25 for 25 – Why So Serious?

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I have it on relatively reliable authority (my mother) that I’ve been obsessed with superheroes since I was a child. Like go to the toy store with my mom and ask only for superhero action figures. Be taken to the comic book store by my dad and just grab whatever comic looked the coolest. Namely Batman. Especially Batman. At the risk of being basic, Batman was my favorite superhero as a child and even when I couldn’t understand the English words, I’d love witnessing him come to life from the art of Neal Adams and Kelley Jones (my very first Batman artist) growing up and how shaded and somber he’d look. I hate to say it but darkness is so much more interesting than brightness (captivating as brightness is, which is why I liked Superman a lot too).

I think child me is happy to have his love for Batman validated by the new decade (though I would be curious how he would be if he lived in 1989, when the first wave of Bat-Hype came about). For The Dark Knight is perhaps one of the biggest cinematic events that I have ever lived through and – unlike Titanic and Avatar – one that has its influence spread all over pop culture into this new decade since. For which I’m really glad I wasn’t writing about movies at the time so I could turn around in retrospect and comment on the effect.

You see, I mentioned in my X-Men review that the door was opened for superhero movies as a trend by the one-two-three success punches of Men in BlackX-Men, and Spider-Man causing everybody to run for comic book properties, but 2008 was the year comic book movies took their most important and recognizable shapes and began being recognized as legitimate arts for cinema. Iron Man supplied the universe-obsessed irreverent lively bright comic book films while The Dark Knight became the nihilistic sober-minded revisionist drama mode. Every superhero movie, even the ones that people claim to do something different like Deadpool or Logan, have the success of one or both of these movies in their DNA (like Deadpool‘s character focused, small-scale irreverence being a child of Iron Man‘s right down to the unorthodox action hero choice, while Logan‘s helpless nihilism is The Dark Knight in a Western setting).

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I think it’s very safe to say The Dark Knight may have made the bigger splash on how superhero movies can be taken seriously and its box office appeal (being the fourth movie to break the $1 billion barrier before it became a regular thing) and its subsequent critical acclaim leading to an outcry for its lack of a Best Picture nomination that led to the Oscars expanding the slate to up to 10 movies. Consensuses call it among the best movie of the 2000s, IMDb lists it as the fourth best rated movie since its release, and it’s roundly considered the best superhero film ever made.

Let’s get my opinion on it straight: it’s not my favorite superhero movie. Hell, it’s not even my favorite Batman movie. Hell, it’s not even my favorite of the Batman films directed by Christopher Nolan, of which The Dark Knight is the second part after Batman Begins (my favorite). And I wouldn’t hesitate in thinking it’s a somewhat overrated film (I am of the reducive attitude that any pop culture with that amount of popularity has to be overrated, whether Citizen Kane or The Beatles). If I’m recognizing the flaws that truly hold me back from considering it perfect, there’s infamously plodding dialogue (“NO MORE DEAD COPS!”, “Have a nice trip. See you next fall.”, etc.), the prisoner’s dilemma incorporated into the climax, and most grievously the double-edged sword of Nolan grounding the film making it feel more derivative of crime pictures (namely Michael Mann’s work) and having Wally Pfister’s cinematography downplayed after the expressionist wonder of Batman Begins‘ construction of Gotham City. Now, it’s Chicago. The Dark Knight calls it Gotham, but it’s totally Chicago. And that removes a lot of magic.

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Now that’s what I don’t like about a movie I love, so I’m gonna talk about what I do love. Grounding Batman in the real world may not be as pretty as I’d like, but it still provides a more effective narrative hook to follow – now we have legalities and public perception to worry about for our Dark Knight Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale), GCPD Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) trying to reel in the chaotic carnage of The Joker (Heath Ledger). And these factors aren’t just mentioned once and never shown up again, Batman’s arc revolves around whether or not he can retire so that Dent – the cleaner non-vigilante image for Gotham’s hero – can take over the fight that wears him down so.

There’s Nolan and Pfister’s expert usage of action setpieces. I know that’s not a popular opinion, but hell with it, I think Nolan and editor Lee Smith are the only people who have been able to follow through on Paul Greengrass’ famously kinetic physical action editing style that portrays and compels the viewer into feeling in the action while still giving a sense of confusion and incoherence without losing ourselves. I can’t imagine anybody trying to convince me the truck chase scene in the middle of the film is a poorly-edited scene and we do realize the opening bank robbery that introduces us to the Joker is kind of the favorite sequence of most viewers for a damn reason.

Aiding that editing by giving it its rhythm is one of the first scores that introduced to the idea that Hans Zimmer could not be bad in his collaboration with James Newton Howard. While much of it is just a re-packaging of leitmotifs served better in Batman Begins, it is indeed the Joker’s theme – a savage, slightly percussive undertone wonderfully described by Zimmer as “razor blades on cellos” – always able to tighten up a listener and briefly blasting horns in a consistently interrupted way as it climbs in intensity and puts our mind to the ticking timeclock Batman has to beat in order to overcome all of the Joker’s obstacles and beat his games.

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And that means addressing, finally, the elephant in the room: the much-mythologized penultimate performance of Heath Ledger as Batman’s Clown Prince of Crime arch-nemesis – the first acting performance nominated for an Oscar posthumously, the second awarded the Oscar, the subject of much speculation that the role was dangerous enough to cause Ledger’s premature death (speculation I honestly find tasteless and disrespectful to his abilities as an actor). He’s fantastic, personifying destruction and chaos in such an unexpected manner. He knows he owns each scene he appears in and drives it as far as he can, an energetic but never light or bouncy presence in the film that brings sickening darkness from his attire (provided by Lindy Hemming) to his grungy makeup to his lip smacking. He gets the closest he can to being believable in this pseudo-real world environment without losing the theatricality of a cinematic portrayal and his lack of restraint is not overzealous but measured. Sure, the other performances are fine, but people go to see The Dark Knight at this point for Ledger and it’s only serendipitous that Nolan’s movie surrounding him is also absolutely great.

I called the movie overrated, sure. But it doesn’t mean it’s not solid, intelligent popcorn cinema full of power and thunder. It’s bleak and operatic nihilism in the most accessible fashion, even moreso than No Country for Old Men. And while some of its gravitas has to have been informed by Ledger’s unfortunate death, that gravitas is still there and makes it compelling to watch without any guilt.

I mean, it’s been nearly ten years. I’m kind of gracious I gave the 16-year-old who first walked out telling his dad “I think it’s my favorite movie” time to figure out above all the overhype if The Dark Knight is still a great movie and I think the answer is loud yes. Sure, I’m not gonna call it one of the greatest comic book movies or of the 21st century and in the end I like my comic book movies bright and bouncy. But if The Dark Knight were a bad movie, it would not have survived the test of time. No, its grandioseness as a dark superhero picture in the post-9/11 world has leaked itself into so many films trying to copy some of that summer movie mojo and honestly none of them have been able to do much more than pale in imitation.

There can only be one Dark Knight.

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