Review: The Dark Knight

The following started out as a simple re-review of the film that I was going to post on my Live Journal, but then I just kept typing and typing. It’s kind of random at times, but I’m not trying to write the end-all-be-all essay on why The Dark Knight is the best movie ever. I’m just tossing out some shit, just to get it out of my head. I guess this is mostly for my own educational purposes, but if you enjoy it as well, cool. Or you know, if you want to tell me how full of shit I am, or how bleeding obvious everything I just said is, that’s fine too.

The Dark Knight wasn’t necessarily better the second time around, although I did tell Mandy it was (kind of the knee-jerk cliché response) but nothing can match the first time you see it, but on the second viewing, I did notice a whole bunch of shit I didn’t the first time. Seeing it twice allowed me to focus on the craft and the structure, since the WOW-ness of the story had worked its way (mostly) out of my system. It was also cool watching it in IMAX with all the pretty shots of Hong Kong and Chicago, but the giant screen and the super close seats combined to create one monster of a migraine. I saw it with almost the exact same people as last time, which was less fun than I thought it would be, cus, you know, we already made all those same jokes. It would have been nice to see it again for the first time with other people, like Mandy or Lorealle or the brother. That way, there’d be new jokes after exiting the theatre, right? Ya’ feel me? That’s part of the fun of going to movies for me, to get everyone’s reaction to what we just saw, and…

Anyway, the new stuff to talk about: the first time you watch it, sure, you notice all the familiar genre conventions: action, western, super hero. And you see all the character metaphors and whatnot. But the second time, you start to notice the details. Like, Heath Ledger telegraphing, with the movement of his eyes, the lie he tells about Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent’s locations. Or the fact that the location for the final showdown between the Joker and Batman takes place in an unfinished high-rise, an obvious nod to the first Die Hard film. And, like in that film, it is used in The Dark Knight as a substitute for “The Frontier”, a convention of the Western genre. The more I think about it, the more I see that The Dark Knight isn’t really a Super Hero movie at all, and maybe Nolan’s Batman never was. It’s a Western. And I think that’s why it works.

Sure, the Action movie is the bastard son of the Western, and the Super Hero flick the adopted stepson of the latter, but when you’re doing a pure, full-on Western, the conventions you use are wholly different. The film is littered with Western symbolism and ideas. Outcast, outlaw and vigilante to name a few, are all words used in the film to describe Batman. Gotham is the town that needs protecting from the Indians. It’s civilization. And Batman, the hero or the protector, Batman is the outcast, outlaw of the plains. He doesn’t even live in the city proper. Nolan, in his infinite cleverness, points this out in the film when Dent implies that Bruce Wayne isn’t really a citizen of Gotham since he lives way out in “The Palisades”. This is not a throwaway line of dialogue. Neither is Wayne’s retort when he instructs Dent to discover the limitations of his jurisdiction. The film is about the law. It’s about natural law or the laws of morality versus the laws made by a civilized people or a governing body of civilized people. These are Western conventions at their core, borrowed and adapted to Super Hero films. But, you say, Batman doesn’t kill and Western heroes do. Well, in the early days of the Western, the hero or sheriff or drifter wouldn’t kill at all, or if he did kill, he wouldn’t pull the trigger unless he was absolutely forced to, and even then it was only in the act of self-defense. And when the Western hero did have to kill the bad guy, it was usually proclaimed by the meager townsfolk as the pinnacle of justice. Now, in the Nolan films, has Batman not been portrayed in a similar way? In the first film, Batman sacrificed Ra’s al Ghul in order to save Gotham city. Sure, you could say that allowing someone to die is different than outright murdering them, and therefore Batman isn’t a murderer… but that’s entirely the point. Batman is justice. We, as the audience and as the townspeople, need to be able to forgive him. We need the storyteller to provide us with enough reasonable doubt to make excuses for him, because we need him. We need him to enact our revenge in a safe and tolerable way in the story just as we need men and women in our armed forces in real life, because in times of war, killing the enemy is not considered a crime. Now, is it any wonder Batman calls it his “War on Crime”? In the second film, in the process of saving Gordon’s son, didn’t Batman also cause the death of Harvey Dent? When he chose to save Rachel over Dent, was he not making the decision (implied by the Joker) to kill Dent? Of course, the Joker was lying and Rachel paid the price. Isn’t her death on Batman’s hands? Isn’t the death of the old commissioner and the judge and the Batman copycat on his hands too?

Moving on for now, let’s talk about the most obvious indicator to the film’s true genre, the “riding off into the sunset” sequence at the end. Let’s list the conventions of that scene: The boy and his father watching the hero leave; the boy calling out to the hero; the hero riding off into the unknown, the untamed frontier, because he’s too damn uncivilized to be accepted by society. Of course, here, we have Batman riding into the night, since you know, he’s the fucking “Dark Knight” and all.

Ah, what else? How about the strength of character needed to do what’s morally just and what may not necessarily be what’s legally just? This is one of the major ways in which in the Western differs from the Super Hero genre. In a Western, the hero has only his wits and his gun to rely on, just as the bad guys have theirs. Everyone is pretty much equal on the surface. What makes the hero stand out is his strength of character. He knows what must be done. In a Super Hero film, the hero has his wits and his super power. The bad guy of choice usually has one as well, but not always, and the civilians have nothing. The Super Hero is literally a god in these movies. He’s a god that gets to impose his sense of law and order onto to a sometimes unwilling populace. He is “might makes right” in the truest sense of the word. Hmm, no wonder American super hero comics dominate the medium, yet when you go overseas, you see that the super hero genre has been marginalized. Anyway, he utilizes strength of superpower and not strength of character to overcome his problems. Sure, the lines get blurred a little with characters like Spider-Man, but c’mon, in the end the guy can bench press a car. Watch his movies again and you’ll see that he always solves his problems with his fists, as most Super Heroes do. Or, if you’re Superman, you lift stuff. Doesn’t Batman solve it all with his fists? Sure, he employs violence like everyone else, like any Western/Action/Super Hero hero, but unlike the Arnolds and the Spider-Mans, his violence doesn’t actually solve the problem. It makes it worse. How does Batman beat Joker? He doesn’t. Joker beats himself, or you could easily say that Batman’s faith in humanity beats Joker the first time (people on the boats) and his strength of character, his willingness to bear the burden of being the villain beats Joker the second time (preserving Dent’s image). This is a major theme of the film.

Who can do what Batman does? Who can protect the city of Gotham, and by extension, the world or us? Throughout the film, we are presented with numerous examples of “the hero” and all of these characters are tested in some way, and all of them fail. All save for Batman… and Tiny Lister! Of course, this is again, on purpose. Nolan uses the incident in the boat, where Tiny’s nameless character throws the detonator into the water, to illustrate the point that although we view Tiny as a criminal and a villain, he’s still the type of guy we can rely on to do the right thing in times of great moral need… just like Batman!!!

These are all Western conventions and it’s exactly because of these conventions do we find The Dark Knight infinitely more relatable and enjoyable than other Super Hero movies, like Superman or Spider-Man. Look at those films, how often do the regular people in those movies take issue with their self-proclaimed hero’s vigilantism? In Superman, I’m not sure, I’d need to watch them again, but I don’t think it ever comes up. In Spider-Man, when it does, it’s always as the butt of a joke, usually involving J. Jonah Jameson. In neither of those movies, is this issue taken very seriously. Instead the filmmaker’s usually concentrate on the “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” theme. And big CGI backed set pieces. I mean, shit. That’s all Spider-Man really is. It’s action scenes. At least a couple of the Superman films include a compelling love story B-plot. But, back to the action scenes thing… this is what defines the Super Hero genre. In a regular action movie, a dude decides to take the law into his own hands and fight corruption or evil. He uses guns or his martial arts expertise and wins the day. In the Super Hero version of the Action movie, a dude decides to take the law into his own irradiated super strong flame generating hands and fight corruption or evil. He uses his special superpowers and wins the day. In an action movie, it’s about the guns and the body count. In a Super Hero movie, it’s about ridiculous super powers and stunning visual effects. In both, it’s about glorifying or magnifying the violence; elevating death and destruction to an artistic level. Take for example, the trailer to the new Punisher: Warzone movie. Seems like the perfect blend of both of these bastard genres.

Now, in a pure Western, the themes are never over-shadowed by the violence. Sure, in recent years, or as the genre began to show it’s age in the 70’s, the violence in those films was cranked up to eleven. The emphasis was placed more and more on the “Final Showdown” and not the ideas of morality that the film hoped to wrestle with. This is another conversation entirely, but it’s for this reason (or one of the reasons) that the Action genre was birthed into existence. But, that’s not really what I want to talk about, or bore you with…

It’s for all these reasons that we shouldn’t view this film as just another Super Hero movie that made a ton of money. It really isn’t. It’s classic storytelling, people, and it’s something we haven’t seen in almost a decade. That’s why so many people have seen this movie twice already and plan to see it again, with some having already made the third trip. In my eyes, the Nolan brothers are true masters of Western cinema. There are just too many examples of it in the film to chalk it up to chance, coincidence or accident. Everything in this film is on purpose. Just like The Prestige and just like Memento. This movie deserves all the accolades it has been receiving and will no doubt receive. I find it hard to believe that this won’t be at least nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor next year. And yes, I think it does deserve to be IMDB’s #1 movie right now. Godfather had its day and so did The Shawshank Redemption (which, I’m not sure why it ever did, but…). Godfather was a movie about “us” when it came out all those years ago, but we are not that “us” anymore. We are The Dark Knight “us”.

I was talking to my cousin the other day about whether or not The Dark Knight could possibly overtake Titanic. He said, “No doubt!” and I said, “Not a chance.” This was before I saw it for the second time. Now, I’d be very surprised if it didn’t.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Dark Knight

  1. Couple things:

    1. I think it’s doubtful Dark Knight will pass Titanic because the nature of the movie industry today won’t allow it. Batman’s race to 400 mil was a sprint. And I think it’ll overtake Star Wars and finish at #2. But Titanic was a marathon, spending MONTHS at the top of the box office. You won’t see that today because it’s going to lose screens to other movies, and creep down the charts. It’s going to run out of momentum and probably limp to about 520-530 mil domestic, I’d think. I could be wrong, but with the cost of tickets and gas and popcorn and so on, you’re not going to get large amounts of people seeing the damn thing fifteen times like they did with Titanic.

    2. I think the movie is MUCH better on the second viewing, and I absolutely adored it the first time. You don’t notice the intricacies of the camera work and the score and the plot tropes on the first go around. Sure, the viscerality (so not sure if that one’s a word. Shame on me) of it isn’t there, but you see how polished the thing is from all angles, and you grow to appreciate it more.

    3. I think you’re selling the first two Spider-Man films short. They’re both incredibly well crafted films from all sides much like Dark Knight. They may lack the sheer scope and the ballsiness of DK, but even when directly compared to DK, they’re not empty action set piece movies. There is MUCH MORE to those movies than the action (especially the second one, which is the second best comic book movie behind DK, and I can finally say that now that I’ve seen Superman 1 and 2), from the perspective of character and motivations. The Spider-Man films don’t have the audacity of DK, but Spider-Man and Batman are fundamentally different characters that have to be treated in different ways.

    4. That last scene with Gordon and his kid definitely had the “Come back, Shane!” vibe.

    I have more thoughts that were originally going to be in a review before I got sidetracked and SUPER BUSY, so I might throw them up either here or in my own thing later.

  2. 1. this was my exact argument to my cousin. titanic was in theatres for going on 11 months. but then, i saw it again. i don’t know, maybe i’ve switched from logic to hope? probably.

    2. it’s def just as good, but it is easier the second time to put that stuff aside and study it.

    3. Spidey is def a different type of character, a super hero, and is treated differently, which i guess is why i was in a roundabout way trying to make a case for why Batman isn’t really a super hero in this film. yer def correct in saying both films have merit, i just feel that Batman is more universally appealing because it’s conventions, the conventions of the western genre, are older and more ingrained into our consciousness as Americans. how we see the Super Hero is completely different than how we see the outlaw… the super hero the god we pray to for salvation and protection. Superman fits squarely in this role, while Spider-Man kind of blurs the line, sometimes hero and sometimes outlaw. also, i guess i kind of come off like i hated the Spider-Man films, and i def enjoyed them less than Dark Knight, but they were still solid movies… except number 3. UGH.

    4. yes, and the first time we saw it i kind of yelled, “SHANE!” at the screen. haha. sorry, fellow moviegoers, i was fucking excited!

    yeah, it actually took watching the movie a second time to star to put into words what i wanted to say after the initial viewing. i’ll probably see it at least once more by the end of the week, and maybe come back here and toss up anything new.

    and i totally look forward to getting your take on this.

  3. also, i’m going to go back and tag any of the comic movie reviews you guys have done with the “Movie Reviews” cat tag. and from now on, if you want to post up a review of a movie inspired by a comic, by all means, go for it! i’m not, and never will, stop you.

  4. I’ll try to put something more substantial as an article up at some point, but I’m way behind on the Fables trade secrets and the event analysis (I need to see if I still have that second article in my email and just put the damned thing up), and I have a couple more reviews from my DCBS box to get through. We’ll see what time I have tomorrow night and Saturday.

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