Finally saw The Dark Knight over the weekend. I was… disappointed.
The film is so hugely popular, with an almost universally positive critical
reaction, that I was expecting better. At two and a half hours the movie is
waaaaaay toooo loooong and tends to be dull whenever the Joker isn’t on the
screen. Also, it’s kinda racist. (Come on, I can’t be the only person who noticed
that Gotham’s criminal underworld is way more racially diverse than Gotham’s
The movie has been called (in both the positive and the rare negative reviews)
“dark” and “grim” and “sadistic” and “perverse”
and other things suggesting a grisly horror-movie intensity. But mostly I just
found it emotionally uninvolving. It’s very talky, for an action movie, and
most of what people have to say is kind of stupid.It sort of meanders along
and some of the individual scenes work, but they don’t add up to a satisfying
The critical consensus is right about one thing: Heath Ledger’s post-punk take
on the Joker is the highlight of the film. It’s all gimmick: a bizarre constricted
wreck of a voice, a reptilan lip-licking tic, strange feral body movements,
and it all ends up working perfectly to suggest completely deranged genius.Still,
the movie lets him down: he gives a full-body performance as the Joker, but
the movie is all quick-cuts to isolated body parts. (People, Flashdance
was more than twenty years ago, can’t we get over it yet?)
The Joker is meant to be a figure of pure, disorienting chaos, and some of
the early scenes with him have a frightening, mesmerizing quality — frightening
because you have no idea what the character is going to do, what he’s actually
capable of. But that tension eventually drains away as you realize: the only
thing he’s ever actually going to do is blow stuff up.
This movie is lousy with stuff blowing up. But — in order to avoid an R rating?
— nothing else of consequence seems to happen. Oh, except when Harvey Dent’s
face catches on fire, which is a side-effect of something blowing up, so I don’t
think it counts as “else.” In the script, the Joker says that he “likes to use
knives” instead of guns, and, in a rare and welcome touch of humor, when he’s
arrested his pockets are described as full of “nothing but knives and lint.”
But then we never actually see him use a knife on anyone.
This is the Joker, people! We should see him kill people in numerous ingenious
ways! We should see him mess with people’s minds! The Joker’s stunts should
be brutal, but they should also be darkly funny. His dialogue has some
nice touches of odd humor — the way every time he tells someone the story of
how he got his facial scars, he tells a completely different story, for example
— but his stunts don’t.
Oh, yeah, another flaw: this movie has a serious humor deficit. It’s like
somebody involved in the scriptwriting kept cracking a whip and saying, “Make
it grimmer! Grimmer, I tell you! Wait, that line, somebody might chuckle at
that line, that line must go! No laughs! We are making Serious Drama, here,
In a movie where the Joker is chief villain, that is simply inexcusable.
Not only are the Joker’s stunts insufficiently humorous, but they seem kind
of random, as storytelling. There’s no sense of escalating stakes or rising
tension, and the emotional climax actually happens about halfway through, leaving
most of the movie as dreary falling action. So then there’s a second climax,
a variation on the classic prisoner’s
dilemma, with ferries that might blow up, which ends up being almost completely
uninvolving because 1. We are tired of stuff maybe blowing up at this point,
and 2. We don’t know anything about any of the people on either ferry. The movie
is two and a half hours long, surely they could have spent a little time working
some additional characters into the story.
Finally, the ethical dilemmas and contrasts in the movie ended up being unconvincing
and rather tedious. People spend a lot of time saying sentences that contain
words like, “vigilante, outside the law, needs a hero, the best of us”
but they don’t really add up to anything. It’s conversation about a topic substituting
for a story about a topic.
For example, in the last couple of scenes, the movie seems to come down firmly
on the side of lying to people. But it doesn’t do this by showing how, ironically,
lying to people can make for a better world. Instead it has characters talking.
Batman says, “we should lie to people about what really happened, so that
they can continue to believe in this thing we imagine they believe in which
is for some reason better than this other thing they could believe
in,” and Commissioner Gordon says, “yes, yes, by all means, you’re
absolutely right.” And then he explains it to his kid, just to make sure
we get it. And then everybody stares moodily into the distance. So, uh… maybe
that is the irony, maybe we’re supposed to think that Batman
is being an idiot. But it doesn’t come across that way.
I guess I didn’t hate it completely — I mean, it is a darn sight better than
Batman & Robin, which made me want to claw my own eyes out of my
head — but it did nothing to restore my faith in the action-adventure blockbuster.