Batman Begins Starts Over
Like its own second-fiddle villain, The Dark Knight suffers from a crippling case of split-personality disorder. The condition is so severe that I stormed out of the theatre in 2008, past throngs of enraptured fans, with the heavy and horrifying suspicion that I'd spent the past two-and-a-half hours being insulted. At the time, I was unable to recall how promising the first hour had been, compared to the abysmal second, third, and fourth acts.
But let's not kick off with too much negativity, eh?
From the get-go, director Christopher Nolan lets the audience know that this film is worlds beyond its predecessor, Batman Begins. He opens with a bank heist whose dizzying aerial shots, breakneck betrayals, and inventive plotting are grander in scale and ambition than the entirety of his comparatively modest franchise reboot from just three years before. If I didn't know better, I'd say the sequel had been helmed by a different guy altogether.
At the center of the robbery is our new main villain, Joker (Heath Ledger). He's different here than in the comics and previous movie incarnations: unlike Jokers past, this one's greasy, white-and-red face and oily green hair are put-ons, and not the result of a horrible acid accident. Old Joker was, in some respects, a victim; New Joker, we get the impression, chose this ghastly appearance because he likes it. Nolan and his co-writer/brother, Jonathan, wisely keep his origin a secret, making their antagonist an unpredictable force of theatrical psychopathy.
Joker begins the movie as a small-time thief and Arkham Asylum escapee who's just begun pushing into higher levels of crime. The bank he and his goons knocked over belonged to the Gotham City mob, now run by Boss Maroni (Eric Roberts) in the absence of the previous film's heavy, Carmine Falcone. It's not too difficult to get a cut of the action, as Batman's (Christian Bale) crusade against the underworld has left the criminal element scared and sloppy. Joker pops up at a syndicate meeting and declares his intention to kill Batman--in exchange for half of the city's dirty money.
For his part, Batman has his hands full. Not only does he spend his nights rounding up criminals, he must now contend with a small army of vigilante citizens trying to take up his mantle. Instead of utility belts and tanks, these out-of-shape wannabes pack shotguns and hockey pads. By day, the Dark Knight's alter ego, billionaire Bruce Wayne, wrestles with an intrusion of a different sort: new hot-shot District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is dating his almost-love-interest from the first film, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over from Katie Holmes).
Bruce sees Dent's unflinching commitment to the law as the public symbol that Batman's secretive vigilantism can never be. To that end, he helps round up the crime syndicate's chief money launderer, Lau (Chin Han), which involves a trek to Hong Kong and a spectacular high-rise kidnapping. With the city's top mob officials off the streets, Bruce believes he'll be able to give up being Batman and steal Rachel away from Dent. Unfortunately, toppling Gotham's criminal leadership leaves a Joker-sized void that the lunatic is only too happy to fill. The city is suddenly set on edge by a series of high-profile kidnappings and murders.
As I said earlier, the Nolans' first hour is pretty great. Aside from an utterly cartoonish courtroom scene involving Dent knocking out a hostile witness, the story and performances are mostly solid.* But just past that first hour, everyone in The Dark Knight loses their minds--that includes the characters and the filmmakers.
From the selective CGI fire that literally leaps on to Dent's face as he's being dragged away from a burning building (thus birthing the problematic nemesis, Two-Face) to the amazing healing powers Maroni employs, following the scene where Batman dropped him several legs-shattering stories, the movie seems to use the first hour's good will and Nolan's pedigree as a "smart" filmmaker to get away with many, many stupid things.
I might have forgiven these problems had the Nolans been less greedy with their run-time and followed through on the promise of their iconic villain. From the moment he shows up, Joker embodies the unpredictability of chaos. He doesn't seem to want anything except to cause greater and greater destruction. For awhile, The Dark Knight plays along; key characters die, weird scenarios spring from nowhere, and Batman appears to be at a genuine loss as to how to proceed.
The third act comes to a head as Joker rigs two barges full of explosives and gives the passengers on board the detonator to the other ship. One vessel is packed with criminals, the other with average citizens. If one group doesn't blow up the other by midnight, both ships detonate. If you guessed that neither ship explodes in the end, you've hit upon the reason The Dark Knight ultimately fails as a film. It's fine as a summer blockbuster. But its lack of conviction, its unwillingness to let hundreds of people die senselessly--and to have the city's hero figure out how to cope with that--relegates it to the category of "Mildly Edgy".
Let's sidestep a moment to talk about the fourth act. Yes, the fourth act. Joker convinces Dent to switch to the dark side and become Harvey Two-Face. This sets off a killing spree around Gotham, where Dent exacts revenge on the corrupt cops that led to his kidnapping and Rachel's death (don't ask). After dealing with Joker, Batman and newly appointed Commissioner Gordon square off against Two-Face at the debris-strewn site of his disfigurement. There's hostage-taking, speechifying, and the lamest death of a major franchise villain since Boba Fett.
So, in the course of one movie, we're introduced to a character and told via news footage that he's an unflappable, upright justice-hound. Not long after, we learn that he has a rage problem. Then he's blown up. Then he's driven insane. Then he's taking hostages. Then he dies.
The Two-Face story arc could have easily been its own movie. Instead, the Nolans speed up time to a ridiculous rate and shoehorn Batman 3 into the end of Batman 2. It's as if they were genuinely concerned that Warner Brothers would break all their contracts for a third movie, and so had to guarantee audiences the chance to see everything they had in mind for the franchise, all at once.
On top of that, the comic-book version of Two-Face uses a scarred silver dollar to make every crucial decision--it's a totem of his damaged, split psyche that presents plenty of opportunity for suspense. Instead of that pretentious nonsense, the Nolans have Harvey Dent playing with the damned coin in his introduction, on his date with Rachel, as Two-Face, and on and on and on. There's probably a deleted scene somewhere involving him flipping a coin over different kinds of breakfast cereal.
Wait, that can't be right: it's obvious that everything was left in this picture.
Worse yet, the ending sees Batman deciding to become an outlaw in the eyes of the public, taking responsibility for Dent's death and those he murdered--because he's afraid that if Gotham knew the truth about their White Knight, all hope would be lost. Let's look at that for a second:
A). Can you name your city's District Attorney?
B). If you found out that he or she had been driven insane by a criminal mastermind and then gone on to execute a handful of complicit, dirty cops, would your faith in humanity be diminished? Or might you think, "Good for him!" At most, you'd probably tune in for news coverage of the trial, and then go about your day.
So, yeah, Gordon's concluding monologue about Batman being the hero the city deserves but not the one it needs right now is completely wasted on a bogus resolution to a sloppy, superfluous chain of events.
The Nolans could have easily left Dent's fate a mystery leading into the second sequel. This is Joker's show, after all, and it's no surprise that Ledger won a posthumous Academy Award for his performance. Some have ragged on his grating voice and silly gestures, but Ledger never gets lazy in his portrayal of madness. There's no better demonstration of this than in a hostage video involving one of the fake Batmen. Joker playfully implores a bound and bloody impostor to look at him. Out of nowhere, a bellowing devil-voice we've never heard before repeats the command, and is just as suddenly replaced with the high-pitched cackle.
In the end, The Dark Knight is a promising, multilayered thriller that simply doesn't know when to stop. The Nolans may have steered comic book movies in a more intelligent direction here, but they fail at sticking to their own lofty principles. The result is a muddled, over-long showcase for a villain who upstages his rival at every turn.
*The big exception is Gyllenaal, whose acting choices have zero connection to what her character was in the first film. Holmes' Rachel was a serious-minded legal eagle. Gyllenhaal plays a bubbly horn-dog who goes all gooey over her man. I don't know how much of this is the fault of the screenwriters, but I was so glad to see Rachel taken out mid-film (SPOILER!).
Also, and this is really tacky of me, I couldn't stand looking at Gyllenhaal. I've not had a problem with her in other movies, but for some reason her appearance in The Dark Knight is disturbing. The harsh, downward angles of her face give the impression that she's gradually melting--which, given her character's fate, may have been cosmic foreshadowing.