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Monday, July 28, 2008

The Dark Naught

So I've finally seen the latest installment in the Christian Bale-Christopher Nolan Bat-Wayne franchise. I enjoyed BATMAN BEGINS quite a lot, and have heard nothing but praise for this newest ep, and like everyone, I was fully prepared to sit back in awestruck admiration of Heath Ledger's mortal genius, so I expected to enjoy it quite a lot.

And, as it unfolded on the screen... I kept waiting to.

And kept waiting to.

SPOILERS after the jump. Don't say I didn't warn you.

It... I... well... um... gee, that LOOKED pretty cool, right there, when he was punching that one guy...

Look, THE DARK KNIGHT just never came into any kind of focus for me. There was no there there. If pressed to say exactly what it was that failed the most for me, I guess I'd have to point to the gaping abyss that was the Joker. As in, who is this guy? Where did he come from? Why is he here? What is he trying to accomplish?

Or, to put it another way, WTF, dude?

Unlike the actual character from the actual comics, his skin isn't actually white and his lips aren't actually ruby red and for all I know his hair isn't actually bright toxic green, either. No, he's wearing hastily smeared on clown makeup, and his hair is a mess and he's got some nasty looking scars running up from either side of his mouth. He explains how he got these scars (and, presumably, what it was that turned his mind into a pretzel dog) over and over again throughout the course of the movie, and every explanation is different, and, usually, poorly worded and not particularly anything. His explanations don't move me in any way. Which is okay, I guess, as most likely none of them are true.

What he does kind of say, without actually coming out and saying it, is that he's a freak, just like Batman; if there had never been a Batman, there would never be a Joker. Which is all well and good, but, honestly, as an emotional subtext to hang an entire arch-adversarial relationship on, is kind of lame, all by itself. And that's all we ever get.

It troubles me greatly that the Joker is not, in fact, even the first colorful masked supervillain in this reimagined Batman franchise -- that honor goes to the Scarecrow, and in all honesty, the closest this movie ever came to working for me was in the opening ten minutes, when Scarecrow is the bad guy.

Now HERE's a guy who has an interesting and emotional background with Batman; HERE's a guy who has a palpable emotional connection to him. And it's one that was manufactured entirely out of Scarecrow's previous crimes and Batman's successful thwarting of his previous criminal goals, which pretty much proves that you really DON'T need to make every villain in a superhero franchise either (a) the long lost mentor of the hero, whom the hero deeply admires But Now He Must Battle Him To The Death Oh The Angst The Angst, or, (b) The Hated Man Who Killed The Hero's Parental Figure. I was happy to see some superhero movie somewhere demonstrate the truth of this proposition, and only wish they had then used the same technique to establish a deep mutual loathing between the Joker and the Batman.

And I'm sure they tried, but it just never worked for me, and the reason it never worked for me is that, well, there was nothing to the Joker. He's up, he's down, he's all around -- oooooooh, look at him, he's CRAAAAAAAAZY!!!! But that's all we got, and, at least for me, it wasn't enough.

As any fanboy would, I enjoyed the various different visual outtakes from Miller and Mazzuchelli's BATMAN: YEAR ONE -- although they made me mournful, too, as I continue to wonder what might have happened if some screenwriter somewhere had decided to actually make a movie out of that fabulous story, instead of making up something entirely different and occasionally throwing in visual references to that story as a sop to those of us who have actually read some of the main character's source material.

I also enjoyed the disparate references to other crucial comics storylines, like the copy-Bat vigilantes (from DARK KNIGHT RETURNS) and the massive sonar/cell phone surveillance machine (reminiscent of Batman's Brother Eye satellite from the build up to INFINITE CRISIS).

Aaron Eckhart as Dent/Two Face didn't do a thing for me as he never put anything real into either performance -- I had no credible feeling for his Dent, who always struck me as rather soulless and insincere, and without having any real sense of Dent's validity as a 'white knight', didn't really feel the impact of his transformation to hideously deformed and murderous psycho. Maggie Gyllenhaal emoted up a storm as Rachel Dawes but I didn't give a shit; it was vaguely sad when she croaked, but not as sad as when the original Lois Lane died in an issue of INFINITE CRISIS.

The final denouement, with Batman taking the rap for all of Two Face's murders so that Gotham could continue to believe in their fallen white knight, struck me as outrageous bullshit; it's not like you need to hang a few bodies on the Batman to make him a scary outsider. But then, I never believed the previous plot twist either, when Harvey Dent claimed to be the Batman in order to lure the Joker out of hiding; anyone who would really believe that Dent was the Batman had clearly never seen a photograph of either of them, since their jawlines are absolutely nothing alike.

Which is admittedly a quibble; had this movie any of the emotional validity of the first one, I wouldn't have been troubled by such trivia (maybe the Batman has never allowed anyone to take a photograph of him) any more than I was overmuch bothered by the tank-like Batmobile in the first film vaulting from one downtown Gotham City rooftop to another, when you had to assume that none of those roofs had ever been built to suddenly withstand the impact of a flying armored vehicle that had to weigh at least ten tons.

Throughout the film, I kept waiting for Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne/Batman to display any of the rich, warm human feelings he'd so clearly had, even in the depth of his obsessions, for Rachel, Alfred, Lucius Fox, Jim Gordon, and that movie's central villain, Ras al Ghul. I never felt any of it; the only time I got a shred of a sense of connection between Batman and anyone, it was when he was exhorting the Scarecrow towards the start of the film. The rest of the time both Bruce and Bats simply didn't seem to care about anyone around them; even when Bruce and Rachel had their obligatory clinch about halfway through this movie's seemingly interminable 150 minute run time, I didn't get the impression either of them really gave a shit. It was just something they had to do.

Overall, this film struck me as a long empty mess. Which makes me sad.

On the other hand, it's pretty clear to me that whoever edited together that WATCHMEN trailer new their target audience pretty well, as pretty much every image in it is derived entirely from the source material. I have little doubt that when I see the finished movie, I will discover that its central plot and story bears little to no resemblance to what Moore wrote in the original graphic novel, but the bits and pieces they've shown to us so far are finely calculated to provide an entirely different impression.


At 7:20 PM , Anonymous TonyCollett said...

We just came back from seeing The Dark Knight a second time in IMAX. I read and thought over what you wrote here, and here's how I reconciled what I saw and the comics I've read over the years:
The Batman in the movies is a different animal than the one in the comics.
And before you say "duh" I mean in the execution of the ideas set forth in the comics. You have a film Batman that has no aversion to guns (whether it's handling one to take care of Joe Chill himself to the arsenal in the BatTumbler/Batpod), who wants to share his fear of bats with criminals (no mention of them being a superstitious, cowardly lot) and utilizing prototypes and designs from Wayne Foundation's R&D division that can be shaped to a bat motif.
And there's the Joker. Start with a criminal who wears war paint (as one of the hoods at the start of TDK speculates) add a couple of scars on the sides of the mouth shaped like a smile, mix in The Killing Joke's "If I have to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice" and his wanting to prove all it takes is one bad day to push someone to bad, and you've got the movie Joker. And I could think of a few different outcomes to the bombs on 2 ferry boats, each rigged to blow the others' if the detonator is pressed, than the one in the film with the Joker we know from the comics, all involving more carnage. All that was missing at the end of that sequence in TDK was Joker grabbing his dog Max and spouting Seussical rhymes.
But I liked the film mainly because I saw it was a different animal than the comics version, without disregarding or disrepecting that version.
FWIW, maybe in about 20 years we'll have a new version of Batman on film that'll make us look back on this version of the franchise as we do with Tim Burton's/Joel Schumaker's now. I'm too much of a fanboy to disdain the cinematic versions of comics as some are. I'm not content to be satisfied with the original book on the shelf. As Neil Gaiman said about that statement while making Stardust you owe a responsibility to make a good film that someone will turn on on a rainy Sunday afternoon on television. Or something to that effect.

At 9:49 PM , Blogger Nate said...

Well, I liked it better than Batman vs. The Ninjas, and it was easily the best Batman movie since Keaton quit the franchise, but given that since Keaton quit the franchise the franchise has blown moist toads left right and *nita that is damning with pretty faint praise.

*nita: 1) arbitrary name given by mathematicians to one of the fourth dimension's directions of travel (see also aki); 2) relating to the nita side of something

At 9:47 AM , Blogger Doc Nebula said...

It troubles me, on reflection, that (to the best of my immediate recollection, anyway) the essential sequence from Batman's origin where Bruce Wayne is puzzling as to what his disguise should be, and he looks up and sees a bat, with all that classic "Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot...A bat! That's it! It's an omen. I shall become a BAT!" has never been represented in any non-comics adaptation of Batman.

It's possible I'm misremembering; perhaps such a sequence was part of the Keaton Batman, hell, maybe they even jammed it into BATMAN BEGINS and I've just misrecollected. But at this point, as I write, I can't remember that bit being in any Batman movie, or, certainly, any Batman TV show.

Were I making a Batman movie, I think I'd run that sequence behind the opening credits... Martha and Thomas Wayne get gunned down, Joe Chill is unnerved by Bruce's glare... "Stop lookin' at me like that, kid... stop LOOKIN' at me..." Bruce lifts weights and hits the books while muttering "never again, never again" to himself... Bruce travels the world learning how to become a great detective and fighter... finally, Bruce at Stately Wayne Manor, doing the "criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot" riff, when a bat flies through the window... it seems to me you have to have all that. But the BATMAN movie producers don't seem to agree.

Beyond all that, though, sure, the movie Batman/men are different from the comic book Batman/men, and we all get that. I'm not talking about that. I simply didn't like this movie; I felt it failed, as a film and as a story, in its own right, largely because the characterizations didn't work for me.

Given similar story constraints, I would have had the early Joker crimes (that killing spree/bank heist, for example) be committed by the Red Hood. Have, in fact, the Red Hood do a few brutal crimes, and have at least one inconclusive run in with Batman, to establish a heated adversarial relationship between them. Then do the whole Apex Chemicals confrontation and transform the Red Hood, a sane and dangerously intelligent if utterly amoral gang leader, into the insanely vicious Joker, who obviously hates Batman for causing his transformation in the first place.

Do all that and you're off to the races with a character who has a solid reason to hate Batman and become his arch nemesis. You don't need Two Face at all, although if you want to throw him in for some damn reason, you can still have all that Harvey Dent crap, too.

I will say this -- I got more feeling for Harvey Dent as a character in four panels of BATMAN: YEAR ONE than I did in two and a half hours of yakkity yakking DARK KNIGHT movie.

Now I'm going to go watch BATMAN BEGINS again and find out I'm completely wrong about the "I shall become a BAT!" sequence. But wtf. It's what I do. It's all I do.

At 6:49 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked the dark Knight, but im a bit of a....freak is prob the best way to put it.
About wot u said with Dent saying he was batman and how their jaws are different, like many of them have seen him! He goes around in the dark, not very social, the only person who'd tell is Jim Gordon, who was faking his death at the time.

At 12:56 PM , Blogger Doc Nebula said...


(a) The Joker has seen both Batman and Harvey Dent, and he is the person the hoax was primarily aimed at.

(b)Here's a question for you: What famous historical character, after bringing up the enormous and obvious difference between Christian Bale's and Aaron Eckhard's jawlines, then followed that note up with this paragraph:

"Which is admittedly a quibble; had this movie any of the emotional validity of the first one, I wouldn't have been troubled by such trivia (maybe the Batman has never allowed anyone to take a photograph of him) any more than I was overmuch bothered by the tank-like Batmobile in the first film vaulting from one downtown Gotham City rooftop to another, when you had to assume that none of those roofs had ever been built to suddenly withstand the impact of a flying armored vehicle that had to weigh at least ten tons."

Wait, it's a trick question, that was me.

So, (a) the person the hoax was mostly meant to fool had certainly seen both of them, and (b) I admitted this was a relatively minor point that I wouldn't have cared much about had the movie been better.

But thanks for playing our game.


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