Wednesday 18 July 2012

From the archive: "The Dark Knight"

In 2005, I accused Christopher Nolan of draining all the fun out of the Batman franchise, and now we have a Batman movie in which the Joker is played by a dead guy. Of course, the passing of Heath Ledger was never likely to impede The Dark Knight's release - not while there was such a huge amount of money riding on the film. ($150 million, if the film's opening weekend in the States is anything to go by.) For Nolan and his producers at Warner Bros. have been responsible for ushering Batman wholesale into the corporate era - more fully, in fact, than Tim Burton's Batman blockbusters, with their now almost innocent-seeming tie-in T-shirts and baseball caps, could ever have envisaged.

Such that, for example, The Dark Knight's plot might be premised on the transportation of money. Ledger's Joker is first introduced robbing a Mob-controlled bank, getting already ill-gotten gains with brute force, rather than the black comic finesse Jack Nicholson brought to the same part two decades ago. Playing out in skyscrapers, fast cars and private jets (even the Batcave is in the process of an upgrade), the film flaunts its wealth, in order to generate more wealth: after Batman Begins, there follows a Batman that blings. A defining image of the new film sees the Joker perched atop a pyramid of bank notes - and then setting light to them, because he (and the film) can afford to.

Nolan, for his part, can afford to bring in new blood, mostly welcome. Maggie Gyllenhaal, loose-limbed and strutting in power trousers, is obviously a sexier presence than Katie Holmes, and Aaron Eckhart is suitably slick as Gotham City D.A. Harvey Dent - though we all know he'll have to pass through the same character arc (more painfully, as it happens) as Tommy Lee Jones's Two-Face in Batman Forever, and his habit of tossing a coin at key moments - mo' money, mo' money - looks to have been filched from Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. There's also a welcome appearance from Eric Roberts - Eric Roberts! The George Clooney somebody left out in a dumpster in the rain! - as a Gotham Mob boss.

But once again, we're stuck with the least sympathetic Bruce Wayne in screen history. Christian Bale continues to interpret the character as an arrogant rich git who - sitting on the deck of his private yacht, surrounded by Russian ballerinas - starts to look rather unhelpfully like Simon Le Bon in the video for "Rio". Isn't Batman supposed to be heroic, on some level? Why, then, does he here so often resemble an investment banker in a cape? What we get is a film in which the citizens of Gotham (and, through them, the audience) are invited to look up to the rich for salvation; this Batman isn't a superhero, more the posterboy for trickledown economics, a Dark Knight of the soulless. And Bale in the batsuit proves no more charismatic than a computer-generated Hulk, or the metal-suited Iron Man. (He also, for reasons unspecified, speaks with a very sore throat.)

These films have been championed for making the Burton and Schumacher Batmans look like adventures in Teletubbyland, but I miss those films' humour, their sense of play, especially. Nolan's Batmans are confused, joyless and violent in a cold and anaesthetising way. (Given some of the imagery of The Dark Knight's final hour, I'm assuming Warner Bros. sent the heavies round to lean on the BBFC: in no other set of circumstances would Dent's fire-ravaged face pass at the 12A level.) They couldn't be any less thrilling, and the only way anybody might crack a smile during them would be if they followed the Joker's dietary plan, and worked a razorblade around the outskirts of their mouth.

The first film was a Batman for pedants; The Dark Knight, then, is a Batman for masochists. This has rapidly become the Amy Winehouse of movie franchises, a dismayingly literal interpretation of car-crash viewing: drunk on its own mythology, oblivious to the real world, all clotted arteries where there should be clean, straight lines, and liable to carry on in this vein for all eternity - until death itself - while people are prepared to pay to see it. (The curiosity concerning Ledger's performance is but one morbid element among many here.) All involved are generating a lot of money, but it's clearly not doing anyone - not, now, Ledger; nor, if reports are to be believed, Bale; nor its talented young director, reduced to endless, monotonous cross-cutting, while still turning in a decidedly flabby 154-minute movie - any good whatsoever. There's only one way the franchise might now be saved from itself: come back, Joel Schumacher, all is forgiven.

(July 2008)

The Dark Knight is available on DVD through Warner Home Video. A sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, opens nationwide from Friday, and is reviewed here.

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