Bias Undetected
Ink and Privilege

Gushing for Gotham

I wasn’t going to comment on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which I saw over the weekend, but the level of cooing and gushing among reviewers has been so extraordinary a note of dissent seems in order. Having been led to expect a work of profound genius and “one of the year’s most haunting cinematic experiences,” I was puzzled to find a serviceable popcorn movie, albeit one with pretensions and a serious lack of focus. There are, of course, some great set pieces, most notably one involving cables, improbable physics and a somersaulting truck. And the scene with Heath Ledger’s Joker dressed as a nurse is, for several seconds, positively surreal. In fact, taken individually, there are plenty of fine components. But the overall impression is of Nolan shovelling in as many plots and themes as possible in the hope that some of them would resonate, by chance, apparently.

Joker2There’s the rise of Gotham’s shining prosecutor, Harvey Dent, whose subsequent moral corruption and reinvention as Two-Face is erratic and unbelievable even on its own terms, based as it is on the demise of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s underwritten love interest (about whom we scarcely care) and the implausible misplacing of blame. There are several subplots involving the mob’s money, ferryboats and bombs, high-tech surveillance, copycat vigilantes and the attempted blackmail of Bruce Wayne, though none of these asides amounts to very much. A third deranged villain, the Scarecrow, makes a brief appearance for no discernible reason, and then inexplicably vanishes from the plot. There are some nods to contemporary terrorism, rendition and torture, and the age-old question of how to fight evil without becoming a monster. But a refusal to follow through with most of these ideas leads to a glib ambiguity. Nolan seems determined to have it all ways, while committing to none in particular. Batman is supposedly a creature of great purpose, but his moral logic is often unclear and confused, as when he’s repeatedly told that by “provoking” terrorists he’s responsible for the deaths of innocents – a lie which he apparently believes. Thus, for much of the film, we have something close to a Guardian-reading Batman, which is hardly the stuff of heroism, or indeed gripping cinema.

That said, The Dark Knight is nothing if not busy, though it’s not always clear why. Even the repetitive fight scenes are framed so tightly and cut so quickly it’s difficult to tell who’s doing what to whom. There’s just lots of stuff… happening. And, after the first ninety minutes or so, the whole thing begins to lose focus badly and buckle under the weight of undeveloped ideas. With so much to plough through, there’s little room to establish the assumed poignancy on which the final act depends, which leaves the closing scenes oddly flat and undramatic. At the screening I attended, the last hour took its toll and glancing furtively at watches became an audience pastime. In an attempt to overwhelm the audience with sheer volume of characters and material (and a two-and-a-half-hour running time), Nolan fumbles the final payoff. Several reviewers have hailed the film as “primeval and exhilarating,” “the most intelligent blockbuster movie ever made,” and a dark epic that “leaves you wanting more.” But, for me, great films are the ones I want to see again. And I don’t want to see The Dark Knight again.

See Iron Man instead. Seriously. It’s funnier, better paced, and, mercifully, much shorter.

Comments

John D

I thought it was totally overhyped - and like you say confused. Too many plot lines that didn't add up to anything. And the ferry scene was really cheesy. Plus it was way too long!

Mark T

Has anyone seen Hidden?

That was another film that the critics gushed over.

Needless to say, I wasted £7 on what really was a steaming self-indulgent turd of a film.

Should anyone actually wish to see it (please don't), I won't give too much away, but the film hinges upon a man's guilt about something he did that was slightly naughty when he was five, that involved a boy with different coloured skin.

This is supposed to act as a metaphor for the inherent racism of French society.

JuliaM

"..a serviceable popcorn movie.."

That'll do for me. It IS summer, after all... ;)

Matt M

How does it compare to the first one in your opinion?

David

Matt,

I wasn’t a fan of the first one, so pretty much the same, I guess. The first film is tighter plot-wise, though still a bit baggy, and it does have Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow. But by the time you reach the end of The Dark Knight, you’re pretty much beyond caring and just happy to get out and pee.

Anna

"...by the time you reach the end of The Dark Knight, you’re pretty much beyond caring and just happy to get out and pee."

They should put that on the posters.

Wonder Woman

Thank you for being the one other person, sane enough to notice how underwhelming this film was. I felt exactly the same way.

I was marginally impressed with the new, more menacing tone of the Joker character, but as a devoted fan of the Arkham Asylum chronicles of the Dark Knight series, I felt it still could have used much more.

It's rather sad that the most satisfying part of this particular piece of theatre was when the flaccid, wearying heroine was blown to kingdom come.

David

Wonder Woman,

Well, quite. Poor Maggie gets blown to bits and, apart from being mildly surprised, I really didn’t care. At least she got out of the film before we did. There are some good bits, of course – some of the cinematography is excellent and Nurse Joker was surreal, especially the bedside scene – but it just felt like a pile of shiny bits and unfinished ideas. The way the film’s pitched (and reviewed) suggests it has something important to say about The Times In Which We Live™. And the premise has potential. But even as overblown allegory the film ends up confused and glib; it touches on an issue, briefly, then forgets it for the next one, and the next one. And the storyline – the supposed moral thread – gets smothered, then buried, by unnecessary distraction.

John Gillmartin

You have to admit that movie going, for the general public, is purely an exercise in psychic taste (and irrational at that) ... entertainment choice is wholly irrational; how else do we explain the popularity of certain celebs, ticket prices, and the public's willingness to pay them ($600 million gross of The Knight Noir)?

Anna

Does anyone remember what happened to the joker at the end? Isn't he just forgotten about and left hanging from a building or something?

David

Oh, yes. I’d forgotten about that. Apparently, so had the director. There’s nothing like giving your main antagonist a memorable send-off.

Lee

Interesting post, David. I did love Dark Knight, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again. I like the fact that the Joker is left physically dangling but, as it were, dramatically triumphant. I like the fact that the Scarecrow makes the the most fleeting of appearances (why shouldn't he? Batman, after all, is a jobbing vigilante; why can't we have a jobbing lunatic?). I find I liked the confusion and darkness and, as the certification had it, the "constant level of threat". I liked the fact that Dent became the main threat. Iron Man was great fun; but I'm afraid it hasn't lingered in the imagination to anything like the same degree.

Crucially, I very much do want to see it again.

longshot

"glib ambiguity" :)

David

Lee,

Well, I’m glad you enjoyed it. As I said, some aspects of the film are very good indeed. But it seemed to me a case of Bloated Sequel Syndrome™. Or too much furniture, as it were. I feel that if Nolan had been more focused and made the film, say, half an hour shorter, it would’ve been more than 20% better. I think that could be the difference between grand and grandiose.

AntiCitizenOne

David,

I got the feeling that it was two films mashed together; perhaps Heath Ledgers death caused two films to be shortened into one?

When I saw it the audience loved the rather physically impossible "truck-stop" scene. For me "Nurse Joker" leaving the exploding hospital was the most visually memorable scene.

The movie in one word? Stoicism.

Matt M

Okay, I've seen it now.

I enjoyed it, and wouldn't mind seeing it again, but I have to agree with a lot of the criticisms you make. It talked the talk about the Joker being purely an agent of chaos and about Batman having to embrace darkness if he's going to defeat it, but never managed to walk the walk, coming across, as you say, as glibly ambiguous.

And what is it with sequels going for more than one bad guy? It doesn't so much double the threat as halve the focus. If they'd gone simply for the Joker causing mayhem around the city then it might have been a more interesting (yet shorter) experience.

Plus I didn't buy the resolution of the ferry dilemma. Try that in real life and I'd give it a couple of minutes before someone's pulled the trigger.

David

Matt,

“It talked the talk about the Joker being purely an agent of chaos…”

Yet, oddly enough, he’s a meticulously *prepared* anarchist. Each grand act of terrorism requires a ludicrous degree of order and preparation, doesn’t it? What with the dozens of bombs and timing and such. Or do hospitals just explode on cue due to anarchy?

“…and about Batman having to embrace darkness if he’s going to defeat it, but never managed to walk the walk, coming across, as you say, as glibly ambiguous.”

In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, published in 1986, Batman finally does the obvious and moral thing – he breaks the Joker’s neck then detonates his corpse. Problem solved.

Anna

"Batman finally does the obvious and moral thing – he breaks the Joker’s neck then detonates his corpse. Problem solved."

Go Frank! :D

Bosch Fawstin

Actually, David, in that scene in The Dark Knight Returns, Batman lost his nerve in the last instant in that moment and the Joker did the job for him, finishing what Batman began by twisting himself to death, while literally dying laughing at Batman's lack of nerve. Believe me, I'd love it if Batman did what mainstream superhero morality wouldn't dare let him do, but in the end, Batman didn't go all the way.

David

Bosch,

Ah, I stand corrected. I’d forgotten that. Still, the Joker ends up paralysed, then dead, then dead *and* on fire. Which is, I think, a much more moral outcome than Mr Nolan’s fudge.

rv

"a much more moral outcome"?

David

rv,

In the context of Miller’s book, the Joker is a serial mass murderer, planting bombs in children’s toys and killing hundreds of people for no particular reason. He is, in his own words, “beyond redemption”. Given that the Joker will – must – escape from Arkham or prison or whatever, it’s hard to see much morality in making enormous efforts and taking enormous risks in order to capture him alive, then locking him away temporarily, knowing full well that he’ll inevitably escape, probably by killing some orderly, before starting the cycle of murdering all over again. Faced with such a scenario, lethal measures seem appropriate. Though of course that would remove a major antagonist and comic books generally need loopholes (or implausible mercy) for the villains to return at some later date.

Matt M

I think the moral fudging was most evident in the ferry sequence - apparently it's better to let both a boatload of criminals *and* a boatload of civilians (with children) blow up than try to save the one with children by blowing up the criminals. If Batman hadn't got the Joker in time (or the detonator had been on a timer) then the result of their supposedly moral actions would've been a boatload of unnecessary deaths.

David

Yep, it’s dramatic in a cheesy sort of way, but taken as a moral lesson, it’s all a bit implausible and confused.

Jason Bontrager

Well I enjoyed it both times I've seen it, and I plan to see it again at an IMAX.

That said, all the criticisms I've read above are perfectly valid. It was too long, had too many villains, insufficient focus, the love interest was un-interesting, Batman wussed out (as usual), and the anarchist Joker was apparently a poster-child for due diligence and OCD forethought.

I, too, wondered how the Joker could claim to just go with the flow given how much effort he had to put into planning his little scenarios. I also wondered why everyone on the ferries believed him when he said that their detonators would blow up the *other* ferry, and not their own or both (much funnier that way).

But I don't go to movies, or comics, for deep philosophy or intellectual consistency. I go for the fun.

Of course sometimes one can find insight and logic in comics, or movies, or comics about movies: http://www.leasticoulddo.com/comic/20080719

Luther McLeod

Having seen the film last night I would agree with the majority of the criticisms above. I would like to add though that I thought Heath Ledger's Joker was well done. Perhaps too well, as my wife and I were speculating later if his role might have led a susceptible mind to thoughts that would later prove fatal.

Mark

I thought Batman Begins was awesome.

But I agree with the reviewer on this.

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