Friday, July 25, 2008
The Dark Knight: Not a Review, Just Reactions (Obvious Spoiler Alert)
The best thing that I can say about The Dark Knight is that I am still thinking about it. With most films there is a separation for me after a few hours, or possibly a night's sleep. There are some films that stay with you the next day, and those are good films. I haven't had I saw in a theatre stay with me for a week since Pan's Labyrinth, and that puts TDK in good company in my mind. I might go so far as to say that TDK is one of the three best films I've ever seen in a theatre. Most of my favorite films I've only ever gotten to see on DVD, but this was one of the most enthralling theatrical experiences I've ever had. That I am still currently thinking about the film, how it works, what I liked, why I liked the things I did, is a testament (at least in my mind) to the quality of the film. It was engaging enough to occupy my mind for this long.
In the days leading up to and since its release, what has most affected me sadly had almost nothing to do with the film at all. It was the pre-and-post release backlash against the film. I have a couple sort-of-friends that I knew would hate the film, not for distaste in the genre, characters, actors, director, or anything within the film, but because it was so widely enjoyed by so many people. They're the same sort of people who love a band when they're "indie" and starving, but turn their backs on them the minute they produce something other people want to listen to and commit the unforgivable sin of "being profitable." I've got an essay on backlash tickling the back of my brain, but I'll wait to bring out my disgust for the backlash machine at a later date.
I essentially have nothing but positive things to say about TDK. Many simple, straightforward questions have been asked about the film, either by reviewers or by the viewing public.
Is it the greatest comic book/super hero film of all time? Perhaps. Without a doubt it deserves placement in the Mt. Olympus that holds Spider-Man 2 and The Incredibles, and to me it rises to the top spot. Again, I have another post in my mind about how I would rank comic book movies, so my thoughts here are a bit reserved. I place TDK at the top because I feel that I'm watching a film that doesn't simply desire to be a great "comic book" film, but simply a great film. Spider-Man 2 gives us what we want for Peter Parker in his relationship with Mary Jane Watson, but the supreme theatricality of it all hold the film squarely within its genre. The Incredibles obliquely deals with commentary on the idea of heroes in a real world, but stays within the confines of a family film. They are both superb films, and I loved them both, but there was just something different about TDK, something real.
Until now, the first two Spider-Man films had been both the greatest in terms of box-office/pop cultural importance and comic book quality, but TDK has essentially changed that in one week of release. Back in 2002, Spider-Man changed everything. It was the first film to rake in over $100 million in one weekend, and became a cultural phenomenon. Two years later Spider-Man 2 became the yardstick with which all other super hero films were measured. Now in 2008, TDK has managed to loop another large audience together, with young and old, men and women all putting down their cash to see it in theatres. Will it make over $400 million like the original Spider-Man? Maybe not, but becoming the fastest film to reach $200 million while being the 2nd best reviewed wide release of the year (currently sitting at 95% over on RottenTomatoes) signifies its knocking off both Spidey films from the top of cultural importance and comic quality categories.
Is it deserving of its IMDB rating? The comparisons to The Godfather Part II? Lots of people have used the phase "transcend the genre" in reference to the film, and I would agree that TDK is not just a comic book film, but rather a crime drama. I think the Godfather comparisons are a little dramatic, this isn't a family drama with the historical thread with double-helix plots featuring Vito & Michael. No, the comparison I feel the most comfortable with is Heat, and to be honest I think TDK is a better, more satisfying film than Mann's crime epic. I think the Joker/Batman face-offs (especially in the interrogation room) serve as better payoffs than the one diner scene between De Niro and Pacino, but that's all conjecture. One thinks that the IMDB rating will come down eventually. Return of the King is the only other film to rocket to near the top of the IMDB top 250, and the Godfather hadn't really ever been significantly topped. I guess more people have problems with the films below the top spot that are now surpassed by TDK but with many more votes coming in (and undoubtedly a 1/10 voting campaign from the purveyors of backlash) the film will probably come to rest in the top 20 along with Return of the King and City of God as one of the most well-liked films of the decade. Comparisons aside, I really do believe that this was the first film in the super hero genre to break away from the conventions of its genre and truly embody others. TDH is a completely plausible crime drama that just happens to have its major hero in a batsuit and its major villain in clown makeup.
Which brings me to my next topic: the main hero. I've heard people say that this Batman film was missing Batman. I disagree, you see plenty of Batman, and he's the major fighter against the things that go bump in the night, that hasn't changed. What did was the inner conflict about his parents' death, that's what was missing. That was replaced by guilt Batman feels at those killed by him not succumbing to the Joker's demands of removing his mask. TDK really plays like an unevenly balanced ensemble piece. I still think that Batman is the main character, and the Joker is obviously the main villain, but what makes it so much more complicated are the ways in which the characters are all connected. Take a look:
Batman/Bruce Wayne - Joker - Harvey Dent/Two Face
Batman/Bruce Wayne - Lt./Commissioner James Gordon - Harvey Dent/Two Face
Batman/Bruce Wayne - Rachel Dawes - Harvey Dent/Two Face
Batman/Bruce Wayne - Alfred - Rachel Dawes
Batman/Bruce Wayne - Alfred - Lucius Fox
There are tons of different little triangles being mad amongst the players, but Batman, or Bruce, is always a part of it, thus I believe him to be the main, central character. However, the title is the first in the franchise without the word "Batman," and I think that highlights the ensemble feel of the film. Every character gets at least one moment, from Lucius' retort to a blackmailing employee to Bruce Wayne "trying to catch the light" in his Lamborghini.
And I haven't even mentioned the actors yet. It's taken lots of time for me to come to terms with Heath Ledger's death, and I think that finally with the release of this film it will start to fully fade from my mind. It's the kind of performance that actors dream of having, and without a doubt it will be his most remembered. At his death Ledger was that gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain. His lasting image is forever changed, lost beneath a layer of white makeup and some red scars. I went into the theatre hoping for one last glimpse of the actor I had so admired, but Ledger was even too good for that. He fully and completely disappeared into the Joker, and anyone believing they saw any real bits of Ledger onscreen are dreaming. I don't think I've seen a villainous character so compelling since Hannibal Lecter. Nicholson's Joker was a mobster, played well in its adherence to the comics, but here Ledger delves so much deeper into the ideas of a villain.
The entire film really just go deeper. It isn't so much a true Batman film, and that will upset some people who really just want to see Batman straight out of his comic origins. But haven't we had enough different versions of the origins and emergences of Batmand and his rogue gallery that this fits in just as perfectly as another trade paperback?
I haven't even gotten into talking about Nolan, Bale, Eckhart, Oldman, the cinematography, IMAX scenes, or a number of other things, but I don't think I really have to. TDK is such an all-encompassing film that it lends itself to thought and discussion for hours, and to pick it apart down to the tiniest detail is like trying to analyze a square inch of a giant work of art like the Sistene Chapel (pardon the comparison, I don't think it's as culturally necessary as the Michelangelo classic fresco, but the size comparison works for me). Like I said, I'm still thinking about the film after a week, and I've got loads more that I could talk about, but I don't think its necessary to write it all here. I like that film necessitates discussion, and I've had multiple conversations over the course of the week with a huge range of people about different parts of it, and I always come away with a good feeling about the film. I'm not sure that I'd put it up with my favorite films of all time, and with only a week's distance I know its premature to talk about its quality, but I know I'd put it atop a list of comic movies and a list of super hero movies. I loved the film, and still haven't found anything to dissuade me from believing it to be great. It's not perfect; no film is, not even the classics, but in the end we cherish the blemishes that humanize the best and our favorite films; it gives them character.
I'll be continuing to talk about the film for the rest of the summer, probably the year. I loved the film, and that I keep talking about it and thinking about it only continues to reassure me that it really was as good as I thought it was when I saw it flicker past me for the first time onscreen.