– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing discussion between Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
Given that I’ve already written up on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, I’ll post this as a basic extension of my original review, posted on the 30th of August –
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is a film I should have written about a long time ago. Doing so just now makes me feel like a Johnny-Come-Lately, by more than a year. Still, it does give one a lot of time to look at it apart from the pop-culture saturation that it caused – it’s too early to try and reflect on that with any sort of nostalgia, I think. Although right now, entirely by coincidence, I’m wearing a shirt with Ledger’s face on it. Only because it was the only clean shirt in the closet, at the moment.
I can’t imagine that the summer of 2008 won’t be recognized as the second wave of the Batmania! epidemic, and one with a far larger spread than it’s first appearance in 1989 – apart from the film itself, it’s a summer I’m sure is going to be talked about for a long while, well-remembered if only for the oft-repeated name and paint-smeared face of Heath Ledger, his Joker-face something that already can only be called iconic. And, the impact of this film is still being felt – the word is, the world over, that this film marks the game-changer for the superhero genre, raising it upward into more able heights in the same way that Ford and Leone did for the Western, itself an ostensibly pulp genre until the former came along – and it does so, oddly enough, by realizing what it is that comics themselves have known for a long while, now – that the superhero genre is a hodge-podge of every other genre imaginable, not definable so much by itself, but by the individual genres that it’s characters fit themselves into, with Batman in this instance becoming part of a city-wide crime epic not too dissimilar to Michael Mann’s Heat, a cited influence, but also to several similar stories found in the character’s original medium – among them, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween, Ed Brubaker and Doug Moench’s The Man Who Laughs, and Ed Brubaker’s Soft Targets in the Gotham Central monthly.
The film opens relatively quietly, unindicative of what’s to come, pushing through the sky-scrapers of Nolan’s Chicago-cum-Gotham which bares a lot of resemblance to the kind of city that Frank Miller set up in Batman: Year One, until the windowpanes of one building in particular dominate the frame – and, there’s a small burst as the one in the middle shatters. As the scene progresses, it’s very much like something out of Michael Mann’s films (who’s influence has been well noted) – and, then there’s a man standing on the corner, with his face held downward. And, it’s like a wrong note has been struck intentionally during a song. We don’t know just what it is about him, exactly – but this guy shouldn’t be here. In a sense, this scene kind of epitomizes the effect the Joker will have on the rest of the film, and it’s characters – he’s a cog thrown into a reasonably well-oiled machine that’s just had its ribbon cut. He’s ostensibly the one who “show schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.” And always, his appearance is pre-announced by Hans Zimmer’s introductory piece, that gives one the feeling of descent, into a maelstrom of some kind. One note, continuously stretched and bent. Screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, whom we can rightfully credit for the enhancement in dialogue this time around, says his approach to the character was meant to give the impression that he’d “just materialized…right there on that corner,” just before the film cuts to him. He has no defined character arc – although, he does seem to become more confident as the film goes along. He arrives fully-formed as a force of nature to take on a Batman who’s become an emblem to the city.
Nolan’s sense of composition has never been stronger than it is, here – but, there are two scenes in particular that I’d like to pick out and talk about. The first is the SWAT van pursuit scene in the middle of the film, which also showcases how Nolan’s cutting has evolved, since Batman Begins and its frenetic blitzing. Here, Nolan’s rhythm is measured, and steady. While it’s precluded by the slow cutting out of music and it’s replacement by the Joker’s theme, the sequence begins proper with an ear-to-ear IMAX shot looking down, following the line of escort vehicles as they make their way along the barred-off street, as something breaks the line of frame, at the top of the screen –
We’re then on ground level, and we’re properly allowed to measure just what it is, in a continuing shot following a line of police cars past it. It’s a fire-truck – on fire. It’s an alarming site, and a fair symbol of the Joker’s effect on the city. But, given time, the irony and humor of it sets in. It’s a fire-truck – on fire, y’see.
The second that I’d like to look at is the scene after the Joker has been captured and brought into M.C.U. for questioning. Now-Commissioner Gordon’s received word that “Harvey Dent never made it home,” and he enters the room, which is lit on his side by dim and broken lighting, giving everything a very sickly tint.
He sits down, and we see The Joker, his face leering out of the surrounding darkness. His hairline is invisible, as is everything below the neck. Comic fans will recognize this as astonishingly similar to a technique used in Sam Keith’s Batman: Secrets.
Immediately afterward, Gordon leaves, and the lights burst on.
This time around, Nolan indulges himself while never becoming self-indulgent. He actually takes time to craft interesting shots, like the two previous ones mentioned. There’s a real palpable sense of freedom, here. But, one of the main differences between this film and it’s predecessor, I think, is that Batman Begins had a talented director, cast and crew working around a generally interesting screenplay that wasn’t all that well fleshed out. It had it’s director’s mark of non-linear structure, and general tone, that was interrupted every so often when the characters spoke. And spoke. And just kept speaking. Where Batman Begins was very, very overly expository thanks to David Goyer, whose finger-prints still remain on this film in small measures here and there in the oddly inserted one-liners that absolutely permeate a few scenes, The Dark Knight knows how to shut up for a minute or two, and when it does pipe up, it isn’t repeating something we’ve heard several times before in the film ad nauseum. And, there are several times in the film where you can almost feel Nolan’s kind of impish grin when it seems like he’s consciously subverting a certain trope of the genre – as in Rachel’s death for example.
There’s an interesting contrast that could be made here with Snyder’s Watchmen – where that film was ostensibly hungrily faithful to it’s source material visually while missing just what it was that made the graphic novel what it was, this is a film that has quite a few artistic flourishes and licenses – the Joker’s painted skin in lieu of a chemical bleaching, Batman’s armor, the stuff that every nerd you knew was waving his arms about – while at the same time managing to get closer to the atmosphere and essence that the comics have been so emblematic of since 1984 and arguably much earlier. In this, it also makes a rather much-needed leap – with most films based on comic characters, there’s usually a general aura about them that says ‘this is a comic-book movie.’ It’s a little hard to put into words, but with maybe two prior exceptions and those being Bryan Singer’s X-Men films, there’s a very by-the-numbers format to them. The Dark Knight avoids this, and while it’s still of it’s genre, it also transcends it – it could easily be called a crime epic in the same vane as Michael Mann’s Heat with Batman and the Joker in place of DeNiro and Pacino, among other things.
Both of Nolan’s Batman films to some extent take noted inspiration from The Long Halloween, but here – with the presence of Harvey Dent – the basis is more obvious, although his character arc seems to owe more to Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke than TLH, with his eventual destruction the result of The Joker’s purposeful block-by-block breakdown of him over the course of the film, as an “ace in the hole” in the battle for Gotham’s soul, to try and bring him down to the collective level of madness of himself and Batman – that all it takes is a little push. Incidentally, the scene where The Joker informs us of all this, hanging from his ankles, is filmed from a rather interesting and revealing point of view —
There’s a moment in The Dark Knight about forty minutes in where Bruce Wayne comes back to his pseudo-batcave, underneath an old shipping yard, and strips off his suit, revealing a back worn through with holes and scars, like an old shirt. Alfred, played by Michael Caine, looks on in worry, and distaste, telling Wayne to “know his limits;” there’s a moment of silence, but only a moment, until Wayne responds, “Batman has no limits.” And, in a way, this scene really defines the character for the rest of the film – only just now realizing what toll this great task he’s undertaken will have on him, mentally and physically, and trying to push through it, with his teeth bared, becoming gradually more and more obsessed. And, we feel it, with him – not only the old scars, but the fresh and bleeding wounds that the character takes in great measure throughout the film, and the driving frustration when it seems that the Joker won’t respond to the threat – or execution of – physical violence. There’s a weariness to the main character now, which is obvious particularly in the first scene we see him in, having tracked down Scarecrow, the secondary antagonist from the last film, now relegated to pushing his fear toxin as a rave drug. After subduing the gun-toting Sons of Batman (not actually called that in the film, but they resemble Miller’s creation enough that – well, why not?), he attaches himself to the Scarecrow’s van by way of a hydraulic device, and gets ran into a concrete post. He pulls himself up and makes his way to the rim of the parking lane, and his shoulders sag for a minute. He’s kind of a man at work in these scenes, as well as when he sews up his own arm after being mauled by a dog. This ties in a little to his hopefulness at the coming of Dent, I think. Dent represents not just hope for the city, but for Bruce as well, because at this point, there’s still some small possibility of a normal life for him – which slowly dissipates as the film goes on, first with the death of Rachel and then with Dent’s eventual progression into Two-Face, and his branding as an outlaw near the end of the film. It’s going to be interesting to see where Nolan takes the character, if he returns. Especially if they find some way to confront the more mainline obsessive character that he becomes while avoiding the pit-falls that most of the writers who’ve written him that way have fallen into.
Alexander Coleman over at Coleman’s Corners makes a comparison between this film’s ending, and that of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which ends similarly with Stoddard spilling his story to the newspaper editor, who refuses to print it and instead opts to burn his journal. He says:
“The film’s concluding passage recalls The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. At a crucial moment, Batman and his friend Gordon choose to “print the legend.” As Batman decides to protect Gotham from a devastatingly ugly truth, Alfred makes the decision to burn a letter from Rachel whose message was precisely not what Bruce believed to be her personal belief between he and Dent at the time of her death. Bruce even decides then and there after Rachel’s death, saying, “She was going to wait for me, Alfred. Dent can never know…” Alfred craftily takes away the letter from Rachel indicating otherwise. Alfred decides just as Batman decides Batman can be whatever Gotham needs him to be, Rachel and her memory can be whatever Bruce needs her to be, allowing him to remain deluded. More sin-cleansing than ever before, taking up the sins of Gotham itself and of one man in particular, Batman becomes a more darkly messianic figure that, coupled with his self-discipline, place him under the broadest possible umbrella of the “superhero” genre. At the end, The Dark Knight not only recalls The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance but also Shane, with Gordon taking the place of Van Heflin’s virtuous farmer and Batman in the role of Alan Ladd’s shadowy, socially outcast gunfighter, with Gordon’s son calling out, “Batman! Batman!” as the Dark Knight, wounded, disappears into the night.”
And, indeed. It’s hard to argue that the film places Batman in an almost mythic “hero” context, by film’s end – the last shot following him through a parking garage, up and through traffic, toward the light.
— Glenn Heath’s #10, 2002’s Bloody Sunday by Paul Greengrass, can of course be found here.