Welcome to Thursday Thunderdome, where two members with opposing views on a pop cultural subject joust to the death for our entertainment. Did we say joust to the death? We meant debate respectively and live forever afterwards. For the first battle, the topic of discussion will be Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). This week, Andy and Kieran step into the debate cage to intellectually spar. Who’s side are you on?
ANDY VS. KIERAN
Up first is Andy, in opposition of the film…
It’s apparent from the first few lines of The Dark Knight’s dialogue to the very last that what the film lacks most; the one element that is conspicuous by its absence in almost every scene, is subtlety.
Heath Ledger’s performance is very good, but even the plaudits for his performance have been overblown.
Make no mistake; he is by quite some distance the best thing in the film. It’s just a shame that this isn’t saying quite as much as it should.
There are loud echoes of Kevin Spacey’s performance as ‘John Doe’ in Seven in Ledger’s interpretation of the role and this reflects that The Joker in The Dark Knight is a far more conventional villain than the last time we saw the character on the big screen.
Whereas Jack Nicholson’s incarnation was an unpredictable lunatic, Ledgers is a far more thoughtful and calculated antagonist. The Joker here has a plan for chaos – and if that sounds to you like a contradiction it’s because it is. As a result of this, and other similar missteps, the character never quite rounds out properly. It’s not a case that there are too many questions leading to vague character but rather that there are too many answers leading to an uninteresting one.
This is a problem that extends to every character in The Dark Knight. In the case of Ledger’s Joker nothing is left unexplained – even the fact that our Joker has no real name or previous life is painstakingly detailed. Rather than simply not revealing something to the audience, the film takes the option of highlighting the fact that something has not been revealed. It’s a tiring method of characterisation that leaves no room for intrigue or interest.
This ceaseless exposition of every nuance of every character and plot point is a massive part of what makes it so hard to enjoy The Dark Knight. Everything takes so much time to explain that the film never has a chance to gain any momentum. There is an ocean of difference between a slow film and a thoughtful one, sadly The Dark Knight is resoundingly the former.
In addition to laboriously drawn main characters there are an abundance of secondary players who suffer a similar fate; none of them are very interesting but all of them are given exhaustive screen time. There is so much gorging on unnecessary detail that the film drags its bloated belly through the dramatic elements until it trundles into the next set piece… which brings us to another problem: Christopher Nolan can’t direct action.
In Batman Begins the action sequences were so badly constructed that it was impossible to grasp what was supposed to be happening. Whilst Nolan’s first trip to Gotham is not the only modern action movie to suffer from this approach to action editing it was arguably the worst offender – and it’s not assisted by the decision to shoot all the scenes by candlelight.
In The Dark Knight Nolan appears to have been bitten by the over compensation bug. Each action sequence lacks both style and pace, the fights seem to be aiming for the realistic brutality in the style in The Bourne Identity or Casino Royale, but they never come close to that viscerality. This exacerbated by driving sequences which are entirely devoid of any sense of speed or drama.
And so it goes on… the film is exhaustive but fragmented, it’s desire to be clever renders it simplistic, its big set pieces come across as painfully small and its deep characters are mind numbingly shallow.
With the Joker as main antagonist, it’s hard not to draw a line between between this and Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989, particularly how both depict the relationship between Batman and The Joker.
The common thread is the notion that The Joker and Batman are as similar as they are different, two sides of the same coin if you will. (The only reference I’ll be making to the otherwise pointless Harvey Dent/Two Face character). This ambiguous yet symbiotic existence of good and evil was far better delivered back in the late eighties.
For this conceit to work the two characters need to share a duality. Nolan’s take on the Joker has but the one dimension and his Batman and Bruce Wayne are too far removed from each other to portray any believable schizoid overtones. In comparison to Keaton’s tortured soul and Nicholson’s tortured psyche this conflict is flat and emotionally bereft.
Bale fails entirely to bring any of the duality and confliction to the Wayne/Batman character and his lack of talent has never been more apparent than it is in the company of Oldman and Ledger.
Like many of today’s blockbuster movies the production standards in The Dark Knight are often high enough to partially conceal its faults, but they cannot hide the fact the film is lost within itself. It knows neither what it is or what it wants to be. It is obsessed with vocalising the uninteresting and providing answers to questions that no-one asked. Most disappointingly of all, The Dark Knight rehashes several ideas from a movie made almost 20 years earlier and fails to improve upon any of them.
Next up is Kieran in defence of the film…
The opening heist scene in The Dark Knight never fails to reaffirm my love of cinema. It’s tension-filled, urgent and expertly crafted, and sets the tone for what’s to come perfectly. What transpires afterwards is a film that lives up to the quality and momentum it establishes from the get go, and it’s one of the greatest filmic experiences I continue to have as a viewer whenever I watch it.
One of the biggest criticisms associated with modern superhero movies is their serious nature, especially the uber serious output of the DC Universe in recent years. You could probably place the blame or praise (depending on your point of view) for that on Nolan’s Batman films. For me no superhero has come close to this level of quality storytelling, characterisation and quality since. The Dark Knight Trilogy emblazoned the grandiose spectacle we expect from movies involving caped crusaders, but they came imbued with a gritty realism that served as a welcome change of pace from the popcorn fare superheroes had become synonymous with up until then. Tim Burton’s films were dark, but they were still a bit cartoony and I personally don’t think they’ve aged well at all. I’m not a fan of Jack Nicholson’s Joker either, and the less said about Joel Schumacher’s movies the better. For me, Nolan gave Batman the cinematic portrayal he deserved, and thrust him into a universe of crime and corruption I could immerse myself in forever.
Don’t get me wrong; I love the camp nature of some superhero movies as much as I love the seriousness of others. Variety is the spice of life and too much of the same is boring. But when Batman Begins established a grounded foundation first and foremost, it redefined the superhero movie. In that film we also witnessed one of the finest metamorphoses of any character in the history of cinema, as Bruce Wayne – motivated by loss and vengeance – channelled that pain to become a symbol of hope, via some samurai training. And the best part – I believed every second of it as I watched it unfold. By the time The Dark Knight rolled around, it was time to get to work. Even though Bruce Wayne’s humanity was overshadowed – perhaps even overcome – by symbolism, the age old battle between good and evil is explored, and the grey area is front and centre. Sure he was a symbol of hope, but the lengths he’d go to instil weren’t clean cut or without sacrifice either.
The Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger, is by far the best part of the film. His performance is an inevitable talking point whenever the movie is mentioned as it’s the sheer epitome of master class. The character is a seminal villain because he’s driven by chaos; there’s no reasoning with him as we know he won’t stop until the world burns. Some have even argued that The Joker is an anti-hero as he’s the reason the criminal kingpins of Gotham crumbled, and Batman is villainous for letting Rachel die (a decision that would come back to haunt him in more ways than one). To me though, The Joker represented evil at its most unhinged and pure, yet smart and calculated. That’s why for me he’s a perfect antagonist – though his despicable actions do play an integral part in the mob disintegrating, you get the impression that he just wanted to revel in the chaotic aftermath.
Aside from the magnitude of the story and the compelling story, I greatly admire the concepts at play. Take, for instance, the martyr arc of Harvey Dent. We see him turn into a monster following the death of his beloved, but in the eyes of Gotham he’s a hero and Batman takes the fall for his sins so people don’t lose faith in their symbol of hope. In a political context, it raises the question whether it’s okay to deceive the people for the greater good? Is it acceptable to cover up atrocities of those in power to preserve an upstanding image so order can be upheld? Better yet: would you sacrifice a loved one if you thought it best for societal order? There are some thought provoking themes within The Dark Knight that simmer in the conscience long after the end credits roll.
For me personally, I love it because it’s an epic crime drama on the same level as Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), which to me typifies the best of what crime cinema has to offer. By adding superhero spectacle and philosophical leanings, The Dark Knight pushed the envelope of what a crime drama could be. That’s just my subjective appreciation talking though as someone who loves an epic crime story more than anything else. But the fact that Nolan was able to crossbreed it with comic book theatrics while still keeping it mined in reality is what makes it a special film in my eyes.
I can’t think of many film’s I’d give a 10/10 to more than The Dark Knight. It’s endlessly rewatchable and never fails to enthral me, and I always come away from it with something new to ponder.