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Something I don’t usually do…

I’ve kept my comments here restricted to a few general categories — more to the point, there are a few things I’ve avoided talking about. I don’t talk about politics here (although perhaps some stances are indirectly discernible), I don’t generally blog about what I do at work (mostly because that would generate an even smaller number of readers; I work a desk job, and there’s not much to say), I don’t say much (with some exceptions) about my personal life, and I don’t for the most part do things like movie reviews.

Well, this isn’t going to be a movie review, exactly, but it’s going to be about movies, and it’s going to deal with, in large part, a movie you had a statistical likelihood of seeing this last weekend if you bothered darkening the door of your local movie theatre at all between midnight last Thursday and Sunday evening. (No, shocked as you may be, I’m not talking about Mamma Mia!)

I’ve been a Batman guy for a loooooooooong time. There was a little Brave and the Bold digest my mom brought me home once when I was probably about five and home sick; it collected this neat little Batman vs. Deadman story which was drawn by Neal Adams — “You Can’t Hide From a Deadman,” originally printed in Brave and the Bold #86, Oct/Nov 1969 — and I was hooked ever since. It was still a few years yet before I started reading comics regularly, but I remember coming in on the tail end of Batman: Year 2, reading Ten Nights of the Beast, The Killing Joke, and A Death in the Family when they were first printed (The Dark Knight Returns I came to about three years late or so just ’cause it looked kinda ugly to this ten year old when I first saw it on the shelves — let’s face it, I was just too young to get it), and I was definitely at the movie theatre on 23 June 1989 for the first night the Burton/Keaton Batman was playing, which I saw three times that summer while it was still in the theatres. A tick over nineteen years later, maybe not much has changed.

I’ve also been a Christopher Nolan guy for a good bit. I saw Memento three times when it was in theatres, and keep in mind that meant, at least for the first couple of times I saw it, driving about half an hour to the arthouse which was playing it. I talked it up to whomever would listen, took friends to see it, bought David Julyan’s score CD, bought the DVD (both versions), and so on. I bought (and quite liked) Following when it came out on DVD, and while for various reasons had to miss Insomnia when it was in theatres, I’ve enjoyed it on DVD since (but, truthfully, it remains the one I’ve seen the least number of times — maybe that’s nothing to lose sleep over?).

For me, getting to know a director’s work is getting to know what kinds of themes interest them, what kinds of images they consistently use, what they like to do with structure, which actors they re-use, who scores their movies, what kind of pattern they’re continuing (or establishing) with new works, and so on. To put it another way, a director is always infinitely more interesting to me when there is something more I can get out of one of their movies by placing it in the context of the rest of their work.

Which brings me to The Dark Knight. There are major spoilers to follow from The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Memento, Following, Insomnia, and The Prestige, so do read at your own risk.

I’ve seen it twice now; I was lucky enough to get in on the viral marketing IMAX ticket giveaway, only because I live in a market where two hours after the site went live there were still tickets available (although only just — I was 164/170), and thus saw it 50.5 hours before most of the rest of the world had a chance. I also saw it again (in IMAX, natch) last Friday night. I’ll get the easy stuff out of the way first: some movies are overhyped. A couple of well-edited trailers, a flashy marketing campaign, and a couple of glowing early reviews can all add up to a disappointing experience in the actual cinema because in the end, it’s “just a movie” and doesn’t cure cancer. The Dark Knight is not this movie — it is every bit as good as you’ve heard, and gets better on repeat viewings. Everybody brings their A-game, be they in front of the camera or behind the camera, be they in a big role or a small role, and they craft a crime epic for the ages along the lines of Heat or The Departed or L. A. Confidential. This isn’t Tim Burton’s self-aware, dark-but-comic freakshow; this isn’t Joel Schumacher tweaking your nose. And — I say this as somebody who saw Iron Man twice and who thinks it was absolutely terrific — this also definitely isn’t Jon Favreau’s bright, flashy, action-adventure story in which A Flawed But Ultimately Good Man Learns Something While Wearing A Costume. The Dark Knight takes the idea of a “comic book movie” and elevates it to a whole new genre and a whole new level of filmmaking; you’ll either like that or you won’t (I’ve read some reviews that say it’s pointless to try to elevate source material which is absurd to the core to the level of Hamlet), but if your reasons for not liking a movie like this have to do with the title character being dressed as a bat rather than wearing a shirt and tie, that’s really your problem, and not that of the filmmakers.

One thing about the story – two years ago, when the title was revealed and Nolan said it was “quite important to the film” (http://www.batman-on-film.com/batmovienewsarchives48.html), I immediately understood it to be a double entendre with “the dark night”. Putting that together with the recasting of Rachel Dawes rather than creating a new character (seeming to point to the need for somebody in whom we were already invested emotionally), I believed from that moment on that Rachel was going to be dead as a doornail by the end of the film. Sure enough. If the rumors are true that Rachel was originally supposed to be Harvey Dent in Batman Begins until there was a studio note saying “We need a chick in the pic, stat”, then that was a great way for Nolan to take it and run with it.

Okay — I haven’t said anything new there. You’ve probably read a dozen reviews which have said something similar, so I’ll move on now to what I really want to write about.

The Dark Knight keys off of several important ideas set up in Batman Begins; definitely that of “escalation,” established in the closing conversation in BB between Gordon and Batman, but also very much the repeated line, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me” as well as the notion that Batman isn’t just Bruce Wayne in a mask; it is in fact who Bruce Wayne actually is.

And as bleak as people are saying it is, the two important things with which you’re left at the end of the movie are a) nobody on either boat pressed the button and b) Batman did not let the Joker fall to his death — a correction of a huge misunderstanding on Tim Burton’s part nineteen years ago, and a clear indicator that Batman has decided that “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you” is no longer a clear enough line in the moral sand, not when your enemy has no rules whatsoever.

All well and good. However, looking at it through the lens of Nolan’s other work, bigger themes start to emerge. Much has been made of how much Nolan likes to play with time, but that’s really window dressing, a story-telling tool rather than a theme (and it’s telling how, as he has matured as a filmmaker, he’s done it less and less). Identity, on the other hand, has been a key question in his movies from the get-go; Following and The Prestige study characters who deliberately take on other identities but then find that they can’t just simply go back to normal when they’re done. The narrator of Following turns himself into somebody who seems slick and clever and affluent, emulating Cobb as much as he can at Cobb’s own encouragement, but in doing so he makes it impossible to prove that Cobb ever existed and/or that he’s not, in fact, Cobb — which was, of course, “all part of the plan” in the first place. Angier and Borden in The Prestige both are leading double lives (I’ve always thought it was particularly clever of Nolan to cast as his leads actors most famous for playing superheroes, and that it added a fascinating subtext to the film), and must maintain the “act” at all costs, to the extent that their lives are quite dependent on it. In trying to figure out each other’s magic tricks, Angier and Borden are actually solving the problem of who the other person actually is.

Memento‘s Leonard Shelby, on the other hand, is an examination of how our natural identities depend on how we experience time and form memories — if we can’t, we’re slaves to external sources of information, never able to trust our own instincts about who we are. As a result, Leonard can never stop mourning the death of his wife, because his own perception of time (or lack thereof) can never provide any distance from it. It will always have just happened for him.

Batman Begins and The Dark Knight bring many of these concepts together. Bruce Wayne, as depicted by Nolan, his brother Jonathan, and David Goyer, has assumed at least one identity (if not two, counting the “playboy Bruce” persona) which changes him and those with whom he interacts permanently. At the same time, the whole reason he does so is because, to a certain extent, he can never get past the trauma of losing his parents, because the one way he knows to heal, revenge, has been taken from him — and he realizes it won’t necessarily do what he hopes for anyway. One way or the other, he’s permanently emotionally stuck, much like Leonard Shelby, and this drives him to take on the dual persona (which is itself an interesting inversion of Bale’s character/characters in The Prestige, Borden — two men having to lead one life). To apply Memento‘s questions, then — can Bruce trust his own sense of who he is? Is the Batsuit really a message he sends to criminals, or a message he’s sending to himself, much like Leonard Shelby’s tattoos? To apply The Prestige‘s questions, can he stop being Batman without causing himself, to say nothing of others, harm?

Several of the films deal with familial loss; Memento and The Prestige both with the loss of a wife under circumstances which are left ambiguous, Batman Begins obviously having the murder of parents as a pivotal point (but also has Ra’s Al Ghul talking about taking vengeance for a murdered wife), and The Dark Knight has the murder of Harvey Dent’s fiancée as a major engine of the plot (while also showing Gordon’s wife mourning his death in the line of duty). All of these cases are motivators for vengeance, but in The Prestige in particular it’s clear that Angier’s lust for revenge eventually wanes, and he continues out of the sheer momentum of hatred — “I don’t care about my wife, I care about his secret,” he spits out halfway through the movie. Looking forward, perhaps we can surmise that Bruce Wayne eventually faces the danger of being Batman just to be Batman, with no particular purpose driving him.

One can draw a line of connection between Dormer’s corruption in the name of catching the bad guys in Insomnia to what Gordon and Batman choose to do at the end of The Dark Knight; if it can be proven Dormer planted evidence even once, then it calls all of the convictions to which he’s contributed into question. In TDK, if Harvey’s spree as Two-Face is made public, their efforts to fight the mob will have been entirely in vain. Bending the rules to make the criminals pay is a slippery slope in Nolan’s universe, one with very real consequences. Even if everything ostensibly turns out all right, somebody will have to pay the piper — and sometimes it’s the wrong person.

(By the way, Nolan has mentioned that Aaron Eckhart was looked at for Memento. I think one can look at Eckhart’s Two-Face for a glimpse of what he might have been like as Leonard Shelby. I think that was a career-defining performance for Guy Pearce, so I wouldn’t have it any other way, but Eckhart would have been really interesting in the role. Different from what we got, but definitely interesting.)

In terms of recurring visual motifs — there is always a “lair” in Nolan’s film, a location where the main character’s dark secrets are hidden and their true identity may be found. This goes all the way back to Following, where The Young Man takes Cobb to his apartment under the ruse that it’s somebody else’s (and of course Cobb knows what’s going on immediately). In Memento it is the basement of the abandoned building where Jimmy Gantz’s body and Leonard’s real clothes have been left. In Insomnia it is Finch’s cabin. In Batman Begins and The Dark Knight it is the Batcave (or its temporary replacement). In The Prestige it is the theatre basement where all of Angier’s “prestige materials” are kept. More often than not it involves “going down” someplace; I will leave others more qualified to speak about Jungian psychology to discuss the implications of the “descent” into the place where one keeps secrets, potentially even from oneself.

Breaking of legs is something which has shown up twice in a row now — Angier falls through a trapdoor and the cushion has been removed, shattering the entire limb from the looks of the brace he’s put in, and Batman drops Sal Maroni from a height which is just enough to break his ankle (although Nolan is far more subtle about showing Maroni with a cane later than he is with Angier). Being a year and a half out from a broken ankle myself and still recovering to some degree, both of those moments make me squirm each time.

Casting is an interesting point — Nolan doesn’t quite seem to have the “stock company” of David Mamet or, to a lesser degree, of David Lynch or Tim Burton, but three films in a row now have starred Christian Bale and Michael Caine. To some extent, Bale, Guy Pearce, and maybe Following‘s Jeremy Theobald, too have a visual continuity I can’t quite explain — distinctive faces which wear woundedness well, maybe. Bale and Pearce definitely have a carved-out-of-wood quality — and I don’t mean that in a bad way — to their facial and bodily structures (harder to say with Theobald). Hugh Jackman and Aaron Eckhart are somewhat the opposite — classically good-looking men who you want to like and have be the ostensible good guys (which, naturally, is what makes their characters more interesting when they turn). Mark Boone Junior has had significant supporting roles a couple of times, Theobald showed up in a bit role in Batman Begins, and Larry Holden is quite the chameleon, going from L. A. lowlife Jimmy Gantz in Memento to the dapper D. A. Finch in Batman Begins (as well as having a bit in Insomnia). He gets really interesting performances out of people, be it well-established character actors like Joe Pantoliano or Andy Serkis or people harder to define, such as David Bowie — who, by the way, I really wished would have gotten a Best Supporting Actor nod for Tesla. He was onscreen for all of ten minutes, maybe, but he owned every frame in which he appeared. I’d love for Nolan to find a reason to cast Carrie-Anne Moss again — her appearance in Memento is still the most interesting thing she’s ever done, in black vinyl or out of it, as far as I’m concerned. (Probably, since she’s being cast in “mom” roles now — at all of 40! — she would be out of the running for a future cinematic appearance of Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Maybe she could play Selina’s mother, Cougarwoman?) Gary Oldman disappears so completely into the role of Gordon that it’s hard to tell if Nolan is actually giving him any direction or if he’s just getting out of the way.

So — back to The Dark Knight for a moment. What’s ahead? Where can a third Batman movie potentially go Or, to put it another way, what in the world do they do to top this one? And I think the answer is, they need to not bother trying. They need to go in the opposite direction and do something smaller, grittier, more – dare I say it – intimate. Maybe even something which feels more like a stage play than a movie – I don’t know, something more like Memento (and maybe even with David Julyan scoring rather than the Zimmer/Howard team, good as it is). They’ve set it up well to go in that direction – Batman is on the run (although presumably Bruce Wayne is not, since his being outed was prevented), his relationship with Lucius is strained (if not severed entirely) so that he won’t be able to just go to him with gadget requests anymore, and so on. Somehow he’ll have to repair what the events of The Dark Knight have broken, but that’s going to require operating on a smaller scale for awhile, I expect. Robin could work within this thematic framework, but it seems unlikely they’d go that way. Presumably in a third movie we’d be able to return to Wayne Manor, which itself could thematically represent some sort of shift back to the status quo.

In terms of what this means for a villain – hard to say. I would say that the Riddler could work on the thematic level – possibly something like Saw, only, y’know, worth watching. I’d be really surprised if the people at the helm wanted to revisit the character. Hard to say. I wonder if maybe somebody like Talia wouldn’t work, perhaps continuing her father’s efforts? It would certainly tie into what’s come before, and with Batman as a reluctant outlaw, there would be the element of temptation for him to join her on several levels. Catwoman could be done easily within the rules of Nolan’s universe, but I doubt Warner Bros. wants to go anywhere near that character for awhile.

(Here’s an idea – what about a Gotham Central TV series set in the Nolanverse between TDK and film #3 — The Dark Knight Returns??? — ? If Batman is having to be in hiding to some extent, then he can just be a vague, undefined presence to some extent who doesn’t have to directly appear.)

(Which reminds me – having watched the Gotham Knight DVD a few times now, too, I’ll say that presumably, Anna Ramirez was used instead of Renee Montoya because the powers that be didn’t want Renee Montoya to wind up as a dirty cop. That said, “Crossfire” now makes less sense as a result, not more – unless the point was to make her fall be even tougher for those who figured she was just a generic Montoya stand-in. Also, the Goyer segment doesn’t exactly jive with what we see of Crane at the beginning of The Dark Knight, but at the same time, Gotham Knight appears to also forget that Wayne Manor burned down during Batman Begins, so it’s not an exact match anyway.)

(I will also note that I think the Joker could be recast. Likely? No. Possible? Yes. Nolan would just have to do what he did this time, which is find the best actor for the job.)

(Okay, enough with the parentheticals.)

(I mean it.)

Maybe the biggest clue is in the final scene. It’s clear that Nolan and co. regard the Batman/Gordon relationship as the moral foundation of the particular stories they’re telling. That may seem obvious, but I think it’s very much underscored in the last scene of TDK, which is a clear counterpoint to the last scene of BB. For example –- Gordon telling Batman “thank you” and him replying, “You don’t have to thank me” seems to be very much a reference to the last line of BB, and in general both scenes function to wrap up the moral point of the preceding story and establish what the guiding principle will be for the next one. Given that, as much as escalation was the driving force of TDK, can we surmise that Gotham learning to accept the hero they need will be the plot engine of the third film?

Enough for now. I have plenty to say about all of this, but this is already quite long. I’ll come back to it another day, maybe.

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7 Responses to “Something I don’t usually do…”


  1. 1 Matthew 23 July 2008 at 11:53 am

    Interesting take on TDK. Still don’t know if I will go see it. I loved Batman Begins but I have never liked costumed bad guys with few exceptions = Catwoman made sense but I prefer mysterious baddies, like Ras Al Ghul. Did any one REALLY see Ras die (Liam Neeson was just perfect)?

    I just hope no more Penguin, Poison Ivy,Mr. Freeze etc.

    Well that’s my Christmas wish.

    Be Well and Be at Peace.

  2. 2 Richard Barrett 23 July 2008 at 11:59 am

    I’ll just say that the Joker, as presented by Nolan and Co., is not exactly a “costumed bad guy”. I wouldn’t let that stop you from seeing it.

    Richard

  3. 3 Esteban Vázquez 2 August 2008 at 12:52 am

    Okay. Now talk about Mamma Mia!

    😉

  4. 4 Richard Barrett 2 August 2008 at 1:43 am

    Umm… no.


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