Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Department of Seeing the Light

Mea Culpa's don't get more maxima than this.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Dark Knight

The Enormous Yes department of Cliché #4: Tim Burton's Batman films were serious—and largely successful—attempts to marry comic-book panache with celluloid wow.

Trouble is, they were the wrong comic books. Looking back, Burton's operatic vision of Gotham now seems kinds of dated. For all the talk that Joel Schumacher made the franchise too garishly camp, the seeds of cheese-plant were detectable from the very beginning: Nicholson's Joker, an exercise in scenery-chewing that never lets us forget we're dealing with Jack (and, to be fair, that was part of the attraction: look at Jack go!); a pantheon of villains of steadily decreasing menace and commensurately increasing absurdity: the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, Poison Ivy, Two-face, Mr Freeze . Happily, I can't even remember what happened in these early films. It says something when the thing I remember most fondly from the first film is Prince's globally-derided soundtrack (not being a Prince fan at the time, I thought it was rather good). All those Keatons, Kilmers and Clooney's. Yes, the gaudy ocean of camp that inundated the final films was all along being fed by tributaries chuckling through the very first film.

Batman Begins was in an altogether different league. Drawing on a rich graphic novel heritage, the film took Batman in a darker, more morally ambiguous direction. But the first film definitely has its faults. A thousand-year-old ninja cult is a tad hokey; a somewhat anticlimactic tussle on a CGI monorail drains some of the tension; and the release of thousands of hard-core criminals promises much mayhem but delivers only some fog-bound fight scenes. Still, the intensity of Christian Bale, the decency of Gary Oldman, the cool expectation of a sequel, all these made Batman Begins that currently rare thing: a decent superhero movie.

So what about The Dark Knight? Some of the snootier critics have taken the odd line that the film is too serious, too dark; they're disturbed by its transparent bid for moral seriousness. It's as if they want their thought-provokers to be Iranian epics called things like A Scent of Cardamon, while their superhero films should be simple fun like Ironman (which, sure, was pretty great) or silly guff like Spiderman. No, this upstart attempt to comment on symbols and terrorism and myth-making, while effortlessly delivering on the superhero prerequisites: it's too much for them. Anyway, the take-home message is that it’s a great film.

The movie takes a little while to reach its pitch, but when it gets there, about a third of the way in, it's horribly relentless, for which most of the thanks must go to Heath Ledger's mesmerizing Joker, a self-confessed agent of chaos who gets his kicks from enacting large-scale prisoners dilemmas and watching as Batman tries to bring order. Ledger is superb. It would have been so easy, pace Nicholson, to have gone straight for the ham, cackling maniacally through every scene. But, more often than not, Ledger is disconcertingly still as all ranges around him. This, finally, is a Joker taken straight from the pages of The Killing Joke or The Dark Knight Returns. His first appearance in front of the massed criminal element of Gotham haunted me for days...

Now I just have to see on the Imax screen and I’m done.