Saturday, September 6, 2008
The Dark Knight (2008)
Find the nearest Batman fanboy you know, the kind of guy that has voted The Dark Knight the third best movie of all time on IMDB, and ask him what this film is really about, plot-wise. Not who the characters are, or what the theme is, but just a basic A-to-B rundown of where the story goes. I would bet he won’t be able to tell you much. In fact, beyond rattling off a litany of action scenes, explosions, and a few lines about how scary the joker is, he probably won’t tell you anything at all.
This is because The Dark Knight, the most praised American film of the year, doesn’t ever get around to telling much of a story, at least not coherently (see Michael Atkinson's review for a better discussion of this). And it’s too bad, because this film had the possibility of being one of the all time great B-movies, or at least the most watchable superhero movie in many years. With its moody atmosphere, high body count, and wonderfully over-the-top villain (Heath Ledger is undeniably great and a lot of fun to watch), it’s vintage cult film material. Granted, Director Christopher Nolan would’ve had to hack off close to an hour of the running time (easily doable--and necessary) and take out most of the faux-intellectual moralizing that has gotten so much attention from overzealous film critics, but had he done it he would’ve been left with a tight little action movie that would’ve been remembered as the best Batman of the series. But Noland decided to tack on a 45-minute short film to the end of his feature that introduces a much less compelling villain and takes the story off the deep end of believability (which it surprisingly manages to cling to for most of its length). So after what feels like three hours of action set pieces and philosophy 101 discussions, you lose track of any semblance of plot and the whole movie becomes a jumbled mess of explosions and one-liners.
And all this is fine, considering that The Dark Knight is a Summer blockbuster. Except that it’s not. Or at least it doesn’t think it is. See, Nolan and company are trying to deal with the more complicated aspects of politics and terrorism here-- yes, there are plenty of shots and bits of dialogue that make it seem eerily like some kind of post-9/11 treatise-- but most of it is unspectacular and never manages to rise above the B-movie hokum that fills the whole of the film. What is spectacular is how radical and downright wrongheaded the film’s politics-- or the sermonizing that tries to stand in for them-- really are. The unenlightened masses, this movie seems to say, are nothing more than ignorant pawns to be lied to, spied on, and generally manipulated under the solemn auspices that it’s all for their own good. Batman/Bruce Wayne, the all-powerful and noble oligarch, is just the man to swoop in and take care of everyone’s problems-- a kind of benevolent dictator for the 21st century. Of course, The Dark Knight isn't the only film to ever flirt with these ideas. Lots of action movies-- especially those of the superhero variety-- betray a general disregard for ethics and the rule of law. The protagonist has gotta save the day, after all, and he can’t have civil rights standing in his way. But The Dark Knight is unusual-- some would say more credible-- for the way that it so shamelessly draws attention to its own fallacious message, all in an attempt to pass itself off as a “thinking person’s superhero movie”.
Aside from this half-baked philosophy, all the film really has to offer is a few moments of superior acting sandwiched between one explosion after another. Beyond that it becomes hard to recall. What I find fascinating is not the film itself so much as the enthusiastic response to it from critics and writers. There’s been a whole lot of discussion about what a brooding, tortured hero Batman has become, but nothing about how downright misguided his actions may be (The film’s only attempt at self critique is found in Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox character), or how condescending the film's politics are. The whole conversation about this film seems to highlight some severely reduced expectations in film culture: people are so delighted to find a superhero movie with a message, that they forgot to consider what the message really is.