Watching a superdeluxe presentation of The Dark Knight unfold across the eight-story-tall IMAX theater in Manhattan, I had a nagging question: why was the mayor of Gotham City wearing eyeliner and mascara? The movie has anvil-sized matters on its mind, like duality, and good and evil, and guilt and expiation — enough weighty themes to overstuff a Dostoevsky novel. But I latched onto that one stupid detail, a clear Bat-signal that the Caped Crusader had returned but wasn’t doing that much for me.
The next morning I had my answer: the actor is Nestor Carbonell, who apparently looks much the same on Lost. I’m sure that’s a fine islander look (I wouldn’t know, as I don’t watch the show), but it was curious for a stuffed shirt in an urban jungle. It kept throwing me out of the bigger picture that cowriter and director Christopher Nolan had made to follow up Batman Begins, the one that fanboys have been salivating over since 2005. Maybe it was the fault of the towering IMAX process, which enhances what works in a film — here, a semi-superfluous trip to Hong Kong distinguished by death-defying visuals when Batman takes flight in its glass-and-steel canyons, and a truck flip that lands in your lap — but amplifies what doesn’t, like an offbeat makeup job. You might not even notice it at your garden-variety multiplex, which is where I had planned to see The Dark Knight an additional one or two more times. Once may be enough, though. With apologies to those with tickets in hand for the weekend, and those so engorged on the hype that dissenters must be rooted out and punished by the time the weekend tally rolls in, I can no longer beat about the Bat-bush, and must announce that The Dark Knight is the most disappointing movie of the year.
It was not supposed to be this way, and I’m as crushed to report this as you may be to read it. Nolan, the creator of the mind-bending Memento (2000), rescued Batman from the ash heap of the Joel Schumacher era (1995’s Batman Forever and 1997’s Batman & Robin), which made the Adam West TV series look like Strindberg by comparison, and Batman Begins is one of the more confident “origins” stories, a slate wiped clean for renewal. True, it is fairly ponderous, and heavy with portent; the Gothic fun of Tim Burton’s contributions (1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns) was missed, and I’ll say up front that I prefer Burton’s fantastic touch. (Sit me down in front of Batman Returns and I won’t budge for two hours.) By bringing the Joker back onto the scene, The Dark Knight promised to shake off some of the gloom and get its freak on. But it has a serious case of the glums and progresses at a lurching, dawdling pace — it’s the Atonement of superhero sagas.
As The Dark Knight opens, Batman’s good example has spawned a rash of copycat do-gooders, who come to grief at the hands of Gotham City’s weakening but unshakable mob (led by Eric Roberts, dusted off and in sleek, malign shape). An upstart kingpin, the mysterious Joker, is bedeviling the forces of good and evil with his own anarchic crime spree, its purpose unknown. He demands the unmasking of Batman to stall the madness, and our hero’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, considers complying. Wayne is burdened by the responsibility of his heroism, which puts him at arm’s length from his former love, attorney Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, stepping in for Katie Holmes). Dawes has taken up with “white knight” Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a headline-hogging DA who is nonetheless perfectly sincere about loosening Gotham from the grip of criminals, and frowns upon the alliance Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) has formed with the vigilante Batman. Offering advice from the sidelines is Wayne family retainer Alfred (the unflappable Michael Caine) and Batman builder Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, back to playing Mr. Nice Guy after his villainous turn in Wanted). It goes without saying that the Joker, who has his own yen for Batman, complicates the central romantic triangle: “You complete me,” he drools, under Batman’s protective custody, as he makes a different play for Dent. (The homoeroticism of the Schumacher pictures has been retired, but the dangerous allure of false fronts is an evergreen of this genre.)
The late Heath Ledger plays the Joker, in his second-to-last film (footage he completed for Terry Gilliam’s next movie, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, will be used in the final cut). Surely his tutti-frutti supervillain will be his swan song. Affecting a hunched walk and a wicked cackle, the Joker revels in his malice, and Ledger, caked in congealed clown face, jump-starts the show as he tries on different accents — a little Cagney here, a little Brando there — and makes a pest of himself. He leaves an indelible impression, though for all the buzz about his performance, the Joker is short-sheeted by the plot. Jack Nicholson may have had too much to do when he took a crack at the part 19 years ago; Ledger, meanwhile, is literally obliged to nursemaid Harvey Dent for his entrance as the ruined Two-Face.
What I like about the Joker is that he has no origins, or, rather, origins that are in constant, teasing flux as he brandishes his knives before his latest victim. What I don’t like about The Dark Knight is that it succumbs to “villainitis” (see also 2007’s Spider-Man 3), necessitating a lengthy makeover on Dent and bringing the running time to a draggy two and a half hours. Eckhart, an effective actor in a narrow range, is strictly One-Face in the part, and has made enough of a specialty playing disreputable rakes that it’s difficult to take Dent at “face value,” as it were. (It doesn’t help that an early bit of courtroom heroism on the DA’s part is so poorly staged by Nolan that I kept thinking it was some sort of setup.) The grotesque makeup when he transforms should mask a pure heart, but Eckhart lacks that essential quality, and Christian Bale, who has the facets of his part down pat, seems to patronize him.
The script, by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, patronizes us. If their dialogue were printed in comics form, the bubbles would consume the page. The characters don’t talk — they converse in position papers, calling to our attention whatever nuances are left in duality, and good and evil, and so on that haven’t already been plumbed by every other comic-book movie to come down the pike. These themes are exhausted from overuse, and are better shown rather than told, but Nolan is tongue-tied visually. The action set pieces fitfully deliver the “whammo” factor but are hurriedly edited and difficult to parse; a sequence involving sonar detection was incoherent in IMAX, and simple entrances and exits hard to follow.
The problem, I think, is that Nolan is Two-Face. He responds to the iconography of Batman but wants to uplift it with gusts of pretension. The unleavened verbiage is delivered on spic-and-span sets, including a “Batcave” that is a fluorescent-lit office space. With its elevated-train railway and Wayne Manor, Batman Begins had some funk to it. All trace of that, however, has been wiped clean by Nolan, production designer Nathan Crowley, and cinematographer Wally Pfister, who are gunning for naturalism, and succeed too earnestly. Gotham City is the spitting image of Chicago, where the film was shot, and too clean to support the masked marauders who are said to own its streets. Where do they come from — IKEA? Eradicating the fantasy component that has buttressed the concept from the start makes the parade of misfits and human monsters more than a little ridiculous. Maybe Nolan is too British for the simple pleasures of American comic books? Maybe the simple pleasures of American comic books are buried beneath the strained seriousness of “graphic novels”? Whatever — the turn toward “reality” was a mistake. Give us the tools to dream.
There are other errors. Outside of the marquee names, most of the supporting parts are indifferently acted; ah, for the days when Warner Bros., the film’s distributor, had a roster of great one-scene actors at its disposal. Meanwhile, the score, by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer, was problematic the first time around, and a seriously monotonous drone here — how have two Oscar-lauded talents gotten away with teaming up to create so little? (Danny Elfman and Elliot Goldenthal did terrific work on prior Batman films all by themselves.) I could, I’m afraid, go on, but I feel a posse breathing down my neck already that started forming with the eyeliner comment. Like the Dark Knight, I must steal away into the evening, the dirty job that someone had to do now done.
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