The Dark Knight ★★★

The following is going to sound as overly negative as my Batman Begins review was overly positive, but with extremely popular movies, sometimes I feel the need to speak a little 'louder' if I don't quite agree with the majority sentiment or reception. I've tried to refrain from hyperbole this time around, and probably sound pretty nitpicky (although the problems listed are basic and serious issues for me), but I do have plenty of good things to say about The Dark Knight - though because of the praise it's received, reiterating them here would be a bit redundant (and make this damned thing twice as long). If anything, the obnoxious length of this review ought to sum up how conflicted the movie makes me feel.

***

By sending Batman to Hong Kong, Nolan does something that his villains never could; he destroys Gotham.

By explicitly stating that Batman can exist outside of Gotham, or at least the fabricated world Gotham exists in, the fantastical realism he had worked so hard to create turns into farce. It's like seeing the string holding up a UFO in an Ed Wood film, or listening to a magician explain that the rabbit was always in the hat - the suspension of disbelief that Batman can exist in this imagined world vanishes, and turns the excitement of fantasy into the disappointment of special effects. What makes Bond and Bourne work as movies, traveling through their version of the real world, is that it is exactly that - they can get away with superhuman feats and logic because the story and characters demand they live in recognizable places, and the fantasy of their actions are the central "what if..." to their scenarios and appeal. The very idea of Gotham is that it is an alternate universe New York, or Chicago, or any city. It is a city in a world very close to our own, but with a unique set of additional natural and psychological laws where superheroes and super-villains can exist, however close to 'real' people they might resemble. Imagine if, instead of Hong Kong, Nolan had sent Batman to a city called New York, or Boston, or London, or Des Moines. It just doesn't feel right. Batman feels out of place walking down the same streets you or I could. Hong Kong is no different.

Nolan's brand of fantasy masquerading as realism is a magic act - it is fantasy merely by the fact that people act the way they do in his movies but, to his credit, it is incredibly immersive and contains a well developed (if not entirely sensible) logic and internal history - and by bringing Batman into the real world - our world - Gotham transforms from a living, breathing city into a movie set. We know that Gotham and the very real Hong Kong do not and should not exist in the same universe. No matter whether this is a fictional Hong Kong or not, the cognitive dissonance of naming a real place in a fantasy world, without logical explanation, undermines the very essence of Nolan's particular universe. And thus, piece by piece, the believability of everything from the dialogue to the actions to the emotional resonance of the rest of the movie starts crumbling apart. If we can't believe in Gotham, how can we believe in Batman, and if that's the case, why are we even watching? The absolute worst part is that the entire issue could have been avoided by simply not saying those two words: 'Hong Kong.' He managed to keep our world out of Batman Begins (yes, China is alluded to but never named) - why, oh, why did he have to sacrifice the world for a 20 minute action sequence?

My second big issue with The Dark Knight is the character of Harvey Dent. In the film, Batman faces a duo of villains in The Joker and Two-Face. On the surface, they are emotionally and ideologically fantastic choices - one stresses the importance and consequences of being Batman, and the other stresses the failings and impossibilities of remaining Wayne. But therein lies the problem; Harvey Dent is built up extraordinarily well as the human version of Batman. Dent is driven by justice and is highly idealistic, like Batman. He then arcs in reverse, as if Batman turned into Bruce Wayne instead of the other way around. Dent loses his sense of justice and morality when he has someone very close to him taken away. The problem is that Dent, as the villain Two-Face, is not given nearly enough time to turn into anti-Wayne, driven by confidence and surety, instead of Wayne's fear and doubt. His persona feels flat and cliched and we're never given enough time to either empathize with him or understand his motives.

Is he merely a flunkie of The Joker, explicitly created by him and forced into his Bizarro Batman point of view? If so, Nolan provides us one of the most emotionally anticlimactic endings ever (it's still pretty bad). It turns Dent into a mindless monster, an evil robot, and I'm left to wonder why his fate is of any importance other than another body on the villain pile? I don't believe Nolan intended this - I want to believe that we were supposed to feel sorry for Dent, sorry for the position The Joker put him in, but I simply can't do it when he is so weak-willed that he'd let his fiancee's killer turn him into a puppet. Woulda, coulda, shoulda, but I feel Nolan dropped the ball on not holding onto Two-Face for TDKR instead of Bane. The dichotomy of the violence inside Batman (Two-Face) and his desire for justice (Dent) would have been a goldmine of drama, conflict, and resolution in both the Batman/Wayne characters, cathartically, and the Dawes/Wayne thread throughout the trilogy, continually. Ladies and gentlemen of Gotham, please welcome your new mayor, straight from his stay at the burn center, Mr. Harvey Dent!

The issue of Two-Face is also deeply connected with the last big issue I have with The Dark Knight: the pacing. Besides Hong Kong, I have no real qualms with how the first and second acts are laid out (maybe tighten up the party scene), and particularly love the close of the second act; everything from the vehicle chase through Gotham up to the warehouse explosion and fantastic shot of The Joker's getaway. No, the problem comes from the brakes Nolan put on the action after that. Batman puts on his Bruce Wayne suit and drives around town, Anthony Michael Hall outta nowhere, and Two-Face wanders the streets, flipping his coin, causing episodic and too-sporadic chaos for petty and meaningless vengeance. Meanwhile Nolan also asks us to pay attention to The Joker's machinations, so we sit around on a boat watching normal citizens look pensively around for twenty minutes with a heavy-handed, morally insistent message. After the shot of adrenaline that was the second-act close, Nolan swaps the needle out and fills us full of sedative.

That malaise of bloated, haphazard plot cheapens what should have been an admittedly fine third act climax. The final confrontation with The Joker is (for a film like this) fairly clever, emotional, and exciting. Joker's monologue to Batman would be a spectacular capper to the film. Unfortunately, as previously discussed, we still have another twenty minutes of emotionally empty and offensively blunt sermonizing to sit through before we finally reach the end. The M.O. of Two-Face has ruined any investment Nolan had built into Dent, so he has to hit us over the head with a hammer as to the message of the character, and to a greater extent, the film itself. The final scenes between Batman, Two-Face, and Gordon made me feel like Nolan considers his entire audience has the intellectual and emotional maturity of a child, and slowly and carefully says "After all the explosions and car chases, this is what you should be thinking about." Demeaning, irritating, and pretentious. So, we have an anticlimactic third act compared to the second, and an anticlimax within the final act itself. Ugh.

***

There are plenty, more nitpicky issues I have ("Does nobody on the street notice that bus pulling out of the bank's recently aerated lobby?" and, "I never thought I'd say this, but I kinda miss Katie Holmes" to name a few), but all of this is not to say that I dislike the film. For an action movie, it's full of exciting and spectacular set pieces, and Ledger does a great job with The Joker aside from a few too-neurotic tics. Bale is fine as Batman, but as I said in my Batman Begins review, either he or Nolan decided Batman was much more interesting or convenient as a character itself instead of an aspect of Bruce Wayne which is a shame. The ideas behind the two villains are great, and there was real potential behind an expanded Dent role. However, unlike its predecessor, I just have too many issues with it to call it a 'great' movie.

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