Friday, July 25, 2008

THE DARK KNIGHT IS GOOD, NOT GREAT

This is my first post on this blog. Just to clue you in, I met Jason a few months ago for the first time while working on a documentary that I'm directing. I consider Jason a friend, though I don't know him well.

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I've seen The Dark Knight twice in the theater. I had a lot of criticism for the film, so I immediately made a plan to see it again and test my thoughts. I enjoyed the film much better the second time around, but I stand behind my initial critiques. Batman Begins is a smarter, more focused film than its sequel. And while The Dark Night may be bigger and badder, it also seemed dumbed down for the masses. This film does all the work for the audience and its a shame too, because Batman Begins is a sly commentary on existentialism that provokes interesting questions while remaining true to its superhero roots.

Simply put, The Dark Knight is a great popcorn film that is trying too hard to be thought-provoking. A good popcorn film is something like Mission Impossible, V for Vendetta, or Ocean's 11. These films know what they are and succeed as art because they know their limitations. Popcorn films can be masterpieces and ask tough questions, but a filmmaker needs to recognize the genre and style in which he or she is working. You can't make a good superhero movie if you aren't constantly reminding yourself that your main character dresses up like a bat. A certain amount of disbelief must be suspended when creating or consuming a popcorn film. As such, the filmmaker must take this into account.

By employing real-world locations and abandoning the Gothic production design of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight feels out of place in a world that we find too familiar or similar to our own. This film should have existed in a darker, more subterranean environment, not downtown Chicago. The Dark Knight is gritty, intense, and action-packed, but only halfway succeeds as a commentary on chaos because Nolan can't decide if his film is a comic book adaptation, or a crime drama. I think films can marry different genres, but this particular marriage feels a bit rocky. Perhaps a few changes could have propelled this film into masterpiece territory. Perhaps.

Let's get more specific . . .

There are a few one-liners that keep The Dark Knight out of masterpiece territory. For example, ". . . I'm not wearing hockey pants." There were also several long-winded, heavy-handed diatribes by Alfred, Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent, Fox, and Gordon where the filmmakers, for some reason or another, decided that it would be necessary to explain the symbolism of the events for the audience. For example, when Rachel sees that Harvey's coin actually has two heads, she says, "You make your own luck." This is just bad filmmaking and Christopher Nolan knows better. The first rule of writing is "show it, don't say it."

Another example of this clunky execution was pointed out to me by Torben. In Act III, after Batman sets up his cell phone monitoring super-computer, he carries out an entire conversation with Fox using his overly deep, Batman voice. Doesn't Fox know that Bruce Wayne is Batman? And why is Batman standing around talking to everyone all the time? We should learn Batman's thoughts and motivations through action and conflict. I repeat: "show it, don't say it."

Act III is completely lackluster, and it shouldn't be. At the end of Act II when the Joker escapes from jail, the story has been wound so tight that Act III could have literally gone off like a bomb, but it didn't and it should have. Acts I and II are executed brilliantly with everything coming to a head with the Joker's escape and then . . . nothing. Not much happens after that. I will admit that the filmmakers were obviously going for an emotional catharsis instead of an action-packed climax, but for me, the emotion wasn't there. I was left wanting more from the Joker and perhaps a sticky situation or two that was even stickier than the last.

The best thing about this film really is Heath Ledger. He's absolutely fantastic as the Joker and by far, the most interesting character in the film. Act I and II are executed very well, with the various stories weaving in an out of each other like poetry, but Act III doesn't deliver.

Much of the dialog in The Dark Knight is flat and uninteresting. Only the villains in this film are written well. The heroes remain archetypal shells and my concern for them rests entirely on the laurels of the first film. Without Batman Begins, this film totally crashes. I will concede that Batman grows as a superhero in this film, and that realization was a great moment for me, but the overall arc of Batman/Bruce Wayne is uneven. A lot of his character development rests on the situational drama surrounding Rachel, who is played quite poorly by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Fortunately, Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent helps the drama unfold, but because Maggie G's performance is so stagnant, Batman's growth feels uneven and a bit contrived.

Granted, I'm being really critical, but I've come to expect a lot from Christopher Nolan. Memento just might be a masterpiece, but The Dark Knight isn't.

After I reminded myself that The Dark Knight is just a comic-book movie, and not The Godfather II, or even The Empire Strikes Back, (both of which Nolan mentions as great sequels) I enjoyed it much better when I saw it the second time. The Dark Knight is a great film, probably one of the best comic book films I've seen, but not a masterpiece. None of the films mentioned in this discussion qualify as masterpieces, save Citizen Kane and the first two Godfather films. Mentioning King Kong and Titanic in this conversation is like comparing Michael Crichton to J.D. Salinger or Cormac McCarthy.

I have to admit that I worry about liking a film too much when the theater is packed with jocks and mall rats who yell out that the film is "awesome," "totally bad ass," or a "masterpiece."

In my mind, a true masterpiece is something like Raging Bull, Traffic, 8 1/2, or The 400 Blows.

8 comments:

Grabloid said...

I shared almost the exact same experience you did, Andrew. I agree with your criticisms, and would even extend it a bit further to say that Harvey Dent's character was even a bit weak. The only completely solid performance was Ledger's. Although still good...Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman have become overused, (to use a silly term) "one-trick-ponies", thus unbelievable. Batman Begins is far better for many reasons in my view, and for Christopher Nolan, this film is just average... Having said all of this, The Dark Knight entertained me to the max...nothing like a masterpiece...and it is silly that people are putting it up with The Godfather, etc.

And, finally, if we are talking in 'masterpiece' language...I can't quite see how you can put Traffic in with 8 1/2, Raging Bull, or Taxi Driver...
Traffic is great, maybe even perfect for what it is, but not even close to being on that level.

The masterpiece conversation may be useless as everyone is going to have different criteria for what qualifies something as a masterpiece.

Grabloid said...

I meant "...or The 400 Blows" (not Taxi Driver...although I would consider Taxi Driver to go up there) ...my mistake. Still though, in my view Traffic doesn't come close to measuring up to the others you listed.

Andrew James said...

I think Traffic is a contemporary masterpiece. Perhaps I'll make that my next selection . . .

Grabloid said...

you should do it...i'll join in...

xavier said...

I'll have to disagree. I think for a comic book movie, it is a masterpiece. Everyone gave a great performance, especially Heath Ledger. There is only one other actor who I believe can do what Heath did with that role. That person is Johnny Depp. There were moments in the film with The Joker where the way Heath said something , a gesture or expression he made that were very Johnny Depp(esque)
I love reading Peter Travers reviews and he is usually pretty accurate. I believe he said The Dark Knight is the best Crime drama since Michal Mann's "Heat" and "The Godfather II" I do not think that is silly at all. It is not better than "Heat" or "The Godfather II" but for a crime drama, it is definitely on par with those films.

Jason Pyles, Movie Critic said...

And Xavier, you will note that I, Jason Pyles, wrote in my review of "The Dark Knight" that amid the superhero movie genre, "The Dark Knight" is a masterpiece. I just didn't rate it as a masterpiece among all filmdom. My review can be found at this link: www.rhapsidiommoviereviewer.blogspot.com

Andrew James said...

Yeah. Xavier, I appreciate your thoughts but I agree with Jason. I have very founded criticisms of this film. I never said the movie sucked. Its just not a masterpiece. Its probably the best superhero movie ever, but that's not saying much. Good acting doesn't make a movie a masterpiece. Besides, one great performance doesn't save four mediocre ones. I guess that I'm just more stingy about what films I call masterpieces.

Joshua Ligairi said...

Andrew, I've not seen this film and so will refrain from commenting on it specifically, but will instead comment on what I feel are errors in your judgment.

While I seriously doubt that I would classify The Dark Knight as a masterpiece--since I clearly wasn't even interested enough to catch a matinée by now--I still think that you are being a little hard on Christopher Nolan.

First of all, it wasn't Nolan that decided to meld this particular comic hero with crime drama, it was the creator of The Dark Knight graphic novel, Frank Miller. Nolan, Warner Brothers, the actors, and any audience member with the most rudimentary knowledge of Batman should have known that this melding is what they were getting into when they heard that the flick was called The Dark Knight.

Second, while the film may have several examples of Nolan's failure to "show not tell" (I wouldn't know) I think your "you make your own luck" example was not a good one. That is just (not so) snappy dialog. Ironic dialog putting a button on a scene is not the same thing as telling without showing. Some of the greatest writers of our day are dialog heavy. There is a lot of sitting around and talking in most of the films by Quentin Tarantino, David Mamet, and Neil LaBute. These guys are roundly regarded as some of our best contemporary screenwriters. Juno, this year's Oscar winner for best original screenplay was pretty talky. Again, I haven't seen The Dark Knight, but when the main complaint I hear about a film is that there is a half hour too much action, I'm led to believe that there is a whole lot of showing going on amidst Christian Bale's gruff-toned telling.

My last point is in regard to your comment about this film not being able to stand alone (at least in terms of Bruce Wayne's character arc). I don't feel that this would have surprised me as the film is obviously a sequel to Batman Begins (the title of which clearly denotes origin). Most sequels depend on the origin story to set up our hero for adventures to come. The second film in a series also seems to concentrate more on the villains. I would guess that is even more prevalent in super hero movies. Tim Burton's two Batman films come readily to mind. Sam Raimi's first two Spiderman movies. Richard Donner's Superman movies. Seems like a common practice. I just don't think Nolan is to blame, and while the flick holds little interest for me, these don't seem to be convincing reasons for withholding masterpiece status any more than the fact that it is about a dude in tights and a cape.