Well, having two years of references to Heath Ledger and the Joker certainly pays off when the time is ripe! For three consecutive days my hits-per-day have increased by 50%, meaning today’s hits are 337.5% what they were three days ago. The top post of all time, still attracting tons of hits, is a photoshop manip of Ledger soon after his casting was announced, and this blog appears second in an image search for “the man who laughs“, the original inspiration for the Joker character.
Unfortunately The Dark Knight won’t be released here for another week, but since everybody in the US will be seeing it this weekend, I might as well review the movie as I IMAGINE it to be.
By way of preface, a few weeks ago I rewatched the 1989 Batman and realized it is probably Burton’s worst film. It is boring and slow, especially due to several gratuitous scenes with the Joker that serve no purpose. The insertion of these scenes feel like a post-production decision to highlight Nicholson’s “revelatory” (but actually just indulgent) performance, but they were probably written in after a pre-production decision to capitalize on Nicholson’s casting and enlarge the role of their marquee name. Either way, the result is story-telling as saggy as Nicholson himself.
Hopefully Nolan resisted the same urge to include unnecessary footage of Heath Ledger just because it is now rare. My guess is that the script was so tight there never were any gratuitous scenes, and that Nolan’s extremely efficient editorial sense is still in tact since he says the only cutting he did was to trim down existing scenes.
Despite its failures, Burton’s Batman still deserves credit for two things: (1) the film’s tone and (2) the design of the Batmobile. Burton returned Batman to his native atmosphere of dark and gothic, which was a creditable accomplishment even if his immediate successor reversed this achievement. The Batmobile itself was the most instantly and enduringly memorable icon of the film, and its introduction — when Batman tells Vicki Vale to get in his car, and she asks “Which one?” before seeing this jet-black jet engine on wheels — is simply perfect.
One more thing Burton might deserve partial credit for is Danny Elfman’s theme, which was later perfected by Shirley Walker for the Animated Series. As a huge fan of the theme, especially as elaborated by Walker, I never thought another score could scream “Batman” to me. But Nolan arrived at an innovative method to achieve just that. His unorthodox hiring of two composers resulted in a score that benefits from the characteristic march of Zimmer while tempering his worst excesses through Howard. Three years after Batman Begins, when I heard the score again in the first Dark Knight trailers, the music just screamed “Batman!” to me.
So what of The Dark Knight? If Burton’s film ended with Batman’s revelation to the Joker, “I didn’t make you, you made me!” then Nolan’s movie ended on the opposite trajectory, in the words of Gordon predicting “escalation” as a direct result of Batman’s instigation, before handing him the calling card of a new criminal: Batman creates the Joker. And as we heard in the audio trailer for The Dark Knight, Alfred corrects Bruce’s complaint that the mob crossed a line by allying with the Joker: “you crossed a line first, though. You hammered them. And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.” The difference between these visions is easy enough to account for: Burton’s is an expression of America’s self-image during the Cold War while Nolan’s is a reflection of the current zeitgeist.
I don’t think Nolan’s is a misinterpretation of Batman, because he is by nature the most totalitarian of superheroes (I would say “fascist” but post-WWII that term has become a meaningless epithet slung against any political opponent), precisely because he has no supernatural abilities. If Superman is the epitome of self-restraint and divine condescension, always pulling punches and never manifesting his full power, then Batman is (as always) Superman’s opposite. Batman’s lack of superpowers necessarily drives him “to seek the means” — first psychological, then technological — to extend his authority and control over his jurisdiction (and beyond).
In the comics his totalitarian tendencies most notoriously came to a head (as exploited by others, of course) in 2000’s JLA: Tower of Babel and 2005’s The OMAC Project. Despite Frank Miller’s influence it is usually Grant Morrison who is blamed for turning Batman into the omniscient control-freak who would keep files on how to defeat his superpowered friends, should they go rogue, as well as on his enemies.
Batman’s oath not to murder is literally the only thread keeping him from being a villain, but as Harvey Dent says in the trailers, “you either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain.” Sure, it’s self-referential foreshadowing, but for Nolan I think it applies as much to Batman as to Two-Face. In the third movie, if not this one, I think we will see Batman declare some kind of martial Batlaw over Gotham — but maybe that is what the Dark (k)Night is? As I predicted twelve months ago, I assume the creation of Two-Face will represent some kind of synthesis of Batman and the Joker, if not just a simplistic moral equivalency that Batman is as bad as the Joker.
In defense of Batman their difference, however small, lies in their intentions, but intention has no place in today’s black-and-white utilitarian conception of morality. (For instance with respect to casualties the moral distinction is no longer made between civilians unintentionally killed and intentionally targeted.) But I doubt The Dark Knight will go that far — one can’t enjoy an action movie that acknowledges human collateral damage — and keep Batman’s dilemma down to the classic “Should I kill the Joker or not?”
But at least it will be interesting (however played-out the same dilemma has become in the comics) and unlike Burton’s cop-out, where the Joker fell to his death without being dropped by Batman personally. Even Batman Begins was more ballsy by having Batman say “I won’t kill you but I don’t have to save you,” a very un-Superman-like thing to do. (That said, Bruce had already gone out of his way to save Neeson’s life in the first act, an act of compassion left un-reciprocated, so in terms of movie-morality he had no obligation to do it the second time.) But Neeson’s last words were a question that seems to haunt Bruce in the new film: “Have you finally learned to do what is necessary?” In the trailer we hear Bruce’s arrival, temporary or otherwise, at an answer: “I’ve seen what I have to become to stop men like him.”
That’s enough Batruminating for one night. But without ruining it for me, are my predictions generally on target or has Nolan psyched me out yet again?