Sunday, 5 October 2008


Christopher Nolan, 2008

1: So much has been written about this flick that my words are purely redundant, but here I go anyhow. A note on my reaction to the phenomenon that is the reaction to The Dark Knight: I saw it and I loved it. Chock full of too much, and yet I felt it to be a brilliant and convincing balancing act. It's pretensions to seriousness are captivating, and it's also great entertainment. To be clear: I have been a fan of the comics medium since I was eleven and although I buy very few super hero titles now (I still buy a lot, but not superhero titles: there are more than enough horror and alternative titles out there to eat into my cash) but I still have a very soft spot for Batman.

And then, inevitably, I sought out critical reaction. There is so much of it, equal parts adoration and hate (perhaps a little more of the former), and both sides were convincing. To varying degrees. Fight scenes incomprehensible? I didn't think so. Ledger over-rated? No. When they fall out, land on the car without a blemish, leaving Joker unchallenged in a party full of people... that's weak on plausibility. Yes it is. The game theory experiment with one "bad" ferry population and one "good" and a button for blowing the other sky-high... plausibility straining and doesn't work. Possibly (but I'll go with it, because it's very Joker). Batman is a fascist. Well, yeh, Batman has always been, to varying degrees, engaged and complicated by issues of fascism. Most self-evidently in Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight" graphic novel.

And so on.
But most of the detractions seemed based upon the premise that, well, pfft, this is a comic book movie. This was declared by those that think "comic book" means "super-hero"; those without knowledge of the breadth and density of the comic book medium. I didn't recall much focus on the fact that being based on a comic was a dubious origin for, say, "Ghost World", "A History of Violence" and "30 Days of Night". In fact, some said it wasn't comic book enough, and how dare it try to be more. I could stock this piecce full of links to pros and cons articles, but it's all out there if you dare. I was disenchanted with the amount of reviews that simply couldn't digest a superhero film that tried to be as dense and outrageously over-reachings as, you know, any other proper film; and at those that felt that picking at presumed plot holes and plausibility weaknesses were a sign that it didn't work as a whole - I don't believe any of the arguable weaknesses of The Dark Knight are enough to bring the whole scaffolding down. No, I thought: it is still a brilliant blockbuster sprawling crime drama, huge and ambitious and fun.

2: The amount of politics surrounding this blockbuster is phenomenal: the Right Wing claming it as their own, even casting Bruce Wayne as a Bush figure; liberals not trusting its somewhat conservative conclusions (police and legal people are okay and stuff, but in the end, you gotta bend the law to clean up the streets). But the fact that a Blockbuster is worth so much debate is considerable, and proper debate, not just nitpicking at its evident weak spots as an act of contrariness. Nolan directs at such speed and with such confidence, you can barely pause to consider all the ideas it’s taking on. Where "Spider-Man 3" was an embarrassment when trying to juggle all its bad-guys, Nolan delivers an extensive roll call of Batman’s finest enemies (The Scarecrow, The Joker, Two-Face) and a batch of organised crime bad-guys too, all without losing grip. You’ve got gun-wielding copycat vigilantes; game-show like moral dilemmas featuring two ferries and explosive devices (vintage Joker! Even is Mark Kermode argues convincingly that the scene doesn‘t work); Bruce Wayne about to step aside to let a brighter light lead the way to cleaning up the streets; the rise and fall of Harvey Dent; the wit and wisdom of Alfred; some show-stopping action scenes; and then you have the Joker.

Heath Ledger’s Joker is a revelation and deserving of every accolade given. His Joker comes from the inside-out, rather than the Nicholson outside-in showman. Is this the first comic book adaptation to actually give a sense that absurd characters like Joker and Two-Face could actually exist? Nolan’s fidelity to credibility gives the whole excessive carnival a realism. That Joker slash-mouth and caked face-paint make-up is a true stroke of genius. It never fails to unsettle and convince simultaneously. Rightly, the Joker here is a sado-masochist whose freakish appearance and alarming manner obscure a frighteningly precise intelligence - here, he’s smarter than Batman, it seems. Even in losing, Joker is victorious for the losses, sacrifices, compromises and horrors of what madness and chaos can truly achieve have been too great. And Ledger is funny: not because he is given lame quips; it’s in the performance, from the first moment he walks on, seemingly mocking his own manic laugh.

The whole show tries to have all its cake and then some, biting off more than it can chew, genuinely trying to exceed it’s superhero origins. Mostly it holds up and where it doesn’t, entertainment and ambition make up for it. It is in the little choices where it impresses: so kinetic, stuffed and fast is the plot and action that you might miss the subversion of the conclusion one expects from supero-hero films ("Iron Man", "The incredible Hulk", "Hellboy" etc.): there is no final fistfight resolving things here; rather we are left with more moral dilemmas and the nominally good haggling with the bad over the life of a child.

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