"The Joker is defeated by a PLOT MACHINATION rather than by Batman, AND My heart breaks for THE JOKER... KIND OF.".
Movie Pessimistically Appraised : The Dark Knight (2008). First watched : 2008 (cinema x2). Subsequently rewatched : Numerous times. Review written (2016)
Score out of Ten : 8.5
Score out of Five : 5
Good or Bad : Good
Recommend Watching : Yes
It's weird that I love a movie that has so many weaknesses.
Obviously this movie is superb. I watched it in cinemas the day it came out, and a second time in another cinema aftewards. As a movie-going experience it was fantastic, the mood and the tone and the subject matter is about as dark as it's possible to reasonably get for a film in this genre, I think. The theme, the score, the direction, the scale of it... it's amazing. Heath Ledger is kind of edge-of-the-seat gripping every time he's onscreen - he's a character of whom you'd literally believe anything is possible because not only does he act without any real thought to consequence, but for various moments it feels like, as the Joker, he's actually not aware of the ratings boards and what it deems as acceptable behaviour for a movie of this classification.
But... this is 'Movies Pessimistically Appraised', not 'Movies Lauded and Applauded', and despite my unremitting love for this movie, there are some pretty decent-sized issues I personally had even upon my initial viewing. Not enough to prevent further viewings... but still, they're there. And the issues fall under four main categories.
1. I DON'T LIKE WHERE THE PLOT GOES
Firstly, there's the plot. Actually, I love the plot. I love idea of a complete psychopath who is loose in your city who can't be captured, can't be bought, and can't be stopped (although I wish to clarify : I don't want this psychopath loose in MY city). For the sheer 'what if' awesomness of the conceit, it's brilliant. Which is why in some ways my heart breaks a little for the Joker when his ultimate gambit doesn't pay off. I'm serious! Quite simply : I don't believe it. I don't believe it would play out as it would, I DO think people would tear each other apart, and to have an extended period of excruciating tension over it feels very false. Actually I want to clarify this too : the tension ISN'T whether anybody on either of the two ferries will Press The Detonator, but rather the tension in the horrible way that the Joker is having to confront a plot that won't let him win, even though he should. Even upon first viewing I felt the ferry scene was false. I'm no game theory expert but to me one thing was very, VERY clear : if neither boat explodes within a minute of the rules being explained, both separate populations can safely conclude that the OTHER population isn't going to detonate it. The 'game' if played as such would and should have immediately ended with a race to pull the trigger first. Seconds later, there's no need to pull the trigger anymore, because the other side hasn't pulled theirs yet so you know that either they're really stupid or they're also waiting in the hope that you're as charitable as they are. Which is why the rest of the scene is such excruciating viewing : on one boat some assholes want to take a vote - hold an election - which is totally moronic because what do they think is happening on the other boat? The entirety of this scene is an anticlimax to anybody (like me) who would have pulled the trigger immediately. The fact that one is made up of prisoners and one is civilians is also a screenwriting cop-out as it paradoxically REDUCES tension : it would have been MUCH more exciting if it was two civilian ferries because then it becomes about whether good people will turn evil against other good people, and not whether good people will kill evil people or evil people will kill good people. It was a silly decision. And in any way you look at it, I believe the Joker would have AND should have won this conundrum. And that's a real pity. Finally, as a coup de grace of the Joker's plot, it's actually rather low-key. Blowing up a hospital is a much bigger deal.
2. I don't care much for Batman
Secondly, I think there is a problem with Batman. Or rather, with Batman/Bruce Wayne. I like Christian Bale, but I don't like his portrayal of these characters particularly much. I prefer my Bruce Wayne and Batman to be two distinct characters. For example, Michael Keaton played Bruce as socially inept and quirky, and Batman as brave, bold and decisive. Even if I disagree with that precise choice, I respect the fact that there's a delineation. The problem with this movie is that broadly, Bruce Wayne has the vaguest mild sense of humour and/or melancholy, while Batman is just Batman. The two aren't particularly different - one just wears a mask. And what's worse (or rather I feel 'an incorrect decision') - Bruce Wayne is running around making 'Batman Decisions' far too often : he's basically acting like Batman while being Bruce Wayne. It's like there's three characters : Bruce Wayne Civilian (barely seen), Bruce Wayne Detective (every time he speaks to Alfred and Lucius), and Bruce Wayne Wearing A Mask Being Batman (which feels almost rare). I find the scenes he (or rather any of the three) are in rather... well....dull, if I'm honest. Batman is Batman and that's fine. But Bruce Wayne isn't particularly likeable indepenently, or even much of a character. I know it's typical for superhero movies to rotate around their villains more than the character of the hero... but given we've got a pretty great actor in the lead hero role, I actually see this as a lost opportunity. A Bruce Wayne in tears, disconsolate at the death of his 'girlfriend' would make a bold decisive Batman much, much more resonant.... but a grim determined depressed Bruce Wayne isn't dissimilar enough to Batman. In a movie about the Dark Knight, not fleshing out that character is a lost opportunity.
3. I really don't like Two-Face
Thirdly, Two-Face shouldn't have been in this movie. Harvey Dent should have been, and you certainly could have had his 'origin', but after the confrontation with The Joker, he should have disappeared to reappear at a later date (ie.. movie). The problem the movie seemed to face is that it needed to introduce Dent so it can turn him into Two-Face so he can be killed to set up the pretext for the next movie. That's not just unfortunate, that's almost cheating. Because in Harvey Dent / Two-Face you alternatively have the chance at creating a great separate movie in and of itself, rather than have him introduced to merely be a throwaway sacrifice. Here's my take : Batman is a vigilante with a Code, but Two-face, written correctly, can be a vigilante WITHOUT a code. And there's your chance for conflict : Batman versus somebody who is conceivably better and/or more effective a vigilante because they're not constrained by a code. Batman gets away with a code because he can survive because he's got billions of dollars and high-grade technology. Two-face doesn't have that, but he has brutality and a purity of vision to 'protect' him. How would Batman respond to the possibility that he's not as effective as a crime-fighter because he's not tough enough when it counts? How does he deal with the fact that people die when he captures criminals only to have them inevitably escape. To have Batman have a moral conundrum over the insufficiency of his 'code' in succesfully taking down villains, especially those who are aware of his weakness, would make him going up against Two-Face quite the morality showdown, and worthy of a full movie I think. Instead, we get two Face as a cameo loose cannon in a movie that's already got a SUPERIOR loose cannon in the form of The Joker. It's a waste of time to have Two-Face stealing screen-time from the conflict between Batman and The Joker, and the more times I watch the film the more I dislike every scene Two-Face is in. Especially the end one, where his behaviour is aberrant and emotional and childish. It doesn't work for me.
4a. The ending doesn't fit this movie.
I still don't get it. The Joker and an unknown number of associates and goons run rampant in Gotham, some police get killed and somebody somehow makes the call that the best course is to BLAME BATMAN? While this results in an incredible 'to be continued' ending that's both triumphant and ominous, it doesn't make any real sense at all. It's so easy to blame The Joker for this rather than 'admit' to it being Harvey Dent's fault. And also, there's the problem that a post-traumatic-stress-disorder Batman (who's probaby just suffered a concussion from a heavy fall decides) comes up with this solution and a post-traumatic-stress-disorder Commissioner Gordon (who almost saw his wife and kid get killed) agrees to it... it actually feels more like two dumb people making a dumb decision than a momentous and brilliant nobody-would-have-expected-this denouement to a landmark movie... even though it's kind of both. And yes, I actually think there's another explanation, which is even darker : which is that governments and police and security services NEED to find something for people to be scared of so that there's pretext for passing the kind of laws that would otherwise be unpalatable in a reasonable society. With the Joker captured and Two-Face dead, a relieved populace could conceivably return to their homes, reassured that the danger is over and that it's an aberration and it's business as usual....
4b. Unless it does fit this movie
I guess you could argue : what if the police wanted MORE power to make MORE changes? Wouldn't it be better to have somebody to blame who is still OUT THERE? Have Batman as the scray boogeyman you need to protect everone from? That's terrifying, and it's brilliant..... But I just don't believe two PTSD-suffering people could come up with it on the fly like that; and additionally I don't think Batman, who agrees that his own technology is a step too far in aid of a surveillance state.... would agree to a pretext that would create more of such a society. (Even more so given where the character ends up in The Dark Knight Rises, unwilling to give the police even any assistance in solving crimes).
All said, it's surprising that I still think this movie is still a towering achievement. But I do. It's the full realisation of the notion that you could make a comic book movie that's so 'real' that it's *almost* plausible that it exists in this world, which is OUR world. A world that plays by our rules and our physics and our technology and our society AND morality, and makes you leave the cinema thinking we're pretty much only one young healthy multibillionaire who is sick and tired of crime and corruption away from having an ACTUAL Batman on the streets.
I love this movie. It's not without flaws, but it's awesome nonetheless. It's a shame that the Hans Zimmer / James Newton Howard score got no love from The Academy
Oh, and one more thing...
I think it's a shame Katie Holmes didn't reprise her role in this film, by the way. Tell you why : Batman is a mysterious rich, powerful, ninja-trained hero operating in darkness.... but Gotham's Assistant DA is a fragile(ish) girl who operates in full view during daylight. In many ways, she's more heroic than Batman because she doesn't wear a mask - and when she slapped Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins for even thinking about committing a vigilante act, it is SO POWERFUL because she's not a physically tough woman, but will STILL hit a guy for breaking the law. Replace her with Maggie Gyllenhall and you replace her with a woman who IS physically tough, whose right cross would happily knock me off my feet without problem. In that casting, you remove a subtle heroism from the character that I felt was great in Batman Begins, and replace it with something considerably less.
But like I said : this is a movie so good that even with considerable flaws, I still love it.
Best Part : Every scene The Joker is in becomes a scene where almost anything is possible.
Movies Pessimistically Appraised : Even masterpieces could be better!