The Dark Knight Consterns

Batman Begins has the distinction of being the first Batman movie that isn’t even a little camp. The Batman has a particularly checkered past–which is saying something in the comic book world–including the rather famous TV series, which itself was reflective of the late ‘50s/early ’60s era of Dark Knight comix. (I mean, really, his outfit was done in a variety of pastels for one issue.)

The 1989 Tim Burton blockbuster proved that, given a big enough budget, you could create a good enough rendition of Gotham that people would line up to see it, even if you had no understanding of comic books, no insight into Batman, and fell back on camp in any mildly serious situation. (Burton’s Batman is positively casual about killing people, though only the Joker’s death is shown.)

Also, the 1989 script was just gawdawful. “Did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” That’s up there with “Don’t feed them after midnight” in the world of screenwriting.

Far worse was the follow-up with The Penguin and The Catwoman, where Burton makes it perfectly clear, he has no concept of comic book heroism. (Seriously, dude: Was there ever a comic book movie that had, as its overriding message, “We’re all victims”?)

After that, they just sort of gave up. Joel Schumacher publicly apologized for the fourth one, if not the third.

By contrast, under Chris Nolan (Memento, Insomnia), the Batman is starkly real and almost entirely humorless. There’s no camp to be found, which is good, but there’s also an unrelenting grimness, which is not so good. As severe as the first movie was, the new movie, The Dark Knight, is far more so.

The first movie used a stylized Gotham–not as heavily stylized as Burton’s movies, which took place primarily on sound stages and a small area inside the WB lot, but still obviously not any real city, and particularly fake in the ghetto where the fear drug was released. The new movie uses Chicago, without changes, and looks entirely different, and entirely real as a result. Also, The Batman himself is less stagey, appearing in full light from time to time.

I guess this is good. I have mixed feelings. I think reality is over-rated.

But realism is the watch word. The story concerns the highly corrupt Gotham as a few good men Bats, along with Gordon (Gary Oldman) and D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) try to pull an Elliot Ness and bring down some mobsters. Mixed in to this is Heath Ledger’s psychotic Joker, whose sole purpose in life is to bring down the Batman, and to bring chaos into the world. (This, actually, is not so different from Ra’s al Ghul in the first movie, though the Joker is supposedly less well organized, a premise which isn’t really sustainable given the things he pulls off.)

The primary struggle in the movie is how the three men, and Rachel Dawes (with Maggie Gyllenhall filling in ably for Katie Holmes) deal with the threats to their lives, their loved ones, and to civilization.

Heady stuff.

This aspect of the movie works fairly well. Gordon’s approach is different from Harvey Dent’s–and Aaron Eckhart’s performance has been, but shouldn’t be, totally neglected in favor of Ledger’s. The problem is with the Batman himself. And it’s something not easily retconned.

Two thing are apparent in the hyper-realism of this movie: It would be impossible not to kill bunches of people as a vigilante in the mold of Batman. The somewhat weak attempts made here to disguise the fact that all kinds of people, innocent and otherwise, would be killed during the caped crusader’s hijinx, breaks rather hard. Secondly, it’s just stupid for The Batman not to kill the Joker.

The Batman’s code–famously not to kill people, though he used to bump people off pretty casually in the ’40s–just doesn’t make sense in the context presented in the movie. The Joker even points it out: Batman will let lots of people die rather than do what needs to be done.

This has been a kind of running gag in Batman for decades, with Frank Miller providing the ultimate answer in his iconic The Dark Knight Returns.

Powerhouse acting–when your supporting crew is Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, you know you’ve got dramatics to spare–reasonably good action scenes, some suspense, and a little mystery, all combined with some pretty heavy drama, and you have yourself a good summer flick.

Althouse reports hating it. Heh. The Boy approved. And, really, so do I, but I think two things are certain:

1. It’s really not the greatest film ever made, whatever 125,000 IMDB users think.
2. Heath Ledger’s peformance is good, maybe even great, but his death is probably the main reason people are talking Oscar.

Batman was off-and-on my favorite comic as a kid, but to be honest, it was the “little” stories. Probably as a reaction to the series, the Batman of my youth were quiet little mysteries, often featuring ordinary people in a more Sherlock Holmes-like setting. Even pitted against the Joker, the setting was intimate. He seldom had more than a rope and grapple in his belt, and certainly he was not bullet-proof.

You couldn’t make a summer movie out of that, these days. It’s something PBS or the BBC might do.

Oh, well.