Too Serious

OK, I’m going to be the first to go against the trend with the new ‘dark’ Batman films, namely Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight, and say I just don’t see why everybody goes all wobbly at the knees about them.

Violet Towne and I went to see TDK last night. We spent up big and had great plush seats in the Royalty Only section at Hoyts. We sipped our wine and laughed gaily at the peasants far below as they shuffled through the sawdust into their tiny crowded pit, chewing bacon rind and sucking on brussels sprouts. The Hoyts’ servants fetched us le Choc Tops and le Corn de Pouffe, and we settled back for what we had been assured by all & sundry would be the best 3 hour cine-fest we’d see this millenium.

I wanted to like the film. Really I did. I was entirely ambivalent about Batman Begins after seeing it late in its run and well after it had been hyped out of all proportion. I walked out of it feeling flat, and thinking maybe it was my fault that I didn’t like it – perhaps I’d expected too much. So after all the high praise that The Dark Knight has garnered, I was prepared to eat humble pie and admit that there is merit in the Bat-With-Soul concept after all. But you know what? The Dark Knight was the exact same experience as Batman Begins, only 20 minutes longer. Sure, it’s a well made film, but then so it ought to be these days. In my opinion that’s a baseline – directors who are still in work (especially at this high a level in Hollywood) should be able to ply their craft with at least some panache. The pic is beautifully edited, artfully photographed and designed, and the sound solid and engaging. The score, by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer, is great. But the skillful technique of this film proves (like the subject matter of director Christopher Nolan’s previous film, The Prestige), to be all about colour and movement and misdirection; a flash of light and a puff of smoke and the rabbit vanishes – never mind that it reappears from the hat as a rubber chicken.

The plot of TDK is labyrinthine and confusing. I’m not even going to attempt to detail it, mostly because I just gave up on trying to follow it at some point when I realised it wasn’t making any sense (I think it was around the time that Morgan Freeman travels all the way to Hong Kong for the sole purpose of planting a cell phone, rigged to do some kind of highly implausible technical hocus pocus, in a bad guy’s office). That’s really not the major problem of the film though. Plot can happily take a back seat to good characterization and performance, especially if there’s enough detailed psychological and passionate insight to be had from your dramatis personae. And I think this is where everybody gets all gooey with these two Batman films, and where I part company with the crowd. It appears that most punters have taken the self-absorbed whinings and sentimental pique of the characters as actual emotional substance.

It has to be said, first and foremost, that Heath Ledger is mighty impressive as The Joker, and I’m not saying that just because he’s dead. Ledger’s Joker is all that the character should be: an unhinged, sad, dangerous, intelligent, formidable foe. He squeezes everything that is to be had out of this role, and the true melancholy of it is that he will never go on to shine quite so brightly in a film that is actually worthy of his talent. The problem is, however, that Ledger being the dazzling light that he is whenever The Joker is on screen, serves to throw the rest of the film into even murkier shadows than those offered up by the moody cinematography of Wally Pfister. Through long, dull action sequences involving a motorbike even dumber than the Adam West Batman’s ‘Batcycle‘ I kept wishing for The Joker to come back on screen because he was the only character in the film I really felt any empathy for.

This is a serious problem for The Dark Knight – Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) gets killed; I didn’t care. Batman’s love interest, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), gets killed; I didn’t care. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) gets half his face burned off and turns into the deranged revenge-bent Two-Face; ho hum. A ferry full of refugees from Gotham faces a fiery explosive destruction; yawn. Commissioner Gordon is not really dead after all; zzzzzzzz… wha?

And the interminable, dreary, ponderous, vacillating navel-gazing of Batman… jee-zuz. C’mon! Guys! What is all this crap lately with the superheroes standing forlornly on building tops, despondently brooding over moonlit cityscapes while wracked with self-loathing and maudlin indecision? If it’s not Batman it’s Spiderman. If it’s not Spidey it’s Superman. At least bad guys like The Joker are content with their place in the universe. When The Joker tells Christian Bale’s Batman that the two aren’t so very different, I find myself vehemently disagreeing with the pasty Pulcinello: “At least you’re interesting!” I silently shout at the screen.

Call me old fashioned, but I really don’t give a shit about the angst-ridden ruminations of a character so implausible that he dresses up as a bat to fight criminals. Frank Miller’s 1980s examination of Batman as a troubled, guilt-wracked anti-hero was an interesting and worthy variation on a theme for the superhero genre, and it does probably merit at least some cinematic exploration, but this new three hours worth of “Doesn’t anybody love me?” is just tedious. Christian Bale, a normally very charismatic actor, is forced while in the Batsuit to become as stiff and rubberized as the costume itself, and the gruff, effected voice that is imposed on him as Batman serves to remove even the remotest traces of humanity from the character. In a comic you can kinda carry this off, but in a movie what you end up with is a dorky, sullen and quite emotionally-unapproachable figure. It’s almost impossible to empathize with someone whose eyes and face you can’t see. In one scene featuring a conversation between Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent, Batman hangs around in the background like a dullard trying to crash a conversation at a cocktail party. It’s not really anyone’s fault – it’s just that a grown man dressed as a bat doesn’t actually cut much of a credible figure if you stop and think about it.

Superheroes like Batman are inherently implausible creatures. Bringing them into the realms of normal human behaviour is bound to show up the flaws in the conceit. Batman always worked better when he was a nutty do-gooder with above average strength and a laughable side-kick. I think it’s time to give these newfangled moping dummy-sucking Emo-heroes the boot. I think it’s time to go back to when superheroes kicked ass, knew right from wrong and just got on with their proper business of saving the world.

Batman – the Joker is asking the exact right question: Why so serious?