The Dark Knight

I saw The Dark Knight this weekend, and to be honest, I’m still working my way through it. There’s a lot to chew on in the movie, and that alone raises it above most films (not just “Superhero” movies). Rather than do a standard review of the film, which I’m sure anyone reading this blog has already read, I’ll be discussing a few topics related to the film and to recent posts on this blog. As such, the following post is about as spoiler free as possible.

James Berardinelli gave the film 4 stars, which is notable since this is the first film that has earned that honor in nearly 2 years. He explains his position in his blog:

Some reviewers hand out four-star ratings like candy. Such is their right. It’s their rating and their system. I have always felt that, for a four-star citation to mean anything, it must be handed out on only the rarest of occasions to the most deserving of films. When I dole out a four-star rating, I’m making a statement about the quality of the movie. I’m saying that, for anyone with similar movie tastes to mine, this is a “must-see.” For a production to get four stars, it not only has to impact me as I’m watching it, but it has to stay with me afterward, as I drive home at night, as I do my evening exercises, as I get ready for bed, as I shower the next morning, and as I compose the review in my head while cutting the grass… Four-star movies aren’t easily forgotten or shrugged off. They demand attention. They are rare. In 2007, there were none.

Steven notes the addicting grail-like quest reviewers put themself through in order to find 4 star entertainment. I don’t post star ratings for most of the movies I see, but I count myself among the addiction grail-seekers. It has been over two years since I’ve seen a new film I would consider 4 stars (That film was United 93). That doesn’t mean I haven’t seen any 4 star movies in that time, just not newly-released ones. Most recently I discovered Zhang Yimou’s brilliant Raise the Red Lantern, a movie that instantly shot into 4 star range for me. That is actually even more of a rarity though. It normally takes a while for a movie to sink in, and as Berardinelli notes, a 4 star movie stays with you long after viewing it. My question after seeing The Dark Knight is, how long is long enough? It will unquestionably be on my best of the year list, but is it really worth the 4 stars? Perhaps this is why I don’t post star ratings for every movie I see.

I’ve always been a bit stingy with extreme ratings; I rarely rate something 1 star or 4 stars. Again, I’m being necessarily vague here because I really don’t keep a list, but my most common rating is probably 2.5 stars. The process of compiling top 10 lists (which I’ve done for 2006 and 2007) has made me even more stingy with 4 star ratings. Nevertheless, I’m still considering The Dark Knight for the honor. It’s that good.

Last week, I wrote about the difficulties of discussing genre films, and as if to prove my point, The Dark Knight is an amazing departure from its genre roots. Most superhero movies at least acknowledge their cartoonish nature, but The Dark Knight tries its best to play down those aspects. All that’s left are the costumes and the occasional line of action-movie banter. Otherwise, this movie feels like a crime drama that happens to feature a guy who dresses up like a bat and another that dresses up like a (demented) clown. Oh, it still retains a healthy respect for the character and it’s clearly a comic book movie, but I couldn’t help but think of sweeping, epic, ensemble crime dramas like The Godfather: Part II and especially Heat. Apparently, Alexandra DuPont also noticed those parallels:

It’s an ensemble crime drama, and the parallels to “Heat” are blatant: A master criminal and a master detective (the latter with a troubled personal life) embark on a collision course. As in “Heat,” detective and criminal even sit down at a table and chat midway through the film. And as in “Heat,” the characters surrounding and supporting the two leads get more screen time than you’d expect.

DuPont also notes just how different this movie is to it’s immediate predecessor (which was made by the same creative team). Gone are the ninjas, gone are the ancient secret societies and their dopey conspiracies. What you’re left with is unnervingly real, with few moments of comic-book-like fantasy. One other thing you don’t see in most comic book movies (or crime dramas for that matter) is the laser-tight focus on consequences. This was something I was getting at in my post on Vigilantes, but was never really able to articulate. Vigilante stories, of which Batman is a prime example, are about a fantasy of justice, but often don’t shy away from the consequences. With The Dark Knight, the consequences of a vigilante’s actions far outweigh the fantasy of justice. Perhaps this is why the movie, which does feature a few outlandish (but exciting!) set-pieces, still retains a realistic feel. Again, it’s still a comic book movie, but it’s unlike what has preceded it and it’s likely to influence what follows.

It seems pretty clear to me that the comic book movie genre has changed and will continue to grow. Interestingly, this trend looks likely to continue… as demonstrated by a preview for Watchmen shown before the Batman movie. I’ve been following the production of Watchmen for years, and I think part of the reason it’s had so much trouble getting made is that it tells a bleak story… one that I think will resonate more deeply now that The Dark Knight has laid the groundwork. To be sure, I’m not talking about realism here, just the willingness to embrace the darker nature of superheroes. The consequences of a world with superheroes.

In any case, most of the things you’re hearing are true. It’s a great film that has lived up to the hype (well, so far – I have a feeling the hype is going to go through the stratosphere after this weekend). Heath Ledger’s performance is indeed a brilliant and memorable one that could potentially earn him a posthumous Oscar, putting the tragedy of his death in further relief. Indeed, at this point, I can’t imagine anyone ever donning the Joker makeup again and probably the worst thing about this movie is that it will be damn near impossible to follow up. My comic-loving friend tells me the filmmakers were hoping to do a Hannibal Lecter type thing with the Joker in the sequels; having him be in Arkham Asylum, but still pulling strings in Gotham City. Alas, such will not be possible. Going into the movie, I thought I saw the villain for the next film pretty clearly, but that turned out not to be the case (this is actually one of the things that I’m still working through).

There are only a handful of films I’ve seen multiple times in the theater, and the grand majority of those was more for social reasons than because of the film itself. Nevertheless, I think I will be rewatching The Dark Knight in the theater (probably an IMAX theater; apparently portions of the film were optimized for IMAX and I wanted to see it there, but all the IMAX showings for this past weekend sold out a week ago).

Update: My site’s host was experiencing issues all night Sunday and thus this post isn’t showing up until Monday morning. Sorry!