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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Lead-Up to The Dark Knight Rises: Reviewing The Dark Knight

Hey there my fellow Chaos worshipers. I'm back in the bloggosphere after taking a "mini-vacation" with Mrs. Chaos. This morning a ton of reviews have surfaced for The Dark Knight Rises. I have resisted reading most of them (I succumbed by reading only 2 decidedly non-spoliery reviews), but I have read that the overall response is positive. I can't wait till I see it this Saturday. Of course, I'll post a review as soon as the movie coalesces in my mind. But hey, why not pass the time between now and then reviewing The Dark Knight? Away we go...

Personal Background: I must confess... I was a bit apprehensive in the initial lead-up to The Dark Knight. This is before the concept of "In Nolan We Trust". I loved the title, but I was not at all convinced about Heath Ledger. The guy from The Patriot and A Knight's Tale... as The Joker? The most iconic comic book villain of all time? Oh No. I was afraid that the studio was trying to appeal to young audiences only, and that Nolan was losing a battle against the studio... I smelled trouble. Then, they showed that one shot of The Joker...

Yep- that one. I was not thrilled with it. It just seemed weird to me; I didn't get it at the time. I wanted TDK to be as good or better than BB, but at this point I wasn't sold. Then the trailers started to make their way round. I got more excited (the Alfred "Some men just want to watch the world burn" teaser made me feel excited for it). Maybe, just maybe, they will pull this off. Finally, it was July I saw the movie while I was at a business conference in Seattle. The first time I saw it, I loved it, but something was amiss. I saw it again THE VERY NEXT NIGHT (at the Cinearama) and... Bam! I got it. The first time I saw it I missed a ton of stuff- the connections, the symbolism, the characterization, the crime drama elements, and of course the powerful dialogue that generated a ton of shading and nuance. That second viewing did it for me- I realized then that The Dark Knight rises wasn't just the best Batman or Comic Book movie, but indeed an instant cinematic classic that has changed/influenced whole genres of film-making .

Basic Plot: Batman has been working for a year in his efforts to fight crime on the mean streets of Gotham City. Public opinion seems to be divided- some favor the Batman as a hero, whilst others see him a lunatic no better than the criminals he fights. However, there can be no denying Batman's effect- the criminal underworld is weakening, and others are being inspired by Batman's example.

One such person is the new District Attorney, Harvey Dent. Known as Gotham's "White Knight", Dent is an honest, forthright, and crusading politician who is serious about making Gotham a safe place for decent people. Batman begins to work with Dent, as well as Lieutenant Gordon- in an alliance that seeks to root out the mob for good.

However, as they put the squeeze on organized crime, a new criminal emerges, far different from the well dressed crime bosses and hired muscle thugs. This criminal is The Joker- a lunatic who dresses in clown make-up but is both vicious and insane. The mob turns to The Joker for help against Batman, Gordon, and Dent- but unfortunately for all the citizens of Gotham (criminal and crime-fighter alike)- The Joker has his own agenda that will bring chaos, anarchy, and death to the entire city.

What ensues is a deadly cat and mouse game between the Dark Knight and his allies against the unbridled mayhem that The Joker unleashes. As casualties begin to mount, Batman learns that he is not only fighting for Gotham, but for his very own soul (and those of his allies) against a maniac who seeks nothing more than the total corruption and degradation of all symbols of good and morality.

Spoilers from this point on!!

Themes/Concepts: This is where the real meat of The Dark Knight comes into being- this is not a simple comic book movie. The Dark Knight goes beyond the simple trappings of masked good guy fights masked bad guy. This movie makes references to crime dramas, 9/11 and terrorism, ancient and current history, the concept of free will and individual choice, and much much more.

I won't touch and all of them here, as I don't want to bore. I do wish to go into what I think is the most important one for the entire movie series:

The themes of Batman Begins are continued and challenged in The Dark Knight. At its core, Batman Begins is about the creation of a "moral code". Bruce learns his concept of right and wrong from many individuals and events. His father teaches him simple ideas about how one can learn from failure as well as humility. Bruce learns the brutality of violence on the streets, which threatens to overwhelm him (to this very day). He learns about the importance of family and compassion from Alfred (and Gordon). He learns about what justice is from Rachel (and Gordon). He also learns the power he has, and what his aggression can be channeled towards by Ra's al Ghul. From all of those sources, Bruce creates a moral code for Batman, why he does what he does and just how he does it.

These concepts in Batman Begins seem rather innocent and tame compared to what The Dark Knight has to say about morality. See, according to The Dark Knight, it's one thing to develop a "moral code", but its another thing to actually fully live by it. Can Batman, a masked vigilante who uses terror and "beats criminals with his bare hands" actually live up to his code and inspire good at the same time? At first, it seems that Batman can do just that (though he's not happy with the copycat Batmen, but hey)- Gordon, Rachel, Alfred, and Fox have all aided him, and it now appears that, with the growing strength of DA Dent, that he may finally be inspiring the good people of Gotham to stand up. He even expresses the hope that he won't even need to be Batman anymore, if this success continues.

And therin lies the rub. While Batman and his moral code are inspiring good, it is, in Newton's terms, inspiring an equal and opposite reaction. That is what The Joker is all about. He is being deliberately disingenuous when he says he's an "agent of Chaos" without a plan. The Joker does indeed have a goal- even if he takes many (unpredictable and shifting) paths to get there. The Joker wants to show that morality is "a joke". People talk about doing right, but when push comes to shove, they would do anything to live, including breaking their moral code. The Joker seeks to show that morality doesn't actually exist- the world is meaningless and random, and that any hope of us imposing order on it will fail, one way or the other, in fact, it is at least pathetic hypocrisy, and at worst INSANE to try to, according to The Joker. This is reflected in everything The Joker does- getting criminals to kill one another for money, trying to get innocent people to murder one another to survive, etc.

It is an amazing way to continue the themes about Batman's morality. As Batman, Dent, and Gordon become more successful at making Gotham a more "moral" place, The Joker takes it upon himself to do the opposite- to show that those morals aren't worth the effort- that the average citizen will drop them "at the first sign of trouble". The Joker doesn't care about the mob, the money, or anything else except "sending a message"- that there are no rules. Of course, The Joker wants to show that to Batman, Gordon, and Dent in particular, as they are the strongest advocates of order, opposed to Joker's chaos. The Joker goes about trying to "tempt" the three to break their moral code- and he does so by offering two choices- each worse than the other- thereby making them choose the lesser of two evils each time, but they are forced to chose evil nevertheless. Which victim should Batman save? Should Gordon continue to work with corrupt cops in order to serve the common good? Should Dent continue his crusade even if that puts Rachel in danger?

And it is Harvey Dent that suffers here. Dent is symbolic for Gotham itself (not Batman). Dent is literally torn in half by this titanic battle, as is the city. Dent is a good man, but due to The Joker's machinations, Dent crumbles. The Joker weakens Dent's faith in Batman, kills Rachel, and plants the seeds that Gordon is responsible. Dent believes in fairness and justice, and The Joker twists that against Dent, breaking his spirit, and bringing him to that place where he will allow "random chance" to take the place of his ethics. Hence, he becomes Two-Face- seeking revenge against all those responsible for the tragedies that befell him- both criminals and his previous allies Batman and Gordon. The Joker has thus proved his point- that a good man can be broken, as can a city, as can any sense of morality.

But, what of Batman himself? The Joker discovers at the end that Batman himself IS incorruptible. Whatever mistakes he made in Batman Begins ("letting" Ra's die), Batman has his code and he's sticking to it, even if that means sparing The Joker's life. If the movie had stopped there, it would have been fantastic, but it goes further still- The Joker leaves one last "lesser of two evils" choice for Batman- one that may not corrupt him, but may well ruin him anyway- the fate of Dent/Two-Face. The conclusion of the movie is the final accounting between the three "heroes"- Batman, Gordon, and Dent. What has been at stake the entire movie is laid bare there- and the consequences are tragic. Batman saves Gordon's son from Two-Face's wrath, but Dent falls to his death in the process. The final choice to be made: if the public learns that Dent went mad, all the gains that the trio made will be undone. But Batman makes another choice- he decides to take the fall, allowing himself to be blamed for Dent's crimes. As Batman says, he is NOT a hero, as Dent HAD been. Therefore, it is Batman that is expendable, while Dent's reputation and "symbol" will endure. It would appear that Batman snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, even if it makes him the outlaw instead. Perhaps The Joker won after all then?

The other major concepts and themes tie into this, one way or the other. Alfred deciding to keep Rachel's confession a secret from Bruce. Batman keeping his word to Lucius Fox about NOT abusing power. Gordon's relationship with his family and with other cops (corrupt or not). Heck, even the criminals are nuanced here: Sal Maroni is clearly not pleased that the Chechen mob boss hired The Joker to begin with; on the ferry, it is the biggest thug who refuses to go along with The Joker's game, showing great moral courage for a criminal. Yes, from top to bottom, that is the message here... Is morality a real choice? Is it a fiction? Or is the universe truly random, cruel, and meaningless.

How a "mere comic book movie" managed to ask these types of questions while supplying answers that are quite uncomfortable, sad, and even painful, is simply amazing.


Christian Bale does a tremendous job in The Dark Knight. Many have said that he is overshadowed by Ledger, but it is the nature of this particular beast- Batman is the Yin to Joker's Yang. Truth is, Bale sees exactly what is required from him. In Batman Begins, Bale is great at showing how Bruce develops into Batman, and he brings a ton to that process. However, in The Dark Knight, the movie isn't solely about Batman himself- we already know him and what he does and why. This movie is about Batman as a symbol- how he impacts/inspires Gotham. He inspires people like Dent, but also people like The Joker. What Bale does with this is amazing- he wants to be a great symbol, but he can feel it is spinning out of control- his symbolism may not be having the desired effect, and it is taring him apart inside. Thus, he becomes more desperate to stop The Joker, and he comes dangerously close to crossing the line, but he stops just short, which Bale measures perfectly. Also, his grief at Rachel's death is great, but not overwhelming. Now, that is the difference between him and Dent. Rachel's death consumes Dent, but not Bruce- a vital difference between the two characters.

Naturally, Ledger gets all the buzz for his performance as The Joker. Now, some attribute this to his untimely passing, but quite frankly, the role was performed, regardless of his death. Ledger's work is nothing short of extraordinary. He takes the character and combines him with Hannibal Lector- making him a realistic, scary, and unsettling performance. He's not a comic villain, he's a maniac that could exist in the real world- a nightmare that actually exists. Ledger's voice, facial tics, physicality, and his eyes all combine to make his Joker a true, vile, almost unhinged threat. The performance is so odd, so well planned and thought out, that it is simply awe-inspiring. Even better, Ledger's Joker is truly the "Agent of Chaos", seeking to pervert any concept of ethics or morality. In many ways, The Joker is like the devil, putting our heroes in horrible situations just because he can, hoping to see them damn themselves in the midst of carnage and terror, or as he likes to call it, "social experiment". The truth is, Ledger is electrifying every second he's on screen, and he takes huge risks, particularly how he re-tells his (false) origin twice, his conviction in the interrogation room, and his dressing as a nurse to infiltrate the hospital. His scene with Dent is noteworthy, as he tells Dent exactly what he's really all about. His final scene with Batman is also great, as he recognizes that Batman may well be "incorruptible". Yes, Ledger is that damn good. However...

The real, true standout isn't Ledger, despite the posthumous reputation he gained for his role. While is Joker is nothing short of awe-inspiring, it is actually Aaron Eckhart who gives the best performance in the film- his Dent is smart, charming, brave and scared in equal measure, a good man with hopes for the future, but also filled with doubt. Harvey Dent is the true heart and soul of the film. Indeed, Harvey mirrors both Bruce himself and Gotham as a whole- in obvious and subtle ways. The story of The Dark Knight is Dent's story. He is, at his core, a good man who wants to make Gotham safer. He wants to stand up to criminals, and restore justice to Gotham- the "White Knight" indeed. Unlike Batman, whose morality is shades of grey, Dent's is simpler- black and white, good or evil. However, when confronted by the madness of The Joker, Dent becomes scared, and his simple moral beliefs are put to the ultimate test. Terrified that this lunatic might destroy all that he, Batman, and Gordon have done, Dent becomes ever more desperate. His anger at Batman is incredible when Batman says he will surrender to authorities to appease The Joker- with Gordon "dead", Dent is scared that he will be left alone to fight these thugs and lunatics. Eckhart plays it so well: Dent is trying to do right, but can't do it alone, and the actor captures it perfectly.

Like the other characters, Dent misses The Joker's point until its too late- The Joker is trying to tear down this "false morality" that Batman and company are trying to impose on Gotham. The Joker wants to ruin all symbols, show that morality is a  "joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble". The Joker wrecks Dent mentally and physically, and Eckhart shows real depth in showing how damaged Dent has become- compromising his morality in the process. The fear and desperation to stop crime has literally ripped Dent into two, and the actor shows that to the audience without going over the top. His performance is tragic and nuanced- his was the toughest performance and Eckhart pulls it off in spades. In particular, when he tells Gordon and Batman "You thought we could be decent men, in an indecent time... The world is cruel, and the only morality is chance...Unbiased. Fair."- the line is so potent, and Eckhart delivers it with total conviction, angry, bitter, and broken. It's a huge performance in a movie with huge performances. 

Last, but certainly not least, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Gary Oldman's take on James Gordon. Oldman was good in BB, but here he really comes into his own. Gordon is the everyman, he represents the audience here. He's a family man, a good, honest guy. However, unlike Dent who's views are in black and white, and unlike Batman who operates in a very grey area, Gordon is practical. He wants to believe people are good, though he knows he works with a few bad cops. He has no choice, as he has to "do the best" with what he has. He's much more practical, and Oldman plays him as a smart but humble cop, willing to make sacrifices to save his city. But The Joker snags him too, by making him feel guilt over Dent's maiming and slide into despair. Oldman plays that so well, Gordon driven to save Dent at the expense of just about everything else. In the last scenes, Oldman's narration is stirring, and you can see in those final scenes that Gordon and Batman are truly comrades in arms, a feeling that has been missing in previous film adaptations.

Special Effects / Action Scenes: This movie clearly ups the ante in terms of action, though this is not purely an action movie as some seem to think it is. It is a drama more than an action movie, but the action scenes are fantastic. The Joker's initial bank heist is action packed. The car chase through Gotham which sees the Bat-Tumbler destroyed is considered legendary now. Tons of places explode, and all kinds of carnage are seen or implied. The final battle at the docs against The Joker is dizzying but effective. The action serves the story and the characters, not the other way round, which is important. Look at the interrogation scene as the best example. Great stuff here.

Lasting Legacy:Well, where to begin here? Of course, most cite the death of Heath Ledger in January 2008, stating that his performance here has taken on a supernatural quality as a result. Others cite the box office- The Dark Knight was a box office behemoth, becoming one of the biggest grossing movies of all time. I like to think that this movie set a whole new standard for what a comic book movie can be. Serious themes, symbolism, contemporary critiques, "realism", etc. The Dark Knight combines psychological thriller, with crime drama, and comic book characters for an amazing, genre busting blend of a movie. Now, I don't think that every comic book movie needs to be like this- there's room for The Avengers and The Dark Knight. However, there can be no doubt that The Dark Knight changed the rules. Talk about legacy....

And now comes The Dark Knight Rises... I cannot wait...

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