Impressions of The Dark Knight

23:36 Fri 29 Aug 2008. Updated: 17:54 28 Jan 2009
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I finally got around to seeing The Dark Knight this evening. I had mixed feelings about Batman Begins—I loved the first half of it and hated the second half. The Dark Knight was different: the parts I hated and the parts I loved were mixed together throughout the film.

First of all, I have to say that Heath Ledger’s performance really was as good as I’d heard, if not better. I went in expecting it to be merely good, and to look better due to other poor performances, but in fact there was something extraordinary about it. Ledger really managed to make The Joker into a believable personality. Given how ridiculous the character is, it’s not clear to me how he did this, but there’s a strong sense of something quite real in that performance. The Joker comes across as tormented and also at ease with his own torment, and Ledger makes that conradiction work.

Compared to The Joker, all of the other characters are bland. Most of them are pretty bland anyway. Even Batman and, almost as surprisingly, Gotham City itself. My first thought, at the opening of the film, was that Gotham here looked like something from The Matrix—and the urban scenes in that film were deliberately made to look generic, a setting of AnyCity, Earth.

Gotham’s lack of character was folowed by what seemed to me an extremely subdued performance by Bale. I thought he was fantastic in the first film, the best on-screen Batman by far, but in this movie he seemed almost not to be there at all. In certain respects this makes sense given the plot, in which he’s quite ambivalent about his vigilante role, but evem given that he seemed absent. Attention seemed to move away from him whenever he was on the screen. It’s not that it was a terrible performance per se, it’s just that it didn’t seem to have any weight or presence. The Dark Knight was like an empty suit.

I thought that every other character in the film was quite bad. Harvey Dent was weak and unconvincing. Gordon was more convincing but just going through the motions. Rachel Dawes was another cipher. Alfred, at least, had presence and seemed real. Lucius Fox had some solidity also.

Almost all of the bit characters seemed like caricature (as did many of the main characters, including Dent in particular).

Corruption was interesting, in that it clearly went higher up the chain than most simplistic plots allow, but was frustrating at the same time because it still didn’t seem real, because it was difficult to see how it worked as well as it did. Yes, real-life corruption certainly includes getting to people deeply in debt, but it also involves a lot more honey, a lot of steady co-option that worms its way into everyday life so deeply that it just becomes normal, as it is in most countries today. It’s unreasonable of me to expect The Dark Knight to meaningfully reflect that, but at the same time it seemed to come close occasionally.

Commensurately, the “criminal underworld” were fatuously unconvincing, and this was particularly marked in comparison to The Joker. One of the “mob” bosses was an exception, the one who points out to Batman that his threats are ineffective compared to The Joker’s given that everyone knows that he has rules, whereas The Joker does not.

Some of The Joker’s “sociological experiments” are interesting, but seem to fade before they’re fully explored, and are tucked away by simple heroics, dulling their impact somewhat.

So, overall, it was worth seeing, but veered between being interesting and hugely predictable, between being appropriately complex and boringly simplistic, and between being vividly compelling (when Ledger was on the screen) and generically bland (when he wasn’t).

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