So, I've been going through one of those "did I really make the right decision" things (kind of a weird thing to do at 24, I think) regarding the direction I'm hoping to take in my life; that is to say, a guy writing a movie probably makes less of a directly positive impact on the world than a guy, say, working on a congressional campaign, or a guy working as a public defender, or even a guy cleaning trash up off the street. At least they probably don't have any delusions about what they're actually accomplishing.
I suppose some of this has to do with my plan to apply to graduate school here in a few months; when the MFA isn't really all that fascinating to me, when I'm less than fascinated at the prospect of having homework for another two years, and when I really don't care about taking the GRE, the compulsion to do so just to further this weird little dream of mine about writing movies and television shows begins to wane. Given the number of people that have had success without going to school and digging themselves another $80K in the hole... If I'm going to do that, why not just go to law school and come out with the ability to a) help somebody and b) eventually be able to pay down that debt?
I suppose this is kind of a struggle between art and commerce, but it's really more a struggle between fantasy and reality. Should I try to make a difference in this world, or should I try to use these imagined worlds in which I spend so much of my time to try and make some sort of sideways contribution in my own fashion?
Well, after seeing The Dark Knight, the fight has finally ended, with the fantastic winning out over the real.
I will actually get to a reaction to Nolan's opus in a second, but I'm going to preface by talking (again) for a moment about The West Wing, for it's the program that gets me thinking about (and rethinking) my goals. Sam, Josh, CJ, Toby... none of them decided to write television. They educated themselves on the things that were happening in the world, formed opinions about them, and then went out to try to make the world a better place. They put themselves on the line; they did things that actually mattered. That's what's been my problem with my plan for years now.
However, and it's kind of embarassing to admit this now, I've never bothered to consider the actual implications of my thinking. It's a show that made me think this way, not an actual elected representative that I've met, that inspired me, that I find a good, compelling human being whose example is worth following (I never met Paul Wellstone, but I imagine he would have been just such a person. Who knows where I'd be now had that happened?). The show made me want to go and do great things, so who's to say I can't try to create a show (or a movie) that could have a similar impact on somebody else? That's the undeniable power of art.
With that, it's time to get back to the topic at hand: The Dark Knight. Almost.
This has been a good year for comic book movies, because all of the big three have been, at their worst, pretty decent movies (TDK > Iron Man > The Incredible Hulk > Ang Lee's Hulk > Batman & Robin > nothing that I can think of). Iron Man is probably the best superhero origin movie, if not ever, than at least since this revival of superhero movies kicked off, and Hulk was at least fun, in a Silver Age Marvel comics sort of way.
I certainly understand the complaints that have cropped up since the banner year for "mature" graphic fiction that was 1986. If Watchmen, DKR and Year One had not been so successful, the misguidedly dark, brooding Spider-Man would never have come into being (as would've been the case for dozens of other characters whose creators mistook "dark" for "intelligent"). The roots of the comic are as children's entertainment, and we try to avoid subjecting our children to darkness and violence and depravity (they'll see plenty of that when they grow up, you know), and that needs to be respected. However, the audience for the comic book is getting older, not younger, and that statistic needs to be paid some mind.
The point of this is that the principal characters in Iron Man and The Dark Knight, while similar (trust fund babies that, as a result of serious trauma in their lives, dedicate themselves, and their fortunes, to battling criminals), are decidedly different. Tony Stark is not exactly a brooding terrorist of a hero; he acts in a decidedly public way (particularly when he, you know, reveals his secret identity to the world), and may well decide to work within the established system of laws and rules when he joins S.H.I.E.L.D.'s "Avengers initiative" (assuming the Avengers in the movies retain any semblance of similarity to the Avengers of the comics). Bruce, though, works in the shadows, divorcing his one public persona from his other in broad, sweeping strokes, and while he's happy to hand lawbreakers over to the appropriate authorities once he's finished with them, what he does before that depositing is designed specifically to strike fear into the "superstitious, cowardly lot" that plagues his city. That's another thing: where Batman is concerned with Gotham, first and foremost, to the exclusion of everything, Iron Man engages in what can only be described as global policing (a casualty of fronting a business that sells weapons worldwide, I imagine).
Finally, to The Dark Knight. All the respect to Wall-E in the world, but I have a new favorite movie this summer, and it's very easy to articulate why: while Pixar's film started off mind-boggingly good, it turned into a fairly standard Pixar movie by the end (that is to say, it got weaker - relatively - as it went along), The Dark Knight just got better (especially if you're generous enough to include Batman Begins as a starting-off point). Triumphant on every level (even, especially, the geeky ones).
The beginning features one of the best bank heists put on film since Michael Mann's masterpiece Heat, and a twist on said heist that instantly propels the movie beyond the middling heights that used to be the best we could expect from comic book movies into the stratosphere of great films.
Spectacle, while certainly a part of TDK, is not what carries the movie. Like Nolan's other conceptually phenomenal films (Memento, The Prestige), the weight is on the story, and the performance. While the movie is chalk full of actors working at the top of their game, the two you would expect to stand out best do: Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart.
Enough people have written about Heath as a person, and as an actor, in the past few months that adding my voice to the chorus wouldn't accomplish much. I'll just say that his performance reminds me of nothing so much as Daniel Day-Lewis' as Daniel Plainview in last year's There Will Be Blood. The incontrovertible power, the passion, the madness that both men convey as their respective characters is so absolute that I couldn't help but laugh almost contstantly at them, lest I be drawn down into the same pits of despair and dementia in which they are so clearly at home (the Joker in a nurse's dress, for instance). Heath has such a total command of every little movement that he makes on camera that I can completely believe the people I heard saying, as they walked past me exiting the theater, that they couldn't even tell the Joker was Heath Ledger. I don't think I'm letting his egregiously untimely passing affect my perception of his performance; I was blown away by his laugh over a year ago when I heard it for the first time. The total commitment to the part is almost without peer, or, at least, peerless this year. To address the question of whether or not it's worthy of cinema's [debatably] highest honor... I don't know. I know it's better than Johnny doing his Keith Richards impersonation, but I also don't know what the competition is going to look like at the end of the year. I hope he at least gets considered.
There was not a doubt in my mind, from the very beginning, that Aaron Eckhart was perfectly cast as Harvey/Two-Face. Anyone that's seen Thank You For Smoking knows what I'm talking about (it was his Harvey Dent audition tape, same as Shoot 'Em Up was Giamatti's audition for the role of Oswald Cobblepot). He's charismatic, forthright, determined... everything that Harvey pre-acid bath (and what a way to switch things up; I'm inclined now to place TDK's version of Two-Face's origin at the top of the pantheon of Two-Face origins, surpassing even that from Batman: The Animated Series - because this time it's a tragedy at least partly of his own making - his headlong rush into the explosion that consumes Rachel was not forced upon him by anyone else) is supposed to be. The Two-Face makeup job is stellar; it may well be among the best makeup jobs I've ever seen in a mainstream, we're-still-trying-to-attract-a-broad-audience sort of movie. If it weren't for Heath's career-defining performance as the Joker, Eckhart would take home the prize for acting in TDK - his ability to control his voice, and his face (god, that eye!) and his body should guarantee his career will continue to boost itself into the stratosphere (assuming he's not pidgeonholed as Harvey/Two-Face for the rest of his life). Harvey's not the total mystery that the Joker is (the whirlwind of chaos that he's been called in the past) - we see both his rise, and his fall, on the screen. That just makes Aaron's concentration of all the rage and hatred Harvey's gone through, his embodiment of it onscreen, all the more impressive - we have expectations for our fallen white knight, and Eckhart meets or exceeds (exceeds, really) all of them.
I didn't have too many qualms with Katie Holmes in Begins - she's not the world's strongest actor, but we know what she's capable of onscreen, so if you don't know what you're getting with her by now, it's no one's fault but your own, casting director person - but it's safe to say that Maggie Gyllenhaal is extraordinary. It's what I expected, but it's nice to be proven right. She can go toe to toe with any of the best performers working today (and did here, between Bale, Eckhart, Ledger, Oldman, and Michael Cane - her luster wasn't diminished one little bit standing next to those stars), and if it turns out that she was passed over for Begins for Katie, I can completely understand not appreciating Mrs. Cruise as Rachel Dawes. Regardless, Batman finally had his pre-Selina Kyle female lead in Maggie's Rachel, and she did absolutely everything she could with it. From slinking up next to Harvey post-trial, to embracing Alfred for what would turn out to be the last time after writing the letter she knew would break Bruce's heart, to hitting the Joker hard enough to rattle his teeth around, to her gruesome final scene, the easiest thing to say about Rachel was that she never lost her spine, that she stayed true to herself until the movie's end, but, like I said, that's easy. What I really want to say about her is that she wasn't ever weak. She never gave the terrorist clown the satisfaction of giving in. She fought, even when it was painfully clear she was going to lose. Bruce would've been proud; I was.
The returning players all built upon their phenomenal showings from the last entry. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine bring serious weight to the proceedings, the sort of moral authority that only men of their caliber can (Alfred keeping Bruce focused on what's really important in his Bruce Wayne life, and Lucius doing the same for him in his Batman life), while Gary Oldman's Jim Gordon continues his lightning-fast rise up the ranks of both the police department and my heart (when they made me think... God. I was so scared for Bruce, because if there was a hierarchy of people that keep him going, Alfred would probably be #1, and Gordon would be right on his heels. Like Wizard wrote a couple of years ago, if Bruce hadn't put on the mask, he'd probably be serving under Jim at the GCPD). Oldman plays a man driven by a need to see justice done so well that I can barely remember his turns as villains in Air Force One and The Professional.
As if that isn't enough, we've got Christian Bale, one of the greatest of this generation of actors. He buries his character under layer upon layer of artifice (as he perfected in the last movie) that only get stripped away when he, and his city, are faced with terrible, almost insurmountable threats, be it the Joker or the uncovering of Harvey's psychoses. He's self-sacrificing nearly to a fault; even when he goes to Rachel and reminds her of her promise to be with him once he gives up Batman, you can see in his eyes (and hers) that they both know he's merely going through the motions, doing and saying what he should do more than what he wants to do (I think by this point he's almost forgotten how to want to be with her, even though that desire is still foremost in his mind). He's improved upon the Bat-voice (though no one will ever be able to top TAS' Kevin Conroy), and his entrances do an even better job of sucking all the heat of a room.
I've never seen a director use settings for chase scenes as thematic elements across multiple movies, but Nolan's done it with the tunnel chases in BB and TDK. Scenes of desperation, both. I'm almost ravenous at the prospect of how he can up the ante in the third one.
This may be the first time in a long time that a movie's trailer actually misdirected me, not as to the quality of the movie, but to the plot. From the leaking gasoline that looked to be the acid that traditionally scars one side of Harvey's face, to the destruction of the Bat-signal that appeared to be a result of the Joker's terror plot, I thought I knew more about the movie going in than I actually did. I'm going to reserve this sentence for praising the people who cut the trailer together: well done!
I've raved a lot about the performances, and said precious little about the plot. No more; the advantage to writing something that no one else reads is that I don't have to worry about spoliers. I love the fact that the Joker's personal history may well be as much of a mystery to him as it is to his fellow characters; how he got the way he is doesn't matter as much as the fact that he is. The destruction of the Tumbler was ridiculously disheartening; the motorcycle doesn't really make up for it. I loved the tank. The Bat-vigilantes, patrolling the streets in black hockey pads, homemade Batman masks, and carrying AK-47s, were a great touch on the "ripple effects" that Batman caused by disturbing the peace ("He shows us that we don't have to be afraid," or something like that - not the impact that he wanted to have, but he's not Codename V). The explosives hidden in the boats, and the sadistic offer the Joker makes to their passengers - I'm kind of saddened that the civillians didn't blow up the boat holding the prisoners right after the prisoners junked their trigger, but I guess Nolan's not the bleakest filmmaker in the world.
I guess we're all fascinated with terrorists, and have been for years now (6.5, at least, in this country), so it makes sense that an American superhero has now faced down two legions of evil fucking terrorists in two separate movies, but I'd be a little more in favor of a more conventional villanous plan in the next movie. You know, the seeking of absolute power, or something, rather than the generation of overall chaos (even though that's a perfect counterpoint to the order that Batman seeks to impose over the city).
I don't know how I feel about how explicitly the movie explains the Joker's relationship to Batman, or Batman's relationship to Harvey, or Batman's relationship to the city. I liked it better when you had to read beneath the surface even a little to figure that all out. That was reminiscent, much though I hate to say it, of Sam Rami, but if I can forgive Batman betraying everything important about himself at the end of Begins, I can forgive a few minutes of telling interjected throughout more than two hours of showing.
I wonder how well Bruce'll continue on, now that he's allowed himself to become the villain - at least in the eyes of the citizens of Gotham - and has lost two of his closest allies in Lucius and Rachel. He's got Alfred, as he always does, and Gordon in secret (I'm curious as to how they're going to address that, too), but that's basically it. Nolan keeps taking things away from him at movie's end, and he's regrouped pretty well this time.
I want to know what happens next.
[Oh, the decision here is that I'm throwing my efforts behind art and imagination. It compels me more, and I think I can do more good there. No law school for Phil, in other words.]