More on The Dark Knight (SPOILERS)
Posted by Nick Milne on July 22, 2008
As a promised follow-up to my review yesterday, what follows is another post in which no caution about spoilers whatever is exercised. Those still wishing to see the film untainted, as it were, should read no further.
I’ll have a few more posts coming later today on other subjects, but for the moment I’ve got some work to take care of.
Before I begin, I’ll note that Vern of Then F–k You, Jack (long story) has posted his review of The Dark Knight, and it’s as good as his work ever is. If you can handle some sass and other vulgarities, embedded in a style that seems clueless yet superimposed over some pretty pronounced insight into film, Vern’s reviews are for you. An excerpt, for the hell of it:
All super heroes have one weakness. Superman is allergic to Kryptonite, Captain America is afraid of mice, Wonder Woman has horrible B.O., Popeye once got E Coli from spinach and Blade alienates friends and loved ones by being too awesome. Oh yeah, and Spider-man will start dancing if you put a chair near him. In BATMAN BEGINS Batman’s weakness was not-good-enough staging and photographing of action.
[. . .]
For this one the style is similar and occasionally confused me but they upped the ante so much that it almost didn’t matter. Sometimes the disorientation is intentional, because Batman is this force that appears out of nowhere behind a guy or all the sudden comes through the window like a man-sized brick and the note attached is a serious ass-whooping.
But enough out of him. This is a bunch of stuff that I found interesting or worthwhile while watching The Dark Knight; I’d like very much to hear from you as well, on any subject at all concerning the film in question. Don’t feel compelled to comment only on things I’ve brought up myself.
Here, then, are Ten Things I Noticed About The Dark Knight:
1. Monstrous implications – The Dark Knight is PG-13. I get that, it has to be; it’s a comic-book movie, and not a comic-book movie based off of some high-brow graphic novel only ever read by people with arts degrees. It’s Batman; you’ve got to let those kids in there somehow.
That doesn’t mean, though, that you can’t inescapably imply things that, if actually depicted, would put you on the track to an R rating so fast that you’d swear you’d been abducted by pirates. The Joker’s pencil trick (I’ve never seen an audience react so strongly to something in my life, though that reaction was highly varied); the broken pool cue casually thrown down between three men who’ve been informed that there’s only room on the team for one of them; the cutting of Gambol’s lip; Lau sullenly burned alive. And this is only the stuff that happens more or less on camera; there’s much that’s even worse that we hear about happening off.
It’s in circumstances such as these that other critics might mention the strange disconnect that exists in the rating-giving establishment between sex and violence. To whit, it seems a strange sort of thing that a cavalcade of murder and explosions and knifeplay and gunfights and whatnot is perfectly fine, while one exposed breast would be enough to bring them roaring out of their seats. Of sex there’s next to nothing in The Dark Knight; a dishevelled couple are seen trying to quickly get themselves in order shortly after the Joker crashes Bruce’s fundraiser, and there may have been some very light innuendo between Harvey and Rachel. Other than that, though, not a trace. Of violence, though… well, it need hardly be said. Not since City of Violence has there been a city more fraught with violence.
For my own part, I do not find this difference of tolerance for sex and violence either surprising or, necessarily, unreasonable. While the instinct towards force and battle seems to exist in the human person from the first breath (little kids are ruffians, after all), the sexual faculty develops more slowly, and not at all consistently or smoothly. But that’s grist for another mill.
2. The Bat-Pod – Not as lame as I thought it would be, and substantially cooler than it had any right to be.
3. The creation of Two-Face – As those who have read the comics know, the Joker is not typically depicted as being involved in the hideous and traumatizing scarring that turns Harvey Dent into Two-Face. The general story (as most notably told in the pages of Batman: The Long Hallowe’en), sees Dent scarred by a jar of acid splashed in his face by a mobster on the stand during the trial of Salvatore Maroni. In most versions of the story it’s the attack that unhinges him, but sometimes (as in Batman: The Animated Series) there’s a sort of latent monstrousness to him that is only released by the attack rather than created.
In the case of The Dark Knight I can almost see an improvement on the original story. There have been recent storylines that have seen Two-Face take on a sort of vigilante status, albeit still with archly criminal tendencies, but I like the idea of him being driven into a life of infamy by the loss of everything he ever loved and the perceived betrayal by those he trusted more than I like the idea that simply being badly scarred would turn him into a ganglord. Did he survive his final fall at the end of the movie? I think so. For one it would be lame as hell if he didn’t come back after all of this set up, and for another, if I recall correctly, his body seems to have vanished from where it had been lying just before Batman runs off to draw the attention of the police. We’ll see, though. We’ll see.
4. Textual references – As mentioned above, The Long Hallowe’en seems to be a source, here, although The Dark Knight eschews the other supervillains who so frequently appear in that miniseries. There’s also more than a little bit of Moore and Bolland’s The Killing Joke in it as well, particularly as regards the Joker’s doubtful origins and his complete sadistic evil. The idea of a Joker with a “cut smile” has cropped up in a number of other places (see The Man Who Laughs and the Elseworlds book, Gotham Noir), and the final battle in which Batman fights the S.W.A.T. in a dangerous building seems to echo some stuff from Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One (and also the truly excellent animated film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm). If there are more, I’d like to hear ‘em.
5. The Joker’s astoundingly elaborate plans – There are too many to go into with any great depth, but let’s just consider the implications and timing of one of them. To effectively set up his two-way death trap involving Harvey and Rachel, he needs to make sure that he’s captured and taken to the station, that Batman is there as well, and that all of this is done in a reasonable amount of time so that the fun isn’t taken away by having the bombs go off before he can send Batman out to try to stop them. That’s pretty meticulous in and of itself, and it suggests that he knew exactly what would happen with the astonishing car chase he started, though whether or not he knew it would be the presumed-dead Gordon who would arrest him is anyone’s guess. I think he did, actually, as only Gordon could be relied upon not to either kill him or set him free for the mob.
So there he is, in the cell. He had to have dealt with the bomb in the fat guy situation ages ago, as well as have had a great deal of confidence that the guy would be picked up by the police and brought to that station while he was there. It’s possible that it would have been fine with him to blow up the bomb from elsewhere just for the damage it would cause, but there seems to have been a pretty elaborate bit of foresight here on his part involving him using this affair to destroy the only effective police force in Gotham, break Batman’s spirit, get Lau (and his money) under his control, and win his freedom once more. It all goes off without a hitch.
But the only reason it was able to go off without a hitch is because he was able to predict that he could rile Batman enough to start throwing him around the room, eventually breaking one of the window-mirrors and giving him a shard of glass to use as a knife. This shard would have been useless if he hadn’t also reckoned rightly on the police decision to put a guy in the cell with him for extra security’s sake, thus giving him a hostage to let him get out onto the main floor and there complete the rest of his plan.
You know what’s really troubling? It could all have been luck and coincidence. That’s what Chaos does sometimes.
All in all, though, that’s some damn impressive work from the Nolan brothers.
6. The humor – Let’s not mess around here: this is a pretty dark film, by any measure. Cut smiles, bombs sewn into fat guys, shakey-cam snuff films, you name it. Nevertheless, they still manage to break the tension without having to resort to the “man, my powers are awesome” montages of a Spider-Man, or the “man, I’m so cool” montages of Iron Man. No pratfalls either.
What there is, on the other hand, is a great amount of what could best be described as hesitant, self-aware humour. In the original review I mentioned the newspaper headline about Bruce absconding with the entire Moscow ballet – which was great – but there’s so much more, most of it involving Lucius Fox. That Bruce wants new armour that will allow him to turn his head is a friendly nod to complaints fans have been making since 1989, and Lucius’ description of the sonar phone’s capabilities as being “like a submarine, Mr. Wayne; like a submarine” is delivered with truly excellent timing. His slow-building-yet-instantaneous deflation of Mr. Reese’s blackmail scheme also had the audience howling. They sure needed it, at that point.
7. The fake-outs – In a lot of films like this we’re asked to accept some pretty unlikely stuff in support of some pretty obvious later reversals, but in The Dark Knight this whole subject gets turned around. First there’s the turmoil surrounding James Gordon’s “death.” I’ll admit that I was sort of distracted or something when that happened so at no point did I actually believe he really was dead, or even that the film was actually maintaining that he was. I was helped considerably in my opinion by the fact that the trailers I’d so obsessively watched contained numerous scenes involving Gordon that had jet to take place. Still, I’ll wager that a fair proportion of those in the audience thought that Nolan really did have the guts to kill Gordon off before he could even become commissioner; this is, after all, a grittier and more realistic world he’s created.
Few people probably thought that the masked driver of the police van taking the “prisoner” Harvey Dent to the station was James Gordon, but it was clear from early on that his covered face and silence were a matter of some significance. At first, I think, many believed the masked man to be the Joker in disguise, which would be implausible enough but not impossible and certainly dramatically appropriate. As it gradually became apparent that the Joker was still a large elsewhere, the choice would then likely pass to the masked man being Batman. But no, there was the Batmobile, and its driver inside of it. The reveal of the truth was nicely done.
The second such fake-out was more subtle – so subtle, in fact, that I’ve been reading accounts of people simply not understanding it. As if it weren’t bad enough that the Joker has set up a two-way trap gauranteeing the death of either Rachel or Harvey (or both), he goes the extra sadistic length of switching the addresses at which they’re being held so that no matter who Batman chooses to save, it won’t be the choice he wanted to make. Fiendish.
The third fake-out is the most significant of all, and occasioned gasps and murmurs in both of the showings I attended. Heaven only knows what people thought about it afterwards. As the clock ticks down to the destruction of both ferries, it seems obvious that the enormously menacing prisoner (played by Tommy “Tiny” Lister) is going to do something terrible. He even seems to say as much. The weaker man relents, unable to have the murder of hundreds of innocent people on his conscious. Everyone knew what was coming, and so steeled themeselves for either the explosion of the other ferry or the explosion of the prisoners’ own ferry (for thus the Joker rolls).
But no; he just throws it out the window and goes to lead some of his fellow inmates in prayer. What a badass.
8. Possible foreshadowing – There were only two such moments that I noticed, and one might have been a joke while the other could easily be completely meaningless. The first is obvious: Lucius’ wry comment about the new suit of Bat-armour being able to protect him from cats could stand as an indication of a Catwoman to come, or that she might already exist in the world at that time and Batman had had run-ins with her before. Either way, that’s great; Catwoman is one of the few Batman villains that could be rendered in Nolan’s “real world Gotham” without too much trouble. A kleptomaniacal acrobat who decides to put her talents to good use is not so very far-fetched.
There’s another foreshadowing though, that’s a bit more peculiar. One thing that’s been good about Nolan’s restrained approach to things is that we’ve been spared the many villains whose real names just happen to match up with their eventual criminal vocations (as with Victor Fries [Mr. Freeze] and Edward Nygma [E. Nygma - The Riddler]). Jonathan Crane (the Scarecrow) had a nice gothic name, but other than that we’re cool.
Or are we? We have reason to think differently. The character of Reese, the too-smart consultant who follows the money and figures out that Bruce Wayne is Batman, seems to have been introduced for no good reason at all. This is not to say that he’s unwelcome, by any means; his arc is both hilarious and effective, particularly after the Joker invites the people of Gotham to kill him to save their own skins. His name is a strange one, and was obviously chosen for a reason. What might that be? Well, let’s say it fast. Mr. Reese. Mysteries? Very similar to the Riddler’s other nominal justification (“Mr. E.”), wouldn’t you say?
Edward Nygma is too dumb a name to work in the world Nolan has created, but Reese is not. He has the intellect and head for patterns and the physical qualities of the Riddler, to be sure, and it was long rumoured (particularly after the announcement that Anthony Michael Hall would be in the film [he plays the reporter, Mike Engel]) that the Riddler would be introduced in The Dark Knight, though out of costume. Fair enough, but what of the fact that he knows Batman’s secret identity? Nolan has an out there, too. It has been established for a while now in the comics that the Riddler is one of the few people who knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman. He did for a while, anyway, I don’t know if they’ve mind-wiped him now or what. But he did, and he never told a soul. Why? Because, although he was Batman’s enemy (again, only for a while; now he’s somewhat reformed, if I remember correctly, and working as a detective in his own right), he loved riddles more. And indeed, what would be the value of a riddle to which everyone knew the answer? So he kept it a secret even as he fought the vigilante.
I don’t know if Nolan and his team will go this route, but I wouldn’t necessarily oppose it if they did.
9. More symbolism – The three-headed hellhound (kind of) guarding the Joker at the very end was pretty sweet.
10. The flaws – Yeah, there were some. That’s why it’s a 9.5 and not a 10. The trouble with the fight scenes has been mentioned before, so I won’t go beating that into the ground, but there are a few others worth mentioning. The two most egregious involve the Joker. First, you don’t end a film by leaving the most notorious villain in the history of the world hanging off the side of a building. It’s perfectly permissable for him to escape to possibly return another day, or to fall or trip or do something that makes his fate uncertain (he should be dead, but is he? etc.). Don’t just cut away from him as the cops arrive, though, and then never return to him again. Was he arrested? Did he escape? Did they (being Gotham cops) just kill him? These are all possibilities, and I guess we could say that we’re meant to see his ultimate fate as being just as open a question as his origins, but seriously, man, that was a bit lame.
Also troubling was the scene in which the Joker crashes Bruce Wayne’s fundraiser. This is not to bash the scene as it went down, of course, because it was tremendous. I felt bad for everyone who had to be there while Heath Ledger was doing all of that. Even for acting, it must have been nauseating to witness. No, the trouble is with how the scene concludes. The Joker flings Rachel out the window, as is good and proper, and Batman goes tumbling after her. He catches her, they land roughly, and… that’s it. He’s happy, she has a sarcastic quip, and all seems pretty well.
Never mind that the Joker and his armed thugs are now alone in Bruce Wayne’s penthouse with the richest people in the city. How does that turn out? Don’t make us guess, Nolan, you’re better than that. There’s too much opportunity for the Joker’s particular brand of fun there for us to be left holding the bag.
But these are small problems, not large ones. Maybe the director’s cut or special edition or whatever they eventually release will have something added that will make these things more clear. For the moment, though, it stands as a testament to just how great this movie is that this is about as far as I can take my criticism of it.
Now, before we conclude, a brief look at potential villains might be in order. I think we can more or less count out the more “supernatural” villains, like Killer Croc and Clayface and Manbat, and it would be dangerous indeed to bring back Mr. Freeze or Poison Ivy (or, I regret, Bane) after what happened with them the last time.
That leaves us with some interesting possibilities:
- The Penguin: If he’s presented in the proper way, he could be great. Not some sad-sack mutant played by Danny Devito, please understand, but rather, as Dan Berger put it in a comment yesterday, as “the totally-amoral, gang-boss business-genius Penguin of ‘No Man’s Land’.” The No Man’s Land story arc saw Gotham separated from the continental U.S. by an earthquake and more or less abandoned to shift for itself. It was pretty awesome, actually.
- Catwoman: As I mentioned above, she’s not implausible. Just steer clear of Halle Berry and magic cat powers and everything will be fine. Unfortunately, both the Penguin and Catwoman seem to have been nixed by Nolan and his crew, who claim that they intend to focus on someone else (singular or plural, hard to say) in later films. Too bad. She’s a good character.
- The Riddler: See above. Not impossible, and not implausible in a realistic sense, either, with a little tweaking. No outlandish costume necessary (sorry, Frank Gorshin), and it could lead to some plots and disasters that might rival even the Joker’s carefully-wrought schemes.
- Rupert Thorne: Almost a certainty. He’s not a supervillain, per se, but rather a mobster of particular power and tenacity. He was a constant presence on Batman: The Animated Series, and he could easily complete the trifecta of conventional Gotham mob bosses (with Falcone of the last film and Maroni in this one).
- Black Mask: Also a mob boss, but with a terrifying black mask, typically in the shape of a skull. Sometimes that mask has been melded with his face through an accident (or by choice), sometimes it’s just an aesthetic decision. Whatever the case, Roman Sionis (for such is his name) is bad news for everyone in the whole world.
- Harley Quinn: The Joker’s gal friday. Could look silly, but the character is a fun one.
- Talia al-Ghul: It would be somewhat fitting for Ra’s al-Ghul’s daughter to come back for revenge, or even to announce that he is still alive somewhere.
Any other ideas? Ideal casting?
And what about The Dark Knight Returns? Is Nolan trying to tell us something by choosing the title for this film that he did? Only time will tell.