The Dark Knight (2008)

2 stars out of 4. Unbelievably confused and completely perplexing because it should have never been like this.

It has often been said that a Batman story lives and dies on the strength of its villains. This is a slight miscalculation. A Batman story lives or dies on the strength of its story. This is something that The Dark Knight both prides itself on and ultimately is its biggest failure.

There are moments of depth and great insight, but these are like the IMAX sequences, in a word: fleeting. The Dark Knight is a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be and neither does its main character. This is the key problem. I felt at times as if I were watching some other guy running around in body armor and not Batman.

Though flawed, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) is so completely full of subtext and feeling that it remains a good film, if not an even more entertaining one twenty-three years on. Where’s the feeling in The Dark Knight? The characters are so broadly painted that if we did not know it was a Batman story, there would be little to ever care about. Fans may decry that I am overlooking the late Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance as the Joker with this criticism, but as brilliant as his performance is…IT. DOESN’T. MATTER. IF. YOU. DON’T. EVER. GIVE. THE. CHARACTER. ANYTHING. TO. DO. ISOLATED. SCENES. DO . NOT. A. CHARACTER. MAKE.

And that’s what this overlong film really is, a collection of isolated scenes and setpieces that are cut together in such an incoherent and confusing way so that we become so confused that whatever the film says must be gospel. These are collected in an uninspired attempt to create a large story arc of defining importance when in fact all this does is hollow out every single bit of depth that was established by Batman Begins.

As I watched this unfold in the theater, I found myself at first confused. It was confusing as a story on the surface, but what began eating away at me was the simple fact that there was no sort of resonance to anything in the film. Executive producer and Batman historian Michael Uslan has said of the 1960’s TV series that he felt “the whole world was laughing at Batman.” Well, experiencing The Dark Knight made me feel as if the whole world was being spoon-fed a heavily watered down version of Batman and even more disconcerting was the fact that they took to it like mad.

When something becomes a worldwide phenomenon, it can be quite lonely and hard to be the one voice of dissension. So, as with the issues I had on Begins, I again thought it was my own mistake and that there must be something I was missing. Everyone couldn’t be wrong.

The passage of time and revisiting the film twice has told me one thing: I was not mistaken.


The film sets us up with a new Gotham after the events of Begins. It has been a few years, and through his efforts, The Batman has been able to clean up a definite percentage of the city’s streets and instill a deepening confidence in some Gothamites. The main conflict is now between the police and the more centralized Mob in a never-ending tug of war political battle. Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) has his “secret” aid in the Bat (Christian Bale)  and gains a new public ally in the form of new D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) who is hell bent on crushing the Mob once and for all. Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) remains Bruce’s love interest but shows far more attraction to her new boss which creates a complicated love triangle where one guy seemingly just doesn’t get it. Into this mess is thrown a Joker (Heath Ledger) who orchestrates everything and everyone in his path into absolute doom.

The Mob attempts to hide their money with a wily Chinese accountant who actually absconds with their funds for “protection”. The Joker bursts in upon this little meeting and makes his first demand of the Mob that they pay him to kill the Bat who has caused their fear of doing business.  They laugh at this ridiculous scheme but when the Joker warns of Batman having no jurisdiction he is proven correct. Batman goes to Hong Kong and returns the embezzler to Gordon. This leads to a mass trial of the entire Mob on misdemeanor charges simply to make a statement and have clear streets for a short while.

This pushes the Mob to back the Joker’s mad plan and essentially accept his “contract-for-hire”. Of course, the Joker has no real plans except his own mad vision of chaos that only he could envision. He inventively dispatches the judge and Police Commissioner and demands Batman’s identity revealed otherwise innocents will start dying.

As Batman, this situation should present an extreme test on one’s moral conscience and on the obsession with vengeance. As the ever-faithful Alfred (Michael Caine) simply states when Bruce asks “What would you have me do?”, Batman would could and should “Endure.”

Of course this incarnation does nothing of the sort and plans to turn himself in. Before he can do this, Harvey Dent claims he is the Batman and is suitably arrested. Then what follows is an extremely long and convoluted chase sequence where the Joker attempts to destroy a convoy transporting Dent to prison with Batman attempting to hold the mad clown at bay. What makes this fall apart is the incomprehensible editing and design of the sequence which absolutely ruins any chance of it working. It takes until the final moment of the sequence with the Joker standing in the middle of the road playing chicken for things to finally make any sense or be of any interest.

The Joker is captured, and Dent cleared to reveal an elaborate police hoax to catch the Clown Prince of Crime. However, Dent and Rachel disappear any only the Joker knows where…

To make an already long story much shorter, Dent becomes Two-Face at the Joker’s hand and holds the world at large responsible for the destruction of his life. A Wayne Enterprises accountant realizes Batman’s identity and attempt to go public with it. The Joker re-utilizes his same plan and threatens the lives of every hospitalized person is the puny bean counter is allowed to live. In the midst of chaos, he slips into Dent’s hospital room and actually convinces the man he destroyed to take his revenge upon the world.

Two-Face begins going through the city and exacting his own brand of justice on any and all he deems responsible for his misfortunes, of course using his lucky coin. The Joker blows up a hospital and takes some hostages. He later sets up a scheme to distract the police with two ferries rigged to explode. Each has a detonator set to explode the other boat and a strict time limit in which they must decide. One boat contains hardened criminals and prisoners, the other full of innocent civilians.

This scene goes on far too long and effectively undoes any tension it may have instilled in the audience. Batman then supersedes the police force in taking down the Joker, who reveals his ace in the hole: the newly pissed off Two-Face.

Now there is yet another conclusion to add to the already innumerable amount of conclusions, where we are told that the knowledge of Harvey’s misdeeds in madness would undo all the good work done by the police. Because people are just stupid, I suppose. There is a big hoopla about Batman being made to order for the blame and so he must now run off into the night and be hunted by the very law enforcement he once worked hand in hand with. The semblance of a score picks up and we are supposed to feel some kind of exhausted exhilaration that Batman is the hero we deserve, “a dark knight”. It feels seemingly like a grand dramatic conclusion but on the whole it really isn’t, not with the story we’ve just been told. It is another puzzle piece that has been shoved into a spot where it really doesn’t fit.

True actual interest lies only in the small moments. This is primarily due to the fact that the story is so broad that the only humanity is displayed in simple interactions between characters about mortal problems. The instance where Batman realizes that the Joker holds both his salvation and his dream hostage grabs out attention because there a definable issue at stake as opposed to simply the sanctity of Gotham.

Only the supporting characters are fleshed out enough to invoke our care or worry. The main characters are drawn so broadly that the universe that they inhabit and the ground rules are left to be established by the supporting cast. The Joker here is defined as an agitator who works primarily behind the scenes in order to create chaos and mayhem. This would be fine if the script decided to use him for something other than plot facilitation. Michael Caine’s Alfred is again so completely interesting that you often wish the film were actually about him, and that Bruce had died or gone on holiday or something.

Christopher Nolan has cited Heat (1995) as an influence on TDK’s methods, a film which exhibits some of the exact same symptoms of this film right down to the convoluted plot falling apart in an overlong runtime. The characters seemed just as broad and empty, a trait that I find shared in nearly every Michael Mann film. (Oddly there are two bits uselessly appropriated from the Bond films in TDK.)

Christian Bale’s voice as Batman has long been a joke due to its severe overdone hoarseness. The moment where he declares the difference between Batman and copycats as the fact that he is “NOT WEARING HOCKEY PADS” has become the lynchpin for such horribly over the top line delivery. (It was recently revealed that this was overly enhanced in post-production.)

Seeing the film in its intended quasi-IMAX presentation opened up the visuals to some extent but ultimately proved to be worthless, as only certain sequences were shot in the format. For a film shot on 35mm and processed for film, this is a very uninspiring look for Gotham. Then again, it is merely a redressed Chicago in order to tie in with the film’s desire to place the comic books in a real world setting.  Gotham City becomes a nonentity altogether.  The cinematography is a bit too drab with its over-reliance on blues and fluorescent lighting with the IMAX scenes being almost a relief to get away from the style used on the Panavision scenes.

On the other production fronts, TDK is well made to a point. The editing is a seemingly intended slipshod mess. There are countless moments where it seems the edits were made with the audience directly in mind. These are done to “involve” the viewer in such a way that our brains must be actively involved in order to process the event onscreen. By changing shot order, dropping linking shots, and other subtle little tweaks and cuts this creates a highly kinetic but downright muddled vision for the brain to comprehend. There are even several jump cuts in the film that make absolutely no sense, even for a jump cut!

Knowing it was a big summer movie clocking in at 2.5 hours, I thought it would be really tightly plotted and cut to match. Coming out of the theater, I was convinced that Warner Bros. or someone else had done a big hack job on Nolan’s final edit to get something more releasable out quickly. After the relatively well plotted Begins, this just couldn’t be the way they wanted to continue. But it was. This was the final cut, and there wasn’t some longer and more relaxed edit out there. In the final release version, there’s just no time to savor, enjoy or even take in what the heck is going on. There are two moments that glaringly stand out, both of the Joker in seemingly unimportant non-dialogue shots. Both are the single instances where there are finally cracks in the wall separating comic book fantasy and reality. In the shot of the Joker standing outside the hospital in a ridiculous nurse outfit the surrealism of the scene is so great that it takes a bit of time to process. But we are not allowed the opportunity to do this and the powerful image is completely diminished. Even more regrettable is the unbelievably powerful shot of The Joker sticking his head out of the window of a speeding police car in absolute ecstasy. The trailer displayed this to great enticing effect and I looked forward to seeing this fully in context. In the final film, this is merely flashed at, ruining any chance of an emotional connection with the sequence.

I hate being told that I just don’t get something. This has been the statement I have received from many, many people over the past four years if ever expressing any sort of discontent with the supposed gospel truth of TDK. Because it was “important”, because the production had a tragedy, because it was slightly serious in tone, because it was “realistic” it seemed to be beyond mere criticism. Well, here’s some more.

Batman is nonexistent in TDK. This is a man who wears a suit of body armor because he can and because he wants to fight crime. There is no bearing on his psychological issues any longer, seemingly because these were addressed in the first film.  This Bruce Wayne is not The Batman. He is not a detective; he is not working for vengeance.  What he is doing is working out of some sort of a developed sense of civic duty. Because he became the Batman he can do things normal civilians cannot. He can go further than the law. Well of course he can, he’s a vigilante isn’t he?

Indeed what is most sorely lacking in the film is the sense of Batman, which must be present in any incarnation of the character for it to ever work. Throughout his seventy-three year existence our pointy-eared friend has seen multitudes of different interpretations. Some may be preposterous and some over serious, but they all share a common link-they are all Batman stories. This is why the 1966 Batman film can be enjoyed by a fan of The Dark Knight Returns or why a reader of Knightfall can still be entertained by Batman Forever. But The Dark Knight may just be the first Batman story to not feature Batman at all. What the film resembles most closely to me is in the comics. There have been many hyped and lauded story arcs that ultimately fail to deliver on their potential due to drawn out, overlong, overcomplicated characterizations and plot lines. This is exactly what The Dark Knight feels like. Coming out of it feels exactly as one does when finishing one of these overdone graphic novels. In comics one can simply file it away with all the other stories and move on to another but with the film it isn’t that simple.

Or is it? For years I have held the belief that a comic book film cannot be made in live-action. There is simply too much imagination and escapism present on the panels to truly make the jump to live-action cinema. There is always an element of disconnection inherent that holds the comic book film back from being truly free as are the drawn pages. This is why comic book animation works so inherently well, as it is a medium that is not as far removed from the comic book itself.  Combine this with a knack for storytelling and you simply cannot lose. In 22 minute little episodes, the makers of Batman: The Animated Series were able to incorporate and effectively use more storytelling than is contained in the entire Batman film franchise. The visuals are just as if not more stunning than anything physically shot and the performances are legendary among Bat-fans. Along with the Fleischer Superman theatrical serial cartoons, these are the definitive comic book superhero adaptations. Their only limitation is the scope of one’s imagination and a short runtime.

The Dark Knight took all of the negative elements from the first film and did away with any of the positive strong ones dealing primarily with storytelling. I kept waiting for this film to go somewhere, but it never did. And this lack of nearly anything somehow gives it the pretense of “importance”? Batman always has always been about  well thought out storylines so that even in their most convoluted state they don’t seem like random snake pits and double crosses with a random line run through at the end to tie it together. Bad story construction, some editing and sound mixing mistakes, all compounded by not knowing how or where to end the darn thing. If they had really wanted to make a tortured realistic hero story, just show how Batman never can stop his crusade and how Bruce Wayne doesn’t really exist. That in the end it doesn’t really matter if there is such a vigilante because one man could never possibly hope to make a difference. Okay, it’s not bad-but it certainly does not in any circumstance deserve its reputation.

The Dark Knight is not a bad film, but an infuriating one. It is well made to a point yet the story seems horridly underdeveloped. What the length adds to this is a giant layer of fat covering the very little amount of meat at the center. I really want to like this movie. I did going in and still do after watching it three times, but damn it if I still don’t come out with a bad taste in the mouth.  I liked Begins, and though the film glossed over some elements to quickly, it has a much more complete narrative and thus to me at least is much more satisfying as a movie.

It is with a heavy heart that I go into The Dark Knight Rises this week. After the painful debacle of the second film, one can only foresee even more pain ahead that is inevitable with the end of a “trilogy” and tying up loose ends. Of course, I want the film to be good and be something enjoyable but I truly have no expectations. I will enter as a blank slate and hopefully come out of it not feeling so dejected. Then again it looks as if elements of Knightfall will be carelessly chewed up. Sigh.

I must admit I will feel an unavoidable sense of “I told you so” when audiences come away with disappointment after they realize the faults in the Nolan Batman universe.

EDITIONS: Released simultaneously on DVD and Blu-ray in a multitude of different exclusive editions and sets. The DVD has the film at a uniform 2.39:1 as was seen theatrically. The Blu-ray uses a cropped 1.78:1 for the IMAX scenes and alternates between this and 2.39:1 for all the Panavision shot scenes which form the bulk of the film. I wish they had presented the full IMAX image at about 1.44:1, but the decision was made in order to fill modern 16:9 displays. (The DVD Special Edition supposedly has all the IMAX sequences at the original IMAX ratio, but I haven’t been able to confirm this.) The film works better visually with the largest format somewhat intact and even some establishing shots are done in IMAX to boot. The alternating is seamless, though you do find yourself wishing they had just bitten the bullet and shot the thing that way, as the switch back to standard Panavision with the lighting style they used is very grating at times. Bitrate is fine for such a long film, though there could have been improvement in quality so far as the encoding Warner used perhaps by moving the features to an additional disc.

Color and everything else seems exactly like the theatrical presentation, if a bit less than what the format can really show off.

Audio is relatively impressive, though at a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track. Nice depth and bits of rumbling with a good amount of spatial reference.

It’s a well produced disc, but not completely befitting of a big film completely shot and processed in 35mm and IMAX. It is however, exceptionally well-done for the format and regularly at less than $10 the best the film will look for some time.

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Filed under 2 stars, Batman, Film Review

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