The Dark Knight Dozen –
Twelve Reasons You Are Wrong
It's no fun trying to write a review of The Dark Knight, despite how well Cappsy's went. It's a fantastic movie that exceeds all manner of expectations, and if the box office is anything to go by, it seems pretty well everybody is already aware of this.
Happily, for all the lovely right-thinkers out there, there are a few evil, stupid people who definitely smell bad and are mean to their mums. People whose reviews may be well-meaning, but who nevertheless are contributing to some bizarre 'truths' emerging about the film that, in fact, come wholly from a place of self-satisfied opinion.
So with that in mind, here's my well-meaning, self-satisfied opinion list of twelve things you're not getting right about The Dark Knight. Somewhat inevitably, beware of spoilers aplenty.
1) "Harvey Two Face Obviously Isn't Dead"
A funny one this, because it's born out of wish-fulfilment. With Ledger's Joker never to return, it'd be great to see Eckhart's Two Face back in the third film... but, let's be clear about this, The Dark Knight is making a specific and definite point, and the guy is gone.
Batman being made a killer - an actual taker of life, not just (as the ending also offers) a taker of blame - is a victory for the Joker, with the Batman's one and only rule, discussed throughout the film, finally broken. It's alluded to in the dialogue, and it's the very needle-point of this particular Joker/Batman conflict. It's happened.
The logistics of bringing Harvey back would be pretty weak for a rejuvenated saga pretty hot on sharp, sensible storytelling. Yes, it's true - we don't see someone stick a steel pole through his heart, nobody cuts off his head. If this were the Halloween series, Harvey could still be alive.
Hey, Ra's Al Ghul could be alive - we saw the train destroyed, but maybe he jumped out the window - but crass, underhand work like this just isn't... appropriate. For Two Face to be alive, Jim Gordon must be complicit in a plot to keep him so, and to hide that fact from the public. I know he recently faked his own death, but do we really think the guy stashed one of Gotham's most recognisable semi-faces in Arkham Asylum and hoped the staff wouldn't notice? Did Gordon really allow Bats to think himself a killer as he fled at the end of this film?
2) "The Sub-Plot About The Guy Who Discovers Batman's Identity Is Irrelevant And/Or Vanishes Half-Way Through The Film"
Actor Joshua Harto's had a funny summer - he began it with a small role in Marvel's billionaire-turned-masked-hero blockbuster Iron Man, and ended it with an appearance as Coleman Reese in DC's billionaire-turned-masked-hero blockbuster, The Dark Knight.
Reese is the aforementioned 'guy', a would-be blackmailer put in his place by Lucius Fox. But if you think his little sub-plot was 'pointless', or that it somehow got forgotten about, then you weren't paying attention.
The storyline is intended to show another dimension to Lucius Fox, to ensure he doesn't simply become Batman's gadget-man, his Q. Fox is a guy who has Wayne's back, protecting him from enemies on unexpected, exposed sides. (A metaphor represented by his description of the vulnerabilities of the new Batsuit.) Right from the first film we were watching Bruce build himself an army, recruiting lieutenants for the battle to come - and Fox is a key member of the team.
It's especially important to see Lucius in this way in order to give his reactions at the films' climax context. Faced with privacy-invading technology on a city-wide scale, Fox makes one thing clear - we've gone too far. 'The mission' means as much to him as it does to Bruce, Harvey Dent or James Gordon (though he articulates his role very differently), but he cannot sanction this crossing of the line. That his name becomes the means of the device's destruction is absolutely appropriate.
Reese's story continues far beyond the original blackmail, giving it a clear three-act structure. His claims attract the Joker's attention, and soon the city is gunning for the guy who can sate their curiosity - clever enough, but then Batman/Bruce prevents the guy from being murdered, despite it being in his best interests to let it happen. The look that passes between Wayne and Reese after the car 'accident' closes the story in elegant, economic fashion.
In comic terms, this would have been a neat one-issue story, a little morality tale about those Batman affects. In Nolan's hands, it becomes a pertinent, on-message sub-plot. For those who missed all that, welcome to multi-layered storytelling where more than one thing happens at once. You may now return to watching Legally Blonde 2.
3) "Reese Will Become The Riddler"
Don't be daft. Just because his set-up has vague echoes of Batman Forever doesn't mean a thing - and neither do a few Edward Nygma references in the movie's online promotion. Seriously, if you think that Nolan would take inspiration from Schumacher's Bat-movies rather than the comics (which have various other origins for the Riddler), then you're not bright enough to see this film unaccompanied.
4) "Batman Is Shown As A Blatant Right/Left-Wing Symbol In This Film"
Firstly, let's get this straight - a film that shows a character doesn't necessarily endorse them. Protagonist doesn't mean shining example.
That the film allows for both Left and Right readings is one of a billion things that makes it so special. It addresses the fascistic nature of vigilantism head-on - as it should when the guy making the choices is also the richest guy in town.
Right to privacy, interrogation technique - these things are openly raised, and you're left to make your own choice. If you thought Batman beating the Joker in an interrogation room was cause for concern, good, you were supposed to. My take is that only an idiot would find those actions wholly justifiable. (The usefulness is undercut when the explanation comes that he was always going to talk, he just wanted to get Bats riled up.) But you take out what you put in.
5) "The Batpod Is A Rubbish Vehicle Intended Only To Sell Toys"
Frankly, the reveal of the Batpod alone justifies its place in the movie - springing from the wrecked Batmobile ("The Tumbler") where, it turns out, it was residing all along, disguised as the two front wheels. A genius bit of design.
More importantly, though, the Batpod - its daft name seeming a lot less so now it's shown to be an eject-and-escape device - allows for a much more elegant vehicle chase than we got in Batman Begins. Rather than driving a tank across roofs and through cars, the 'Pod takes a more streamlined approach. It simultaneously makes Bats more vulnerable, and more manoeuvrable - and it really comes across on-screen as the Joker's truck is hog-tied and flipped over while our hero comes to a (vertical) spinning stop.
6) "Heath Ledger's Performance Is Oscar-Worthy/Is Only Scary Because Of The Make-Up"
The former is hyperbole, generously given to an actor who reached death just as he became an icon. Or maybe even making him one. The one-two punch of a playing a gay cowboy and comics' most iconic villain is ideal for the poster-on-wall brigade. And a live fast, die young demise is the stuff from which legends are made.
He's good - maybe the best Joker, certainly the most appropriate and chilling - but...look, Anthony Hopkins never should have won for Hannibal Lecter, okay? He's a great actor, but it's a nutter-in-a-box part - well played, but not overly layered. Just because another actor found a way to achieve the same effect - iconic, scary, haunting in the quiet moments - doesn't mean a little gold statue should be in the post.
But it is a performance built on far more than a haunting look. The movement, the voice, the erratic speech rhythms and icky tongue gesture - this is great stuff, and would have had equal impact if played with a clean face. He's a special creation, this Joker. It's just not the be-all and end-all.
7) "The Action Is Just As Badly/Slightly Better Directed Than Before"
It's occasionally flawed, maybe. But there's a big myth balloon to, erm, puncture here, because the action photography/editing in Batman Begins is categorically not as bad as raging myth would have you believe.
The confusion starts with a misconception - that Begins was 'an action movie'. I get the problem - we have a hero beating his way through bad guys, and if this were James Bond the film would be working to keep the geography clear. The way you 'feel' that kind of action is aided by the sense that you're inside the lead character, ducking and punching right along with him. And that means keeping track of what's where.
But Nolan has other things on his mind. His Batman is an outsider, and the director smartly shifts his perspective to those around him. Begins sets up its stall with the first major Bat-attack, characterised by horror movie camerawork. The Batman is little more than a shadow, a movement in the corner of your eye. He's the Alien.
Earlier action - Wayne's training, mostly - was actually pretty clear in execution, except, again, where the impression was intended otherwise. (His early battle in prison is meant to be messy, clumsy and chaotic.) But not all action sequences in either film are designed to tap only the most direct, visceral parts of the viewer's brain. There are other, equally interesting, things at work. Not everything has to be Die Hard.
Me, I'm liking the poetry-action - never better in The Dark Knight than when the Joker sets off his hospital explosives. In one charming, unassuming shot the Clown Prince - still in his nurse's drag - totters away from the building, activates his detonator and listens as the bangs go off. Well, some of them. Hmm, dodgy detonator - click, click, click. Boom! Ah, got it - and so the explosions continue. Still in he same shot, the Joker slips aboard an evacuations school bus as it drives away. (Later we will learn that he took the passengers hostage.)
It's Brian dePalma without that big, wavy 'look what I can do!' quality. Action? Pah. Why settle for just 'action'?
8) "The Violence Was Cut Down/Is Too Much For a 12 or PG-13/Is Not Realistic"
This one's funny because everyone seems to have a contradictory take. A popular but usually inaccurate nerd site, when discussing the film's violent content, called the version we all saw the "UK theatrical cut". Which, okay, it was...but as compared to what? The US release, which was exactly the same?
Nolan's careful editing - no doubt worked in collaboration with the mostly-evil MPAA - implies a lot, but shows very little, and this has presumably given some critics the idea that the film must have been cut down. But there's no evidence that the makers were hampered by censorship. For the record, the BBFC reports the film as passed uncut for both its 35mm and IMAX version. Just because a film implies something, doesn't mean the makers wanted to show it in full.
Meanwhile - too violent? For young kids, no question. Do not bring your five year-old. What we see is striking and powerful - and the sound design is terrific, filling in the gaps while never becoming Saw-heavy or sounding 'toned-down' - but never indulgent.
There's not much here that strikes me as any worse than the films I grew up on - and there's certainly less blood than in, say, PG films like Indiana Jones or Jaws. More importantly, 12 was the age I saw Robocop and Alien on video for the first time. Highly-strung, overly-coddled children aside, 12 is a resilient, mature age. They can handle this, no problem.
However the reason they can handle it is not the bizarre explanation located on the BBFC's parental advice site:
"The Dark Knight is a superhero movie and the violence it contains exists within that context, with both Batman and the Joker apparently indestructible no matter what is thrown at them."
Indestructible? Someone missed the heavy scarring on Bruce Wayne's back. Someone didn't notice the dog bite. Still, Bats is in a protective suit - saying he bounces back is like saying a cop bounces back from being shot without mentioning the Kevlar vest.
The Joker does have an Energiser Bunny quality, but that's intended as a character beat - the old maxim about the strength of a madman. He's damaged, but distant; like it's happening to someone else. To assess/dismiss what we see as 'comic book violence' (a clumsy, ill-defined and usually pejorative term) seems, to me, to miss the point.
9) "Bale's Batman Growl Doesn't Work"
Okay, you're half-right on this one. It does work, and did in the first film, but it's at its best during brief lines and confrontations. Give him a proper character scene, with piles of dialogue to Gordon and Dent, and it starts to feel odd, overplayed.
Still, the flaw here isn't the voice, but rather the screenplay. Dark Knight has a great script, but every so often the lines slip into monologue - debates take a half-page more than they should because everybody starts speechifying. (This was unfortunately true of the Joker's final upside-down exchange with Batman.) Played minimal, as in the first film, the voice is fine.
It's worth adding a note, though, that after my Dark Knight screening every conversation I overheard was about the character and dialogue. People left discussing what Gordon said to Dent, what Alfred said to Bruce. That reaction made my heart flood with rugged, manly love for the film and my fellow movie-goers.
10) "The Film Was Too Long/Had Too Many Climaxes"
For what it's worth, I didn't check my watch once during The Dark Knight.
Peaks and troughs are part and parcel of a good story, and a good epic crime thriller especially. Fans of Heat - the film, not the magazine, which has been compared to Dark Knight for a half-dozen valid reasons - were unlikely to struggle with the idea that things hot up, then cool off, and that the intensity of that heat varies.
Fans of Superman Returns were presumably confused by the way Batman didn't simply lift heavier things during each set-piece. (Yes, I had a dig at Singer's clunky super-stalker movie, deal with it.)
Action films don't have to escalate their sequences in linear fashion. Go watch Twister and see just how dumb it was to number the hurricanes - seriously, their big-wind encounters are almost entirely 'one bigger than the last one' for the whole movie. It's dumb, predictable...but I guess it's something we've become used to.
To tell an epic story, to layer in levels of character depth and social commentary, takes time.
It's still a tightly-cut film, there's not an ounce of fat; in fact I suspect a beat or two has been culled from Two-Face's journey to the crackers side. To lose the sometimes-suggested ferry sequences, for example, would have eliminated a key reaction to the Joker's hypothesis. Without seeing his theory put into practice, without the filmmakers showing 'people' react either in line with, or in contradiction to, his predictions, you're left with just another ranting movie loony. So - the film version of Doctor Doom, really.
The other sequence I've seen discussed as cut-able is the Hong Kong visit. Again, I think to extract this misses something key about the story being told. The sequence lays bare the need for Batman, how Gordon and Dent can't do it all themselves. It also begins the 'how fascistic are vigilante heroes?' discussion - who is Bruce Wayne to decide that international law doesn't apply?
An incident is just an incident. Themes need context, repetition, they require viewing from different angles, turning over and examining. When the cause for a 152-minute runtime is a surplus of things to say in articulate and interesting ways... well, it ain't like the complaints that came in for Peter Jackson's bloated King Kong.
11) "The Film Is Not Emotionally Engaging"
This is specifically a Mark Kermode comment, and one I found applicable to Heat on my first viewing. But having avoided spoilers entirely, the 'death' of Jim Gordon really smacked me in the gut. Not only did this continue the 'anyone could die' feel - one the film made good on when Loeb was taken out - but... well, it was Jim Gordon. Dead. His family, his worth to the city! I felt it. (It has to be said that Gary Oldman, arguably cast 'against type', has been great in the part.)
But it is, of course, Rachel's demise that really does you in. The effect on Harvey, and on Bruce, is devastating. If you didn't feel it, you're already dead inside. She echoes throughout the film - in rare flashback shots, in themes and in dialogue, and best of all in the note that Alfred reads, holds back, and ultimately burns. She's emphatically not just an abstract point of motivation.
On a less obvious level, I can't remember the number of times when I felt my curiosity - an emotion, not just a calculative process - peak. The implications of what was being done, the dilemmas being presented, the choices being taken. Watching those guys find their detonators. Damn, I was in there.
So while it's not a film I'd put in an 'emo top 50', neither did I find it cold. Sure, it's a think piece, it prioritised the mental over the visceral, but this isn't an either/or choice. I was in it for the whole thing.
12) "It Couldn't Live Up To The Hype"
It couldn't live up to some in-universe websites and stylised posters? Really?
42 Entertainment's online/real world campaign was probably the best example of its kind ever - but did anyone equate the discovery of bowling balls and film cans directly to the film experience they would receive? And if so - please explain, in a reasonable amount of detail, how exactly that was going to work.
The posters have been glorious, of course. Super-slick high-concepts that occasionally made you want to smack your head and wonder why you hadn't thought of that. Dent holding up a campaign badge that covers half his face? A red Joker smile in the shape of the bat symbol? Damn, that's good.
The trailers - always erring on the side of caution lest story twists be revealed - impress me more in retrospect. There's a lot of stuff in there from the final third of the film, including the closing shot of the movie, but you'd never know it. You didn't go in feeling you'd seen the best bits already. (And indeed, a lot of the money shots are saved for the film - when's the last time that happened?)
While the new X-Files movie seems to be telling us nothing in its trailers because, well, the film has very little going on, with The Dark Knight the secrecy turned out to be entirely justified. With even the full trailers being little more than a tease, the film itself was arguably required to live up to an imagined film. That it did - by vast audience reaction, by word of mouth or by insane box office takings - is just another impressive thing on an expending list of impressive things.
Disagree with some - or all - of the above? Probably. But then, as we've established, you're getting The Dark Knight wrong. Think about that.