I’d say I like superhero movies as much as the next guy. But that’s probably not true. I probably like them more than the next guy. I spent years collecting comic books and, after dropping out for a dozen years or so, got back into the artform with graphic novels and collections. That’s given me a love-hate relationship with the burgeoning superhero genre, embracing the best (the first X-Men and Spider-Man films) and decrying the worst (The Fantastic Four and Elektra, among others).
The development of the superhero movie genre has been fascinating to watch. Over the past couple of decades, comics have become more cinematic and sophisticated and adult, leaving the preteen audience behind to focus on college readers and adult collectors. At the same time, movie blockbusters have become more juvenile and franchise oriented, while on the production side they have adopted technologies that allow them to replicate the kinds of images and action spectacle previously only possible on the page. In retrospect, the superhero movie blockbuster seems like an inevitable meeting of storytelling forms. What makes it so interesting is the way the genre has been attracting some of the most talented and cinematically enthusiastic directors: Bryan Singer, Ang Lee, Sam Raimi, and now Christopher Nolan.
With Batman Begins, writer/director Christopher Nolan (drawing inspiration from the psychologically brooding comic book rebirth of the seventies and the more recent revisionist Batman comic books by Frank Miller and Jeph Loeb) rebooted the Batman mythos for the big screen, bringing the often lighthearted hero back to the shadows, both figuratively and literally. The film was narratively dense but also a little ungainly, with a massive climactic set pieces that dwarfed the human scale of the action drama with the epic destruction.
With the origin story out of the way and the obsessive hero established, Nolan delivers a worthy story for the darkest of comic book heroes with The Dark Knight. The result is the new gold standard for superhero noir.
This Gotham City has the look of of a modern metropolis. It gleams with cityscape of glass and steel in the daylight, but there’s a rotten foundation of corruption and crime underneath the facade and at night it more resembles the streets of a violent gangster thriller of the thirties and forties. It’s here that The Batman (Christian Bale) has cast an aura of fear across the underworld with his vigilante war on crime. He doesn’t trust many people in the corruption-riddled halls of justice, but he takes a chance on the man called Gotham’s White Knight: crusading new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, who brings a hint of grinning arrogance to Dent’s passion). Even though Dent is dating his childhood sweetie (Maggie Gyllenhaal, ably replacing Katie Holmes).
Shambling into the battle comes The Joker (the late Heath Ledger). With his stringy hair, greasy make-up over the smile carved into his cheeks and garish, street-battered suit, Ledger gives us a volatile psychotic far removed from Jack Nicholson’s showboating exhibitionist in Tim Burton’s Batman. He works over his sardonic dialogue in a rumbling wise-guy whine and off-balance patter, his tongue darting in and out like a lizard, his slumping posture so at ease in the chaos of his capers it’s disturbing. It’s not so much that he’s unpredictable as he’s unreadable.
The Joker isn’t after money or power. He feeds on fear, on helplessness, on the corruption of good people and on revealing the hypocrisy of those who believe they are good citizens. But mostly he feeds on anarchy: “I’m an agent of chaos,” he explains with false modesty.
Noland delivers the expected set pieces for a big screen superhero spectacle, from a sharp bank heist executed (in every sense of the word) with impersonal efficiency by a masked gang to a high-speed ambush chase through an underground tunnel to a busy rescue operation where the good guys are working at cross purposes. Yes, that last Bat vs. cops scene is pretty chaotic, but it works for the scene, and overall Nolan is better at keeping the focus on the characters within the scene and not letting them get swallowed up by the sets or the swirl of action.
But it’s the details and grace notes – the cocky, tossed-off swagger of Bale’s Bruce Wayne at a fundraiser, followed by Wayne discreetly dumping his glass of champagne like a prop no longer necessary, or The Joker’s gangly stumble like a distracted kid trying to get a broken toy to work while explosions erupt around him – that fills the outsized tale with defining moments that both ground the characters and elevate the conflicts.
As The Batman Bale, drops his voice an octave and spits out lines in a throaty whisper that borders on parody, but his humorless intensity makes that quirk less a cartoon than a theatrical affectation used to add to the dark mystique. That’s something else that Nolan really gets: Bruce Wayne is the mask, if you will, and The Batman is the real person, the defining personality that he’s become in the time since the murder of his parents.
That’s what defines the last hour of the film. Just when The Dark Knight seems to wrap itself up in a neatly played little bundle, a classic three-act movie ending with the arrest of the Joker, Nolan upends expectations. “Do I look like I have a plan?” The Joker shrugs with a teasing plea, as he unleashes a deliriously perverse plot to bring out the killers in Gotham’s population. His demented campaign of terror creates a new (and just as insane) villain from the ashes: Two-Face, whose vengeance is steered by the toss of a coin. (Does that make him kin to Anton Chigurh from “No Country For Old Men”?) Their colliding campaigns of anarchy – the Joker as a self-proclaimed agent of chaos, Two-Face as an agent of pure chance – and the choices The Batman makes when faced with impossible quandaries created by these forces of social anarchy and personal devastation, escalates the emotional toll and the personal sacrifices of the battle to give the comic book conflict an epic dimension. The decisions that The Batman defines exactly where his allegiances lie, and that itself is as marvelously tragic as the potential cost to what’s left of his human vulnerability.
Superhero films have been getting increasingly sophisticated and decidedly darker as they become (for better or worse) a full-fledged genre. With The Dark Knight, the cinematic superhero spectacle comes closest to becoming modern myth. It’s not attempting to be realistic, but its take on pulp tragedy gives a dramatic punch to the spectacle of costumed players and elevated stakes and terrible sacrifices.
I review the film for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.