Last weekend I was lucky enough to find myself in San Antonio with one of my best buds, Dave, going to not just one but two super-hero movies in the same night ("Dark Knight" and "Hell-Boy II"). Life, my friends, rarely gets better than good friends, good films, and Batman kicking people in the face. Which is exactly what I'm about to do, kicking out my review of "Dark Knight" for the two of you who have yet to see it. Quick summary of the review:
- More of a mob film that has silly outfits than a "super-hero movie".
- Batman rules, Superman drools (at least at the cinema).
- Heath Ledger's Joker: Best. Villain. Ever.
- Get off your butt and go see it already! It's now just below "Iron Man" on my "All-Time Great Super-Hero Movies" list.
Full review after the jump.
I hesitate to even call this a super-hero movie. It's really more of a cross between a classic Mob and action-adventure "Bourne" type of film, that just happens to have a couple of guys running around in silly outfits. Disturbing, unsettling, creepy, scary, and adrenaline-filled pretty well describe the "Dark Knight" experience, which is about what you'd expect, but it also makes you think. I'm not surprised that various political factions are pointing to it as evidence that their own particular view of the world is strengthened by it, because the movie allows multiple interpretations. I don't think it sets out to have "A Message", but rather tells a story in all its facets and lets you, the viewer, run through them all without being hit over the head too much. I like that.
The thing that makes American super-hero comics genre so frustrating and so great all at the same time is its ability to constantly reinvent itself. We've been telling Batman stories for more than half a century now, and yet creative people like the Nolan brothers are still able to keep the character and the stories relevant and fresh. Which frankly blows my mind. I suspect the fact that Batman treads closer to the dark side than Superman does is part of what makes this franchise so compelling, but I think it's more than that. People are willing to take risks with Batman, they're willing to let the character and the story go in new directions. Superman doesn't have that luxury, boxed in by our expectation that he will always be a paragon of complete shining heroism, the White Knight to Batman's Dark.
In "Superman Returns", the filmmakers decided to just go with that, essentially turning him overtly into a Christ substitute. And it didn't work, because Christ figures are not allowed to be complicated in American pop culture. We demand that they be perfect, and let's be frank -- perfect is boring.
Batman on the other hand is fully human, with flaws and demons and foibles and all that's both great and base about this crazy, complicated, morally conflicted world we've built for ourselves. If Superman is our super-ego, Batman is the personification of the conflict between our ego and our id, dark and driven and haunted, and yet standing ever vigilant against the worst of our natures. Superman rises above our humanity, but Batman's greatness is that he quintessentially is human, morally and psychologically more than even physically. Much is made of Superman's Kryptonian body, but I would argue that it is his Kryptonian mind that really keeps him at a distance.
But enough with the high-falutin' English major crap. Bottom line, "Dark Night" kicks ass.
Batman's gadgets are cooler, the character interactions are funnier, the danger is more deadly, and the villain is more epic than ever before. People have complained that it's too long, but to those people I say, follow the example of our NASA leaders and slap a diaper on, it's time to drive! I'd put this right up there with "Iron Man" in terms of great super-hero movies. I happen to hate mob movies, so I personally rank "Dark Knight" just below the other summer super blockbuster, but that's more a personal preference than anything wrong with the film.
I would say one thing, though, to any parents who, having enjoyed previous versions in comics or cartoons of the Caped Crusader and who are thinking of taking their young children to see the movie -- don't. This is not a kid's film. PG-13 rating aside, I'd have definitely given it an R for disturbing adult situations and intense violence (even when it takes place off-screen). The Joker is the kind of disturbing, warped villain no kid should be exposed to.
As for the individual performances ...
Christian Bale (Batman): I give Bale an "A-" on this one. He'd get a straight-up top mark if it weren't for the irritating double-habit of lisping and that husky fake Batman voice they make him use. I hate it. It sounds completely unnatural, and while I get that he wants to disguise his voice, I'd rather they used some sort of electronic filter. It'd fit more with the character and it wouldn't make the few hairs on my head stand on end. Nitpicks aside, though, Bale is to Batman what Daniel Craig is to James Bond -- bad-assery exemplified.
Heath Ledger (Joker): Even better than advertised. A disturbing, frenetic, evil performance by Ledger, easily the best super-villain role ever. Absolutely an A+.
Aaron Eckhart (Harvey Dent): B. Eckhart has the classic good looks to be a shining knight, but I never did buy the devilishness the part also called for. He needed some of the madness of Ledger to really make the role come alive. But, he was certainly serviceable.
Michael Caine (Alfred the Butler): A+. I initially came away from "Batman Begins" with a feeling that Caine was just too old to play Alfred, but he's really good in this movie. It falls to him to carry most of the comedic scenes, and he does so exceptionally well. He has great on-screen rapport with everyone and has perfect timing. He gets a bit of an edge in this one, too, and carries that off without a hitch as well.
Maggie Gyllenhaal (Rachel Dawes): C. I'd probably give her a B but Dave hates her so much I had to demote her. As he says, "Maggie Gyllenhaal only acts from the throat up, never from the heart or the body." I don't know what that means, exactly, but it sounded very erudite so I am going along with it. In her defense, she doesn't have much of a part here, but as Dave again pointed out, she does nothing to make me believe that the two most powerful men in Gotham City would fall for her. I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but I actually preferred Katie Holmes' performance.
Gary Oldman (Gordon): B-. Unlike Caine's Alfred, I think Oldman actually is too old for this part. And he always seems like he's out of breath. Jim's a heavy smoker, but come on, it gets to be a bit much. The part itself is very strong, Gordon gets the chance to be very much a hero in this film, but Oldman's performance didn't quite measure up to the material. They took the young Lieutenant Gordon from the "Year One" series and put someone who should probably play the classic gray-haired Commissioner from earlier issues in the part, which never really made sense to me. Still, a solid if uninspired performance.
Special Effects (awesomosity): A. Love the batpod (rolling motorcycle thingie you've seen in the previews). Love the new Batsuit. Love the Joker makup. Love the gritty, real sense of place the whole city is given. This is how special effects should be -- something that fits in the movie and makes it better, not something that is so jarring and obvious that it takes over.
So, short version, go see it. It's worth a full-price admission and nearly three hours of your life. Just don't expect a rollicking feel-good movie of the summer -- this film grabs you by the short and curlies and never lets go.