“The Dark Knight”: More Than a Box Office Champ

The Dark Knight set an impressive box office record this weekend.

But that’s not the only list it topped.

(Thanks to Scott Derrickson, who sent the link and prompted me to post this.)

Granted, this IMDB list is vulnerable to surges, and as time passes, I’m sure it will drop in the rankings. The integrity of the list is quite suspect anyway; if memory serves, The Shawshank Redemption was #1 for quite a while. (Best movie ever? Really?) But still, this is quite a feat for a superhero movie on opening weekend.

So far, I disagree with almost every complaint that’s been made by major U.S. critics about the film.

Too long? Not for me. The story aimed high, and in order to wrap up all of those substantial plot threads adequately, there was a lot of cleaning up to do.

Too political? Too conservative? Come on. Myth-making is one of history’s most rewarding avenues for exploring and illustrating the conflicts of the age. There’s no subject that needs more thoughtful attention these days than how a society responds to terrorism. The Dark Knight gives us a wide range of characters with different philsophies, tactics, and responses, then leaves us to decide who we admire and why. It affirms the value of “white knights” who inspire us with lofty ideals, but it also acknowledges also the need for “dark knights” … brave, selfless men who will make the tough decisions and get their hands dirty in order to save innocent lives. It does not oversimplify tough questions. It leaves plenty of room for debate. It shows both the advantage, and the cost, of putting great power in the hands of a few during times of crisis. It shows us men who fail, men who become selfish animals when put to the test, and it shows us men who heed the call of conscience even at great risk to themselves. It reminds us of the need to resist the assault of fear in order to remain clear-eyed and intelligent in a time of crisis.

Reveling in nihilism, violence, and anarchy? Forget it. Consider the film’s pivotal scene, the first of two climactic confrontations (Batman’s last face-off with the Joker). What is that scene about? How does it conclude? This is a film about evil, but it is not an evil film. It is a film about virtue, but it admits that the path of the righteousness man often becomes difficult to discern in the darkness.

Yes, it has its rough spots. For example: When Batman dives out the window of a cocktail party, the film gives us no information about what happens to the traumatized partygoers he leaves behind. And the fate of one “supporting villain” is left uncertain, probably for the purpose of pacing. And the film’s most unfortunate failing is that Bruce Wayne is far less interesting in this film than he was last time around. When Batman’s in action, he’s riveting… but Gordon, Joker, Harvey Dent, and even Alfred prove more engaging than the unmasked Dark Knight. But these are minor quibbles.

This isn’t just great comic-book moviemaking. This is great moviemaking.

(By the way, did I mention that Todd Hertz gave it four stars in Christianity Today? I would have done the same, devil take the mail that would have come in accusing me of “relishing nihilism and bloodshed.”)

(P.S. Ken Brown has written up an excellent summation of the film’s powerful themes.)

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  • volck

    Jeff:

    I haven’t had time to see the film yet — too busy getting things in order before the Glen — but your earlier comments about the Joker as Satanic and the direction of the comments above reminds me of some lines of Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust:

    Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint!
    Und das mit Recht; denn alles, was entsteht,
    Ist wert, daß es zugrunde geht;
    Drum besser w√§r’s, da√ü nichts entst√ºnde.
    So ist denn alles, was ihr Sünde,
    Zerstörung, kurz, das Böse nennt,
    Mein eigentliches Element.

    (My ad lib translation:
    “I am the spirit that negates!
    And rightly so, for everything that emerges
    is worthy of being torn down;
    It would have been better if nothing had emerged.
    Because everything that you call sin,
    destruction, in short, evil,
    is my unique element.”

    Yeah, it loses something in my unpoetic rendering, but it seems to gesture towards the same nihilism as, I take it, the movie explores.

    See you soon,

    Brian

  • http://zheist.blogspot.com wngl

    NYTimes’ Manohla Dargis made the interesting complaint that not only is Batman relegated to a secondary role in The Dark Knight, he is effectively turned into the Joker’s sidekick. I find this an interesting take because it highlight one of the qualities in the film that makes it so unique not only among superhero film but blockbusters in general: evil is running the show. Good men are fighting the darkness because it is pervasive and to do anything other than fight is to relent and be consumed, a point The Dark Knight makes with scalpel precision. Yet how can anyone watch this film and come away thinking it is cynical? The Joker is very clearly proven wrong in his pronouncements more than once but especially during the ferry sequence. Actually, that sequence strikes me as quite unrealistic -but I’m willing to grant that it makes a point within the context of the film and provides a refutation of the Joker’s argument.

    All that aside, for my money this was Heath Ledger at his best. At first blush I found myself wishing that he didn’t talk so much, because it made it appear that he had some kind of rationale behind his actions when he clearly does not. After some thought it occurred to me that while I know the Joker lacks a rationale, the character does not possess this insight; this is his fatal flaw, the utter absence of self-reflection. Heath Ledger somehow embodies this evil with his performance, an epic feat.

  • gordonhackman

    I disagree with gaith too. I think it intentional that the Joker offers no ideology. An ideology offers a rationale for certain actions. The Joker represents something more frightening than that. He is pure nihilistic evil, his only rationale is to create chaos and bring destruction. In this sense, he reminds me of the Echtroi in Madeleine L’Engle’s “Wrinkle in Time” books, beings whose only purpose is to bring about destruction and nothingness.

  • gaith

    Please note that I commended Ledger’s performance. Indeed, it was probably unimprovable with the script in question. But we only ever see the Joker act to intimidate. Sure, he does so in various ways, but a profound performance requires layers of emotion and feeling. This was asked of Eckhart, but not of Ledger.

    Also, please note that I didn’t say that the film itself was not profound; for an action movie, it certainly had a lot going on.

  • http://youtube.com/moviebuzzreviewdude Brandon

    And I’d also disagree with gaith on Heath Ledger’s performance – it’s much much more than just a collection of tics – this is an iconic role already less than three days after its release, and it will doubtless be better remembered than Pitt’s 12 Monkeys. Like Daniel-Day Lewis and Javier Bardem it is riveting in its intensity and one of the few truly terrifying portrayals of evil in cinema. It’s much more than just tics and cackling the right way. Ledger created an entire character, soaked in pure evil – just because we don’t hear him tell a story about how his father abused him, except in a mocking way, doesn’t mean it’s not good acting. The way he has the joker say his lines fits the script exactly the way it should, and the sript itself explores some pretty relevant and dark themes, so I’m curious to know why you think it’s not profound.

  • http://youtube.com/moviebuzzreviewdude Brandon

    I noticed the IMDB list too. And I usually follow highly-rated movies on that list when they come out. Even movies that most everybody loved in their initial run (Ratatouille, Wall-E, Iron Man) never even came close to number one, because of how IMDB weights their voting and a new film usually can’t climb to number one too fast.

    And gaith – how would you say there’s too few quiet scenes? I found there to plenty of those and I appreciate the nice balance of action and exposition.

  • gaith

    Well, I liked it pretty well. It’s certainly much better than “Begins”, which I had the lonely job of not admiring. I’d say it’s better than “The Departed”, and agree with most of the praise.

    Still, it’s not quite great. There’s just too few quiet scenes. The soundtrack blares a high, monotone screech several times, which is effective at making us squirm but is also something of a cheap trick. Maggie Gyllenhaal has little to do, and the other women nothing to speak of. The love triangle was undeveloped; the actors sold the material, but they had to do it alone.

    And yes, Ledger was very good, but the performance wasn’t deeper than Depp’s Sparrow, or even as deep. Like Pitt in “12 Monkeys”, the role was a collection of tics – impressive but not profound.

    Finally, while I applaud the effort to comment on the troubles of the day, making the Joker the central opponent stunts the picture’s impact. A Charles Manson type may be as evil and terrifying as the movie shows, but he surely can’t be as powerful or resourceful. The Joker offers no ideology, no hope or alternate path, however misguided. The bin Ladens or Mugabes of the world do; to pretend that they don’t limits our ability to undercut their support.

    So no, not a great film, but a very good, possibly great, flick.


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