Monday, March 08, 2010

Movie Monday - The Dark Knight, 2008, Part 2

So last week, I discussed how 2008's "The Dark Knight," despite being a very flawed film, was nevertheless the best screen adaptation of Batman ever.

One of the reasons was the film's depiction of the Joker. And what's fascinating to me about that depiction is that it takes exactly the opposite tack from the previous film's depiction of Batman.

In "Batman Begins," Nolan keeps the basic elements of Batman's origin and legend more or less intact from the comics. Sure, some things are invented and some things are spun; the comics never depicted Bruce Wayne being trained by Ra's al Ghul in a Tibetan temple, for instance. But the shooting of his parents, the shooter's identity, a host of minor characters and details, Batman's code against killing his enemies: all of those are preserved in a way the previous films had not.

In "The Dark Knight," though, they throw out virtually every bit of old Joker baggage. The chemically-stained flesh, the smiling toxin, the comedy-themed crimes: all are gone. In fact, the film goes to great pains to tell us that the Joker is man without an identity. He's a creature, a force--preternaturally smart, vicious, ruthless, a prince of lies.

See, the thing about the Joker is, you can't be certain of anything he tells you. For instance, Richard Corliss, reviewing the film in Time magazine, wrote...

The Joker observes no rules, pursues no grand scheme; he's the terrorist as improv artist.

But this is wrong. Yes, the Joker says in one scene that he doesn't plan, he just does things. But it's pretty obvious from watching the film that the Joker's schemes are actually carefully planned. It's obvious from the first scene of the movie, where the Joker's scheme is so meticulously timed that one of the thugs just happens to be standing in exactly the right place the moment the school bus comes crashing through the wall.

If you watch carefully, you see that the Joker, though he seems wild and out of control, actually keeps himself very tightly controlled. In the scene where Bruce throws a fundraiser for Harvey Dent, we see Bruce grab a glass of champagne and pretend to drink, only to go outside and pour it off the balcony. A few minutes later, the Joker and his thugs burst into the party, and the Joker grabs a glass of champagne, pours it out, then pretends to drink it. And in fact, the Joker apparently does have a grand scheme in mind at every moment of the film.

So what is the Joker's grand scheme? Well, here's a theory. It appears that his entire goal is to destroy the Batman by making a killer out of him. More specifically, the Joker wants to corrupt the Batman by dying at the Batman's hands. Let's look at a few key moments to see what I'm talking about.

The Joker's entire thrust at the beginning seems to be all about killing the Batman or forcing him to reveal his true identity. And to that end, he drive the city into chaos with random killings. But about halfway through, when the Joker and Batman have their first confrontation, the Joker stumbles out of his wrecked semi and walks toward Batman, firing his machine gun off to the side while muttering, "C'mon, c'mon. I want you to do it. I want you to do it." What does he want? He wants Batman to hit him with his speeding supercycle.

Later, in the interrogation room, Batman mentions that he has only one rule, and we know what that rule is: Batman refuses to kill. And the Joker replies, "Then that's the one rule you'll have to break."

And in the final scene, as the Joker is plummeting to certain doom after the Batman has thrown him off the tower where they had their final battle, the Joker laughs maniacally, laughter that is muted when the Batman saves his life with his grapple gun. That moment, when the Batman saves the Joker's life, is the moment when the Joker really loses, and you can see it on his face.

But in a sense, you could call it a draw. Because while the Joker doesn't turn Batman into a killer, he does drive Harvey Dent to it, and through Dent, the Batman's reputation is destroyed.

Oh, and speaking of Dent, every fanboy who felt betrayed by this:

had to have gotten a big thrill out of this:

Hell yeah! Now that's Two-Face.

And of course, no review in the series would be complete without a glance at the changes in vehicles, costume and sets. In "Batman Begins," stately Wayne Manor was burned down, so Bruce is now living in a penthouse apartment (as the comics' Bruce Wayne did for a time in the 70's). So that also means that for the first time ever, we have a Batman film without a Batcave. Instead, Bruce has a huge subterranean lair near the waterfront (I think--the entrance is via a shipping container, anyway).

It's striking and stark, but like the rest of the film, it begs a lot of questions. How did Wayne build it without anybody noticing? Does he really need a solid ceiling of light? Doesn't the power consumption draw attention to it, if nothing else does?

During the course of the film, the Tumbler is destroyed, but it just happens to have a sort of emergency escape mechanism in the form of the Bat-pod, basically the Tumbler's front two tires and suspension converted into a self-powered motorcycle.

It's one of those movie-moments where by the time you've totally registered your disbelief--"Oh, come on!"--you get overwhelmed by the coolness. I do like the fact that Batman has to spend the rest of the movie riding the Bat-pod, because he doesn't have another Tumbler just lying around.

Batman's costume evolves in this one, too. The big one: the headpiece is made separate from the neck so Batman can turn his head. And the armor is made lighter by having more separation between the plates, for more freedom of movement and more of a real-world feel.

A few more random observations: I do like the subtly humorous details that show us the Joker's sense of humor. Like the way he silently mouths the word "six" in disbelief after the detective has told him that the Joker killed six of his friends. Or the fact that one of the knives the cops confiscate from him is a vegetable peeler. Or the way he deadpans the answer, "yeah," when mobster Gambol asks if the Joker thinks he can get away with stealing from them. Or the visual pun he uses to force the police convoy transporting Dent into a trap.

That's class, made even better by the fact that the filmmakers don't dub in a line to state the obvious for the slower members of the audience.

At one point in the movie, there's a big police parade for the funeral of Police Commissioner Loeb. And for some reason, this...

ends up reminding me of this:

There's no Andy Kaufman in this one, but there is a psycho with a gun masquerading as a cop.

And finally, finally, we come to the strangest little detail of all. There is actually one piece of continuity between Schumacher's Batman films and Nolan's, one character in common played by the same actor. He has no name, and he only speaks one line in one of the films, but it is definitely the same guy.

If you remember, in "Batman and Robin," one of the Gotham socialites at Bruce Wayne's fundraiser for the Gotham Botanical Gardens (the one which is crashed by supervillains Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy) is this guy.

In "The Dark Knight," at the fundraiser for Harvey Dent which is crashed by the Joker, the same guy shows up again. He tells the Joker, "We're not intimidated by thugs," which results in this:

He actually does look a little intimidated. U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy must be the biggest Batman fan in the Senate to show up in not one, but two Batman movies under two different directors.


Anonymous said...

The Joker has always worked best when he is played as a mockery of everything Batman is about. The Joker kills everyone when Batman won't kill anyone. The Joker won't take anything seriously, he wears bright colors in contrast to Batman's "black-only" wardrobe. He has no identity as opposed to a secret one. The Joker believes in the evil inside people, while Batman must believe in the good. And most interestingly, the Joker always has minions while the Batman is most iconic when he is alone. He's like an intentional perversion of everything Batman fights for, and I thought the brilliant thing was that this Joker was written and played like he knows that - like Batman gave his life shape and meaning by giving him something to oppose and corrupt.

Wm. (Spacezombie76) said...

I kind of wish they would pick a new Bruce/Batman for the next movie. Yeah, Christian Bale is good at the physical stuff and makes a pretty good Bruce, but he's not a good Batman.

What kind of voice did you imagine Batman having? In my mind, I can't think of anyone other than Kevin Conroy. Ravenchilde_Art on LJ said he always imagined Batman as sounding like Hannibal Lecter (WFT?). Bale's gravelly take on it sounds like someone trying to sound mean.

The thing I liked about The Joker is the filmmakers going back to the earliest inspirations. Bob Kane (I think) was inspired by the film "The Man Who Laughs" where the titular character's face was scarred into a permanent rictus grin. That bit with The Joker as a cop was taken from an early issue (I think I have it in a collection somewhere).

I'm probably not telling you anything you don't already know. I enjoy reading your posts, especially Movie Monday.

Oh, have you read "Monster Hunter International"? I picked it up after Richard Morgan and John Connolly would not stop raving about it. It's a lot of fun, especially since the book makes monsters monsters again. I'm so tired of the romantic emo tweener nonsense that's popular now. As Olivia Munn said, "You kill vampires, you don't date them. 'Uhhh, I'll let you feel me up, just don't bite me.'"

TheyStoleFrazier'sBrain said...

The thing I wanted to say about the Joker and didn't quite manage to say was that Ledger's Joker is so fascinating because he's such a complete cipher. The original Joker (and that bit with him disguised as a cop came from the very first Joker story, as did his managing to assassinate a judge under police guard) was an evil killer, but there was no depth to it. You didn't expect depth in Golden Age comics. And yes, what made the Joker work for so long as the Batman villain was precisely that he was so opposite of Batman in so many ways.

What makes Ledger fascinating and scary in the role (to me, anyway) is that you know there has to be a real guy in there somewhere, a guy with a name and a personality and a past that has led him to this point, but you never see him except in very brief flashes, like when he asserts to Gambol that he isn't crazy. He says it twice, and it's one of the few moments in the film where it doesn't look as if he's saying it to manipulate the other person.

As for Batman's voice, as a child of the 60's, I've always hear Adam West in my head when I'm reading, though I think Conroy was awesome as well. But the thing I liked about Bale's Batman was that he actually went to some pains not to sound like Bruce Wayne. Keaton did a little of that, too, but not to the extent Bale did, and it almost worked.