A few years ago, despite repeated critical praise and entreaties from friends and colleagues, I gave up on ever wasting my precious time on earth watching another Steven Spielberg film. Time and again I was told by others, "No, this time I really mean it, it’s a GREAT film," and time and again I would leave the theater angry or nauseous.
Now I am at the point where I feel the same way about all Hollywood tripe. As with the Spielberg crapfests, I was told how wonderful excrement like Brokeback Mountain and Crash were. They weren’t. Similarly, almost all the reviews of The Dark Knight were glowing; especially praising the performance of Heath Ledger (the cock-mumbling hero of Brokeback Mountain) as the Joker. And with his demise shortly before last year’s premiere of the film, the inevitable chorus of Oscar buzz for his performance rose, with him, indeed, snagging a posthumous Best Supporting Actor nomination and win (a la James Dean). So, was this the greatest film of all time? Was Ledger’s performance one for the ages?
In fact, not even close. And, as badly hyped as the Spielberg stool has been, and as nauseating as the PC films named above were, The Dark Knight, and Ledger’s performance, have to be the two most over-the-top, unbelievably hyper-hyped things Hollywood has ever unfurled. Why? Simple. The picture barely rises above mediocre, and Ledger is nowhere near as good a Joker as Jack Nicholson was, twenty years ago, in Tim Burton’s Batman. What’s odd, though, is that this film’s title is a play off of the 1980s reinterpretation of the Batman lore in Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel of the same name, yet it was Burton’s film, made closer to that era, that really captures Miller’s grit, if not wan stab, at heightened realism. The Dark Knight is not only NOT a great film, it’s not even close to being a great superhero film. Hell, it’s not even close to being as good as its predecessor, Batman Begins, a film which was not as good as either of the first two Spider-Man films, still the apex of comic book cinematic expression.
As for Ledger, he is a one note. His character has no background, no shading, and no complexity. Compared to Christian Bale’s Batman he’s a tabula rasa, and a dull one. Compared to Jack Nicholson’s Joker, he’s not even interesting. Nicholson’s Joker had a backstory — not a deep one, but one that nonetheless allowed growth and expansion, as well as a semi-believable dementia and downfall to grasp on to. Nicholson’s Joker was also not seemingly supernatural. He did things with reason and within limits.
Ledger’s unnuanced Joker, on the other hand, seems to be all places at all times, an unstoppable vortex of evil. Within days, he takes over Gotham City from bands of organized criminals who, in anything resembling reality (which the film oddly strives for, despite its naturally absurdist nature — something Nicholson’s Joker found glee in), would have had him dead within minutes. Yes, I can suspend disbelief, but not indefinitely. Yes, I can possibly believe the Joker could walk into a meeting of ethnic crime cartels (such a meeting already a huge stretch from reality) and get away clean — but survive multiple beatings, car crashes, and other deadly events with barely a scratch? And, unlike Batman, all without any armor protection? No. There is not a single moment where Ledger’s Joker is human — even for the ill. He is merely a symbol in the film. He could have been a plague of locusts. He’s that uninteresting, generically psychotic, and rote, as well as far less menacing than Nicholson’ Joker, precisely because he is far less human.
In fact, Ledger’s Joker is so ridiculous that he makes the claim that he never has plans, that he’s an agent of chaos; even though his character is scheming the most grandiloquent of capers from the start of the film till its end. And the fact that the script belies no sense of irony in that claim — in fact, Ledger delivers the lines to an incapacitated Dent in such earnestly serious and moralizing tones — means that the flaw in that claim is not with the character, but with the character’s creators, the screenwriters. This is not Postmodernism, nor ironic glee, either within or without the diegetic moment, but simply an overreach by a couple of overmatched scenarists who felt that the best way to imbue depth into the film was to have its chief antagonist utter non sequitured banalities. I guess really showing degrees and shades of emotion was too simple a solution?
Plus, unlike Nicholson’s Joker, Ledger’s Joker is not remotely funny. Hell, in that regard, give me Cesar Romero’s Joker from the 1960s campy television series. Then, to top things off, this Joker is ham-handedly called guess what? – in this post-9/11 world — to make the film seem "relevant." You got it — a terrorist! Ach du lieber Gott in Himmel!
But the film suffers from many other ills, only a few of which I’ll list, such as the infamous middle filmitis, wherein new viewers are supposed to be already aware of and in touch with an ongoing mythos, so that things like plot and character development become afterthoughts. The dialogue in the film is reduced to sloganeering for advertising soundbites, and the plot is laced with absurdities even the comic book genre cannot reconcile, the least of which is why no one has been able to figure out Batman’s real identity. The whole town is familiar with the tale of his parents' demise; the whole town knows he is wealthy and runs a military industrial conglomerate (perfect for funding and arming a vigilante). It gets to a point, after Wayne deliberately runs a red light to thwart another of the Joker’s plans, that one feels like one is watching reruns of the old Superman television series from the 1950s, wherein not a single person can tell that Clark Kent (George Reeves) is really Superman, even though only a pair of eyeglasses is used as a disguise.
But, the worst ill is the whole predication of the film on the villainy of the Joker, when Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent-cum-Two-Face villain is far more realistic, well written, and well acted (at least in the comic book sense). No, I am not stating that Eckhart’s performance should have garnered an Oscar; far from it. But it’s miles better than Ledger’s performance. So, in a sign of the film franchise gods’ revenge, the script decision, by director and screenwriter Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan, to kill off Dent, played by the still alive Eckhart, and keep alive the Joker, played by the still dead Ledger, is the only justice associated with this film.
Somewhere, somehow, you just know director Nolan had to slink off into a corner, bop his forehead V-8-style, and shriek, "Fuck!" Finally, this film simply isn’t even that good of an action film, because all the moves are telegraphed. I recall the feeling of not knowing what would happen next when I first saw Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Nothing like that is in this film. One is never unsure of what will happen, so there is zero suspense.
Nolan, whose career, after Memento, showed such promise, has clearly fallen into a creative rut, and is on the verge of descending into hackdom. He’s gone four straight films without an original idea (the two Batman films; The Prestige, a magician novel adaptation; and Insomnia, a remake of a Scandinavian film), and it shows. This film’s biggest marketing push, aside from the still dead Ledger, was that part of the film is shown in IMAX. Doesn’t help at all when there is no real story, and when the story does not, in even some minor way, acknowledge its own comic book absurdity.
As grating and puerile as I find much of Tim Burton’s film career, his two-film take on the Batman universe is a better one than Nolan’s two-film take. There is no dramatic arc in this film, only brief pauses between YouTube-ready action scenes, such as the logically absurd digression in Hong Kong, how everyone seems to survive multiple crashes and assaults, or how the Joker can get people to do his bidding with no financial nor personal enticements. Then we get to the faux Shakespearean ending that features a soliloquy, by Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), that is so sappy and mock-heroic that anyone not turned off by the film by then surely has to break out in guffaws.
Are there some great special effects? Yes. And there are some sterling compositions onscreen, wherein characters’ positions subliminally telegraph their relations to each other. Eckhart and Bale make their characters semi-believable, and Michael Caine does the most with his Alfred the Butler character. So The Dark Knight is not a bad nor terrible film. But it’s not a good one, much less a great one.
Unfortunately, the same can be said of the DVD package, put out by Warner Brothers. I got the two disk Special Edition version, but there’s absolutely no reason for two disks, save for marketing. Disk one has the film. That’s all — no features, no trailer, and no audio commentary. Just the fuckin’ film. Utterly shameful. Disk two has no in depth features, just some television scenes from a fictional Gotham City news show, and a few mediocre featurettes that add nothing to the film, but do everything to bolster the egos of those involved in this yawnfest.
The Dark Knight simply goes on for far too long — 153 minutes — and gets worse with each passing minute. It goes from a possibly good film, in its first hour, to a barely passable one in the span of the last hour or so. A good 45 minutes could have been lopped off with no discernible detraction from the film. In ten years, few people will care about this film, and Ledger’s Oscar win will go down as one of those great WTF? questions wiser generations will chuckle over. The Dark Knight is not good comic book stuff, it’s not good sci fi, it’s not a good action film. It’s just hype.
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