Perhaps it was the comparison to The Godfather Part II that did me in. Or maybe the unending stream of outstretched arms, ready to embrace this picture as not only among the best of the year, but as an epic crime drama all but transformed into an instant classic. But then, it may have been the Oscar talk, or the hyperbolic rushes of orgasmic glee that would seem to herald the fulfillment of every critical desire and adolescent fantasy under the sun. Is this it, then, the apex of the genre, the final showdown, the future standard bearer that has it all, says it all, and is all, now and for all time? All grating, all maddening, and all furiously overstated, yes, but in the end, it may also come down to the fact that throughout the film’s unjustified, unnecessary, unfulfilling 152 minutes, I could not for the life of me understand why Batman continually shot for — and nailed — a pitch-perfect impression of Clint Eastwood. Yes, even while completely alone, or with a close friend who knew who the fuck he was, for fuck’s sake (and there being no reason at all to hide his identity) he channeled the Man With No Name as if auditioning for a Rich Little variety show. And so I waited for an answer, though that knowing wink never came.
In his car, solo and frustrated, was that voice. Standing in an empty room, save Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, a Negro, thought not entirely Magic this time), a man quite aware of Bruce Wayne’s alter ego, he spoke as if in disguise; a figure of mystery bearing the world’s loneliest burden, though with the trademark squint and dusty poncho of another, more masculine icon. What purpose did it serve? Surely someone, at some point along the way, knew that for Christian Bale to convincingly inhabit one of pop culture’s most recognizable characters, it would not be a good idea to portray him as a manifestation of a figure equally familiar? Right? Was the director aware of how ridiculous he sounded? Did he care? And why do I have the sneaking suspicion that I’m about to be inundated with vaguely threatening emails that suggest Batman’s intonation is the result of a superhero outfit pulled too tight about the diaphragm, or some obscure metallic compound found in Gotham leather goods that presses on the larynx just so, and didn’t I read the special edition liner notes of Bob Kane’s unpublished memoir that, like, explains the whole fucking thing?
I am decidedly not the person to be tackling this review, and it’s just as likely that I had no business attending the damn movie to begin with. I hate the genre, loathe the impulse that foists such movies on an all-too-willing herd of sheep every summer season, and am the first to point out that as “dark” and “edgy” as such films claim to be at this point in a failing republic, it is still just some swanky playboy in a bat suit smacking around assorted cartoons. As such, all metaphors are forced, all cultural tie-ins mere happenstance, and rather than a picture for our times, The Dark Knight is simply a cynical turn in much the same way The Empire Strikes Back created a temporary bump in an otherwise smooth road through sci-fi heaven. Yeah, it’s fun that the bad guy gets away, or that he commits his crimes for sheer, anarchic delight, rather than financial reward, but that doesn’t make the story any less incoherent, or the chase scenes any less tedious in execution. This is a pulp experience that goes on and on and on, with the tired assumption that length connotes depth, and somber tones — and the occasional cackle — inject relevance and insight into an adolescent’s approach to morality and ethics. See, we have come to expect the clash of good and evil in our cinematic comic explosions, and whenever a hero flirts with ambiguity — even halfheartedly — we automatically assume we’re one step from Chinatown.
It’s as if Christopher Nolan knew that for the franchise to receive renewed attention after the joke-heavy clunkers of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, he had to exploit our need for more burdened heroes; tortured, conflicted men who no longer had the will to flick away their demons with cool one-liners or the occasional toothy grin. Sure, it’s a welcome retreat from deliberate idiocy, but merely adding gray to what used to be a sunburst of color doesn’t alter the intent, or the final result. As such, we don’t much care about Wayne’s dilemma, which amounts to whiny belligerence, rather than a titanic struggle with the heavy themes of the day. Additionally, the entire production is hijacked by a supporting character, which is often the case in films of this type, but here seems to highlight Batman’s inescapable dullness. Perhaps no one could hope to compete with Heath Ledger’s Joker, the one shining light in the entire movie, because he alone seems alive. While the others — from Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel Dawes — pout and mope and wear their pain on their sleeves, the Joker takes pride in his work, even if such labors amount to little more than putting a city through hell for the sheer delight of watching it burn.
But more than the character overshadowing the rest of the limp cast, it is Ledger himself who reminds the audience how out of place he is in such a production. His talent is obvious, and his natural rhythms create nuance and ambiguity where the writing may not be up to snuff. Sure, the Joker is given all the good lines (and the only passages that strike one as thoughtful), but even when silent, Ledger makes everyone else choke in the exhaust of his superiority. Take Bale by way of comparison: not only has he been one of the decade’s most overhyped performers, he reminds us again (as if the painful Rescue Dawn hadn’t been enough) why he cannot handle even the slightest hint of emotional disturbance. When he screams, or seems on the edge of sanity, his buffoonery all but swallows him alive. Add to that the appalling Eastwood garble and you have a performance that should have everyone consulting their Razzie ballots come January. Though all but Ledger compete for the stilted trophy of shame, it is Bale who takes us right out of this world with his calculated, phoned-in despair. He might have made it had his Batman been a striking contrast to his clueless Wayne (much like Christopher Reeve gave us a cocksure Superman against a pitiful Clark Kent), but both incarnations are so fitfully uninteresting that I wish he’d have turned in his cape from the outset and let the Joker do his business in peace.
Again, though not thrilled by any one scene of The Dark Knight (and bored shitless by the film’s first hour), I could at least extract a modicum of joy from the Joker’s willingness to bomb hospitals and murder plucky heroines. And when he says that his acts are not personal — just business, like the Corleone clan (there I go, making my own comparisons to The Godfather) — we don’t care if he means it; we just want him to tackle a nursery next. Oh, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t exploit the school bus motif throughout, as if we wouldn’t notice that the rotten Scorpio killer from Dirty Harry did exactly the same thing. Here, as with that cheerfully fascist monument to an era, it’s as if co-opting the image of childhood for evil purposes is about the worst thing any human being could ever hope to do. And yet, the Joker won’t touch the ultimate no-no of killing a wee one onscreen (he flirts with it, but no dice), so we’ll have to settle for cops and the like. Ledger’s creation, then, has the heft to warrant discussions of compromised decency, and how good people just might have to adopt unsavory methods to triumph over the dark side, but alone, not even he is up to the task. His ruminations titillate, but die on the vine once we swing around to the drip in the bat suit.
Even Dent’s transformation into Two-Face grinds away with little cheer (though he does use a coin like he watched No Country for Old Men too many times), and the expected result — his physical deformity and loss of love leave him bereft and hungry for vengeance — comes around so dutifully that we simply shrug and move on. Yes, it’s an improvement on the ludicrous Tommy Lee Jones turn from years ago, but must we salivate over an idealistic district attorney’s fall from grace? Again, he’s simply killing time until we can return to the real attraction. And maybe my break for popcorn was a bit long, but I’m still not sure what Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) had to do with anything, and while I know the money was a classic MacGuffin, every scene involving gangs, rival gangs, and bank robberies made my eyelids that much heavier. I cursed the explosions, resented the jumps from high buildings, sat slack-jawed at the return of Eric Roberts, and couldn’t shake the feeling that Michael Caine actually found an easier paycheck than Jaws: The Revenge. And why again were they in Hong Kong? Nolan is a talented director, but here, he’s flirting with an undue pretension, as if he felt a twinge of guilt for playing to the nerds, so he had to convince the suits he was creating a modern fable. But allusions to Bush wiretaps and the erosion of privacy must be more than mere plot devices. Issues of real-world importance deserve a serious forum, not exploitation at the hands of carnival barkers.