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July 18, 2008

Have You Seen the Reviews for The Dark Knight?

Sorry for the having two comic-book movie posts so close together, but The Dark Knight is, in the estimation of most, not even a comic book movie per se -- it's an epic crime drama being compared, seriously, to The Godfather Part II or Scorcese's epics.

It's fairly rare that a movie gets this kind of universal and passionate acclaim, and it's unheard of that a superhero movie gets it. It's bewildering to me that a large number of critics are calling it a masterpiece, and they don't just mean a masterpiece in the superhero genre, they mean masterpiece period. The way the reviews read, there's a good chance that the film will be nominated for a host of awards, including Best Picture, and, who knows, in a weak year could sweep them the way Gladiator or Silence of the Lambs did (despite both being from the disfavored "genre" category of movies).

One big problem: The film not only uses Batman's best villain, The Joker, but stupidly makes great use of Batman's second-best villain, Two-Face, perhaps exhausting the possibilities of that character, just to gild a lily that was already pretty golden anyway. I'm guessing that they were thinking this would be their Empire Strikes Back, and that the ultimate showdown with The Joker would occur in the third movie.

But now that Heath Ledger's dead, what the hell do they do for that next movie? It is obvious that, given the praise Ledger is getting, they cannot replace him. They've now exhausted the possibilities of four of Batman's most interesting, more realistic foes (Ra's al Ghul, Scarecrow, The Joker, Two-Face), for some reason choosing to stick to the two villain formula that didn't work when Burton and Shumacher were in charge.

So what's next? Bring in King Tut? Calendar Man? Batman has a great rogue's gallery, but still, there are only so many tip-top villains, and the Nolan's have unwisely burned through most of them in just two films. All that's left are some joke villains (Riddler, Penguin), a love interest who's not even really a villain (Catwoman), a couple of villains who have some limited potential but are associated with the disastrous Batman and Robin (Mr. Freeze, Bane, maybe Poison Ivy), and then a host of also rans from the comics like Clayface and Killer Croc and The Mad Hatter and Man-Bat.


Oh, the Politics: Based on reading pretty much every review out there, the movie is strongly 9/11 and terrorism themed, and deliberately so. The Joker is explicitly called a terrorist, and, like bin Ladin, his terrorism seems without any motive except to, well, terrify and cause chaos. And he blows up a lot of buildings, including by suicide bomb.

The movie also includes a FISA/eavesdropping subplot -- Batman basically bugging the entire city -- and a torture or "torture" sequence -- Batman beating the living shit out of a confined and helpless Joker to get crucial information about his next victims.

In addition, there are almost no CGI additions to the Chicago cityscape; the movie clearly takes place in a real-world city that looks like a real-world city. So, they deliberately eschewed the hypergothic flourishes to make it clear that this wasn't taking place in a fantasy world, but in the real world.

However, it also seems the movie doesn't pontificate upon such practices so much as just "raise questions" and let the audience answer them. One reviewer noted the questions, for example, and was left wondering if the movie was criticizing such tactics or "cheerleading" for them. Another noted the movie doesn't push politics; it assumes you have your own coming in, and doesn't attempt to change them so much as explore the issues. The ambiguity here is not just a wise financial choice, but a wise dramatic one; questions are almost always more interesting than actual answers. From what I've read, the question is left hanging: Sure, all these things are bad in principle, but when you're up against a demonic evangelist of murder like The Joker, what other choice do you have?

I can't be sure, but the impression I get that is that Batman can easily be viewed as an analogue for any hardcore terrorist hunter, and while the movie may question the tactics, it's hard to make your actual hero the villain. Whether the movie comes down against Batman, ultimately, it seems difficult to imagine how the movie can make its hero clearly a villain; even if you don't agree with what Batman does, you at least understand why he feels the need to do them.

Hopefully that's the way the movie actually plays it, and it's not just liberal critics soft-pedaling the film's politics in order to 1) help a liberal movie get box office and 2) trick conservatives into seeing a comic-book movie in which they will "learn lessons" and come out as Obama voters.

Record-Breaking Midnight Sneak: $18 million made from midnight shows last night edges out Star Wars, Episode III, which made $17 million.

More on Politics: From people who've actually seen the movie.


First, Andy Levy of Red Eye. I asked him about the film's politics:

some [politics in the film], yeah. but not particularly heavy handed. and it even kind of embraces the notion that sometimes you have to do distasteful things to stop bad guys.

I asked him about a line by Alfred that goes, from what I can tell, something like: "You can do these things to stop the murders, and you must, but the people will hate you for doing them."

something like that, yeah. and there's another scene with morgan freeman and batman involving turning everyone in gotham's cellphone into a sonar tracking device, in order to locate the joker. freeman doesn't like the idea, but he ends up realizing it's necessary "this one time"

my guess is it'll be a rorschach test, where whatever you believe you'll find something to support that belief in the film.

Moron Pundit writes:

I watched it last evening and came away thinking it was unabashedly pro-Batman (the United States) if not pro-Batman's tactics. It is in many ways, and many times mentioned that Batman isn't "The Hero Gotham Wants" but he's the "Hero Gotham Needs RIGHT NOW." His position as an outsider and the distant, all-powerful guardian of the world isn't something that people want forever but something they need, much as the United States isn't necessarily to be the world's cop forever but they still need our services.

It also is mentioned that Batman is only loved when things are easy like during the Clinton years but is always derided when things get really tough and ambiguous. Batman is told something like "you are in the unique position to make a decision no one on either side can right now... the right one."

Also, he is told early that he can't keep this up for long, that his greatness is bound to fall, that he takes on more than he should... and the impending "I told you so" is brought up. He says "On that day, I won't want to[tell you I told you so]."

I liken that to the United States being constantly hounded for being too meddling but certainly much of the world would lament the passing of superpowerdom from our hands to that of the Chinese or Russians.

Ryan Frank agrees:

I saw it this last night/this morning, and I would definitely say that it does not try to feed you any particular political viewpoint.

I was surprised by a review by a very left-wing critic, whose reviews I generally don't find reliable for reasons having nothing to do with politics anyway-- he hated the movie. He criticized the movie for its nihilism and its moral ambiguity. He far preferred the Burton Batman, who was clearly a hero.

Wait-- don't left-wingers usually say they hate that simplistic black-and-white morality that is the only sort we stupid conservatives comprehend?

Check out the left-wing (I'm pretty sure) Armond White reading from William Bennett's Book of Virtues in panning the film:

After announcing his new comics interpretation with 2005’s oppressively grim Batman Begins, Nolan continues the intellectual squalor popularized in his pseudo-existential hit Memento. Appealing to adolescent jadedness and boredom, Nolan revamps millionaire Bruce Wayne’s transformation into the crime-fighter Batman (played by indie-zombie Christian Bale), by making him a twisted icon, what the kids call “sick.” The Dark Knight is not an adventure movie with a driven protagonist; it’s a goddamn psychodrama in which Batman/Bruce Wayne’s neuroses compete with two alter-egos: Gotham City’s law-and-order District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and master criminal The Joker (Heath Ledger)—all three personifying the contemporary distrust of virtue.

We’re way beyond film noir here. The Dark Knight has no black-and-white moral shading. Everything is dark, the tone glibly nihilistic (hip) due to The Joker’s rampage that brings Gotham City to its knees...

Watching psychic volleys between Batman, Dent and The Joker (there’s even a love quadrangle that includes Maggie Gyllenhaal’s slouchy Assistant D.A., Rachel Dawes) is as fraught and unpleasurable as There Will Be Blood with bat wings. This sociological bloodsport shouldn’t be acceptable to any thinking generation.

...

Remember how Tim Burton’s 1989 interpretation of the comics superhero wasn’t quite good enough? ... Burton’s pop-geek specialty is to humorously explicate childhood nightmare. But Nolan’s The Dark Knight has one note: gloom. For Nolan, making Batman somber is the same as making it serious. This is not a triumph of comics culture commanding the mainstream: It’s giving in to bleakness. Ever since Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic-novel reinvention, The Dark Knight Returns, pop consumers have rejected traditional moral verities as corny. That might be the ultimate capitalist deception.

...

Ironically, Nolan’s aggressive style won’t be slagged “manipulative” because it doesn’t require viewers to feel those discredited virtues, “hope” and “faith.” Like Hellboy II, this kind of sci-fi or horror or comics-whatever obviates morality. It trashes belief systems and encourages childish fantasies of absurd macho potency and fabulous grotesqueries. That’s how Nolan could take the fun out of Batman and still be acclaimed hip. As in Memento, Nolan shows rudimentary craft; his zeitgeist filmmaking—morose, obsessive, fussily executed yet emotionally unsatisfying—will only impress anyone who hasn’t seen De Palma’s genuinely, politically serious crime-fighter movie, The Black Dahlia.

See, he was one of three people in the world to like The Black Dahlia. That's a reason not to trust him right there.

I'm not sure of the reason for this oddly conservative-sounding trashing of nihilism, flawed heroes, and moral ambiguity -- and oddly conservative-sounding championing of virtue. It's possible he just didn't like the movie, and, as people do, he's coming up with rational criticism to explain his real reason for not liking it, that is, he just didn't like it. Intellectualizing a gut-level reaction, which isn't really an intellectual decision in the first place. (Which people do all the time: A guy once pointed out, cleverly I thought, that movies that don't work have their plot-holes and lack of logic endlessly trashed, and yet movies that work are rarely criticized for plot, even though they usually have just as many plot-holes and convenient illogicalities as bad movies. He cited LA Confidential as an example of that, but even if you don't agree, the idea is sound: A movie that works, for whatever reason, just works, and we excuse away the failings we rip apart in movies that don't work.)

But it also strikes me he might not like the movie's ambiguity, and lack of clear moral teaching, because he's annoyed the movie is ambiguous were it ought to be clear: Bush sucks, fighting terrorism never works, enhanced interrogation techniques are always bad, and telecom immunity is always wrong (except when Obama says it's okay.)

Which is par for the course for left-wing critics: They are great fans of "raising questions" and moral ambiguity when it is conservative or traditional mores being questioned or undermined. When their own mores are questioned or undermined -- and the public taught "the wrong lessons" -- they go bat-shit bug-fuck baboon-cock crazy.

Just thought that was kind of interesting. I have no idea if the movie is as good as most everyone says, but I think that great movies should spark that kind of violent, passionate dislike, at least by a minority. If a movie is serious and great, then it must be that somewhere out there you've pissed someone off, and threatened their worldview and comfy assumptions.

If nothing else, the movie does seem provocative, and serious enough to raise that sort of philosophical objection by a critic.


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posted by Ace at 03:02 PM

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