(Note: Major Spoilers!!!!!, if you don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now)
this is the second part of my review for “The Dark Knight.” read the first part here. as a special treat today, i also decided to post a review of the new animated movie “Batman: Gotham Knight.” i actually watched it a week or two before it got released on DVD (online bootleg, shhh), but was waiting for a venue to share some thoughts. and, this seems like the perfect time. so, let’s get on with this.
you know the story. you know what happened. you know where he came from. you know what he’s going to do.
the work of Frank Miller, Tim Burton, Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, as well as many other talented legends in the biz, solidified Bob Kane’s “Batman” — one of the most successful crime fighters in comic book history — as the prototypical anti-hero for the end of times. the gritty underworld explored in 1930s gangster pictures and 1940s film noir became the habitat for a detective dressed as the very symbol of fear he hoped to strike into the heart of evil.
Gotham City was re-imagined as the sister city to Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and “Blade Runner”‘s Los Angeles 2019. and somewhere in all of this, the technology of the 1980s and 1990s met the fashion and architecture of 1930s New York. the darkness, the despair, the corruption that swallows Gotham City has but one enemy: the survivor of the kind of street violence that makes Batman necessary.
Bruce Wayne becomes a man with fears and a lust for violence to solve those fears. he justifies violence by telling himself that it is the only way to combat true evil. (think those Kung-Fu Monks) revenge might have been part of it, in one movie or one comic book, but the blueprint for how we know Batman now was undoubtedly drawn up in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. in terms of matching the noir tone, Joker’s vague origins in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke made the picture complete.
we see Batman as a vigilante, as a fugitive from the law, as an unwilling hero, as a self-destructive myth, and as a killer, regretful as he might be. for all in him that is good, there is ability to do evil.
same with the Joker. Alan Moore’s jester is a complicated thug, someone pushed into doing terrible things after the grief of a dead wife and child strike him. his slip into lunacy is a sympathetic and frightening one.
wherever it started, it remains true: Bruce Wayne and Joker are opposite sides of the same coin. Batman’s greatest villain was, is, and always will be the Joker.
so, i decided to see if this year’s blockbuster could continue the dark tradition and commercial success begun in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins.” can Heath Ledger match Jack Nicholson’s highly revered performance as the Joker in Tim Burton’s first “Batman?” can Christian Bale finally make the role of the Bat his own without a raspy voice ruining it? is it possible to keep the series from slipping into the “Diamonds are Forever” depths of “Batman & Robin”? Check it out.
The Dark Knight
(2008, Dir. Christopher Nolan, Scr. Jonathan & Christopher Nolan)
there’s something glorious and almost unsettling about a film like “The Dark Knight.” first, let’s get it out of the way; in this honest reviewer’s opinion, this is the end all, be all comic book movie adaptation. the best superhero movie. blah blah blah. but did you expect anything different? showing about 71% (more fun with odd fractions later) of what a neo-noir Batman could be, “Batman Begins” managed to muster a Bruce Wayne in rebirth, a legendary hero born, and a taste of the true crime saga boiling beneath the surface. sure, we knew Gotham City was on a decline, but to what depths, we hadn’t seen nothing yet, trust me. the unsettling remark i made is the fact that it’s taken this long to capture it — this hero might’ve been, after all, more suited played by Humphrey Bogart with a cig in his mouth and a .32 in his fist. where there’s “The Dark Knight,” i point you, fair readers, to Red Harvest; a book about a single man against a town where everyone’s crooked, extortion and murder included. Gotham City is a better name for Poisonville.
and where “Spiderman” got a faithful adaptation, and some would argue “The Incredible Hulk” did as well…and, let’s not forget the excellent “Iron Man”…we have not seen a “Batman” movie at once, SO exacting and faithful to the comic and SO accessible to casual viewers. this is an almost flawless movie. the bullets i’ll shoot at it won’t even braze the kevlar.
agenda aside, “The Dark Knight” is like Christopher Nolan’s version of “Heat,” with a little “Seven” thrown in for good measure. this is an incredibly intense PG-13 movie…and i fucking love it. what makes it such an exciting film is that your expectations are there, and most likely high, and the bombastic action grabs you from the outset. by the time a quiet scene happens, you’re already fascinated by the Joker and all that he does. with scene after scene of bank robberies gone a wry, hostage situations escalating, gangsters and innocents getting wasted, and the media frenzy reaching fever levels, it’s a difficult ride to stand back and criticize. for some, that would be evidence that there’s a broken rail or something to uncover how “The Dark Knight” is fundamentally flawed. but those action scenes are built around a very tight narrative: the rise of law and order, the addition of chaos, the fall of “vigilante” justice, and hope prevailing.
Heath Ledger is a fulfilled promise. he’s fucking maniacal in every scene. over-the-top but in a good way, in a “There Will Be Blood” way. seriously, this is the best performance i’ve seen since Daniel Day-Lewis’ last year. you’ll get hints about the Joker’s past, but are they true? those who’ve read “The Killing Joke” and other Joker-centric installments get the in-joke punchline. for those who haven’t, it’s the heart of the character: evil spawned with little explanation or origin as a response to Batman’s brand of justice. and i’m glad they don’t spoon feed us where he’s come from. though, i’m sure, if you’ve read the news, you know where he’s going…probably to a two-bit Jim Carrey impersonator in Brett Ratner’s “Revenge of the Bat Man” (2013). just kidding. one can only hope Nolan holds onto this franchise with the grip of a crackhead. and the loss of Heath Ledger is a tragic one, for more reasons than just this performance. but, what a frightening note to leave hanging in the air. it’s masterful.
and while Joker is the catalyst for all this chaos, without a doubt, the story centers on Harvey Dent, now Two-Face, played by Aaron Eckhart. the rise of “the face” of justice, no longer “the symbol,” is a very important one. Bruce Wayne realizes he must take a backseat to an efficient crimefighter who uses books and courtrooms to clean up the streets. it’s an interesting side of Wayne, someone who laments the violence he must use as well as the love that he lost. Eckhart plays the white knight of Gotham in a sad way too. if you feel sympathy for anyone’s change into a monster, it’s him. they got that tone about his story, one similar to Mr. Freeze’s, dead on.
as a crime movie, especially drawing so much from “Heat” and other cops-and-robbers shoot-’em-up’s, what works the most in its favor is making Batman a detective again. along with Lt. Gordon, who’s got a bigger part this time, the two approach the Joker crimes by collecting evidence and testing theories, and ultimately casting a trap to capture him. it’s old school Batman lore, where he’s always ahead of the reader/viewer.
there are some cons to “The Dark Knight,” and unfortunately they have to do with Christian Bale. all the baddies and gadgets and action scenes aside, Bale still plays Batman like it’s amateur hour. once suited up, he’s got a sore throat and the expressionless mouth of a stroke victim. this isn’t all his fault, i know that suit takes away his eyes and brows, and it’s not like he can mime Vaudevillian-style in 2 inches of rubber. but considering Batman has always taken a backseat to “bad guy of the week,” logically because said bad guy(s) were only going to be in one installment, this lack of a strong protagonist is hurt even more by getting shuffled to the bottom of the deck. as Bruce Wayne, he’s 100%. as Batman, he’s 56%, maybe 57% on a dark night (see what i did there). Michael Keaton talked in a lower, whispery voice, but it wasn’t a dramatic change from his Wayne. across the board, Keaton’s Wayne was consistent. even Kilmer’s was, probably the most consistent performance, whether that’s good or bad. Clooney, i don’t quite remember. my point is Bale speaks normally, but, as Batman, he’s “playing” it over the top for what effect? to strike fear into criminals? it just comes off as jarring and unnatural.
but that’s one little gripe. “The Dark Knight” is the best comic book movie, hands down. and one of the best crime dramas since “The Departed.”
- the Two-Face makeup effects are amazing and disgusting. they really were my favorite thing about the movie. they captured that “Animated Series” look so perfectly. you see the tendons and the teeth, AND THE EYE BALL. awesome.
- i liked maggie gyllenhaal as the new Rachel Dawes. she has a certain real world beauty that matches a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne’s. Katie Holmes was too glamorous for “Batman Begins,” more like a Bond girl.
- whenever i can get more Gary Oldman in a movie, i’m happy. i liked Gordon — the Commish, finally — actually having a spine this time around, taking charge, being The Man.
- Joker in the nurse’s outfit, priceless. good callback.
- the coin flipping of Two-Face, another good callback with fond memories.
- jesus fucking christ, how many knives does Joker have on his body at any one time?! he reminds me of a childhood toy i had, Rio Blast. motherfucker had lasers hidden all over his body, IN his body, in muscles, in arms, in his calves.
- good cameo by Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow. adds to that suspended reality that all these criminals go on doing their thing when Batman isn’t directly chasing them.
- Michael Jai White and Eric Roberts. b-movie kingpins becoming a-list crime lords? i’ll buy it. great scenes with both actors.
- another great cameo by none other than Nicky Katt, one of my favorites along with Timothy Olyphant (pre-Die Hard 4). always plays comedy so straight and under the level.
- Gordon and his Major Crimes Unit? what the hell happened to Daniels? did they get disbanded AGAIN?
Batman: Gotham Knight
(2008, Dir. Shojiro Nishimi, Scr. Josh Olson, segment “Have I Got a Story For You;” Dir. Futoshi Higashide, Scr. Greg Rucka, segment “Crossfire;” Dir. Hiroshi Morioka, Scr. Jordan Goldberg, segment “Field Test;” Dir. Yasuhiro Aoki, Scr. David S. Goyer, segment “In Darkness Dwells;” Dir. Toshiyuki Kubooka, Scr. Brian Azzarello, segment “Working Through Pain;” Dir. Jong-Sik Nam, Scr. Alan Burnett, segment “Deadshot”)
given its art style and concept, the new animated movie, “Batman: Gotham Knight,” doesn’t hide its pedigree. moreover, it wears it like a war medal; you know, the one your grandfather wanted you to ask about so he could jump into a well rehearsed but no less fascinating story about his courageous adventures? “Gotham Knight” benefits from being compared to “The Animatrix,” as well as recent hits, “Steamboy,” “Tekkonkinkreet,” and the anime segment of “Kill Bill, Volume 1.” with anime more in the mainstream consciousness of fanboys’ sisters these days, most viewers can draw comparisons if not know exactly where they’ve seen this kind of crisp CG animation before (companies like Production I.G. are to credit).
“Gotham Knight” works much like “The Animatrix” did, with each vignette taking on an aspect or idea of the caped crusader’s universe, or a character trait not fully explored in the comic franchise. this works well for the most part, giving each short at least narrative substance to follow and enjoy. however, what results is the same Achilles’ Heel “The Animatrix” had: some segments are deep and interesting, but not long enough to be satisfying; others are ephemeral and come off like shiny placeholders.
“Have I Got a Story for You” and “Deadshot” are the best of the bunch; the first and last vignettes, respectively. the first one is concerned with Batman folklore, the symbol he represents and the tall tales he breeds among Gotham City’s residents. it’s the most interesting because it depicts the stories we’ve heard about Batman, particularly from criminals (i.e. the “great big bat” conversation between the two stick-up men at the beginning of Tim Burton’s “Batman”). three skateboarders, our protagonists, lead us down a “Rashomon”-like road dissecting the incarnations of Batman: one a literal liquid shadow flowing back and forth while fighting a bad guy, one an actual flying bat decapitating fools while squealing through the air, and one a technological wonder of weaponry reminiscent of Robocop. it’s entertaining throughout, as each kid tries to make “it more colorful, yo,” exaggerating the events to epic status. one even protests “i ain’t scared of you, man” as a burglar with a rocket launcher aims him down.
the last vignette, “Deadshot,” is a straightforward narrative, with Batman trying to stop a super sniper named Dead Shot from assassinating Lt. Gordon. there’s nothing deep here, but the story and animation are very smooth. it reminds a viewer of a mini episode of “Batman: The Animated Series,” which is fucking awesome if you remember.
the rest of the collection has some notable additions. “Crossfire” is about two M.C.U. detectives delivering a prisoner to Arkham Asylum. it deals mainly with the feeling that Gotham City P.D. “runs errands for a vigilante.” its art style is very “Hellsing” for you anime fans out there. “Field Test” finds Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox testing out a electromagnetic pulse gyro that creates a force field around Batman that deflects bullets and projectiles. it’s a good little detour into Batty’s technology and moral values. “Working Through Pain” feels like an extension of the League of Shadows training in “Batman Begins.” it traces Wayne’s journey to control and strengthen his pain threshold by becoming a student of a Fakir outcast in India. some good moments.
the worst of the bunch is “In Darkness Dwells,” unsurprising to me since it is penned by David S. Goyer. i’m not a fan of Goyer. he tries too hard to make his dialogue and pacing poignant, like the bastard child of Dashiell Hammett and George Lucas. what results is wooden characters and eye-rolling plot developments. though he manages to draw up stories true to their source material which i like (“Blade,” “Batman Begins,” and “The Dark Knight”). there are a couple good noir exchanges between Batty and a bum in the sewer tunnel, but the Scarecrow/Killer Croc adventure isn’t memorable at all.
overall, the collection is beautiful to watch and there are some good folklore explorations in the six stories. but, nothing is going to stay with you when you eject it from your player. rent it.
The Batman Warner Bros. Franchise (best to worst)
- The Dark Knight (2008)
- Batman (1989)
- Batman Begins (2005)
- Batman Returns (1992)
- Batman Forever (1995)
- Batman & Robin (1997)