So let’s get a couple things out of the way up front.
First, Heath Ledger’s Joker is a thing of brilliance. Utterly mad, completely evil, frighteningly real. This is a performance that might have gotten oscar nods if he were still around; it will certainly get them now. He steals the film.
Second, I have a major Batman bias. I’m a huge superhero comic fan; I grew up on ‘em, collected all the major Marvel and DC titles in the seventies and eighties. So I have very strong image about who batman is and how he should be portrayed. This makes it hard for me to be objective about reviewing any movie about batman, because they’re never my batman.
That said, The Dark Knight manages to do just about as good a job as anyone has ever done with Batman on the screen. Yet, they fundamentally still miss the mark.
Bringing Batman to the screen is difficult. Partly because there’s a lot of baggage (the sixties tv show skewed how we see batman to the corny and campy; Frank Miller’s Batman skewed our view the other way, to the dark and hard and disturbing). Partly, it’s difficult because our studios (and DC comics) have a singular idea of how a hero should be portrayed. I think every one of the modern Batman movies has suffered from this, and not one of them has yet ventured into new territory. They all reek of artistic compromise.
Add to this the fact that Batman, even for superheros, is particularly absurd. No super powers, a weirdly silly outfit, a reliance on impossible technology. It’s hard to portray a guy in a bat suit with ears and not make him look silly, even if we don’t include nipples and tights.
Dark Knight manages to get it mostly right. They strip the suit down til it looks like something you could actually fight in, they give us some plausible idea of how one man mages all these bizarre inventions, and (with back story from Batman Begins) they’ve given us a character with with enough of a crazy streak that the obsession and the bat images make sense.
They’ve also given us a very strong cast. Ledger is amazing; he will give you nightmares. I can see this man walking around in real life, he’s that convincingly insane. Never before has the joker seemed so completely believable as a homicidal, sadistic lunatic. Aaron Eckhart, while not turning in the kind of absolutely inspired performance Ledger brings, is still terrific. This guy keeps getting better ever time I see him. And obviously, with actors like Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman involved, the cast just keeps hitting (though Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance is oddly lackluster; I absolutely adore her, though I kept wanting to slap her and say *wake up!*).
The action scenes are all look great, the fights are well choreographed, the effects are mostly terrific.
So what’s wrong with it?
That’s a hard one; my bias about Batman aside, something’s missing. But I’m struggling with what.
I wanted the the entire thing to have more zip. I wanted the dialog to sparkle. I wanted to care about the characters. While the dialog was ok, and there were some decent one liners, most of it has a journeyman feel, like it could have been from any action film. I wanted a breathless pace; there were too many pauses to build character, and then not enough to do for the actors when they had space to act. They were playing characters, and because they’re all good, the characters seemed real. But it felt like padding.
The middle of the film is mainly driven by Bruce Wayne’s soul-searching over having killed people; to me, this rang utterly false. The core of the character, to me, is that he’ll do whatever the fuck it takes to bring down the bad guys, even be one himself. He will kill, he will break laws, he will sacrifice. What he won’t do is stop. The beginning and end work; but when Wane starts to fuss about wanting to inspire people, it feels like they’ve forgotten who they’re making a movie about (who is this, fucking Spiderman?)
The film was also oddly bright. One expects Batman films to be dark and shadowy. Gotham is a gothic nightmare of a city. What we got was downtown chicago, with no attempt whatsoever to make it look like anything else. I assume this was to give the film a sense of realism, but the effect was of lazy film making and average cinematography. Worse was that they chose to put Batman in full, harsh light in much of the film, which just makes the bat suit look silly. Batman needs a sense of menace to make him effective; a rubber rodent head doesn’t do it. The less you show of Batman, the more effective he is.
This isn’t to say I disliked the film; it’s easily the best Batman to date. But the fact that it reaches higher in some ways, perhaps, points out the deficiencies. It’s quite a good film; but it could have been a great film. It misses the mark on greatness. That’s a shame, because Ledger’s performance is truly great, and deserves to be in a movie that stands up to it.
Now, as to the batman I want to see, one only needs to look to Frank Miller’sDark Knight Returns to see my vision of Batman.
The Batman I want to see isn’t a hero; and that’s where Hollywood always fails. They want to portray a darkly heroic, misunderstood figure. They err in casting mornful, broody types (when they don’t cast George Clooney, anyway). What they wind up getting is a batman who looks self-involved and sulky.
Batman, my version of Batman, is crazy. Something in him broke when his parents were killed, and he’s spent his life on revenge; not on one person, but on everyone, everywhere, who commits a crime. He doesn’t care about laws, honor, morals. The irony is that he’s become who he’s fighting. He’s a killer, a sadist. Yet, he’s an agent for good, doing what needs doing. He knows he’s down in the mire with the criminals, he’s sacrificed himself to what he thinks is greater good, though he’s driven by an obsession with revenge.
His alter ego isn’t a light-hearted playboy; he’s a dark, brooding recluse. More Howard Hughes than Tony Stark.
I want to see someone cast who can play batman as a semi-psychotic villain. Imagine Alan Rickman; imagine if Heath Ledger could have turned that air of craziness into a batman portrayal. Bale could have done it (he does crazy so well). But the part needs a villain at it’s heart, not a hero. Batman isn’t a hero; he’s a bad guy who’s on our side, and THAT is what every single movie portrayal misses.
My complaints about The Dark Knight are colored this, to be sure. But my real issues with it are not that it isn’t my batman; it’s that they so nearly turned out a great film. They missed by *that* much, and that’s frustrating, because they almost had it.