Friday, August 15, 2008

Brickbats For The Bat

Something bothered me about The Dark Knight when I saw it on its opening weekend but until now I couldn't zero in on what that was. At first, I thought it was its weak third act. No matter what kind of trauma he suffered, I didn't buy that Harvey Dent would go from being the most virtuous man in Gotham to a guy who'd put a gun to a kid's head. That was a leap that didn't feel convincing to me. I also felt that it was annoying for The Joker to promote himself as an "agent of chaos" while spending an inordinate amount of time thinking ahead and putting multiple plans in place but I was willing to go along with that contradiction. No, it was something else about the movie that felt 'off' to me. Then I saw it again and I immediately knew.

By putting Batman into a more reality-based world rather than the stylized stomping grounds of the comics universe, it puts a heavier onus on the filmmakers to justify The Batman's presence and - on reflection - I don't think The Dark Knight pulls that off. Specifically, take a look at The Batman's jailhouse interrogation of The Joker mid-way through the film - what exactly does Batman hope to accomplish here? What about his methods does a veteran cop like Gordon think will work? The only thing The Batman does is rough up The Joker. That's it. He doesn't do anything to The Joker that the cops couldn't do themselves by turning a blind eye to ethics and procedure. He doesn't utilize some illegal technology or experimental drug that's out of the hands of normal law enforcement. No paralyzing ninja nerve pinch, even. For shit's sake, he doesn't even brutalize Joker all that much. He just throws him around a room. The only thing that's different from anyone else shoving The Joker around is that The Batman is doing all this while wearing, well, a bat costume. That's supposed to be his edge in this situation - that he's wearing a bat costume (oh, and he has his growly voice, too). That's supposed to break The Joker.

After The Batman gets nowhere by throwing The Joker around, he seems confused that this hasn't prompted an immediate confession. Because, after all, he's wearing a bat costume - which should tell The Joker how serious the situation is. When Batman opens his best can of whup-ass on The Joker, the one labeled "Emergency Use Only", Gordon tells his fellow officers that the Batman is "in control". But in this world, what good is a dude in a Bat costume if he's in control? You need a psycho in that suit - someone who's willing to break a few human rights and a few bones, too. In the world of The Dark Knight, The Batman's interrogation methods need some serious stepping up. He's still relying on the costume and the voice to do all the work - like he thinks he's in a comic book or something.

And while his comic book counterpart has always stopped short of killing his opponents, that moral stance doesn't make the same kind of sense for the Batman of The Dark Knight. In the comics, there's an arch-reality to that world where constantly returning his incurable adversaries to Arkham Asylum can appear to be a sensible, even noble, move. But the more evil, depraved and real you make a character like The Joker, the bigger an idiot Batman looks like for not taking him out for good. In The Dark Knight, The Batman tells Gordon that he's "whatever Gotham needs him to be" but really, he's just talking out of his ass. He says "Either you die a hero or live long enough to become the villain. I can do those things because I'm not a hero." but yet he could've decided he wasn't a hero fifteen minutes earlier, dropped a pile of sociopathic scum twenty stories and have done Gotham a lot more good. Director Christopher Nolan establishes Batman as someone who won't do much more than yell at criminals. And if that doesn't work, he's all out of ideas. So what is this version of Batman then, other than a guy who gets his kicks from wearing a costume?

Nolan has been acclaimed for his efforts to give The Dark Knight the feel of a gritty crime drama but given the approach to crimefighting that he, his brother Jonathan, and David Goyer (all three collaborated on The Dark Knight's script) have given their version of the Caped Crusader, it's no wonder that Gotham is going to hell in a handbasket. They want the audience to accept that Gotham's Guardian is needed because he's, well, a superhero but yet they present him as a ineffectual, self-flagellating loser.

Nolan's Batman seems like nothing more than a professional masochist, more interested in bringing pain on himself than waging an effective war on crime. For instance, with all the technology available to him at Wayne Tech, are we supposed to believe that he can't start packing some kind of sonic device to ward off dogs? To be surprised once by dogs is acceptable. I mean, who could see that one coming? But once should be the one and only time that trick would work against him. I mean, really - even a mailman wouldn't be attacked twice by a dog on their delivery route. But yet at the climax of The Dark Knight, there Batman is again with a pack of dogs on top of him, like dogs are suddenly Batman's kryptonite. At the end of the day, this Batman is more about perpetrating his own suffering than being the best vigilante he can be. It's only fitting that the only copycats we see his deeds inspire are out-of-shape fanboys (Do the wanna-be Batmen seen in The Dark Knight represent a not-so-veiled dig at the stereotypical comic book fan? And wouldn't it have been more interesting to see at least one person who's actually capable try to give Batman a run for his money in cleaning up Gotham's streets?).

In the comics, Batman is the world's greatest detective. He also possesses an unmatched grasp of human psychology and his success as a crimefighter hinges on his ability to claim the edge in any given situation.

That isn't the dude Christian Bale's playing in The Dark Knight, however. I mean, even Adam West wouldn't have suffered the indignity of multiple dog attacks. I don't care if you drive a missile-equipped tank, that sort of thing can wreck your mystique overnight. Once criminals start posting clips on YouTube of Batman flailing on the ground with dogs tearing at him, even a third-rater like Egghead would feel less daunted.

The Batman of The Dark Knight is the champion of our present age - a half-assed hero for half-assed times.


David Lee Ingersoll said...

While I think I liked the movie more than it sounds like you did I also missed the more fantastic elements of Batman Begins. Batman makes more sense in a city that's not quite real, that has a place like the Narrows and a goofy monorail. A world where a man dresses like a bat to fight crime is a world that's not quite our own.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, I think the more 'real' you try and make this stuff, the more it falls apart. But of course, The Dark Knight is the second biggest money-maker of all time so what the hell do I know?