Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Coulrophobia A Go Go: Rickey Reviews “The Dark Knight”

In case you missed it, this past weekend, “The Dark Knight” shattered box office records previously held by Vincent Chase’s “Aquaman,” garnered breathless Oscar talk, and single handedly ameliorated world hunger. And while this movie is by no means the second coming of a leathery winged Christ that the critics are making it out to be, it’s a damned solid summer flick nonetheless: a well made dark & brooding comic book movie. Not to speak ill of the departed, but we’ve come a long long way from Christopher Reeves’ unshaven Kal-El sullenly swilling bourbon in a bar in "Superman III."

Now the casual observer might ask: “I have a crippling fear of clowns, is this Dark Knight movie right for me?” No friend, it is most certainly not. In fact, let’s dispel any notion that this is a fun filled summer popcorn romp right now, because this film is as dark and bleak as they come, which given the source material, is exactly what we were hoping for. If we may use an SAT style analogy, this movie is to “Iron Man” as a cantankerous Rottweiler is to a yippy Chihuahua. If you’ve been sitting out the recent comic book craze gripping the multiplex (and really, who could blame you?) you’ll be pleased to hear that this one finally delivers the goods: a comic book movie with mature themes intended primarily for grown ups. Sure, you’re more than welcome to bring your doe eyed ten year old child to see this, just be fully prepared for them to ask you “daddy, why do bad things happen to good people?” on the way home from the theater. This is because not one character in this movie escapes an emotionally scarring crisis, horrific disfiguration, or outright death. Whether by land, sea, or air, some seriously bad shit goes down in this film--we're talking legitimately disturbing stuff. And we wouldn’t have our Batman movie any other way.

Think of this movie as a terrific crime drama that just happens to feature Batman. “Heat” with a cape and cowl, if you will. It picks up exactly where “Batman Begins” left off, with the inherent threat of escalation caused by a masked vigilante taking the law into his own hands. Enter stage left, Heath Ledger’s Joker whose rabid insanity not only dwarfs Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the character, it ranks right up there with his work in “The Shining” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” This is very much the Joker’s movie: he shapes the entire narrative of the film, forcing Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon, and Harvey Dent come to grips with how they’d each react in the face of sheer madness. Ledger’s Joker is a screen presence to behold, someone so unhinged and detached from reality that we’re not entirely sure he even hails from this planet. He’s a nefarious schemer, a feral dog, a sadistic anarchist, and ultimately the human embodiment of pure unfiltered chaos. This is a fiend, a menace, and definitely not a Joker that the audience is supposed to be chuckling along with. Hats off to Ledger for capturing the essence of the character and reminding us that fact only person laughing at this lunatic’s jokes should be the Joker himself. You haven’t seen a madman this terrifying since “Clockwork Orange,” a character that doesn’t chew on the scenery as much as set fire to it. His performance is so unnerving yet riveting that the movie seems unsettling even when he’s not present on screen. You’ll feel uncomfortable, uneasy, and completely off kilter for the duration of the film.
More than anything else, this is a movie that excels at imbuing a constant sense of dread then proceeding to repeatedly punch you in the stomach. Yes there are heroics on Batman’s part, but they don’t seem like flashy superhero antics as much as the actions of one desperate man trying to enforce order upon riotous calamity. Thankfully, this movie moves past the insipid “what are you afraid of?” psycho babble that plagued “Batman Begins” and introduces a fully formed crime fighter whose determination is tested in every way imaginable by an interminable evil. Armed with a bevy of high tech gadgets, a batmobile with a carbon footprint that would make Al Gore swoon, an “Akira” inspired bat motorcycle, and more gravitas than Jack Bauer and Chuck Norris combined, Christian Bale’s Batman is as much a study in obsession as Ledger’s Joker. Taken together, they’re two forces of nature diametrically opposed, yet unable to exist without each other. The supporting cast is as strong as they come, consisting of driven civil servants, seedy mobsters, exploitive media figures, and a terrified Gotham City populace, all of whom combine to tell a riveting modern day film noir tale.

Shot in Chicago, this movie is most certainly not Tim Burton’s gothic fetishistic vision of the Batman universe, but the tall canyons of glassy sky scrapers and urban areas such as Lower Wacker Drive lend themselves wonderfully as great locales for a gritty crime drama. The score works well, consisting of ominous drumbeats for Batman and what sounded like discordant violins and air raid sirens for the Joker--as if the character's presence wasn't unsettling enough already. Rickey does have a few gripes with the film, most notably Batman’s irritating raspy voice (somebody give the poor guy a throat lozenge already), a superfluous jaunt to China, and a conclusion that’s a bit too special effects reliant and visually difficult to follow. And of course some hecklers might take issue with a few questions of logic such as why Batman’s cape doesn’t get caught on the rear wheel of the bat motorcycle, but come on now, this is a movie about a guy who dresses up like a giant bat and swoops around, how about a little suspension of disbelief here?

Overall, the movie is solidly entertaining and despite it’s nearly three hour run time doesn’t feel long at all. Call us nuts, but strong acting performances and intelligent themes can have that effect on a theatergoer’s attention span. It all comes together in a dark and compelling pulpy comic book yarn that would make Bob Kane smile. As far as talk for a third installment goes, we’re really not sure if it’s even a great idea to make one, because topping this movie is no small order. We won’t spoil anything in the plot (we’d be happy to discuss it in the comments section) but suffice to say that Nolan covers all the bases in the movie, wraps up every character’s story arc and touches upon every major theme you’d hope to see depicted in a Batman movie. This film really is the pinnacle of the subject material and while there’s a wide array of villains to pick from for a sequel, another movie might not seem anywhere as epic and satisfying as this movie does. Rickey’s verdict, this is the Batman movie you’ve been waiting for, if possible, see this in IMAX (it’s stunning) post haste.

[posted at Humor Blogs… …because mass murdering psychopathic clowns are funny, yes?]

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Alex L said...

I havent read what you just wrote I dont want to ruin anything when I finally see it. But I gotta know, is it good?

Rickey Henderson said...

Rickey made a point of keeping the review devoid of spoilers, so you're completely ok to read it. But to answer your question: fuck and yes. It's awesome. Like second viewing awesome.

Joel B. said...

I saw it for the second time yesterday. Great stuff. And it is so worth the extra money to see it in IMAX, even if you have to travel to do it.

Poor Aaron Eckhart is getting the shaft, just because he was so unlucky enough to be paired with Heath Ledger. Eckhart was AWESOME in this film, just not as awesome as the Joker was.

Rickey Henderson said...

Totally agreed--Eckhart was great. The good news is that he's apparently quoted as having said that he'll be back for the third (in case people were unsure about his fate at the end).

Adam said...

Best superhero movie of all time. Makes those Spier-Man movies seem silly in comparison

Adam said...

Um, that's "Spider"

Sully Sullivan said...

I'll be seeing this tonight or tomorrow. I'm pretty pumped which is rare since most comic book movies interest me about as much as shitting a sewing machine.

Mark said...

Great review of a great movie Rickey!

I am so happy to see Batman rescued from camp, surprised to see another good performance from Eckhart (Thank You For Smoking is the other), and truly awed by Ledger's Joker. He BECAME the Joker!

By comparison, Nicholson was just Being Nocholson, doing Caesar Romero, pretending to be the Joker.

Rickey Henderson said...

Adam: absolutely, the Spidey movies pale in comparison. But then again, you can't fault the director for that because so does the character of Spiderman in general. Most comic book stuff in general is pure fluff, but not Batman. As a kid, Rickey was always been a biger fan of Batman than anyone else due to all the gravitas and whatnot.

Mark: indeed, Eckhart in "Thank You for Smoking" was brilliant (one of Rickey's favorite movies from recent years).

renalfailure said...

Considering how well The Dark Knight did at the box office, a third movie is almost assured.

I'm pulling for Catwoman in the next movie. This generation needs their own vinyl bodysuit wearing vixen to wank to.

The Nemesing One said...

I loved this movie. The only part I didn't like (and this is a major spoiler) is at the end when he's dangling upside down, I was really hoping the Joker would do what he did in the comic book The Dark Knight Returns. He snaps his own spine so that the police would start chasing Batman for murdering him. I guess they pursued that side of it with the whole Two-Face thing though. They were probably thinking Heath/Joker would come back in later flicks.

Rickey Henderson said...

Funny how the ending with the Joker hanging upside down closely mirrored the end of Burton's "Batman," eh? Going with the Frank Miller idea would've worked, but in his own way, the Joker still does succeed in turning Batman into the bad guy at the end.

Yeah, they clearly wanted to use Ledger in the next one, which is one of the major reasons Rickey's not sold on a sequel. You just can't recast an actor in the Joker role and it seems like the Two Face storyline has run its course. Anyone else just seems like a goofy villain. Catwoman? Meh. Maybe they could still work the Dark Knight Returns storyline in with Batman coming out of retirement and seeking redemption... who knows. All Rickey knows is that this movie is pretty freaking hard to beat in scale and pure awesomeness. As a buddy of Rickey's pointed out, Nolan is now committed to this Batman thing. This guy's got a serious responsibility, you know?

Diesel said...

I liked Batman Begins because every piece of the narrative was so well-crafted; it had the kind of narrative unity that DK lacks. DK is much messier, but more interesting in a way too. I loved how the Joker toyed with the whole idea of superheroes and supervillains needing an "origin" to explain their behavior. The guy was just plain evil, for no reason.

Rickey Henderson said...

Rickey sees what you're getting at, but by the same token, Batman Begins was very much a formulaic Hollywood film (the silly water vaporizing plot, the tacked on monorail finale, the batmobile on the rooftop chase with the cops blathering to each other over the radio). Those are all generic nonsense movie making cliches that bugged Rickey. You get the sense that TDK is very much the movie that Nolan wanted to make in the first place instead of Batman Begins: a gritty urban drama. Messy? Maybe, that's far preferable to formulaic and boring in Rickey's book.

Alex L said...

That was my one problem with 'begins' some of the action was edited to quickly it was hard to tell what was going on, but most movies today are guilty of that so I guess I cant be angry at Dark Knight for doing it aswell.

Your right though seeing the adverts for it you can totally get an Akira vibe from the bat bike. If they do do another i hope they dont just start giving him bat planes and boats and shit, it all just gets a little hokey when they do that.

Bee said...

That was an amazing review!
I have to go see these types of movies because my hubs is a *Graphic Novel Connoisseur* but I truly enjoyed The Dark Knight. I agree on Bale's overuse of the raspy voice. I swear I kept wanting to clear my throat.

We'll probably go see it again at an IMAX theater.

At the risk of inciting your wrath, I HATED "Heat". (:op

Mik said...

Great review, wife and I saw TDK Sunday and thoroughly enjoyed it and hope to see it in IMAX.

We added it to our "To buy when release on DVD" list.

Stushie said...

The movie disturbed me. Ledger was over the edge and it made me wonder what he was taking throughout the shooting. There was nothing redemptive about the whole movie. You don't come away feeling good about the world.

I wonder how many crocks with some gasoline tanks and knives are going to copy cat Ledger's Joker into becoming a cult. I saw it in Blacksburg where people are still dealing with the Virginia Tech massacre. At times, you could have cut the atmosphere with a blade.

It's a clever movie, but not a good one. Nolan will probably make a third, but the only reason this was box office breaking stuff was because of Ledger's untimely death.

The Common Man said...

@ Stushie

I can definitely see not liking the movie, but I don't think anyone can accuse it of not being good. It's meticulously excellent down to the final detail, as Nolan keeps throwing out misdirections and red herrings and curveballs.

And I think it totally reinvents the concept of the supervillain. Ledger's joker isn't greedy, or power-hungry, or vengeful. He's just bad, and he wants everyone else to be as bad as he is.

I loved this movie and can't wait for the third (it's always darkest before the dawn, after all), and would love to see Nolan's take on Catwoman and/or The Riddler, villains who have more menace and practicality to them. Villains like Penguin, Mr. Freeze, and Poison Ivy just seem too fantastical to be included in Nolan's gritty, physical universe.

Dr. Rus Jeffrey said...

Hey Rickey!

Thanks for taking part in my "Movie Monday Blog Carninval" over on the Frame by Frame Movie Blog!

Dr. Rus

Elle said...

Hey Rickey
Great review :)
Wish we had IMAX in India… well actually we do, but not everywhere.
About the “Anyone else just seems like a goofy villain. Catwoman? Meh” thing:
Oh common…. I think if Nolan went with the ‘Hush’ series style Catwomen it would work pretty well. True, she’s not really a villain there, but the point is to have a tormented Batman, and if I remember right Catwomen is pretty brilliant at messing him up completely.
Pity Nolan used both Ra’s Al Ghul and Scarecrow in Batman Begins… that sort of felt more like a prologue (lets just explain all this pesky stuff before we get down to the real story) sort of movie. Especially after seeing TDK.
Both of them have much more dark and creepy villain potential then BB allowed them.