He was a Dark and stormy Knight…

Two (kind of connected) things I like in a movie are a sense of mystery and being credited with some intelligence. To put it another way, I hate movies that feel the need to explain everything.

To illustrate, consider Christopher Nolan’s two Batman movies. I wasn’t such a big fan of the first movie, partly because it felt the need to explain everything. Maybe this was a deliberate ploy by the writer to reach out to an audience which doesn’t normally like this kind of thing because they find it too outlandish and unbelievable, by saying “Look – it makes perfect sense! Here’s how he does it!”, but it led to a lot of awfully dull scenes of Bruce Wayne manufacturing gadgets and designing vehicles. Plus, the villains were boring.

The Dark Knight on the other hand, is not only admirably ambitious in terms of plot and themes, but it also credits you with enough grey matter to be able to figure things out for yourself, rather than telling you what’s happening every step of the way. Consider the first film’s flashbacks to Wayne’s parents’ murder (to be fair the comics tend to rehash this scene an awful lot too, as a reminder of his “motivation”). All that was missing was a framing scene of Wayne on his analyst’s couch, saying “Let me tell you about my mother…”. Now contrast that with the new film’s approach to The Joker. Not only are we given no background on the character, but The Joker (and, by extension, the writers) mocks others’ desire to “know” him by telling constantly varying versions of his life story. What matters is not who he is, but what he is, and how that relates to what Batman is, and what they are to each other. In that sense they work better not as characters, in the nineteenth-century novelistic tradition, but as archetypes and as vehicles for the ideas the film-makers wish to explore. Ideas of heroism, terrorism, order, anarchy, outcasts versus members of society, public appearances versus private motivations.

Similarly, there are several times when we are presented with a jump in time and have to connect the dots to establish what happened in the intervening period (Six Feet Under often did this, with an indeterminate amount of time passing between one episode and the next leaving you to fill in the blank for yourself).

In some ways this is a messy film, which is hardly surprising given its length and the amount of plot and issues it tries to stuff into its running time. There are several narrative loose ends and unexplored ideas which seem to have been left over from previous script drafts (for example The Scarecrow and his group of “fake” Batmen). But I’ve always preferred films which overreach to ones which aim low and hit their target, and I love it when, as in this case, I can’t tell when the film is going to end. What I mean by that is that there’s a scene about two-thirds of the way through the film which feels like the big climax, but then it keeps going and there’s another forty minutes of plot developments and confrontations. I couldn’t feel where the end of the film would be, almost as if it could have carried on indefinitely, and I really appreciated not being able to say to myself “Ok, there’s going to be one more action scene and then an epilogue to tie up the loose ends, then roll credits”.

One last thought. I see Dark Knight merchandise in the shops clearly aimed at children (lunchboxes, sticker books). Are these same children seriously expected to sit through a two-and-a-half-hour movie about post-9/11 paranoia, politics, morality and mutilation?

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7 thoughts on “He was a Dark and stormy Knight…

  1. jane July 29, 2008 / 1:42 pm

    I have never, ever felt that Batman, when presented in its true form, was for children. It’s simply too dark.

    Of all the best known comic book characters, Batman has always felt the most emotionally mature. That is to say, he isn’t emotionally mature himself, but you have to have mature emotions to properly appreciate this fractured crime fighter who doesn’t have any actual superpowers yet is still somehow magnificent.

    No doubt there are Batman scholars out there who would take issue with me on this, not that I care.

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  2. simonlitton July 29, 2008 / 3:13 pm

    Jane: presumably you’ve read Alan Moore’s Watchmen?

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  3. Norm July 30, 2008 / 10:00 am

    Good write up Si. By my reckoning though, the first film was very much a prologue for people who know Batman is his other more cartoony form and who aren’t aware of who Ras Al Ghul was and his part in the creation of Batman. To me they are trying to detatch the Batman character from the Clooney/Schumacher dross that was his latter incarnation, bring it back a little to the still darker Keaton/Burton realisation but remove Burtons way-out fantasy imaginations and replace that with a much more ‘real-life’ feel to things. There is also a perception that they wanted to drag the story back to the VERY beginning and pretty much build both characters, Bruce Wayne and Batman from the ground up. Was this really necessary? I’m in two minds about that. To be honest I’m not that bothered about how close to the graphic novel it is, to me book and film are very different media and should be actively used to put the same story across in different ways. I don’t buy into this whole “the book was better than the film” idea as I think they should be different. I digress… I think the point of this series of films is to reinvent Batman in the way in which people now percieve him, i.e. a superhero who isn’t always so super, mentally speaking – a guy who wants to do good but will be bad if he has to in order to achieve it. It kind of reinforces the whole ‘nobody’s perfect’ scenario, but applies it to a guy who is really pretty messed up in the head. I am very excited about where they are going with this, I really love those graphic novels and hope we see some of the more interesting characters appear before too long…

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  4. birdandpickle July 31, 2008 / 3:50 am

    I just got home from the theater. I agree with Norm that the first movie was helpful to non-comic types like me who might not understand the making of the (Bat)man. I of course knew the story of his parents, but I was grateful for the detail about the tools, gadgets and secrets.

    Wow. That was some movie. I always felt Batman was deliciously dark, but oh my lord, that was DARK. Heath Ledger astonished me. I’d protected myself from all hype and reviews, and I’m glad for that.

    The fact that they’re marketing the merch to children makes me even sicker than it usually does.

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  5. Norm August 1, 2008 / 9:11 am

    Si, Not sure if you can cast your mind back that far but do you remember one slow afternoon in the office we were discussing Watchmen and I found what was an early draft of the screenplay on t’internet? I wish I still had that, it was astounding! It was from the late 80’s and went on forever but was brilliantly funny and macabre. The first few scenes with The Comedian at the Statue of Liberty were superb, shooting security guard hostages in order to kill terrorists and free the other tourist prisoners! Rorsach as a schizophrenic and dangerous Philip Marlow, the clinically depressed Night Owl… Weird shit but I’m utterly convinced that in whatever form it hits the screen, it will be pretty damned good and a real boot up the arse for the action comic movie genre, proving more than The Dark Kight that the good guys aren’t always so lily-white… What we need now is for someone to do something with Superman… His on-screen persona is just too squeaky clean now…

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  6. simonlitton August 19, 2008 / 10:20 am

    Norm: I’m very cautiously optimistic about the Watchmen movie. On the one hand they’re being extremely faithful to it, which is good. On the other hand if you’re slavishly faithful you end up with something as creatively redundant as Sin City, which simply lifted the images off the page and plonked them on the movie screen. What’s the point of that? It’s a different medium – it needs to be ADAPTED.
    Also, I’m getting very slightly bored of pretentious, angst-riden, “dark” comic book movies. That’s why I liked Iron Man so much – it was FUN.

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  7. AMcLn June 27, 2009 / 12:57 am

    Yeah, the whole angsty 80’s things in hero comics seemed appropriate at the time. I thought Dark Knight was a great read. It was a nice contrast to the perky vapid Reagan/Bush era entertainment out there at the time.

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