July 30, 2008

Movie Review: It Was a Dark and Stormy (and Overrated) Knight

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I might not be the most popular guy in the room after this statement, but given the insane amount of hype surrounding The Dark Knight I feel compelled to speak my mind. No matter how many people seem to share the conviction that the new Batman sequel is “THE BEST MOVIE EVERRRR,” I would have to argue that the film — honestly, plain and simple — just ain’t that good.

I mean, it’s good, but it’s not that good. It’s an above average summer blockbuster — and even, arguably, a superior effort in general — but the level of hyperbole surrounding it is approaching the absurd. The Dark Knight is not the best film of all time (something that the users over at the Internet Movie Database might do well to note, since they saw fit to award it that mantle after two friggin’ days in theaters); it isn’t the best superhero movie of all time either (I’d still say that title belongs to X2, but that’s just me); hell, it isn’t even the best Batman film (Batman Begins and the Tim Burton directed Batman Returns were both better). To be honest, with everyone jumping on the bandwagon and heaping praise at the movie left and right, I find myself having to work extra hard just to not hate the damn thing. But I can try to be fair.

The story is probably familiar to anyone who’s hasn’t been living in a cave for the past couple of months: Batman — a.k.a. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) — with the help of Gotham City Police’s Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) and the new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), is beginning to succeed in ridding Gotham of crime. Their backs against the wall, the city’s criminal organizations jointly decide to turn to a dangerous and enigmatic criminal mastermind named the Joker (Heath Ledger, in his final complete performance). As the body count rises, Batman is forced to face the decisions he’s made and reevaluate his crime-fighting philosophy in the face of the Joker’s anarchic savagery. Dent likewise undergoes a radical metamorphosis, albeit one much more tragic and gruesome.

There’s no denying the movie’s many merits. Director Christopher Nolan has managed to create a beautifully realized world in Gotham City, and the level of attention to detail is very impressive; the action sequences (while they are at times confusing) are taut and explosive; Bale, Eckhart and Oldman all do solid work and Heath Ledger has given, without a doubt, one of the decade’s best performances in his portrayal of the Joker.

But, at the same time, The Dark Knight is riddled with problems, mostly in the screenwriting department. On more than one occasion the story seems to move forward thanks only to plot contrivances, logical loopholes and plain old discontinuities that require the audience to suspend their disbelief. In one scene about halfway through the movie, we see Batman dropping a gangster off a building from several stories above the street, breaking the man’s legs (we even hear the bone snap); not much later, however, when the character reappears at a critical moment, he looks perfectly fine and shows none of the discernable signs that his legs had just recently, you know, snapped in half — no casts, no crutches, nothing. Likewise, a scene at the beginning of the film in which a Mafioso pulls a gun on Harvey Dent in a courtroom — and on the witness stand, no less — seems wholly improbable. And, more to the point, how the hell is it that the Joker consistently manages to stuff so many explosives into such large places (and in so little time) with only the minimal assistance of Gotham’s gangsters and mentally deranged?

None of those problems would’ve been hugely problematic for me though. This was obviously a comic book movie, and even though the series has — in its current iteration — prided itself on hyper-realism, I could’ve dealt with some plot holes.

I do have a fairly substantial complaint against this movie though: It’s simply just too long (weighing in at a bloated two-and-a-half hours), and again, the issue seems to be with the writing. The way the final 40 minutes of The Dark Knight play out, it seems like Christopher Nolan and brother Jonathan (who co-wrote the screenplay) just didn’t know when to call it quits and end it.

***Spoiler warning***

A number of critics have already pointed out the most obvious place to end the film: after the birth of Two-Face. At that point, the movie has completed its major dramatic arc and everything thereafter could have been fleshed out in a third film. As it stands however, characters’ natural progressions were rushed and stunted by the pressure of squeezing everything into a narrative already bursting at the seams.

***End of spoiler***

In spite of the minor flaws in continuity and logical consistency, it is this major misstep that kept The Dark Knight from being special. It could have been one-half of a genuine pop-masterpiece, but instead it is every bit of a decent, but over-rated and underdeveloped disappointment.

Movies that try to do too much rarely, if ever, aren’t complete train wrecks. In that regard, The Dark Knight might be considered an unmitigated success, because while it has its flaws (and big ones at that) it is, admittedly, a very well made action film. If the worst we had to worry about this summer were a smart, dark blockbuster that gets a little too ambitious and a little too long for its own good, then I’d say we were in pretty decent shape.

But let’s not go around pretending it’s The Godfather, OK?