Sunday, August 10, 2008

FanBoyWonder & Kemosabe Review The Dark Knight

Here’s the Upshot from Warner Brothers: “Batman (Christian Bale) raises the stakes in his war on crime. With the help of Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Batman sets out to dismantle the remaining criminal organizations that plague the city streets. The partnership proves to be effective but soon they find themselves prey to a reign of chaos unleashed by a rising criminal mastermind known to the terrified citizens of Gotham known as The Joker (the late Heath Ledger).”

FanBoyWonder and our best pal and all around Kemosabe John Micek went to see the much anticipated sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins—The Dark Knight during its opening weekend.

Even as we started to record our impressions during the short drive back to Kemosabe’s house from the theatre, we quickly realized that the film was just too big for us properly review in a shoot from the hip format.

So we split the difference by first recording our initial impression then taking time to ponder the Dark Knight before entering into our Siskel and Ebert-like give and take exchange via e-mail.

MEGA SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t yet seen The Dark Knight, don’t read any farther.

Roll tape:

FanBoyWonder: I think I finally get the Joker now. The Joker always kind of annoyed me because he….I never figured out why [Batman] or anybody just never put a cap in him but it really was like the end of The Killing Joke. But at least they didn’t’ share a laugh.

But they both recognized something in each other that they can’t kill.

Kemosabe: Batman is Batman. He can’t cross that line. He can’t kill The Joker has no compunction about killing. So it’s like the unstoppable force meets the immovable object. It’s like they said in the movie, there’s nothing that can be done about it.

They are just destined to lock horns with each other because Batman can’t ever cross that line and kill [The Joker] and that’s the only way he’ll ever be stopped.

FBW: It’s even more elemental than that. It’s Order and Chaos. They truly can’t vanquish one another.

KS: I liked that they never actually explained him—no origin [for The Joker]. It could be one of like three origins. He’s just like some demonic force.

FBW: Exactly how The Joker is in the comic.

Gary Oldman took it up a notch as Commissioner Gordon.

KS: I agree.

FBW: And wow they killed Batman’s ‘ Lois Lane ’ [Rachel Dawes played by Maggie Gyllenhaal]

KS: She wasn’t ‘ Lois Lane ’.

FBW: She was the love interest.

KS: Ah….it was kind of weak.

FBW: That actually surprised me that they killed her off.

KS: I had actually heard that it was going to happen so I wasn’t entirely surprised.

FBW: [Gyllenhaal] actually did a little more with [the role of Rachel Dawes] than did Katie Holmes.

KS: That’s because they gave Katie Holmes nothing to work with and Maggie Gyllenhaal played her a lot fiercer.

FBW: Gyllenhaal I thought was marginally better but what do you do with the ‘girl part’ in these kind of films.

And nobody plays B-movie scumbag like Eric Roberts [as Gotham mob boss Sal Maroni]. He came a tad close…he didn’t quite cross the line but he came right up to it as far as overdoing it.

KS: It was parody. I will not be as kind as you. It was outright parody.

FBW: He gets a little bit of legitimacy by appearing in Heroes and he thinks he’s the cat’s ass now.

Overall, The Dark Knight makes Batman Begins look like a Super Friends cartoon episode.

KS: It was bleak. There were a couple scenes that I found quite chilling like with [Gordon’s] son. As a father you just feel that stuff. The impossibility of the choice.

[Momentary pause after FanBoyWonder drops the tape recorder in the car]

KS: I will quibble with the editing. It was dark and it was kind of murky. It was very fast and it was very hard to see…very hard for the eye to keep track of what was going on.

Granted its kind of Batman’s thing. He disappears. He comes back.

FBW: [Director] Christopher Nolan has gotten better at doing action scenes but wow, they took it up a notch.

I thought that Anthony Michael Hall as the anchorman [Gotham Cable News reporter Mike Engel] was going to have more to do.

KS: Is that who that was?

FBW: Yeah.

At this point we got to Stately Kemosabe Manor and we both realized that we need time to chew on what we saw. So below an e-mail exchange starting about a week after we viewed the film.

FanBoyWonder starts the e-mail exchange:
I liked the inclusion of Dr. Crane/Scarecrow and the cameo by Cillian Murphy. It was both a nice way to wrap up old business from the previous movie Batman Begins but also a subtle and clever way very early in this sequel to reinforce the previously established theory of “escalation” in the Batman film universe where costumes and capes start to come out of the woodwork following the appearance of Batman.

Did Batman create this new brand of costumed menace or did Batman come onto the scene to combat this new brand of uber-criminal? Chicken or the egg. In any event it was a nice touch.

“You either die the hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the bad guy”

Harvey Dent’s quippy, almost throwaway line over drinks with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Rachel Dawes is a very neat upshot of a very messy movie and it oh so captures the tragic fate of this character

Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent was brilliant. Fanboys everywhere knew his ultimate fate but I found myself hoping against it. That the true mark of a really good film. We wanted Harvey not to endure what ultimately becomes his dark destiny as ‘Two-Face’.

Another word about Eric Roberts. We mentioned that we was over the top and he was definitely not quite the heavy that Tom Wilkinson who played Carmine Falcone— Gotham’s Al Capone in Batman Begins was.

Eric Roberts is no Tom Wilkinson but I guess that was the point. Carmine Falcone was THE BIG mob boss of Gotham. He was taken off the chess board and who takes his place but the junior varsity of the mafia. Still it would have been nice to see Wilkinson again but two Batman Begins cameos would have been pushing it I suppose.

Morgan Freeman was given a lot more to do as Lucius Fox this time around. Consequently, Michael Caine as Alfred didn’t get as much to do but Alfred did manage to have a couple vital supporting scenes as Bruce Wayne’s manservant, assistant, mentor and co-conspirator.

Morgan Freeman’s Fox really stepped up. Unlike Batman Begins where Fox and Bruce Wayne played it coy—tell me no lies and I’ll ask you no questions—Fox this time around was All In right in the thick of it. No more plausible deniability.

And we really liked how Fox pushed back against Batman when Fox thought Batman was crossing ethical lines by using Wayne Technology, Fox’s invention for a well-intentioned purpose that all-too-easily could have been perverted for ruthless means in the wrong hands.

And yet again with Fox and Alfred and especially Gordon, we see that for all of Batman’s tricks and training and grit, he can’t do it all alone. He’s the one man war on crime but without allies, it would be a quick good night for the Dark Knight.

Speaking of key supporting players, Gotham/Chicago was as much a real character in this story as anything. In Batman Begins, they did shoot some key scenes in the city of Chicago so it looked and felt like a real place and not like you were on a sound stage.

This Gotham City was a living, breathing urban center. You could see it. You could feel it. That made all the difference. This was real movie. Even Batman’s costume/armor and Joker’s get up looked real enough.

This was a plausible, real world movie—as much as humanly possible given the premise and the story’s comic book origins.

Kemosabe responds:

Hope you don't mind if I go all "meta" on you for a moment.

But every time I see a "Batman" film or read one of the seminal comics -- whether it's "Batman Begins" on celluloid or "Killing Joke," or "Year One," on paper, I start thinking about the Batman's iconography and the power of myth.

Because, on a very real level, that's one of the questions/issues that this movie confronts: The Batman (isn't it quaint how they're still using the definite article "The" before his name?) as symbol -- both as a force against=2 0lawlessness and as a reflection of our own inner needs and fears.

One of the things that's driven me crazy in the wake of the release of this movie was the run of articles comparing "Batman" to the current occupant of the White House -- the only similarity between them being their allegedly single-minded pursuit of evil and their desire to vanquish it.

But putting aside the easy political expediencies, there's actually something to it.

At the opening of the film, The Batman is already confronting the problem of the inevitable escalation in weirdness and crime that his very presence in Gotham City has created. You see that with the preponderance of garish villains (Scarecrow, Joke and Two-Face) and with the imitators that he has inspired.

Though he's only been on the job for a short time, The Batman has already gone from man to symbol -- a symbol of order, of law in the face of lawlessness. But even with this success, we find Bruce Wayne questioning his own methods, wondering whether a bogey-man who hides in the shadows, who inspires grown men to dress like him and risk life and limb, is the kind of protector that Gotham City deserves.

Ultimately, he decides it isn't, and determines instead that the future of Gotham lies with the fresh-faced prosecutor Harvey Dent. At one point, he's even ready to chuck it all to live what he hopes will be a quiet life with his lady fair -- Rachel Dawes.

Not to give too much away, but you've got to figure that this isn't the way it's going to work out. And one of the most intriguing parts of the film is watching Batman/Bruce come to terms with his potency as a symbol and his realization that, though it means never getting to live a normal life, he has to fulfill this role in the life of the city.

And that's the point where Batman morphs from a man in a bullet-proof suit to something like a legend. All our greatest myths, after all, involve some kind of sacrifice on the part of the hero. Hercules had his labors. Odysseus had his wanderings. Sisyphus had his boulder. And Batman/Bruce has the war he must know he can never win, but fights anyway.

And there's something a little ennobling about that -- yet still a little sad.

Batman alternately inspires and provokes pity. Inspires because, somewhere, deep inside of us, we hope there's the part of us that would rise to an impossible challenge if called. And sadness because we know the depth of the sacrifice required to do so.

Back to you, Fanboy ...

FanBoyWonder’s Last Word:

Heath Ledger’s Joker—perhaps in no small part due to his unfortunate and untimely death earlier this year—has grabbed the lion’s share of both critical attention and viewer buzz but I think Aaron Eckhart deserves a special word of praise for playing two separate and distinct characters within the same film—one heroic and one unredeemable—in his portrayal of Harvey Dent and later Two-Face.

Gotham’s “White Knight” DA could have easily been painted into a corner of blandness as a white-bread, by-the-book, naïve public official that works within the system to battle corruption—and is always doomed to fail.

But Eckhart—with the help of some good scripting—brings a heaviness and depth to Harvey Dent. Dent plays by the rules (mostly) but he also plays the angles within those rules—hence the double-headed coin (“I make my own luck.”).

Eckhart gave viewers the sense that Dent had real, pragmatic flaws long before the “accident” that gives birth to Two-Face. Dent’s horrible scaring didn’t give him superpowers or funky fighting abilities but it did take the lid off of the inhibitions that most of us keep inside (i.e. NOT ramming the car that cuts you off in traffic).

One complaint I have of the film: I was confused as to Harvey’s final fate when I walked out of the theatre.

Two other things I really liked about Dark Knight was the evolution of Batman’s relationship with Gordon.

We see it just as it is in the comics—semi-condoned by the GPD as evidenced in a couple of time where Batman appears at a crime scene and Gordon orders his cops to clear the room and they grudgingly but quickly comply.

As part of that, we also got to see something of the “Dark Knight Detective” where Batman collected a bullet then back at the Bat-lair (was it really a cave?), Bruce and Alfred use Wayne-tech to run ballistics tests and run down leads on the computer Oracle-style. I hope they play up more of the detective angle next time.

Bottom line: For a film that was so long, (about 20 minutes too long I think), at the same time it also felt terribly rushed at times—especially during the extended third act with Two-Face.

Maybe I’m pulling this out of the air but one got the impression that Nolan and Company perhaps weren’t sure if they would be around for the next bat-film so they went All-In with the Dark Knight to make their statement.

I’m going to need to go see it again to pick up what I missed the first time but Dark Knight was a definite home run in my book. I’m looking forward to letting Brianna the Girl Wonder see it…in another 5 years.

Kemosabe Takes Us Home:

One final word before we part. And I recall reading this elsewhere, so the meme is already out there.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is the ballistics test in the "Batcave."
Why? Because it's a reminder that Batman, in addition to being a revenge-obsessed loner with an undeniable way with his fists, is also "The World's Greatest Detective."

The test-fire scene featuring Bruce and Alfred is one of the rare glimpses of that side of the character, and it's one that deserves to be explored more.

After all, if Batman is nothing else, he's the culture's most enduring pulp hero. And one of the great addictions of the pulp genre is following the character as he unravels a mystery. Heck, not for nothing is one of the flagship Bat-titles called "Detective Comics."

If there's a third bite at the apple, I'd love to see a more classically Noir-ish take on the character. That is, less focus on the fists and more on the unraveling of a great mystery.

FBW Editor’s Note: When not playing the part of FanBoyWonder’s Kemosabe or when not playing with two bands -- Milkshake Jones and Fink’s Constant, -- John L. Micek covers Pennsylvania politics for a major Keystone State newspaper—read his political blog, Capitol Ideas, at


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