How Dark is it? (Batman Spoilers)

poster_batman_dark_knightThere is someone who keeps coming here and using the internal search to find my review of The Dark Knight. The problem is, I did not write a review of the Dark Knight. And I did not, for several reasons:

  • Everybody and their dog has written one – do you really need to hear from me too?
  • Someone only has to call you anti-American b/c of a film review once before you think “duude its just a blog!!!”
  • I liked the Hulk and I hated Iron Man and guess which one has a three picture deal . . .

But you know, I would hate for you, dear searcher, to have to keep coming here looking for it, so here you go.

I miss Tim Burton. Burton’s Batman had a nice solid mix of dark and humor. His Batman was tortured enough that you believe he would choose to be a vigilante in a town overrun with criminals, yet human michael_keaton7enough that you could also see him struggling to build a normal life at the same time. jack Nicholson’s joker was dark enough but owed more to the tv series than the comic books, which of course annoys true comic book fans but doesn’t bother me. And the sets were the exact kind of comic to film look that only Burton can deliver. I think I may have died a little when they wrestled the franchise away from him and handed it over to Shumacher whose particular kind of misogynist queer gaze makes me want to hurl something at the movie screen. As my gf put it once “Nipples that is all I have to say.”

That being said, I really wanted to love this movie. In fact, the first one was such a refreshing renewal from the drudge the franchise had become that I giddily overlooked the casting of Liam Neeson as the notorious Asian martial arts expert. (I didn’t forget it though.) And I believed Christian Bale as tortured, misanthropic, and vengeance bound. Which is sayingdent something because every time I look at him I start to sing that song from Empire of the Sun in my choir voice.

But here’s the thing, this movie was not my genre. It is not a comic book film in the traditional sense of the word. It is a comic book fan’s, honest and true to form, adaptation of a particular dark moment in the Batman series. A moment that reads and feels more like the gritty crime dramas of Scorsese than Super Hero. What that means is the world is dark and full of evil, not campy evil, not creepy evil, but the real kind of evil that lurks in the hearts of good men as well as bad. And as the film so clearly shows, all it takes is the flip of a coin for the whole thing to come undone.

I don’t go to see movies like Colors, Gangs of New York, Heat, The Departed, etc. because that is a world I can see in the coverfaces of my neighbors, in the texts for my classes, in the newspaper. It is a world that is defined by a certain kind of masculinity and violence that hold no sway with me. And Nolan’s Batman sits very superbly above the rest in this genre, a genre you have to like to watch.

There is nothing negative I can say about Nolan’s directing. The world he creates matches the dark intensity of his script. And unlike Hellboy II, the script is superb. It asks us to take a good look at what both good and evil really are, who we really are, and why. It questions the desire for heroes, the ego that often lurks behind heroism, and the thirst for criminality, decadence, and chaos. In so doing, it explores corruption in the government, in the police force, in the legal system, and in the hearts of normal, every day, people. In fact, the kindest person in this film is a criminal condemned to death.batmanbegins1

I’ve been a big fan of Gary Oldman’s since the beginning of his career, so much so that I forgave him for being in the erroneously titled Bram Stroker’s Dracula (umm, I have a signed copy of that book, as well as the one I actually read, and trust me the film does not follow it). I honestly do not think he has put in a better performance than this one. He is subtle and strong, brave and believable, naive, compassionate, and committed. You could take his Commissioner Gordon out of this film and place it in any serious drama and he would still shine.

dark_knight_joker_22Heath Ledger has also had a wee place in my heart since the days of Roar. His joker is disturbed and disturbing. His moments of clarity about vigilantism and the growing desire for society to have both chaos and reason are the mirrors most of us avoid. And there is a coldness with which he delivers some of his most pathos filled lines that makes you clear, this is not Jack Nicholson’s giddy insane but the deadly kind.

Yet, I cannot get past the stories that Ledger’s Joker tells. First he is disfigured because of domestic violence. His father, a sadist, tortures his mother in front of him and when he dares to show compassion and horror, his father cuts him a smile. But that is not the real story.

Moments later, holding Rachel to him, Joker tells a story of his horribly disfigured wife. She too was a victim of abuse, kniferaped and maimed by her attackers. As dutiful husband, suffering beside her both in his impotence to save her and to prove he loves her, he maims himself. Finding him ugly, she in turn leaves him.

I don’t doubt that Nolan and the script writers thought they were questioning a world that looks for answer where there may only be a maniac who likes what he does, as Wilfred points out. And it does fit within the overarching narrative of questioning whether evil is exceptional or part of everyone. Just as it fits with the idea that the Joker has no rhyme nor reason. And yet, the stories he tells are not of his own abuse but that of women. They hinge on the one truth that none of the abuses actually existed. And that concerns me.

Rachel’s role reinforces the idea that the truth of women is no truth at all. Rachel promises Bruce that if he stops being Batman she will love him. Yet knowing the price he would have to pay, she faults him for being willing to pay it, and rachel-dawes-maggie-gyllenhaalpaying it with someone who is equally willing. She tells Dent she loves him, yet still drifts into the arms of Bruce at every turn. Gyllenhaal delivers a complex version of the fickle bride but her truth is so tainted that even after she is dead, there is no truth to be found in her memory.

Despite Gyllenhaal’s quips and powerhouse attorney garb, she is little more than the love interest. Most of her time in court is alongside Dent, and most out of it is spent calling Bruce to rescue her. In her final moments, she is so certain that her hero will choose her over the hope of the city that she is as astounded as everyone else when he does not arrive. A woman who was really as powerful as Rachel is supposed to be would not have waited for Batman, she would have tried to free herself just like Dent did. And so even that part of her character is false.legends

Other women in this film are so minor that they are almost forgettable. Gordon’s wife is only there to be upset about his “death” and to motivate him and the Bat to bargain when she is kidnapped. Ramirez has a major role, but we don’t know it until near the end of the film. For the rest, she is in the background like an extra.

People of color in this film occupy two categories: Criminals you know and criminals you don’t know. There are never more people of color than in the prison boat scene, proving once again that we do enter into the white Hollywood imaginary in similar ways that we do in the real world: as the prisonriotorange jumpsuit wearing, gang banging, scary that will get you if you don’t watch out. Thus, we start the film with the New Jack City crew that threatens unspeakable acts of violence on Joker when all the other criminals, read white ethnics, want to hear him out. They are tortured and treated like dogs earlier in the film, then never seen again. Then there is Lau, a corrupt Asian businessman who is quickly transformed from the badass of an Asian cop film (and the embodiment of the fear that Asians are stockpiling N. American wealth) to number crunching accountant coward of US ones. His transatlantic transformation is the most succinct melding of two N. American stereotypes in this summer’s films.

The criminals we don’t know are also largely people of color. The cop whose wife is in the Joker occupied hospital who tries to kill Gordon and the cop who delivers Rachel to the Joker are both Latin@s. Though corruption in the police force is an ongoing thread in the film, all of the other police are generally good cops with the exception of one. And they are all white.

The overwhelming absence of people of color except in the form of criminals is hardly undone by the two/ “three” characters who turn out to be “good guys.” Mayor Garcia plays like he is corrupt, though he is not in this film. Judge batmanSerillo and Commissioner Loeb both end up dead; Loeb’s part is so small that he only appears on screen to die, and of course be replaced by Gordon by film’s end. In fact, the most memorable performance is from Tiny Lister, who grimaces at the camera menacingly as time ticks down on the criminal and the civilian boats charged with blowing one of the boats up or both dying by the Joker. Lister, finally takes the detonator from the guard and throws it out the window without a second thought. His is the unexpected move, but he is already guilty of some unspeakable and unspoken crime.

There is also Morgan Freeman, who reprises his role. I am unimpressed by how many films have Morgan Freeman in them playing the smarter than thou helpmate to the crumbling white folks. It was interesting in the begin but its going to that place from which well . . .

Thus this grittier, darker, oscar drama like Batman delivers a complex and disheartening critique of the world and the questionsgeviolence in it. It is true to both the series it is based on and the crime drama genre that it perfects rather than mimics. In that world, guys with guns toss women around and beat each other down while spewing slurs. Batman has no slurs, but has no redeemable women either. (except Gordon’s completely tangential wife) Most of the people of color are dead by the end of this film, but they were never really fully developed characters in anyway.

So there it is, dear searcher, my Dark Knight review. Not nearly as offensive as Iron Man. Not as sadly under-scripted as Hellboy. Not even slightly as comedically timed as The Mummy (pt. 1) or Raiders. And in my opinion not as good as 1989’s Batman or Batman Begins. But keep in mind, I started this review by saying I don’t go to movies like The Departed or No Country for Old Men. If you do, and so many people do, then you will likely love this film. It is exactly what it set out to be and it did it perfectly.

all pics are movie stills from Batman Begins or Dark Knight except
  • The Dark Knight Returns 2. Frank Miller. co DC Comics
  • Legends of the Dark Knight pg. 6 Kitson & Hanna. co DC Comic
  • “Why So Serious.” unattributed.
  • “Prison Riot.” image unattributed.
  • unattributed. co DC Comics (if you recognize this image and know the full citation please let me know)

7 thoughts on “How Dark is it? (Batman Spoilers)

  1. You write much more nuanced film reviews than I do.I think mine consisted of “Damn it, WHY!?!?!?”Then got multiple concern trolls. I wonder if there’s a spray for that.I liked this review, Professor. Thank you for writing it.

  2. ha. yep it was probably someone hoping to call me unamerican on wikipedia again, but I try to listen to my audience when I can. Anyway . . . did you like or dislike the movie? (my answer is ehh, 6 of 1 half a dozen of the other)

  3. “The cop whose wife is in the Joker occupied hospital who tries to kill Gordon and the cop who delivers Rachel to the Joker are both Latin@s.”

    The cop whose wife is in the hospital who tries to kill MR. REESE is in fact white. It really hurts a movie review when the author demonstrates a clear ignorance of the film.

    • welcome to the blog Alex. As I say in the review, I am discussing the police officer who tries to kill Gordon in the car ride. I don’t know who tried to kill “Mr. Reese” I don’t refer to this moment in my review.

      One other point – a single sentence in this review you have mistaken for a different moment has very little bearing on either of our intelligence. My overall review is simple: I thought the movie was quite brilliant for the genre, the performances are stellar and feature actors I absolutely love, and I had some concerns about certain race and gender messages, which were minor compared to other films released this summer. Hardly the review of an ignorant person.

      Next time you stop by, please try to communicate from a place of respect; you can disagree without name calling. I think you’ll find respect will make for a better exchange all the way around. This really isn’t a place where we engage in flame wars, put downs, or group think but you can certainly find that in abundance elsewhere if that is what you are into.

    • welcome to the blog Angela. I used it ‘cos I liked it not b/c it was in the movie. But thanks for the info for any readers who think it is real.

      (just double checking the prose to make sure I didn’t imply image was real & noted it wasn’t listed in the images. fixed that. thanks.)

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