I say this is an initial review only because I’ve seen the movie just once this past weekend. To really grasp its full impact, it demands more than one viewing — a compelling enough feat for a comic book summer blockbuster. It is all the spectacle to be expected from a big budget summer movie. But make no mistake; Nolan and Company were out to make a thematically serious film. The Batman universe really only serves as a conceit to explore socially pressing problems: the nature of justice under extreme circumstances, though ones that are very real; questions of identity, self-reflection, and choice; and the consequences of those choices.
In many ways, Nolan has lifted much of Frank Miller’s motif and recontextualized it in post-9/11 language. At one point, Jim Gordon calls Joker a “terrorist”, and Heath Ledger’s performance provides a supremely challenging foil against which to bounce popular conceptions deployed within this language. My initial read on the idea and character is that it’s dangerous to simply label Joker away as a raving loony who “simply wants to watch the world burn” (to borrow Alfred’s statement). It’s one of the few times in which the astute viewer will wonder whether or not Alfred, and his prescient wisdom, really understands the situation at hand. And if he doesn’t fully comprehend the nature of Joker and his purpose, does anyone?
Joker here is an idealogical creature trying to establish a singular tenet, that if things are bad enough, average people “will eat each other”. In one sense, the plot of the movie drives the plot of Job from the Old Testament into different territory. Joker essentially exposes the flaws in Bruce Wayne’s crimefighting logic. In Batman Begins, Bruce tells Alfred that he wants to be a “symbol”, or something that “cannot be corrupted”. Joker’s plotting only wants to deconstruct that symbolism into nothing more than the vain conceit that it might actually be. The point to the Batman construct that Wayne seems to miss initially is that it isn’t Batman’s incorruptability that really matters, but that of the majority of Gotham. All the skill, ability, and hopes to inspiration embodied in the Batman persona do not matter if that symbolism doesn’t extend to his audience.
And, what if it does? What is really the difference between Bruce Wayne and the Batman wannabes popping up around Gotham? Wayne’s only real answer is a cosmetic one because the distinction doesn’t seem to be ontologically significant. Too many Batmen running around Gotham dilute the nature and impact of the character, making the restriction built of aesthetic necessity. But, then, it is also arbitrary, and seemingly paradoxical. The exercise pushes across a new realization, that a symbol’s purity or corruptability do not depend on Batman’s unwillingness to take bribes. As a symbol, his effectiveness depends on his abilities as a vehicle for a particular metaphoric tenor — a tenor that Bruce Wayne could only loosely articulate because his motivations are born of personal tragedy, not high minded civic responsibility.
Bruce has come to recognize some of this in The Dark Knight, seeing Harvey Dent as the real, needed answer to Gotham’s social problems. But investing so much responsibility into one person presents its own dilemmas — that really, high minded civic responsibility can be laid low under personal tragedy. Two-Face becomes more a tragic figure in this film, an idealism destroyed by hands that Dent cannot control. If there is a flaw in the film, it is that Dent/Two-Face’s character does not develop beyond pathos. His development certainly fits the film’s thematic heart. But, at some level, Two-Face is given a bit of short shrift. Dent’s transition into the villain is well structured, but the villain’s appearance feels a bit shoe-horned into the film’s narrative. I think part of this is that Aaron Eckhart is easily believable as Harvey Dent. But, for whatever reason, I just cannot buy into him as Two-Face. Maybe another viewing will help me better establish my problem with him, or perhaps give me enough to change my mind.
As for the acting, Ledger’s performance is all that it has been hyped to be. He’s able to negotiate the tension his character creates, walking a thin line between apparent chaos versus anarchy as a philosophical doctrine. And all the returning cast is excellent. Switching to Maggie Gyllenhaal for Rachel Dawes’s character is perhaps the film’s secret weapon. Gyllenhaal is far more skilled at fleshing out a character that Katie Holmes could only occupy as a shell. Gyllenhaal appears to have something going on under the surface, making Rachel Dawes more believable and empathetic; Holmes generally just looked confused in Batman Begins. Thankfully, this is one element of the Frank Miller oeuvre Nolan has excised from Miller’s influence. For whatever reason, Frank Miller almost always reduces his female characters to hypersexualized types, leaving them mostly as a kind of physical fantasy. In both The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One, Selina Kyle is a prostitute laboring under the domination of male characters. Year One leaves her almost completely useless to the plot.
The short of it is that it is one of the few films, much less summer blockbusters, that is well worth your $8-plus-popcorn.
This article from Gamasutra is a bit old, now, by Internet standards (last Tuesday), but the question is still relevant: will videogames bite into the summer movie market? I’ll grant you that I’m not the average gamer, but I am a bit of a nerd — and I managed to see both Iron Man and Indy 4 (on opening night, no less) while I have GTA IV in my PS3. And I will see The Dark Knight, unless I’m dead. I’m also reading One Hundred Years of Solitude at the moment, too.
I’m sure the market profits generated by the gaming industry over the last couple of years has raised plenty of eyebrows in Hollywood. But, it seems to me that the summer blockbuster movie machine over the last four or five years has targeted the same market the gaming industry does. Between comic book adaptations and 80s retro revivals in cinema, alongside the launch of next gen gaming, the last couple of years have been a geek’s dream come true.