Friday, July 18, 2008

Batman in a world gone batty

Had director Christopher Nolan wanted to be totally accurate, he would have renamed his Batman movie, "The Really Dark Knight."

For me, "The Dark Knight" title just doesn't do justice to how grim Nolan's movie can be. Yes, it's based on characters from DC Comics, but "The Dark Knight" has the kind of tension and bloodshed we expect to find in realistic thrillers. That seems to be what Nolan is striving for, and he certainly achieves it. The opening scene -- a bank robbery staged by The Joker and many accomplices in Joker masks -- rivets attention like few recent heist movies. And the movie seldom lightens up. Its pedal to the metal gloom is so prevalent that the few attempts at humorous one-liners seem misplaced. This is Batman with a severe case of depression -- and you know what -- Nolan may be onto something. It's as if he's decided to deny us the pleasures associated with comic-book movies and once-and-for-all propel Batman into graphic novel turf.

Ethical questions -- unusual for a mass entertainment -- echo through "Dark Knight." What does morality mean in an age of terrorism? Should anyone be expected to behave rationally when confronting an irrational foe? Can anarchy be fought by non-anarchic men who accept moral limits? You'll find no reference to places as such as Quantanamo, but today's headlines resonate through "Dark Knight" just the same, lending a topical edge that Nolan surely intended.

You've probably read that the centerpiece of this Batman isn't Batman; it's The Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger with a level of intensity that shakes the movie to its core. Batman -- a.k.a. Bruce Wayne -- is not especially appealing or intriguing. Maybe that was unavoidable. I'm not sure how Christian Bale could have competed with Ledger, who pushes himself toward some unseen edge. He disappears behind the Joker's psycho-clown make-up.

The rest of the cast is in fine form -- notably Aaron Eckhart as a crusading district attorney, Maggie Gyllenhaal as his girlfriend and fellow prosecutor; and Gary Oldman as a plodding detective. Any one of those actors could have -- and has -- carried his or her own movies, and I haven't even mentioned old pros Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman.

If you see "Batman'' in an IMAX venue (which I did) you'll have a difficult time not being wowed by the overhead shots of skyscrapers, by Batman's vertiginous leaps through night air and by the sheer scale of the destruction wrought by the Joker, a fiend who kills without compunction. He's not afraid to put children at risk. He's the devil's own master of ceremonies at a party devoted to chaos. He even blows up a hospital.

If there's fault to find here, it's with the script. An overloaded plot sometimes tramples minute-to-minute logic. Still, it wouldn't hurt if audiences actually listen to what Nolan, who wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, has to say: It's as if he's rubbing our noses in our taste for superhero blockbusters. You want violence? OK, I'll give you violence, only I'm going to take it further than you expect. You want evil? I'll give you evil, but I'm going to turn it into a message from hell. You want some meaning in your mass entertainment? I'll give you that, as well.

You get the idea; Nolan refuses to wink at the audience. If he wanted to his dark beauty of a movie to leave us feeling chastened, he has succeeded, which means "Dark Knight" may not be the summer movie audiences expect. "The Dark Knight" is a superhero who engenders both admiration and scorn. He's Batman for a time in which the world's moral compass has spun as wildly out of control as the movie's frantic chases. Simply put: This Batman plays for keeps.

No comments: