, the very nature of Two Face is
once again misused; in Schumacher’s take on the character he was just a
lunatic all the time, and here he’s just using his scarred coin to
decide whether or not to kill people. There’s no feeling that he’s torn
about it, and at one point when the coin doesn’t allow him to kill
someone, he flips again to get a chance to kill another character
in an attempt to kill that first person after all. I wanted to see this
Two Face be torn, to be a slave to that coin. Instead he feels like a
villain with a gimmick.



There’s not a single complaint I can raise about Heath Ledger’s Joker*.
This is the most iconic presentation of the character I have ever seen;
eschewing the theatrics of almost every other iteration, Ledger finds
terrifying humor in quiet moments. This is a Joker who wouldn’t be
interested in acid squirting flowers or electric hand buzzers. His
humor is ironic, subtle and always cynical and bitter. What Ledger
understands is that the Joker isn’t scary when he’s a cackling madman,
but rather when his irrationality slowly peeks out from behind what
appears to be a veneer of sanity. This isn’t just the best Joker seen
yet, it’s one of the all-time best screen villains.



Weirdly, he feels more like a villain for Harvey Dent than for Batman.
The film tries to bring Batman and The Joker into eternal pas de deux,
but the clown is really the opposite of Dent, who stands for justice
and order while The Joker is chaos personified. In fact, since Batman
is an agent for chaos in this story – his actions have riled up the
hornet’s nest of Gotham’s criminal elite – The Joker sees Batman as
more of an accomplice than anything else.



Which brings us back to Batman. I’m on the record as finding the
character among the least compelling superheroes in the world, and The
Dark Knight
does nothing to convince me otherwise. It plays like a
movie where Nolan came around to my way of thinking, in fact. The movie
needs to give Batman some kind of arc (a nicety the comics long since
dispensed with), so Nolan makes Batman want to give up the cowl right
from the start. I think this is standard second superhero movie
bullshit at this point, and it really doesn’t fit here. At one point
Bruce Wayne fantasizes that Dent in office will be what’s needed to
allow him to retire, and I couldn’t help but wonder whose vision of
Batman this was. It takes a certain megalomania to put on a rubber suit
and beat up criminals, and one dude getting elected doesn’t seem like
it could cure that megalomania.



But that’s just there to give Batman a story – otherwise he’s simply a
catalyst for the plot’s beginning, and the star of the many incoherent
action scenes (Nolan continues to be an uncompromisingly bad action
director. The first time Batman fights a dog (he fights three or four
in the film!) I only knew he fought the dog because someone putting a
yelping sound effect over the blurry, quickly cut image). Presenting
Dent and The Joker as opposing figures for order and chaos is great,
but since Batman never feels like he’s actually in the middle of them,
the hero becomes redundant.



One of my biggest problems with Batman Begins was the fact that Batman
essentially breaks his no killing rule while saying he doesn’t kill
anybody. I hoped that this sequel would pick up on the moral aspects of
that scene, but it doesn’t. In fact, it continues to give Batman
bizarrely free range when it comes to morality. This goes back to that
immensely stupid Batgadget from Hong Kong: Batman has a device that can
act as a sonar or some shit, allowing him to somehow see through walls.
Using the technology of Final Draft, Batman turns every cell phone in
Gotham into a sonar transmitter, and while trying to thwart The Joker’s
plan (which requires impossible levels of planning – there’s no way an
entire hospital could be rigged to implode without SOMEONE noticing.
The Joker has an almost supernatural ability to rig shit to blow up
under the radar) he uses that ability to spy on every citizen of
Gotham. Or something, it’s sort of dumb and vague. It’s an obvious
allusion to the whole wiretapping thing now going on this country, and
Morgan Freeman’s character, being wise and black, takes offense at it
all. This seems like it’s shaping up to a good moral conundrum for the
Batman, and to be exploring his fairly fascist side, something no movie
ever wants to do. But the movie demurs, having Batman self-destruct the
system after using it just the once when he really, really, really had
to. Morgan Freeman smiles, and you almost expect him to say, ‘Oh
Batman, you scamp!’ before freeze framing and having the sitcom credits
roll.



What a wasted opportunity. Again and again the movie comes back to the
question of Batman’s relationship with Gotham and its people and how he
impacts the world around him, yet Nolan refuses to explore the darker
aspects of that. I wanted to see a legitimate debate about what tactics
are allowable in what situations. I wanted to see Batman maybe crossing
the line a little bit and being presented as a possible threat to the people he’s supposed to protect. At the very least, I wanted to see repercussions
of his actions. What’s worse is that this dumb sci-fi concept never
even gets used in any meaningful way; when Batman does use the sonar in
an incoherent fight scene he uses it in a way that it could have been
replaced with heat sensing goggles or something.



There’s this condescending notion that The Dark Knight transcends the
superhero genre, as if it needed to be transcended. I don’t think that
film transcends that genre as much as it seeks to not be in it; Nolan’s
made a crime movie that has a guy in a stupid suit smack in the middle
of it. Of course that’s the beauty of superhero stories, much like
westerns or science fiction stories – you can meld them with other
genres. A cowboy can investigate a murder just as two people can fall
in love on a space ship. There’s an even more condescending notion that
The Dark Knight takes itself more seriously than other superhero movies
– as if this is an inherently good thing. I do think that the film
takes itself more seriously than, say, Spider-Man 2 (although much less
seriously than its turgid forebearer), but I don’t think it’s any more
of a serious movie than Spider-Man 2. The tones are all that are
different to me – both films take their characters and their worlds
very seriously. It isn’t like the superhero genre has been, to date, a
series of parodies or something. On top of that, judging a movie based
on how it ‘transcends’ its genre defeats the purpose of transcending
that genre, as you’re just lumping it back in with the others in the
end. ‘This is much better than a superhero movie should be,’ isn’t
judging the movie as just a movie. As just a movie, The Dark Knight is
very good, but not great and certainly not a masterpiece. As a
superhero movie… well, it’s no Spider-Man 2.

*
except maybe to mention that for a guy who is all about anarchy and disorder, The Joker is really good at long term planning and organization building.

8.5 out of 10