This may seem like faint praise, but about the highest compliment I can give Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight right now is to say that there were many long stretches during which I didn’t even realize it was a superhero movie. And, conversely (as SCTV’s Joe Flaherty would say during a Charlton Heston impersonation) during those stretches in which I was reminded it was a superhero movie, I didn’t wish it wasn’t.
Because, trust me, as I made my way to the screening I was feeling well and truly sick of superhero movies. I’m not a guy—or for that matter a critic—who believes or has ever believed in genre hierarchies, but I don’t know, maybe my aesthetic arteries are hardening—entertaining arguments about the value/meaning of the likes of Hancock is increasingly making me (metaphorically) throw up my hands and say, “For feck’s sake, guys, this isn’t Stalker or The Red and the White or Kanal or Satantango or Muriel or what ever we’re talking about here, it’s a commitedly vulgar frickin’ superhero movie that’s been cut to shreds the better to flatter/insult its target audience.” Come on. Can we at least pretend we’re adults for 20 minutes or so? Apparently not, is what I’m thinking much of the past few weeks, entertaining dark thoughts about how if what 1968 embodied was a cultural explosion, what 2008 is building up to is an implosion into a state of permanent cultural adolescence. All the whackedness concerning that New Yorker cover is bad enough, but for me a nadir was achieved Tuesday afternoon, at the Carroll Gardens magazine stand that’s closing down at my subway stop (the better to make way for the construction of some too-tall apartment building), glimpsing this month’s Details and its cover line “James McAvoy Made Out With Angelina Jolie And You Didn’t.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but J. H. Christ on a crutch. Are we now in a competition to see if we can get any more infantile? (Also, in light of this, are males in any position to look down their noses at Sex and the City?) It is in times such as these when a good leftie begins to think, “You know, that fellow Roger Kimball may be on to something.”
Thus, my frame of mind as I’m about to see The Dark Knight. In humongous IMAX, no less. Or partial IMAX, that is. The picture’s opening five minutes, a fairly ingenious introduction to the film’s main villain The Joker, play out in the eight-story giant screen format, after which the film, which opening logos were in 2.35:1 or so widescreen, toggles back to that, and continues to offer brief sequences or even single shots in IMAX. I have to say that the toggling, against all odds, produced a fairly seamless effect.
But back to that opening: it’s a heist sequence in which a gang of highly dishonorable thieves knocks over a mob-controlled bank. What makes the thieves more dishonorable than usual is the fact that these clown-masked reprobates keep knocking each other off throughout the heist. And then there is one—behind the last mask, the face powder and lipstick of the garish, ghoulish Joker, who takes off with the loot in a stolen school bus, joining a line of identical vehicles engaged in the legitimate transit of children. He’ll perform a variation of this tactic a little later.
The intricacy and Siodomak-esque intensity of the heist, not to mention the nod to Dirty Harry (which featured the last really memorable school-bus-hijacking villains) is an early clue to what Nolan is up to here. He’s using the superhero movie as a pretext to create the most elaborate, sweeping, post-noir urban crime drama ever. And why not, given the fertile if under-the-radar cross-pollination between the print work by Bob Kane and his inheritors and post-Expressionist film stylists. Still, the prerequisites of the superhero genre (as they’re defined in film, mind you, not in comics or graphic novels) keep Nolan from fully achieving his dream. There’s nothing of the erotic element one expects of a true noir; Bruce Wayne/Batman’s mission keeps him remote from the love of his life, but even if they could get together, one wouldn’t anticipate sparks; Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel Dawes (a huge improvement on the insipid Katie Holmes in Batman Begins) is in fact as defined by her prosecutor’s job as Christian Bale’s billionaire hero is chained to his secret identity.
That aside, there’s plenty of corruption, betrayal, violence and tragedy, all writ extremely large in an ingeniously portrayed Gotham (an amalgam of several real cities and many sets, assembled, I daresay, even more inventively than in Merielles’ Blindness—and the imaginary city was the best thing in that picture). Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker is brilliant, precise, and, yes, playful. There’s quite a bit of Brando in it—the Brando of both On The Waterfront and The Missouri Breaks (yes, at one point the Joker shows up in drag). This Joker is indeed a shockingly awful creature, a vehicle for some of Nolan and his co-screenwriter brother Jonathan’s more hifalutin conceits about chaos (which actually do sorta play); his pencil-disappearing trick in an early sequence of the film is an instant classic of cinematic sadism. But The Joker is also a Grand Guignol hoot, and the brio with which Ledger explores that aspect of the character is exhilarating. Anybody who infers and then goes on to imply that his labors here somehow led to his death is slandering him in the worst way—by impugning his professionalism, for one thing. Ledger’s performance is, finally, the work of a grownup, and it’s simply awful that we won’t see more of him.