No joke: Batman's latest plods toward predictability

Review C

July 17, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun movie critic

The Dark Knight is a handsome, accomplished piece of work, but it drove me from absorption to excruciation within 20 minutes, and then it went on for two hours more. It's the standard-bearer for the school of comic-book movies that confuses pompousness with seriousness and popular mechanics for drama. It's scaled to be an urban epic about the deterioration of hope and possibility in Batman's hometown, Gotham City (standing in for all Western cities), but there isn't a single stirring or inspired moment in it.

It's all about the responses of citizens, lawmen and criminals to the emergence of the Caped Crusader in Batman Begins. At the start, billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has succeeded in paralyzing criminals with the eerie power of his alter ego, Batman. Now that a fighting idealist, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), has taken over the district attorney's office, Wayne envisions hanging up cape and cowl and finding his bliss in the arms of Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), though she's dating Dent. Gotham City's traditional mobsters are so spooked they no longer work at night.

But they and Batman end up vulnerable to the takeover plans of that ultimate wild card, the Joker (Heath Ledger), an epochal creep with a carved-in smile and a colorblind impressionist's version of Bozo makeup. The old-school pugs still operate on greed and appetite. The under-used Eric Roberts, who plays the Gotham underworld's godfather, has a weathered and expressive face: He's like an emptied shell of sensuality.

The Joker, though, takes all his pleasure from the sheer existential frenzy roused by murder, thievery and mayhem. He's a wretched conceit of a character - a homicidal philosopher-jester. As he and the other characters never stop telling you, the Joker means to expose the fragility of any social order or any individual's rational plan. He's a terrorist who wins whenever civilized people relinquish their humanity out of fear.

As with so many of today's blockbusters, the opening sequence (a bank robbery pulled by Joker-employed thugs in circus masks) skillfully suggests what the rest of the film so laboriously spells out. Finding confusion within cohesion is the Joker's goal, and he devises a group strategy that leaves him the last harlequin standing and the others just corpses in clown masks. The director, Christopher Nolan, and his co-writer and brother, Jonathan Nolan, organize the rest of the narrative as if movies never developed beyond the mustache-twirling bad guy tying the damsel in distress to the railroad tracks. Early on, Batman, Dent and soon-to-be Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) make a pact to help each other clean up their long-rotting metropolis. They mistakenly see Ledger's Joker, at first, as an insignificant player compared to the heads of organized crime. They soon realize the dangers of a Joker who is also a Jack able to pop in and out of any box.

Since Gyllenhaal's righteous Rachel is the most warm-blooded creature in the movie, she naturally becomes the fulcrum of suspense - her fate ultimately determines Dent's fall into a dementia as grievous and gaudy as the Joker's. In the sort of ludicrous gaffe that becomes inevitable whenever a director creates a "realistic" comic-book world on screen, the Joker and his gang invade a fundraiser Wayne holds for Dent, and the scene abruptly ends when Batman rescues Rachel. What happens to the billionaires left with the Joker? The way Nolan treats them, they're not caviar. They're chopped liver.

Fanboys may love the way Nolan hews to the moods and story lines of such beloved graphic novels as The Killing Joke and The Long Halloween. But like Sin City, The Dark Knight proves it's foolish to duplicate the experience of grim graphic novels too literally in a movie. When you read a graphic novel, there's built-in humor and bravado in seeing comic-book artists and writers strive to push two-dimensional characters into a third (or even fourth) dimension; the writers' and artists' unconventional contortions can be exhilarating. Put live actors into the mix, and the plots and layouts can be punishing. I'd like to think of Nolan's The Dark Knight as the misbegotten product of a man who spent his teens reading comic books in the afternoon and sneaking off to film noir festivals at night. It's more likely the outcome of treating unholy graphic novels as holy writ.

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