I caught up with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the sequel to Batman Begins. I can’t say I found it satisfying. Though Nolan is my favorite Batman director, this only barely felt like Batman.
There’s only so far you can bend the superhero genre back toward reality. The movie feels to me both too fantastical and too mundane. It posits problems that are purely otherworldly: if we had a superhero, wouldn’t that start to attract supervillains? Perhaps it would, but the answer is hardly something that has any direct relevance to our lives. But then why bother to be edgily realistic in your psychology? Batman spends an awful lot of time brooding about his life choices, and that kind of breaks the Batman contract. There’s times when Batman, in his mask, is interrogating Joker and hears something that evidently makes him feel like he’s just learned that Santa doesn’t exist.
The best thing in the movie is Heath Ledger’s Joker. He’s usually played as someone who’s having a blast being insane. Ledger found a new way to play him as a sort of criminel savant, someone who’s found a way to cannily use his own amorality and irrationality. He’s quite perceptive, zeroing in on his enemies’ weaknesses and their inability to adapt to a new situation, and he can actually make a persuasive argument. It’ll be evil, of course, but it’s a self-aware, smart evil. He doesn’t quite solve the problem of “why would anyone work for this guy”, but he does make a good case that “your ordinary methods don’t work against Batman; mine do”.
As such he pretty much runs rings round everyone else. I think the disturbing thing here is that Batman can’t think of an answer. He has no argument for what he’s doing, nor for his strange scruple against direct killing. (Seriously, just as in Batman: Arkham Asylum, the creators make an excellent case for just offing the bastard. Not killing Joker just means he kills more people. Given the leakiness of Arkham Asylum, there’s no real moral case for keeping him alive.) The only way Batman defeats Joker here is via technology. Only Alfred has any actual philosophy to offer.
Joker keeps working the same angle here: force people to make a choice between two horrible things. Well, yes, that’s a good trick; in chess we call it a combination. And again, no one ever seems to figure this out, or anticipate the next deadlock, or find a way to force a combination on him. No one but Joker comes off as very smart here.
The Harvey Dent subplot struck me as a little too obvious; Dent is so obviously being set up for a fall that it’s hard to take him seriously. And I think Gordon got sent through the same stupidifier as Batman; he always seems about a step behind events, his weak chin wavering in befuddlement.
On the plus side, Chicago is even more recognizable this time playing Gotham City. That double-decker street is real; that’s Wacker Drive, the savvy Chicago driver’s alternative to going through the Loop. The guy playing the mayor even reminded me of Rahm Emanuel.