Monday, July 28, 2008

Supervillain round-up, part the firste

OK, so I'm a little late on this post, having let a week and a half go by since seeing The Dark Knight without posting my review. Suffice to say, I was blown away (and apparently inspired to rhyme cheesily and inadvertently). If you haven't seen it yet, everything you've heard hyped is true, especially about Heath Ledger's sublimely chilling performance.

Do I need to offer a spoilers warning?

More on Heath in a moment, because I first need to cite the all-around strong cast: Maggie Gyllenhal as Rachel Dawes is a welcome change from Katie Holmes (would that we could have had Maggie in Batman Begins!); she plays the role with just enough snark and steel, and a very subtle pathos as well. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, the elder statesmen of the film, bring gravitas to what would otherwise be merely functional characters. Gary Oldman, unlike in Begins, is given some nice moments on screen.

It's perhaps a bit of a cruel irony that, having gotten the exposition out of the way in Batman Begins, Batman (or rather, "the Batman"), tends to be the least interesting character present. And with more dialogue than in the previous film, Christian Bale's hard-boiled rasp when in the cowl gets really irritating after a while. That being said, I still think Bale's the best Batman we've had yet -- if for no other reason that his moments as Bruce Wayne are so well drawn.

But I do think that one of the things that most impressed me about The Dark Knight was Aaron Eckhart's performance as Harvey Dent, later transformed into the villain Two-Face. The more I think about it, the more impressed I am, largely because Dent is presented in the film as a pretty one-dimensional character, and possesses some of the most stilted dialogue--as well as having some of the cheesiest things said about him (yeah, he's the white knight, as opposed to ... what was that other type of knight, again?)--in what is otherwise a pretty solid script. What's impressive is that Eckhart overcomes the poor hand he's been dealt in the script, and brings to Harvey Dent a depth and sympathy that few actors could accomplish with those raw materials. All of which makes his transformation to Two-Face the more poignant.

If I have a broad criticism for the film, it's that it tries to cram too much in. Dent's descent into insanity and subsequent criminal career as an agent of violent chance should have been the substance of the next film. As it was, having spent nearly two hours dealing with the gleeful machinations of the Joker, the film feels as though it does a somewhat uncomfortable shift and we get a hurried half-hour dispatching the Harvet Dent story. It felt tacked on: though done well for all that and containing some of the best moments of the film (this was where Gary Oldman's aforementioned acting moments appeared), it was a waste of such a subtly realized character.

But back to the best part of the film: with Heath Ledger, we get a raw, terrifying Joker, all the more frightening for his complete unpredictability, but also for the fact that as capricious as he is, he always has a plan. He's like Richard III, without the superego. Ledger's performance is also oddly restrained: whatever the temptation in playing such a character to chew the scenery (I'm looking at you, Jack), he's at his most frightening when he's quietest. I think the moment that sums it up best for me is just a brief instant when, upon seeing the batmobile for the first time as it causes some carnage to his henchmen, the Joker's head swivels to follow its path ... and he utters a interested "Hmm." In that moment, we see his mind take this new element in stride, curious but not shaken; it's a very subtle counterpoint to Jack Nicholson's oft-quoted "Where does he get such wonderful toys?"

That being said, I think that comparing the Christopher Nolan Batman with the Tim Burton Batman (we'll conveniently forget Joel Schummacher's attempts, shall we?) is a bit of a fallacy. It's like trying to compare apples and Vespa scooters. Both are great artistic accomplishments, and both changed the nature of the superhero film. And both have iconic moments: the shot of Heath Ledger's Joker dressed as a nurse walking through a hospital parking lot as the hospital explodes behind him will one day find itself on the cover of a film studies textbook.

BUT .... from the sublime to the ridiculous:

In what has to rank in the top five idiotic op-ed pieces I've ever encountered, Andrew Klavan writes in The Wall Street Journal "What Bush and Batman Have in Common." Seriously:

"The Dark Knight, currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past."

I'm honestly at a bit of a loss as to how to approach this, other than to repeat, Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? First of all, I'm not entirely certain what film Mr. Klavan was watching, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't the same one I was. What is brilliant about Nolan's treatment here is, in part, a return to the central paradox of the Batman mythology: that he and the Joker are two sides of the same coin, that the Batman's vigilantism has less to do with altruism than his own borderline psychosis -- he fights the way he does as a means of confronting his own demons, and as a result is always already ambivalent about their methods and effects. Secondly, the "need" for vigilantism in The Dark Knight has less to do with an extraordinary enemy than with the fact that the system itself is corrupt and broken. The Batman is an acceptable ally to Chief Gordon and Harvey Dent because they know they simply cannot trust any of their own people.

Thirdly, while the Joker is undoubtedly a terrorist, he is no ideologue -- except insofar as anarchy and chaos are the basis of an ideology. Part of his glee lies in forcing people into situations where they make choices that dehumanize them. One of the great pivot-points of the story is the Joker's version of the Prisoner's Dilemma: two ferries dead in the water, wired with explosives, each of them with a detonator that will blow the other ship up. If neither ferry blows the other up by a certain point, the Joker will destroy them both. On one ferry, normal civillians; on the other, hardened criminals being transported. The point of the episode is that both ships choose humanity, much to the Joker's puzzlement and disappointment. Which choice do you think the Bush Administration have made, given their systematic dehumanization of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib? (For the record, the orange jumpsuits worn by the prisoners made my mind jump to Gitmo while watching).

Sigh. Here's a few more choice tidbits:

"The Dark Knight, then, is a conservative movie about the war on terror. And like another such film, last year's 300, The Dark Knight is making a fortune depicting the values and necessities that the Bush administration cannot seem to articulate for beans."

"Why is it then that left-wingers feel free to make their films direct and realistic, whereas Hollywood conservatives have to put on a mask in order to speak what they know to be the truth?"

"Leftists frequently complain that right-wing morality is simplistic. Morality is relative, they say; nuanced, complex. They're wrong, of course."

"And when our artistic community is ready to show that sometimes men must kill in order to preserve life; that sometimes they must violate their values in order to maintain those values; and that while movie stars may strut in the bright light of our adulation for pretending to be heroes, true heroes often must slink in the shadows, slump-shouldered and despised -- then and only then will we be able to pay President Bush his due and make good and true films about the war on terror."

I think my favourite moment is when he cites 300 as an exemplar of "the values and necessities" needed to fight terrorism. I hope Bush reads this and realizes he's only got a few more months in which he can kick the Iranian ambassador into a well.

I read this column incredulously, wondering what the hell has happened to The Wall Street Journal that this kind of tripe gets printed? And then I remembered: Rupert Murdoch bought it.
Speaking of people who need to be kicked into a well.


brian said...

haha, i had no idea about that wall street journal article. that's some pretty crazy stuff.

good to see you're blogging again.

Nikki Stafford said...

WARNING: SPOILERS: Just saw the film today, FINALLY, and I adored it. Rob actually had the same complaint you did, that Two-face seemed rushed at the end, whereas I saw it as completing the Joker's mission. That if his entire raison d'etre was to prove that anyone could be turned around and made into an angry freak like him, turning Harvey Dent would be his ultimate accomplishment. I actually thought Two-Face was going to live through to the next film, so I was surprised he didn't. But sad that the Joker did, and the actor who plays him didn't. Heath was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. How sad at the same time. When you see him in interviews and he's so quiet and shy, and then you see him explode on the screen with that horrible laugh and the drawling voice, you realize what an actor he is.

Now, on the other hand, that Wall Street Journal piece is ludicrous. Isn't it strange how we had different views of it? I read the first line of the piece and immediately thought, "A ha! How interesting and apt that he's going to draw a comparison between George W. and the Joker. Both are psychotic clowns responsible for countless deaths, and... oh. Wait. No, that's not what he's doing. Sigh."

Lesley said...

Interestingly enough...I walked out of the theatre thinking about the fate of Two Face and how he became Tommy Lee Jones in the Val Kilmer Batman. I know, I know, I'm kind of a fan of the movies...sigh...

I have to say though, I wasn't all that "on board" if you will on the Heather Ledger deserves a posthumous Oscar train. While I thought his performance was chilling, brilliant, and better than anything else I've seen in a while, it just didn't go to quite the Oscar levels I expected. I did feel sad that such a talent had been lost though.

And I also agree in the comments on Bale's voice during the on screen Batman moments. It bugged. To say the least. All in all though...excellent film and I definitely loved every minute of it!