Jul 18 2008 8:21am

So How Was the Movie, Mr. Henley

Why so serious? Very good. Deliberately epic in scope; flawed in execution. Let's start with an audience note, then get the bad stuff out of the way before being not queasy to praise a little.

I get the impression that it's a fandom faux pas to make a sweeping statement that a particular thing is "not for kids" or "suitable" for same. Every child is a unique snowflake, and the children of nerds, even . . . flakier. Fnord knows mine are. So, I'll just say: The movie includes children being menaced close up and at length, ordinary people being deliberately tempted toward monstrous behavior, lingering scenes of bald cruelty and the drawn-out death of a sympathetic character. As a minor matter, Harvey Dent's late-movie makeup job is pretty effective. I'm sure my eight-year-old daughter would find the movie too upsetting to enjoy, and I suspect that is true of my twelve-year-old son too, if not in the same degree. Your mileage MV.

Now the bad stuff. Some of it is pretty major:

(1) The script is not so good. I'm specifically talking about the words the screenplay puts in people's mouths. There are an awful lot of Moments of Shit. Part of this seems to betray an anxiety I thought superhero movies had outgrown: the compulsion to make you understand that this story isn't just about the fights oh no. It's the cinematic equivalent of the "Bap! Ziff! Pow! Comics Aren't Just for Kids Anymore" headlines that appeared at the top of every "Gosh, there are a lot of 'comic books' for adults these days" article a few years ago. The Nolans want to make sure you understand that this movie has themes, and what better way to get that across than to come right out and tell you?

Alas, some of the dialog doesn't play at all, even in the mouths of what is a pretty good cast. And the Nolans don't seem to be able to write chords, only single notes. They haven't mastered having characters talk about one thing in terms of another thing; overtones and even dramatic irony seem outside their purview.

(2) A problem from the first Nolan/Bale Batman recurs. To the creative team, it only makes sense that Bruce Wayne would disguise his voice when under the cowl so nobody can recognize him from listening to him. And that's all it does, is make sense. It makes the movie worse as a drama, because the particular guttural mutter Christian Bale uses when in costume has zero expressive range. Every now and then he gets to shout (it sounds like the vocalist howling over a death-metal coda), and that doesn't sound too compelling either.

(3) This edition of the Batman costume struck me wrong. The join among cowl, cape and body suit looks kludgy, almost slapped together. This doesn't even had dramatic justification, since Bruce Wayne's resources (human and financial) could surely do better. And the cowl itself is distractingly pear-shaped, with a big bowl for the cheeks tapering to a narrow bell for the crown of Bale's skull. The ears point inward and the bridge across the nose and cheekbones is distractingly indistinct.

The above strike me as big honking deals. Nevertheless, this is a very good movie. It's not the best superhero movie ever: tonight I don't think I'd put it in my top five. Ask me tomorrow. But it's very ambitious - it really wants to be an epic - and it achieves a lot of what it wants to achieve.

(1) The story, as opposed to the script, is very good. The general course of the action weaves together several plot strands in ways that make sense as action and fulfill the themes of the movie. The story is about what kind of coward you are or aren't, with cowardice being the willingness to have others pay the price for what you want most. Courage, in Dark Knight, consists in letting go of your life or dignity or reputation or ambitions for the sake of others. The Joker would like to show that courage doesn't exist. The beats of the plot vivify the struggle beautifully, so beautifully, you wish the screenwriters would stop having people tell us what it's doing.

(2) Heath Ledger really is terrific. The creative team's very smart plan is to simply go around Jack Nicholson's take on the character under Tim Burton's direction. This would only make sense anyway - you're not going to be more Jack Nicholson than Nicholson was - but especially so since I don't think Nicholson's performance has worn well. By which I mean, in retrospect it kind of annoys me. A lot of scene-chewing passed off as an interpretation. This movie's Joker underplays himself, and Ledger underplays the Joker. He shuffles; he mumbles; he pretends to play low-status. He's also cunning, usually a step ahead of his opponents, a true wild card. Aspects of his demeanor are almost professorial - the rumpled sort of serial-killing professor.

(3) Most of the rest of the cast is serviceable or better.

Martin Sutherland
1. sunpig
You opened the door a crack, so forgive me for walking through it: so what are your top five superhero movies?
Jim Henley
2. Supplanter
Hey, that's a request! I'll do an entry this weekend. Among other things it will force me to actually *decide* . . .
Jennifer Bales
3. TazistanJen
I'm sure my eight-year-old daughter would find the movie too upsetting to enjoy

I'd better not see it . . .
Jennifer Bales
4. TazistanJen
That wasn't italics! Let me try with square brackets:

I'm sure my eight-year-old daughter would find the movie too upsetting to enjoy

And let me try angle brackets again:

I'm sure my eight-year-old daughter would find the movie too upsetting to enjoy
Jim Henley
5. Supplanter
Hey, I can relate. I've never seen Pulp Fiction because hit-men protagonists squick me out for instance.
Richard Rhorer
6. starfisher
I saw the movie on Friday night and was prepared to resist the hype, but for once, it is well earned. I don't agree with your assessment of the script. I thought this was one of the smartest and best written movies that I've seen in a very long time.

For me, the interesting aspect of the story was how it reflected and commented on the geopolitics of the past few years. Batman's vigilante tactics, in effect, are taking the fight to the enemy rather than waiting for them to strike first. The Batman imitators who join the fight in the beginning of the film reflect the blood lust of those who want to hit the bad guys hard. The extreme response of the criminal element is the all out nihilism of the Joker. The Joker uses the devices of terrorism to instill panic in Gotham City. Ultimately, the movie seems ambivalent about the "heroism" of Batman. The moment near the end where the citizens and the criminals of Gotham must choose whether to destroy the other side to save themselves, and the choice that each makes seems to suggest that the social order that has been forged between the best and worst of people is one that should be preserved rather than protected in the extreme by Batman or tested in the extreme by the Joker.

I can't think of another superhero movie that ever made me think this much. I find it interesting that both Iron Man and Batman, directly in one case and indirectly in the other, seem to be grappling with the geopolitics of our time. It's also interesting to see that they are probably going to be the two highest grossing films of the year when other movies that have directly addressed the current world situation have been so thoroughly rejected.
Paul Abbamondi
7. pabba
I, too, could not stop focusing in on Batman's chain-smoking voice/growl. It really made it hard to understand him, and just pretty silly if he thought it was necessary as per his disguise. Other than that, I truly enjoyed the film.
Matt Arnold
8. Matt_Arnold
Perhaps I am currently incapable of disliking this movie, in some kind of cult trance of excitement, but I see the large flaws you point out as minor ones. Some part of me hasn't got over the idea that Hollywood can create superhero movies even remotely close to acceptable. I am still so shocked every time it happens that I apply a double-standard and forgive a multitude of sins.

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