Pros: special effects, Heath Ledger's turn deep into malevolence
Cons: mostly wasting Caine, Freeman, Oldman; pacing; plausibility of Joker enterprises
Although I watched the DVD of "The Dark Knight" on its first day of release, I didn't think that I was going to write anything about it until the last scene (and epilogue). The deja vu I experienced was not for earlier Batman movies, but for John Ford westerns starring John Wayne, most particularly the 1962 "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," along with the earlier "Fort Apache" (1948), and the "noble lie" tradition from Plato through the neoconservatives of the current administration. A neoconservative newsman in "Valance" proclaims "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." At several junctures during "The Dark Knight," Batman contrasts the hero that Gotham needs (one with a face) with the hero it has (his masked self).
Before pushing the analogy, I want to stipulate that the Ford movies violate that maxim by showing that, in both cases, Wayne's character was the hero and, in both cases, colludes in misrepresenting the heroism of another: James Stewart in "Valance," Henry Fonda in "Fort Apache." Similarly, "The Dark Knight" shows us what "really happened" rather than the misrepresentation fed a gullible press for mass consumption "for their own good." Similarly, in another of his greatest westerns, John Ford showed the compulsive egotism of John Wayne's leading "The Searchers" (1956). Audiences sympathize with Wayne's heroes colluding in coverups in "Valance" and "Fort Apache," though his ruthlessness and self-righteousness preclude audience identification for Wayne's Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers." In the famed last shot of "The Searchers", Ethan stands in the doorway, very much alone.
Ford supplied other characters with whom to sympathize or identify in "The Searchers" (Jeffrey Hunter's Martin Pawley being the prime one). "The Dark Knight" has two very seasoned Oscar-winning actors in supporting roles, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, who are sympathetic despite colluding in Bruce Wayne's lethal hobby as the vigilante Batman. They are not on screen very much, nor is a third character who knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman, Maggie Gyllenhaal's Rachel Dawes (who like Vera Miles Hallie Stoddard in "Valance" chooses the hero-for-public-consumption rather than the real one).
I am not at all certain whether the brothers Nolan (Christopher and Jonathan, who also cowrote "The Prestige") intended the mob-busting DA Harvey Dent to be traumatized into vigilantism midway through the movie, or whether that is another "noble lie" for those more in the know than the masses. Two reasons to suppose so are that in Gotham's police force's Internal Affairs, where Dent was before becoming a DA, he was known as "Two Face" and that Aaron Eckhart (Thank You for Smoking) was cast in the role. Just how committed to the rule of law Dent ever was is, in my viewing, an open question.
There is something oppressively fascistic about the Gotham in the two Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan. Gotham is played primarily by Chicago, and corruption in Illinois governance had a spectacular new example spotlighted on the same day as the DVD release of "The Dark Knight," though not at the usual level of police corruption.
The police — and the legal system — are very unreliable in Gotham. The arch-villain of "The Dark Knight," Heath Ledger's very unfunny Joker, not only buys cops for various purposes, but dons police uniform. (He also dons a female nurse uniform later on.) Even before the Joker begins consolidating control of traditional mob enterprises in Gotham, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has felt the need to take the law into his own hands. He helps the police by nabbing criminals. Whether any are convicted without his testimony is a question that nags at me. Seemingly, not. Moreover, particularly in "The Dark Knight," Batman generally arrives too late, and there is a lot of "collateral damage" from his attempts at heroism.
There are literal chinks in his armor, and the Nolans show him as claiming he wants to step back, to retire Batman and marry Rachel. Bruce Wayne does not seem to be having any fun as a vigilante, not least because he notices that he is not succeeding at foiling crimes.
In The Anatomy of Fascism historian Robert O. Paxton defined it as "a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion." What seems lacking in "The Dark Knight" from this is the mass-based party. There are multiple imitators, would-be Batmen even less effective at foiling crimes than Batman himself is. And there is no particular nationalism on display. But I think that in attempting to abet Harvey Dent as an elected hero, Bruce Wayne is at lest to some degree promoting a party, or at least a leader (the cult of a leader/duce/fuhrer is oddly missing from Paxton's characterization!). Wayne longs for a savior figure other than himself, the untrammeled vigilante. The bored billionaire is more an Ayn Rand über-man than an orator whipping up the masses to replace the rule of law with the rule by a benevolent father-figure. There is no evidence either way on whether Gothamites are seeking a savior like the one Bruce Wayne seeks to craft for them in the person of Harvey Dent.
As Ford showed the audience that the official version (purportedly "noble" lies) is unreliable, so the Nolans can be said to be showing fascism rather than providing "fascist entertainment." Like showing misogyny rather than participating in and perpetuating it, there is a very fine, all but invisible line between showing fascist temptations and stoking them.
"The Dark Knight" attracted a huge audience, almost automatically grounds for suspicion for any mass media representation of vigilantism, and Bruce Wayne's stated reluctance (belied by his conduct) to be a vigilante increases my suspicion. But just how entertaining is "The Dark Knight"? There are a lot explosions and intricate chase sequences and rescue sequences. Although the body count is high, there's not much gore for the vampirish gore-cravers. There is one very satisfying noble deed (one of the movie's surprises!) and the arch-villain is caught in something like a spider's web. (Batman does not kill, even the very evil Joker. Batman is not that kind of vigilante. His "Thou shalt not kill" code seems to inhibit policemen killing in his presence. On the other hand his choices and actions cause many deaths, so in the consequential rather than subjective-intention sense of "kill," Batman's caped crusade kills many people, few of whom are criminals.)
Relying on technology (the department of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman)), Batman's feats are not all that superhuman. What requires greater (too great for me) suspension of disbelief is the ability of the psychotic Joker (Ledger) to get loads of explosives placed without detection. He is a sadomasochistic Gang of One. Ledger's Joker does not make jokes for others to laugh at. Cesar Romero's Joker on the tv Batman was almost charming. Ledger outdid Jack Nicholson at psychotic malevolence. Nicholson's sick amusements were to some degree shared and he was an amusing clown. In contrast, Ledger's Joker is a serial killer/terrorist without any charm or an interest in amusing anyone other than himself. He does, however, sense a kinship with Batman amusing himself and regards him as a worthy foe. (I've been watching the first season of "Dexter" and may be particularly attuned to the recognition of each other by dueling psychopaths.)
Ledger's creepy performance is enhanced by the knowledge that inhabiting the role seems to have played at least a part in his death. (Insofar as this is so, it was not worth it, even if a posthumous Oscar is awarded, rather than the one he should have had for "Brokeback Mountain.")
I know that Ledger could be charming and funny (as Casanova, for instance). Christian Bale (like Dexter?) can manage some charm, but has been deadly serious in every part in which I've seen him (including in the very first movie about which I epined, the remake "Shaft" and as the survivors in "Empire of the Sun" and "Rescue Dawn"). His Bruce Wayne/Batman is a very troubled boy unable to grow up from superhero fantasies, and having the wherewithal to finance high-tech prostheses.
Aren't the massive expansion of surveillance and brutal interrogation methods too close to the reality of Bush's America to be entertaining? In this regard, I can't see the movie as being a critique of them by showing them, particularly the interrogation methods. Well, except that they are ineffective in the movie.
I guess that the special effects (not just the explosions and chases) entertain many and that what I see as the "issues" about "noble lies" and vigilantism went down with the popcorn without much chewing. My attention wandered from some of the plot intricacies in the second half hour (after the bravura opening holdup in which the Joker eliminates those with competence, an echo of the recent US that did not immediately come to my mind).
I have failed to mention the third of the crime fighters, police officer James Gordon, perhaps because he is so uninterestingly played by Gary Oldman (an actor quite capable of playing scary psychotics and IMO miscast). With reluctance, he accedes to Batman's "noble lie" about Harvey Dent and the need to "print the legend" about "the hero Gotham needs" rather than what he knows to be the truth.
So, my conclusion is that "The Dark Knight" is a long (152 minutes), not very entertaining examination of two cases of arrested development (Batman and the Joker) with committed performances by the leads, and loads of special effects (and hard-driving Hans Zimmer music) that is all-too-relevant to the US AD 2008.
The DVD I got from Blockbuster has no bonus features, not even the much-lauded trailer. I have not seen the two-disc special edition.
© 2008, Stephen O. Murray