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Michelle Obama: I Could Be "Very Competent" Deciding American Policy Putting in Only a "70 Percent" Effort | Main | Wednesday Warporn
July 30, 2008

Repeat Business Gives Dark Knight an Outside Chance to Beat Titanic Box Office
Plus My Obligatory Overlong, Overly Critical Review

Whether it does or doesn't, it's likely to be at least the second-highest grossing picture of all time, beating even the mighty Star Wars. (Though Star Wars of course sold more tickets; they never adjust box office for inflation, because Hollywood always has a vested interest in new movies breaking old records.)

I saw the movie Monday. I haven't put up a review yet because it's nuanced.

My one word review? Meh.

My slightly longer than one word review: Overblown, overhyped, overplotted, overstuffed, and overlong.

There are some great images here and there (Batman's early-movie bat-cape base-jump from one Hong Kong superskyscraper to another was oddly thrilling for a two-second shot), and some decent action, but the movie is simply overcrammed with plotting. Plotting comes at the expense of character -- the more time you have to spend on plot, obviously the less time you have for quieter character moments -- and furthermore, the film seemed to take a very abstract view of the characters, making them even less visceral than their limited character-building screentime would allow.

The characters are conceived not as flesh-and-blood people (or simulacra thereof), but more as Symbols of Abstract Ethical and Cosmic Imperatives. Batman is Good; Batman is Law. The Joker is Evil; the Joker is Chaos. (Yes, Lawful Good vs. Chaotic Evil.) Obviously the characters do and must represent those poles, but not necessarily to the exclusion of all else; but the Nolan Brothers' screenplay seems uninterested in people so much as a clash of moral and ethical absolutes which just happen to be represented here by people in garish costumes.

Because there's so much damn plotting, conversations are necessarily chopped to the bone to reduce screen time, resulting in inauthentic and inorganic dialogue in which people don't talk so much as announce their Current Motivation and/or Dramatic Conflict and/or Plot-Required Plan of Action in two sentence bullet-point statements. I would never say the Nolans can't write dialogue. In fact, they're even good at making extremely-clipped dialogue in overly plotted movies sound pretty natural, or natural enough. (They managed the task well enough in The Prestige, for example.) But here they've simply put too much damn plot into the movie to have the luxury of letting conversations unfold with anything approaching a natural-sounding cadence and hesitancy. There's just no time for subtext or false starts or any single word that doesn't advance the movie's themes or plots.

So, for example, instead of an interesting conversation as Bruce Wayne tries to feel Harvey Dent out as regards his integrity and suitability as an ally, we get a very brief scene in which Dent makes the nonsensical (but apparently quoteworthy) statement "You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain," and Bruce immediately announces he trusts him.

A scene I'd looked forward to -- Batman, Gordon, and Dent assembled atop police HQ under the light of the Bat-Signal -- is similarly brief and dramatically (and comedically) inert, consisting only of the supersonic bullet-points "We're allies now/We need this money launderer Lau/I'll go to Hong Kong to get him/Cool I'll prosecute him/KTHANX."

Everyone praises the cast. I don't see it. I grant that just about everyone in this movie is a strong actor. (Except for the giggly Maggie Gyllenhallenhyllenhallenhal, who actually made me nostalgic for the authenticity and gravitas of Katie Holmes.) But no one, except Heath Ledger, actually has to do much difficult acting. It does not exactly tax an actor of Gary Oldman's talents to say "The Joker is robbing mob-controlled banks." And that's largely the sort of line everyone in the movie delivers at all times; again, the need to cut 4 hours worth of plot into a 2 hour forty minute running time excludes most other dialogue. (And on Gary Oldman -- I'm very disappointed that the movie gives him such short shrift. Jim Gordon is a hell of a character, just as heroic (but not as flashy) as Batman, but here plays third fiddle hero after Harvey Dent and Batman -- and yes, in that order.)

At times the plot simply becomes transparently contrived -- things happen, and people behave oddly, simply because the plot requires them to do so. Most emblematic of this is the late-movie argument between Batman and another major character regarding proper police tactics; the other character wants to attack immediately, Batman objects "It's never that simple with the Joker," and makes the rather reasonable request for five minutes to further investigate the situation. This other character -- who trusts Batman implicitly and who is himself smart and competent (perhaps even on a Michelle Obama level) -- nevertheless refuses Batman's very reasonable request, and dismisses his very well-founded concerns, simply because the screenwriters have decided that at this point in the movie Batman must have a long and pointless confrontation with SWAT officers.

Even when Batman finds out his initial hunch is right -- and that SWAT should definitely not go ahead with its initial plan, and tells them so -- for some inexplicable reason the SWAT officers ignore him, as does the major character ally commanding them, just so we can continue to see Batman fight with SWAT members.

Which, really, is a bad call dramatically, because this is the end of the movie, the final confrontation with the Joker (?), and we want to see Batman fighting the Joker's men and the Joker himself, not engaging in pointless fistfights with SWAT officers whose only sin is being fucking retarded. (In context, though, I have to admit this is a mortal sin. This isn't venal retardation. This is grave retardation.)

So not only is this entire sequence hopelessly and stupidly contrived, but it's actually dramatically counterproductive.

There are a lot of other such contrivances. That's just one of the worst. I can't detail others because they would be spoilers.

In many cases, I think these plot contrivances could have been made to seem more natural and plausible. But, again, the lack of time: The movie just doesn't have the time to set this stuff up. It's just One Damn Thing After Another.

There's an awful lot to like here. It's a handsome movie, certainly. Its heart is in the right place as regards Ultimate Good vs. Ultimate Evil (though, honestly, that's not a hard one to get right). Politically (if politics matter) it's absolutely unobjectionable, and is, if anything, right-leaning. I loved that the movie took a short amount of time to give Alfred a kinda-badass backstory, as he explains his days as a colonial soldier hunting bandits in Burma.

But, much like the precursor Batman Begins, I find myself admiring the movie more than actually enjoying it. Only much more so.

The movie is worth seeing. Out of four stars, I guess I give it three. No one is going to come out of this movie thinking anyone skimped on production values, cast, or special effects. (And stunts: Most stuff here, except Batman's rather implausible antics on the Batpod, is stuntwork rather than CGI.)

No one is going to say they didn't get 10 or 12 or 15 bucks of movie here.

Quite the opposite. There's too much movie here.

And certainly none of it is bad. It's all good, really. It's just not very good. Individual ideas and scenes are quite good, but there are simply too many of them (for me) to gel together into a single, coherent, dramatically-satisfying movie.

While the movie has a lot to recommend it, I'm dissatisfied. Perhaps I just let my expectations get too high. And I do realize it's kind of weird that I'm panning a movie I'm also giving three stars.

But I have to say that not only did I have more fun at Iron Man -- I think it's the better movie as well. I'll be seeing Hellboy II next, and I have the sneaking suspicion I'll like that more than The Dark Knight as well.

A Brief History of the Joker: Probably nothing fans don't know, except (for me) how closely the Joker resembles his inspiration, Conrad Veidt's character in The Man Who Laughed.

digg this
posted by Ace at 03:29 PM

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