Saturday, July 21, 2012

Signal Re-Watch: The Dark Knight (2008)

Friday evening pal JuanD brought over his dog, Levi, to join Jamie and I for our pre-Dark Knight Rises screening of The Dark Knight (2008).  I mention Juan not just because Juan is a terrific fellow, but because our post-screening discussion should really warrant him a co-writer credit on this post.

I'm not very fond of my original review of the movie from 2008, and was sharing with Juan how I was so rattled by the movie's very existence that it took a viewing or two more to begin to appreciate everything Nolan was trying to accomplish, and that, in many ways, the best way to watch these movies is to turn off everything I know about Batman (which is a lot, and runs near constantly as a background subroutine) and instead come at the film as if I weren't playing comics-fan-connect-the-dots.  At some point it may be more useful to start looking at the movie as employing archetypes to relate a fable of duality on an operatic scale.  Chaos vs. Order.  Liberty vs. Security.  Lies vs. Truth.  Personal Duty vs. Public Duty.

all that and a motorcycle that goes VROOOM!  VROOOOOOM!  VROOOOOOOOOOM!!!!

You can feel a great leap in the quality of the film from Batman Begins during the first scene of Dark Knight, and the decision to dump the studio backlot feel of the previous Gotham for the very real streets of Chicago shot in punchy, deep focus, free of the filters and mood enhancers that dominated the look of the first movie.  And it's that realism and stepping away from the comic page that seems to give the movie some it's immediacy and edge.  Gotham is Chicago in this film - lived in and real, not a set made to look dank.

It's no wonder pundits seized upon this movie as it grapples with the escalation of conflict that arrives with Batman and his tactical superiority of the way things have been in Gotham for a very long time.  The Joker, as I think Steven Harms pointed out four years ago in the comments, is a liar, and even his claims to be an agent of chaos are fabrications.  His real skill is staying wildly ahead of the competition and keeping them on their heels with theatrics - all things Batman had in his arsenal in the prior movie.  The Long Game of the Joker is never really revealed, and maybe it was to simply watch Gotham burn, eliminating criminals with something at stake if the inmates run the asylum.  To create a Gotham where the populace is so cowed, they'll be broken and a man can own the city in it's entirety through fear.

It's a war of escalation - one of the themes of Batman of the past several years.  In a city as corrupt as Gotham - how would one even clean it up when the desire for power and greed leads to someone like the Joker?  And isn't what The League of Shadows trying to do in Batman Begins the Manhattan Project  final answer?  (I have a movie to watch Saturday afternoon that should give me further insight.)

We're no more or less certain of the correct answers when it comes to liberty versus security than we were in 2008, and we're all wanting to believe our guys are the victims willingly taking the slings and arrows as a noble sacrifice for doing what's right.  But at the end of the day I think you can depoliticize the story and see what Nolan is saying about people and how desperation drives us all to different decisions, our desire to see security and justice, be it The Joker telling Gotham they can save the hospitals by killing this one man (which people obligingly try to do), or convincing ferryboat riders they can control their own destiny if they're just willing to kill a boatload of people they can't see.

In some ways the movie works best if you know the ending and work backwards.  A dead Harvey Dent (spoiler), a Batman on the run and a Gordon left as something less than a hero and more of a witness to the truth of what happened.  It's considered a necessary lie when Batman and Gordon agree to manipulate the truth that the spirit of change remains alive in the city, something we know Harvey inspired - enough so to give judges and government functionaries the courage to take hundreds of criminals off the street in one single sweep.  Just as much a necessary lie to protect the people who need it as Alfred hiding Rachel's card from Bruce when her memory will spur him to action rather than collapsing in despair.

It's a fascinating film wrapped up in superhero trappings and a reminder of the hyperbolic stage that DC's characters can play on and where they can work well when pushed by better creators.  Can Spider-Man or Thor do this?  I believe so, but it's rarely a place where Marvel's characters (Cap aside) get asked to play, and the various Marvel film franchises have skewed to the concrete, action-filled pop.  It's the difference between a best selling airport novel (with which I have no beef) and the reward of taking on a literary classic.  Ie:  the folks trying to write their dissertations on Avengers will be fewer than those taking on Nolan's bat-trilogy come 2022.

I really didn't believe I could like this movie any better, but every time I give it my full attention and watch it straight through, either I find new things to appreciate or I find myself rediscovering the clockwork mechanism of concepts and themes explored as the timing belt runs through toward the less than foregone conclusion.

For myself, I do not believe that stories need be considered just entertainments - a stance I hear shockingly often when talking with colleagues and their relation to the local cineplex.  There's a reason that children's stories often have moral lessons writ large across the ending.  Whether a story is based upon fact, or is a clumsy analogy, or is a parable or fable - there's something to be gleaned from any story, or what would be the point?  Dark Knight is action movie or thriller enough that the audience can still walk away feeling like they've received their summer blockbuster comfort food, but underneath it all, we're seeing the grand questions of democracy played out before us in the form of madmen, lawmen, men working to uphold the principle and deciding its worth it, no matter the cost.

If only we could contain those questions to the hypotheticals of the silver screen.


Paul Toohey said...

The one big problem with The Dark Knight will always be the stupid decision to have the Joker hanging upside down, but show him right side up, which completely ruins the rest of the movie for me...horrible.

The League said...

When a director makes a decision like that, I try to figure out if I'm missing something, and what it is they might have been doing there. Narratively: what is he saying?

Paul Toohey said...

Any idea on this decision? How much time does Bain Capital spend upside down in The Dark Knight Romneys? (Don't spoil anything, I am not ging to see this until this afternoon...)

Jake Shore said...

You make some smart observations. I have a few mixed feelings about the movie, but that's within the context of "this is an amazing movie."

First, stylistically, the movie is so utilitarian. I know this makes it much more realistic, and I think Nolan was trying to ground the Batman mythos into something believable and the visuals reflect that. It's a choice, and it makes his thematic elements all the more powerful.

Having said that, Gotham, in my view, has no personality. Visually, there's no gargoyles, dirty streets, creepy rooftops and alleys; nothing to give it that dark, foreboding atmosphere. Very un-Batman. The Tim Burton designed 1989 film was the other extreme, but I kinda wish they had found something in between. But hey, that's just personal preference.

My other beef is the Joker's line, "Do I really look like a guy with a plan?" It's a great line, but belies the meticulous, to the point of ridiculous planning and manipulation of events. Now, as you say, maybe he's just a liar. Maybe. If that's the case (and at the risk of dumbing it down for knuckleheads like me), Nolan should have made that more clear.

Lastly, I think the movie was a little too long, and had a couple of hammy moments, the ferry scenes and Gordon's monologue to his son at the end come to mind.

But overall, I think the TDK was outstanding, one of the top 3 of the genre. And like you said, it demonstrates how a mature approach to the superhero mythos can explore culturally relevant themes and/or questions.

Jake Shore said...

One last thought on the film's themes. I know a lot of people, primarily Conservatives jumped on this movie as having explicit political overtones.

There is no question, in my view, that at least one theme Nolan was trying to explore was the implications of the war on terror. And it does so FAR more intelligently than any of the shamelessly political movies of the last ten years. As a Conservative, I will say that while I think too many embraced this movie as an affirmation of their own politics, but the movie doesn't seem to be ambiguous about where it comes down on the issue. That is, the film, while balancing itself on the razor's edge of liberty vs. security, seems to tilt toward security, rule of law and stands in utter opposition to chaos and anarchy. I don't presume to know what Chris Nolan's politics are, probably Liberal, so I could be off base.

The League said...

That Nolan states explicitly that Batman's decision to essentially spy on every person in Gotham is "wrong" but he and Fox seem to deem it necessary, only to blow up the spying machine... It seems a reflection of a hope for a best case scenario. Perhaps the suggestion is: in times of chaos, we may do things we don't like, but the moment we've succeeded, we need to dismantle the tools we put in place.

especially with the third movie, I believe Nolan is more concerned about themes and analogs than he is with a "this is exactly how it could happen" sort of movie. Perhaps that informs why he gave up on the super-gloomy city backdrop. It may have pushed the themes into a fairytale land rather than a city that looks like one you'd find yourself walking the streets.

That's just my read, but it's nice to have a superhero movie that we can talk about rather than "yeah, it wasn't horrible".