Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Dark Knight (2008)

Why So Highly Acclaimed?

- The success of director Christopher Nolan's 2005 Batman reboot, Batman Begins, not only changed the superhero genre (how many times since has a superhero film franchise started over?) but spawned an even more successful sequel The Dark Knight in 2008. Breaking away from the character-centered narrative of Bruce Wayne established in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight takes a theme-centered approach to the superhero tale that is gritty and grounded in a real-world feel, a direction that makes the film look like it would be more at home with Heat (1995) or The Departed (2006) than Batman (1989) or Iron Man (2008). Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) is faced with a new kind of enemy, an enemy that cannot be bought or satisfied because he "just wants to watch the world burn." The Joker (Heath Ledger) is that enemy and Batman must work with Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Gotham's new D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to stop this enemy that they cannot understand.

One of the greatest box office successes in United States history, The Dark Knight has also received a truckload of acclaim that movie studios only dream of - and I haven't the foggiest of ideas as to why. While including enough truly great elements to make the film good overall, The Dark Knight lacks general execution, cinematography, performances and simply memorable scenes that snatch greatness right out from under its chiropteran claws.

I have never been a fan of Heath Ledger ever since the first time I saw him shooting Red Coat caricatures in The Patriot (2000) and prancing it up in A Knight's Tale (2001). I have never hated any of his performances; but I sure as hell never liked them. Well, Ledger's performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight is a performance that I can wholeheartedly say that I enjoyed - his performance of the Joker is one of the finest things that is a part of this film. Ledger's Joker is not better or worse than Jack Nicholson's take on the character in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman film; he is a different character entirely. The Joker in The Dark Knight is out of his mind but brilliant, always one step ahead of the good guys and kills because it gets him off. Ledger employs many facets into the character, uprooting the Joker's smart, crazy, evil, subtle and even humorous sides in all sorts of excellent ways.

As good as Ledger is here in this film, I was impressed the most by Gary Oldman's performance of Lt. Jim Gordon. Overshadowed, however wrongly or justly, by Ledger's unique performance (also putting into considering the significance of Ledger's performance within the context of his life) Oldman tosses out the British accent and plays this gold-hearted workhorse cop to perfection, giving his Gordon character the most characterization in the film. Naturally, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are also up to their usual high standards as Alfred and Lucias respectively. The Dark Knight is also filled with some stimulating action scenes and James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer's score works just as incredibly well as it did in Batman Begins.

However, The Dark Knight has a big problem: it has little style, atmosphere or feeling. Where Batman Begins followed a blueprint of characters first and themes and action second, The Dark Knight flips this around to the film's disadvantage. The first hour or so is muddled, rushed, poorly edited and focused on action meanwhile throwing out any character development. Things start to pick up towards the middle where some of the film's characters are flushed out more and its themes enter the picture but then it is back to business as usual towards the end of the film. One criticism of Tim Burton's Batman films is, ironically, that they are not films "about" Batman and the villains take up most of the story. Well, guess what, The Dark Knight is not about Batman either as the action scenes, story themes and the Joker, Gordon and Dent characters have just as much screen time as our caped hero. I have no problem with that, however: where, I say, is the same outrage among Batman fans?

The cinematography is also all too ordinary - and I say that with conviction in the face of the fact that cinematographer Wally Pfister won the Oscar for his work on the film. Although I am at odds with the more influential Academy members, I thought that Pfister failed to repeat the same level of cinematic achievement that he achieved in Batman Begins. Sure, The Dark Knight is a dark, shadowy movie; but few unique shots and great cinematic coloring can be found, something that strips the film of any deep picture and real style.

While Ledger, Oldman, Caine and Freeman are all fantastic in the film, no one else is. To my surprise, and after a riveting performance in Batman Begins, Christian Bale is absolutely bland in a tux as Bruce Wayne and in a cape as Batman here in The Dark Knight. It sure does not help that he has less of a character to play than he did in Batman Begins; however, his individual performance is just about as interesting and exciting as ice water in this film.

Former Rachel Dawes Katie Holmes is absent from the film and Maggie Gyllenhaal comes in to fill the love interest shoes. Here in The Dark Knight, Gyllenhaal gives hope to mediocre actresses everywhere by giving a truly forgettable performance in a major blockbuster. But on top of that, she is just ugly. I mean, Holmes is no Meryl Streep but she is at least cute; and let us face the facts, Rachel Dawes does not have much to do in these Batman films besides being cute. Rounding out the rest of the main cast is Aaron Eckhart, also a Nolan Batman newcomer, who gives an inconsistently poor performance as the two-faced Harvey Dent. At the beginning of the film Eckhart is pretty bland, nothing special; but he gets progressively better as the film continues.... Until, that is, he goes completely ass-over-eyeballs over-the-top by the end of the movie.

The filmmaking and performances aside for a minute, one of the biggest question marks that hangs amidst the Hollywood community's praise for The Dark Knight is how the film adheres closely to the George W. Bush, Neoconservative (and, to be fair, Barack Obama and Democrat) policies and support of the War on Terrorism. As outline by conservative author Andrew Klavan, regardless of how you actually feel about Bush or the actual War on Terror, the way that The Dark Knight not only mirrors but vindicates the position of the Neocons is as clear as day - from language to visuals and the way that the Joker carries out his evil deeds to the ways that Batman decides to combat such evil. Now, I am not coming down on either side of the War debate right now, I simply find the praise for such a blatant vindication of the Bush Administration by a very anti-Bush Hollywood extremely odd!

When I was walking out of the theatre after viewing The Dark Knight in the summer of 2008, I could not help but feel gypped by the hype. This was supposed to be a brilliant film - a one in a lifetime experience; a game-changer. However, not only did I feel that Batman Begins was a more impressive film and more significant film for the entire superhero genre, the largest quadrant of my reaction to The Dark Knight was dedicated to how much of an overrated film I felt it was in general. The Dark Knight, while entertaining in many ways, suffers from some major cinematic woes - from filmmaking snafus to acting disappointments - but has a bigger problem yet. As critics hailed it in their columns and fans loved it at the box office, The Dark Knight failed to deliver anything truly memorable outside of Ledger's Joker and Oldman's Gordon for me. Yes, these are great things; however: Where were the timeless scenes? Where were the lasting images? Where was the lingering film feeling? Well, the answer seems simple to me: they are nonexistent; the only thing that The Dark Knight has to offer is Ledger's Joker, Oldman's Gordon, cool music and the short-lived excitement from the action scenes. These elements are great enough to carry The Dark Knight into cinematic superhero goodness.... but not greatness.

CBC Rating: 7/10

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