Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Dark Knight

Heath Ledger was a fantastic, brilliant actor and his performance as the Joker was the best, most amazing moment of his all too short career. Let's just get that out of the way right now. Not only was his performance sublime, engrossing, and nuanced, it was one of the most dead-on portrayals of the character -- in or out of the comics -- and will no doubt go down in history as one of the most indelible, iconic villains ever seen on film. He was somehow funny, scary, and tragic all at once. It is sad that such a talented young actor was killed so early in his career, but at least he went out with a performance that will live forever.

I just wish the film that took place around Heath Ledger's performance hadn't, kinda, sucked.

I suppose I shouldn't say it sucked, since it is currently the highest rated film on the IMDB and has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 95%. I suppose I should just say that this film wasn't for me, since I don't seem to agree with director Chris Nolan's view on Batman or comic books in general.

I know, I know... it's going to be me against the world on this one, but hear me out...

While I definitely agree that a more nuanced, intelligent, and dare I say "realistic" portrayal of the Batman universe should be a breath of fresh air after the campy nonsense seen in the previous two (or maybe three or four, depending on your opinion) Batman films, Nolan's films have just been pretentious, overplotted, overcooked messes. But, worse than that, they just weren't Batman films.

Here's the thing, just because you put a guy in a cowl with horns and call him Batman, that doesn't mean you made a film based on Batman. That just means you called it Batman.

Here, in my opinion, are some important rules that Chris Nolan broke when adapting his version of Batman to the big screen:

1. Don't Mess up the Costume
This one seems like it would be a no-brainer, and yet almost every incarnation outside of the comics has gotten it wrong. Granted, a drawing of a character probably isn't easy to translate into a real world costume intended to be worn by an actual human being, but some of these costume designs didn't even try.

Let's start with the colors: In May of 1939, Batman premiered in Detective Comics #27 wearing a gray costume with a black cape and cowl. As printing and color quality improved over the years, the black cape and cowl gained blue highlights to show better detail and shadowing. Eventually, the entire costume turned blue and gray, and then black and gray again, and so on, mostly depending on the ear in which the story took place, what book he was in, and the whims of the current artist and editorial team.

So, sure, it's always been changing so I don't have a problem with changes made from page to screen. But at least in the comics it always looked good (except for the unfortunate period where he dressed like this, but that was Jean-Paul Valley, not Bruce Wayne), which can't be said for the films, which more often than not, have usually looked bad, with Christian Bale's Dark Knight being the worst. Seriously, he doesn't even look like Batman. He looks like a guy in a Hefty garbage bag with two bumps on his dead. You almost never see him full on, he's usually just in shadow or in extreme close up. Worse, his costume's color scheme is black on black with a black bat logo, so it's impossible to see.

This was a Batman costume designed by people who are embarrassed to be making a film about a guy in a costume. So... why are they making this movie?

2. Batman is a Detective
Now, this is something most people who have never read the comics couldn't be expected to know. In the comics, Batman is a detective with skills on par with -- and perhaps even rival -- Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and the like. He uses deductive reasoning, collects and analyzes forensic evidence, and just plain uses his brains as much, if not more, than he uses his brawn.

You wouldn't know this from the movies, of course. Just like you wouldn't know from the Tarzan films that the character in the novels is actually incredibly intelligent, well spoken, and fluent in at least three languages. Most people who think of Tarzan think of the dumb, lumbering oaf who mutters "Me Tarzan, you Jane" popularized from the movies. That's not Tarzan. And the guy who prowls the city beating up muggers isn't really Batman.

The most we ever really get from any of the movies is when he'll enter some data into his computers and it will tell him what to do. At least in this film he actually visited some crime scenes and exchanged words with the cops, but he didn't really learn anything or act on evidence collected or gleaned.

3. Batman is a Martial Arts Expert
I know, I know... I just complained about how the films emphasize Batman's fighting over his brain, but now I'm complaining that there isn't enough fighting?

Well... yeah. Because, you know... there isn't.

Don't get me wrong, action-wise, Dark Knight is a million times better than Batman Begins, but that's only because Batman Begins has some of the worst action scenes in any major Hollywood movie. Seriously, it's terrible. All of the fighting scenes were basically just close up shots of Christian Bale's face and fists, edited terribly while punching sounds play in the background. The scene with the tumbler was cool, but all of the fight scenes were terrible.

Dark Knight is a little bit better, especially with the big truck chase set piece in the middle of the film, but the handheld fighting scenes are still pathetic and horribly choreographed and edited. A lot of that has to do with the fact that Chris Nolan doesn't know how to direct action effectively, but it also has to do with the fact that their Batman is wearing so much padding and armor he can barely move!

4. Batman Doesn't Fly
Why is Batman always flying around in these movies? Because it looks cool? But it doesn't. It looks lame and doesn't make any sense. He's not a real Bat. He doesn't have to fly around in every scene.

5. It's Batman and Robin, dammit!
Robin gets no respect. Robin is something of a litmus test for finding real Batman fans. Here's the thing... I'm not going to say that "real" Batman fans love, or even like, Robin, but "real" Batman fans don't hate him. The idea that Robin is a dumb, annoying, Jar Jar Binks like character that drags Batman down was invented by movie-goers who think they're smarter than comic book fans.

Here's the deal: Robin is a cool, fun character who compliments Batman. They're the Dynamic Duo! I'm not saying that Batman always needs to have Robin in every story. In fact, I usually prefer the solo stories, even thought I like Robin and think he has his place in the Batman universe.

Do I think he should be in all the movies? Of course not. However, in most of the interviews and production articles I've heard from the cast and crew of Nolan's Batman films, they've talked smack about Robin, said he has no place in anything to do with Batman, and isn't a character that can be taken seriously. It's as thought these people think they understand Batman better than the people who have been writing and drawing his stories for the past 70 years.

Even Frank Miller used Robin as an integral part of his Dark Knight Returns.

Ok, Donald, so you thought Chris Nolan's past two Batman films haven't shown much faithfulness or fidelity to the source material. Get over it. How does it work on its own terms? Forgetting the comic, was the Dark Knight, when taken by itself and in a vacuum, a good film?

No! It sucked!

This over bloated mess of a movie wouldn't have worked as an episode of Law and Order, let alone a film based on one of the most beloved comic book characters of all time. I'm not a dumb person. I'm able to follow multiple plot lines and a diverse cast of characters, but sometimes too much is just too much.

-- Warning!! There May be Spoilers!! --

Why was Eric Roberts in this movie? What purpose did his character serve?

Why was that guy from Hong Kong in this movie? Did we really need to spend another twenty minutes on that pointless scene in Hong Kong?

What was the point of the copy-cat Batman vigilantes? That plot line when nowhere.

Why was Maggie what's her name in this movie? Here's a tip for Chris Nolan: If you can't get Katie Holmes to reprise her role, rewrite the script so it's a new character. Rachel Dawson isn't even from the comics, was there really such a huge fan demand to bring back that character? And, no, the love subplot didn't serve any actual purpose. Bruce Wayne was going to give up being Batman if she'd only agree to marry him? Huh? So the Batman from this movie isn't fighting crime because he feels obsessed with bringing justice to the streets of Gotham city, but because he's a bored bachelor with nothing better to do? That's just dumb. And so is the idea that he was grooming Harvey Dent to be his successor so he can retire as Batman. That's just too moronic to even get into.

And why was all of the dialogue in this movie so pretentious and unbelievable? You either die a hero or live to see yourself become the villain? Oh shut up. How about option 3, where you live a long and happy life as a good person? And don't get me started on Gary Oldman's ridiculously over the top, cheeseball speech at the end about how Batman is Gotham's noble Knight. If that had been in any other movie, the fan boys who ate up this film would've laughed it off the screen.

Oh, and why did Batman have to take the blame for those murders anyway? As long as they're going to lie to cover up Dent's image, why not blame those murders on the Joker? Wouldn't that have made more sense and been just as easy to get people to believe?

But, then again, the idea that they had to lie about what a monster Harvey Dent had become was moronic anyway. They did so because they knew that the people of Gotham would never have any hope had they known that the once beloved District Attorney had turned to a life of crime. Pffffft. That was the dumbest, most impossible to believe plotpoint from this entire, ridiculous, impossible to believe movie.

First of all, an entire city can't lose hope and turn to crap simply because a public authority figure is revealed to be corrupt. Look at the real world that we live in. We have no heroes and just about everybody believes that most of our cops, politicians, and district attorneys are evil. Obama seems like a really wonderful, admirable person, but you can't expect me to believe that the whole world would go crazy if it was revealed that he went mad and murdered a bunch of people.

So, no, that made no sense. And since that was the stunning denouement, the entire story pretty much fell flat and served no purpose.

But what did work? Well, the visuals were stunning. There's no doubt about that. This was a beautiful film. Some of the action scenes were also ok. The Hong Kong abduction scene in particular was really clever and cool, even though it served no purpose in the overall story and just bogged down the plot with more useless minutea. Also, the Bat-cycle thing was really cool. I hope they bring that back.

Oh, and the Joker was awesome. As I said, Heath Ledger was brilliant and their interpretation of the character was flawless. Then again, it's not really a hard character to mess up. He's every bit as one dimensional as he comes across. He just likes to kill people and piss off Batman. And he definitely did a lot of that in this movie, so he was great. Ledger and Nolan even managed to take the character to another level by making him far more terrifying that he has ever been before. Seriously, this was the scariest, most unnerving character since Hannibal Lecter. I honestly never knew what he was going to do and I shifted nervously in my seat uncomfortably everytime he was on screen.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers never seemed to know what he was going to do either, or at least they never seemed sure of his motivations or what purpose he actually served in the overall story. But that actually worked for the character in the long run. So it was fitting that the supreme agent of chaos would be the defining character from this chaotic, overblown mess. In fact, I think the Joker may actually have written the screenplay.

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