Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)



The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

Director Christopher Nolan, ever since he revived the franchise with Batman Begins (2005), seems bent on making his hero and his dilemmas more earthbound. There is an attempt to inject realism into the comics, pertinence into mere entertainment. So instead of donning bat-suits with rubberized nipples, Batman (Christian Bale) sports a body armor derived from millions of dollars' worth of military research; instead of a sleek and gadget-ridden bat-mobile, he has a tank-like armored vehicle that transforms into a battle-ready motorcycle and somehow fits in real-world physics; instead of battling for a city that resembles a horror-themed carnival, he risks everything to salvage a city that is more recognizable; instead of clear-cut villains and adulated heroes in reiterated struggles between good and evil, we get twisted identities and broken martyrs spiraling downwards in a world that thrives in sin and cynicism.

Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight boasts of a truly memorable opening sequence: a terrifically conceived bank heist that fits better in a Michael Mann-directed caper movie than a summer flick with a caped and masked crime-fighting billionaire as its hero. The opening somehow foreshadows the film's overall tone, which is both fascinating and distracting at the same time. The double, triple, and quadruple-crossing amongst bank robbers feels like it rightly belongs in the unlimited realities of comic book literature, and when the last crook standing reveals himself as the Joker (Heath Ledger), with a Chelsea smile miserably hidden underneath a disarray of white and red paint, we are reassured we are in Gotham and that Batman is probably nearby. The milieu is of a completely different nature however: with a shot-gun wielding bank manager screaming threatening remarks about the mafia not appreciating being robbed, or the uncharacteristic ominous daylight which feels strangely unfamiliar in almost all reincarnations of Gotham, or the over-all tone of no-nonsense criminality and terrorism that pervades the scene. Nolan's Gotham in The Dark Knight is a city operating in comic book pulp and hyperbole snugged in present-day geography and politics.

Nolan presents a situation of two extreme forces: Batman's supposed good, vigilante justice that stands for order at whatever cost, and The Joker's insatiable evil, a conviction that the world can be adjusted to suit chaos if given the right impetus. In the center are Gotham's residents, district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), police commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman), Bruce Wayne's trustworthy liaison Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), all of which have the capacity to either doing the right thing or completely failing. The Dark Knight, rather than fathoming the eccentricities of its characters, is more interested in measuring the moral climate of Gotham City. Will its citizens prefer to have a ferry full of crooks explode to survive? Will they kill a ruthless informant to save a hospital full of innocent victims? Will Fox invade upon the privacy of everyone to find the villain? Will Batman rescue his personal muse or his city's only hope? These are merely a few of the moral dilemmas Nolan injects his tale with. He pushes the viewer to introspection, to weighing which of the two goods are less evil. He muddles morality, the lines between right and wrong, heroism and villainy.

The Dark Knight insists on realism, of placing fictional Gotham in the map, of suggesting that the Joker be given the politically-loaded label of terrorist, of edifying Batman with his familiar brand of heroics as the unpopular yet indelible hero. This insistence on contemporary realism compounded with Nolan's intent on compounding morality is problematic, in the same way that rationalizing right-wing war activism or justifying any of Bush's deservedly unpopular policies are problematic. Gordon's verbose plea in edifying Batman in the end feels desperate, if not treacherous. From a perspective of nebulous morality which I would have preferred since I am indifferent to Batman's patriotic posturing, Nolan suddenly pontificates, revealing a forgiving if not totally absolving stance to abuses of power in favor of the so-called greater good. Adjusted to real world politics, Batman's untraditional extradition of shady businessman Lau (Chin Han) from Hong Kong can be equated to a justified interference of international borders; or Batman's dilemma-ridden usage of his sonar tracking gadget can be equated to a dubious use of police power in furtherance of a warrantable purpose. I can imagine countless politicians, warlords, and dictators fancying themselves as Batmans in their respective jurisdictions, breaking a few rules in furtherance of a perceived order in society.

The Dark Knight is first and foremost created to entertain and as entertainment, it's largely successful save for a few bothersome imperfections. Nolan carries over from Batman Begins his inability to direct an action sequence, the best example of this sterility is the botched and almost incoherent fight sequence in the parking lot which ends with Batman being bitten by a huge canine. It surely kept me glued to my seat for over two hours, where I was relishing Ledger's misanthropic approximations before his predictable performance is overpowered by Eckhart's more tragic creation. The Dark Knight
however has been prematurely committed a status of reverence, backed up by all the box office records it broke, all the discerning critics it wowed, not to mention the legions of dedicated fans who are willing to kill or at least threaten to kill those who dare put a dent on the film's near-immaculate early reputation. Let's keep it however has been prematurely committed a status of reverence, backed up by all the box office records it broke, all the discerning critics it wowed, not to mention the legions of dedicated fans who are willing to kill or at least threaten to kill those who dare put a dent on the film's near-immaculate early reputation. Let's keep it earthbound, a film that is to be assessed both as a product of and a reaction to these cynical times.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

great review. keep up the good work!

pacheco said...

While I agree that much of the film, and especially the conclusion, seem to forgive the "abuses of power in favor of the so-called greater good," I think Nolan had a little bit of sense to not lean entirely that way.

When Batman pursues Lau, it's pointed out that the caped crusader knows no jurisdiction or borders. Lau may be safe from Gotham, but even in Hong Kong, he's not safe from the Bat. Part of me finds it hard to believe that anyone can see this as a 100% good thing when paralleled to the real world. I get the sense that Nolan is muttering through the side of his mouth, "By the way, don't do what he's doing. You shouldn't do that..." I know, it's weak, but I feel it's there. (For some reason I'm having a terrible time explaining myself here...)

Also, we must remember that the film is called "The Dark Knight." I know that the film plays with the title as Dent constantly reminds us that the "night is darkest before the dawn," but I think it should also be looked at a little more literally. Nolan said there are specific reasons for naming the film "The Dark Knight," and I believe part of it is because Bruce finds himself doing some pretty dark things, such as the invasion of privacy, the extradition of Lau, etc. And even though the film kind of plays if off and seems to say, "well, people were saved, so it was okay," there is that constant reminder that perhaps it's not the best way. Alfred is constantly warning Bruce that his actions will have some dire consequences. Batman needs to decide if innocent lives and broken morals are worth it. He obviously decides that yes, they are, but I think Nolan would be okay with some people disagreeing.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks anonymous, I'll try...

Hi Pacheco, thanks for dropping by... brilliant observations there, and while I agree that Nolan doesn't seem to be leaning towards that, I couldn't help but feel betrayed by that penultimate pontification by Gordon, which in a purely artistic context, is a downright letdown, and placing the film in the bigger realm of political philosophy, dangerous. I thoroughly enjoyed Nolan's suggestion of expanding ethic from merely good and evil, to two goods but with variations of evil, etc., but the resolve wasn't as brave as it could've been.

pacheco said...

I see what you're saying. And I think I agree, it's sort of as if there was no follow-through with the swing (whatever that swing may be).

Noel Vera said...

Burton forever!

Oggs Cruz said...

Burton's films, I can watch over and over again. Nolan's are, like any of his other movies, good for one, or maybe two go's.

eMotor said...

Cool Motor and Uniform

Oggs Cruz said...

Uhhh, cool...

Marin Mandir said...

I must say, a great review all the way, and I agree with 90 % of that what you said. I too got the impression Nolan secretly inserted a political subtext in the film, which is interesting.

As a whole, I enjoyed the film, yet I need to see it again to strengthen my view on it. Personally, I thought the Lau subplot was rather unnecessary and that the story had too many subplots in general, but I was entertained by every second of the film.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thank you, Marin.