Friday, 19 February 2010

The Dark Knight

Although I'm very much a fan of the brothers Nolan, and an admirer of many superhero comics, I’m not, on the whole, a fan of superhero films (or at least, given that nowadays almost every one of them (even The Fantastic Four!) seem to spew forth a franchise, the first superhero film in a series) since I find the pathological insistence such films have in detailing the "origin story" of the hero in such loving slowness, is either a] stupifyingly tedious if you're already a fan, or b] of more or less no interest whatsoever if you're not.

(At the risk of handing everyone who takes exception to anything that follows a stick to beat me with, I find an exception to this rule is DareDevil, which I really rather enjoyed and think oddly underrated; but I'd rather drink lager (ugh!) than watch the recently opened Wolverine film, which, as far as I can tell, seems to be a whole film of origin story (as well as being, for heavens sake, a prequel: an origin story with no possibility of suspense! Do you have any film of paint drying instead, my good man??)).

I therefore carefully avoided watching Batman Begins, Nolan’s reboot (to use the ghastly and unacceptable word) of Gotham City’s finest. (Not that "not watching a film" requires a tremendous amount of care, let’s be honest).

However, following the acclaim generally heaped upon The Dark Knight, I found I was increasingly tempted to watch this second film, and finally succumbed this weekend after realising that Maggie Gyllenhaal is in it. (This wasn’t a result of neanderthal lechery (though she is gorgeous), but because I think she's a splendid actress, who's been great in everything I've seen her in. Hmmm. Does that sound a bit like protesting too much, I wonder? Ah well...)

Anyway, The Dark Knight.

As it's been out a good while now, on DVD as well as theatrically, I have not shied away from spoilers in what follows. So, if you don't want to know the score, look away now! Act without thinking!)

Here we go then: Gosh, a bit long, isn’t it?

Let’s get one good thing that is possibly due to my aging nature out of the way straight away. Increasingly, I find the modern tendency to cut action scenes into ludicrous, tiny, impossibly hard-to-parse little pieces increasingly frustrating; but not only is it possible to understand what’s going on in The Dark Knight’s action scenes (which are often commendably "real" rather than computer generated), the CGI, when it occurs, looks a lot more real, and a lot less like a preview for the computer game, than anything similar in (say) any of the Spiderman or Matrix films...(Exercise for the student: watch an action scene in The Dark Knight. Pause the DVD and write down what has happened. Then, try the same with, say, anything in the first Tomb Raider film...)

Anyway: I liked the prologue: though bank heists and the "the mob", are, I think, generally colossally tedious subjects for superhero films, the whittling down of the heist team ("No, I kill the bus driver!" &c.) feels like a [dark] comic, as does the dialogue ("Where did you learn to count?!" etc). Hooray, I thought...

But...There are a few worrying moments thereafter though: the most tedious thing it’s possible to image, not just in superhero films, but, indeed, in any drama come to that, is the ‘evil double’ version of the hero. Happily though, this potential nightmare is swiftly turned on its head and revealed not to be a major plot point (and neither is (just about) too much time given over, later, to the equally coma-inducing standard of "the hero must give up his life of vigilantism..." As an aside, in the interests of balance, when this comes to a head I did rather enjoy the appearance of the potentially fatally cheesy line, "The [K]night is darkest just before the dawn...")

Anyhoo, back in the film, shortly thereafter the viewer is forced to wonder, as the action removes itself from Gotham City to Hong Kong [following scenes, so help us, involving women in bikinis on a boat and Morgan Freeman’s Q showing Bruce Wayne his latest gadgets, (while not omitting to advise him to "read the instructions")] whether, given that James Bond is now trying to be Jason Bourne [1], Batman is now trying to step into the breach by attempting to be James Bond. Happily, again, Nolan drags everything back from the brink.

Now, to repeat myself, I like the Nolans, and I’m sure all this is the clever teasing of clever fellows, but, we have to ask, why? It’s not as if the film was too short, let’s be honest...To be fair, to pick an example of this sort of thing that I actually liked, there’s a scene early on where the Joker explains his scars as being inflicted by his drunken and violent father. Now, while it’s obviously possible to break apart the superhero form and uncover the bloodied and soiled ratchets and cogs underneath the lycra and steel (Watchmen is the obvious example – the comic at any rate, I’ve not seen the film yet), this early scene does make one fear the Joker is going to be motivated by some bog-standard "traumatic incident from the past, ideally childhood" form of Hollywood motivation, which (however psychologically truthful it may be) is another thing, I’d argue, that you don’t necessarily want taking up running time in a superhero film. (I’m reminded of something author Lawrence Miles once said about the first Spiderman film. I don’t have the exact quote with me but it was something along the lines of “you’re forced to wonder why they didn’t start with the climactic battle and then go on and do something interesting.") Anyway, when the Joker later on gives a completely different explanation of his scars to the lovely Maggie Gyllenhaal, I literally cheered...

Understandably enough, much of the comment on The Dark Knight has focused on the late Health Ledger’s performance as the Joker [2]. As he always was, he is good, but kudos must also go to the Nolans for managing (I think) to walk the possibly treacherous tightrope between portraying the Joker as a damaged anarchist with a death-wish, whilst without straying too far beyond the realms of comic-book film and attempting to say anything too profound on the nature of criminality. (And, especially as we’ve mentioned Watchmen already, we should perhaps send a nod towards Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, here).

Overall then, better than I was expecting, though before we leave there is one more huge ‘but’ to consider. (Hmm. I paused for a moment here and wondered whether to make an obvious butt "joke", but, happily, I’ve thought better of it...)

Anyway...but. To some extent, the whole bloody film is an origin story for Two-Face. If you’ve never heard the name "Harvey Dent" before, this probably isn’t a problem, as there’s enough else going on; but if you have, it’s incredibly distracting wondering what they’re going to do with this: and ultimately, just as you’ve thought, “Well, at least if he’s going to be the bad guy next time out, at least they won’t have to go through his again,” they (it appears, at least), kill the bugger off...

Finally, I watched this via the medium of a bargain DVD (which was nevertheless, naturally billed as a "special" edition) without many extras. It did however, include amongst the special features all the IMAX scenes, and I dutifully watched these on a tiny portable TV, which, I like to think, must qualify as one of the most spectacular wastes of time yet conceived...


[1] Personally, I don’t actually subscribe to this view that the Bond films are trying to be the Bourne films, but, for the purposes of (just about) making a point, I have here pretended for the space of a sentence that I do...

[2] Perhaps oddly, his portrayal of the Joker as a colossally damaged person who no longer cares whether or not he lives reminds me more than anything of Christopher Eccleston’s portrayal of the Doctor in the 2005 revival of Doctor Who, but that’s probably something for another time...

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