Thursday, December 18, 2008

“The Dark Knight” and All the Batmen

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

All right, I'll admit it: I love Batman. I fell in love with him via the campy 1960's TV series, with the general air of insouciant hilarity and in particular the over-the-top acting by the "special guest villains." I've collected all the commercially released videos and DVD's of the Batman movies, from the 1943 Columbia serial with Lewis Wilson (in some ways still the best Batman, particularly in looking authentically weary when it was called for) to the latest, "The Dark Knight." My favorite Batman movie remains the 1989 Tim Burton release that featured Michael Keaton in the role and Jack Nicholson as the Joker — mainly because it seemed to balance the thrilling atmospherics of the comic books at their best and the airy campiness of the 1960's show and because Burton and his writing team seemed aware that there are limits to how "serious" and "dramatic" you can get in a movie in which your central character is a guy who goes around at night in a skin-tight black suit and a cape.

The great appeal of Batman is that he wasn't from another planet, he didn't have a magic shield, and he wasn't exposed to a radioactive spider or gamma rays from a nuclear test site. He was an ordinary human being who WILLED himself to be a superhero — both physically and mentally — and he was independently wealthy, so he didn't have to worry about making a living and had the money not only to spend his days fighting crime but to invent all the cool Batgear he used. That's the aspect of the character I think Lewis Wilson captured better than anyone who's played him since; besides looking more credible in the Bruce Wayne identity than any subsequent Batman, Wilson came off at the end of all those serial-style escapes looking genuinely weary, as if the experiences had tired him out. Anyway, here are my notes on viewing the Batman movies over the years (mostly at home, though I have seen the 1943 serial and the 1989 feature in theatres):


The film I picked was the third and last DVD I just bought at Suncoast Video: Batman, the 1943 Columbia serial that was the Caped Crusader’s first screen appearance. My plan was to run the first seven episodes (i.e., the first disc in the two-DVD set) last night and finish the remaining eight episodes tonight — Charles looked a bit askance at that and said he’d prefer to do this one an episode or two a night along with other films, the way we watched The Clutching Hand — but in the end we watched all seven episodes and, while it was a bit of an endurance test, for the most part it was quite entertaining. Batman the serial is actually quite good for the genre, handsomely produced (Columbia in 1943 had already won Academy Awards for Frank Capra’s 1930’s films and attracted other major directors and free-lance stars like Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, and they were on the cusp of full-fledged major-studio status, which Rita Hayworth’s sensational popularity would give them) and directed not by a serial hack but by Lambert Hillyer, a silent-era veteran with two quite good Universal horror films under his belt (The Invisible Ray with Karloff and Lugosi, and Dracula’s Daughter, both from 1936) and a real sense of atmosphere.

A good deal of Batman is shot in relatively flat light, but there are also some beautifully dark chiaroscuro scenes in the expressionistic style of the silent films that had inspired Bob Kane’s visual look for the comic-book character in the first place. (As is well known, Kane’s inspiration for Batman was the title character of The Bat — first made as a silent in 1926 and remade in sound in 1930 — and he copied the look of the Joker from Conrad Veidt’s makeup in the 1928 silent The Man Who Laughs.) There are a few defects — the use of fast-motion photography in the fight scenes (an odd serial convention that’s hard to take seriously today, now that fast motion is associated almost exclusively with comedy), the risible high ears on the cowl of an otherwise quite credible Batsuit, the absence of a Batmobile (Batman and Robin drive around in the same big touring convertible they use as Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson) and the rather portly figure of Lewis Wilson in the title role (though in the character’s Bruce Wayne identity Wilson is more credible than anyone who’s played him since) — but overall this is a quite strong serial, decently written by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker & Harry L. Fraser, effectively directed by Hillyer and especially fortunate in its choice of a villain.

Since this was made during World War II Columbia decided to go topical and have Batman fight a Japanese spy-and-sabotage ring operating here in the U.S. The principal bad guy is Tito Daka (J. Carroll Naish) — variously referred to as “Doctor” and “Prince” in that easygoing attitude towards continuity that affected many serials — who has his hideout in an otherwise abandoned area of town called “Little Tokyo” which the narrator, Knox Manning, describes thusly: “This was part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America and known as Little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street, where only one business survives, eking out a precarious existence on the dimes of curiosity-seekers.” While the reference to the Japanese internment en masse as the policy of a “wise government” is predictably wince-inducing today, the one surviving business on the street is a wax museum of Japanese war atrocities that — in a nice touch of irony from the writers — is the cover for Dr. Daka’s secret installation. (Since the producer was a man named Rudolph C. Flothow, it’s easy to see why the Japanese and not the Germans were the Axis enemies of choice for this project.)

I’d seen the Batman serial once before — in a 4 1/2-hour marathon at the UC Theatre in Berkeley (an enormous old single-screen house that was the forerunner of the Landmark chain) with my brother in the mid-1970’s; I think there were only about four or five other people in the theatre with the requisite craziness to sit through the whole thing on the big screen in one go — and he was at the height of his Madama Butterfly-induced love affair with all things Japanese and was impressed that even though the film’s intent was to be pro-war racist agitprop, the interior décor of Naish’s redoubt nonetheless reflected the beauty of Japanese culture. (It did, too.) Naish’s Daka is quite credibly made up (as Tom Weaver noted, this actor played every ethnicity except his genuine Irish one) and his manner is courtly but still implacably evil — a far cry from the eye-rolling villainy of some of the bad guys in other serials. Batman is a classy project from the get-go, making effective use of Columbia’s roster of standing sets (the nightclub in which a key confrontation happens looked like the same one in which Irene Dunne and Cary Grant played one of their big scenes in The Awful Truth) and coming up with some genuinely imaginative cliffhangers (this is one serial in which the good guys don’t escape seemingly mortal danger just by jumping — as I joked not long ago, anyone who’d ever seen a Republic serial could have figured out how to do a sequel to Thelma and Louise: just before their car went over the cliff, they jumped out of it). The acting is overall pretty good — Shirley Patterson as a more intelligent than usual ingénue is quite appealing and Douglas Croft’s Robin is a bit too chipper, though that’s the character more than the actor — and the action sequences are well staged without the too obviously pulled punches of later serials. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing the rest! — 2/26/06


I ran Charles episodes eight through 15 of the 1943 Batman serial. There are some curious unintended ironies about this film, including the fact that its plot is based on the premise that the Japanese have successfully designed an atomic weapon and plan to use it against the U.S. — the truth, of course, was the other way around — and the appearance of so relentlessly racist an anti-Japanese film under the present-day banner of a Japanese company, Sony (one of the many dubious miracles of globalization). It’s also ironic that its director, Lambert Hillyer, is best known today for his two 1936 Universal horror films, The Invisible Ray (which, like the Batman serial, involves radium — in that one Boris Karloff becomes a sort of human bomb after he descends into a mineshaft looking for a new radioactive element called “Radium-X” — alas, there was a hole in the glove of his protective suit and as a result the Radium-X contaminated him and made him fatal to the touch: I wonder if Steve Altman ever saw this film, since it seems to anticipate at least part of the premise of his Deprivers series) and Dracula’s Daughter (also a movie involving a mysterious quasi-human who lives in a cave full of bats) — and one other irony of the 1943 Batman is that both hero and villain have their clandestine headquarters in underground grottoes.

One nice touch of the serial that was reproduced in the 1966-68 TV series was that Batman and Robin move from Wayne Manor to the Batcave via a secret entrance concealed in the grandfather clock in Bruce Wayne’s study, and one rather sad element is that the film’s most likable character, radium mine owner Ken Colton (played by Charles Middleton, best known as the sadistic commandant in the two Laurel and Hardy spoofs of the French Foreign Legion, Beau Hunks and The Flying Deuces, and as the villainous Emperor Ming in the Flash Gordon serials), sacrifices his own life in chapter 9 to blow up the mine so the Japanese baddies can’t get at it.

Overall, the second half of this serial confirmed my high impression of the quality of the first — though the state of preservation varied from episode to episode and the first episode was particularly washed out — and I particularly liked the vulnerability of the hero. The essence of Batman’s appeal was always that he was an ordinary human being who had willed himself to be a superhero — he didn’t come from another planet, get exposed to atomic radiation, or receive a magic incantation that gave him super-powers; instead he worked out and trained for the job, but retained the ability to get tired if the fight against evil overtaxed him and even to be killed by normal bullets and the thousand other shocks that flesh is heir to. And this film, more than the 1960’s TV show or the 1989-2005 film series, highlights the vulnerability of Batman (perhaps simply because Lewis Wilson wasn’t exactly Mr. Universe material): he clearly tires from the fight scenes, it takes him a while to get up when he’s escaped the villains’ latest trap for him, and he’s projected as a full-fledged human, genuinely concerned emotionally for the fates of the people he’s responsible for (especially Robin and Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend, Linda Page — played by Shirley Patterson in an enviably spunky performance that should have marked her for biggers and betters) — though the film ignores the darker parts of the Batman backstory and (perhaps blessedly, given how totally the more recent films have milked this plot point) doesn’t bother to tell us that both he and Robin got into the crimefighting business because they were orphaned when criminals killed their parents.

The cliffhangers in the second leg of the Batman serial weren’t as creative as those in the first — there was one in which Batman was trapped in a burning car that was about to go over a cliff and, you guessed it, he jumped out just in time (well, there had to be at least one jump — at least the writers didn’t use that device over and over again the way their colleagues at Republic did!) and another in which Batman is — stop me if you’ve heard this before — trapped in a room where the walls are not only coming together and closing in on him but they have knife blades attached so he’ll be skewered and stabbed well before he’s crushed. Since the villain, Dr. Daka, is running this contraption at the same time as he’s using his zombification machine (which resembles a giant hair dryer) to turn Linda Page, whom he’s kidnapped, into a zombie, I had the feeling the drain on Dr. Daka’s circuits would blow a fuse and cancel the power to allow Batman to escape — but no-o-o-o, Robin (previously knocked out) came to in time to wedge a crowbar between the closing walls and give Batman time to crawl out, and then turned the damned thing off. (I still would have liked it better my way!) — 2/27/06


I ran Batman: The Movie, the 1967 film with the TV-show cast (and a thoroughly stupid plot involving a scheme to take over the world by turning the members of the U.N. Security Council into a glittery powder with the sinister “dehydration machine,” then rehydrating them). The campy conceits of this plot line were better done on the TV show, where you only had to watch them for half an hour at a time (at that length, they were funny!). Over feature-film length,the gags got a bit wearing after a while, and Adam West and Burt Ward looked merely tired through much of the film (West in particular seemed exhausted by the sheer effort involved in the attempt to pronounce this drivel as if it were meaningful dialogue), but on the whole, it was at least an entertaining movie. — 2/3/96


The 1989 Batman movie holds up quite well, actually, though I still find the ending sequence weak; Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker has always seemed to me to be superb — an excellent example of an actor taking all the most offensive, insufferable characteristics of his style (the grin, the vulpine laugh and the general aura of in-your-face decadence that surrounds him and totally undoes his attempts to play heroes) and using them for a character for which they are totally appropriate (much the way James Mason did in playing a very different type of villain in North by Northwest). — 2/10/96


I ran Batman Returns — it struck me how much of a family relationship there is between Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the first new-series Batman film, Danny DeVito’s Penguin in this one and Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face in Batman Forever — almost as if they have just one template of villain and they keep stamping them out with only minor variations (whereas the same characters were depicted very differently from each other in the comic books), and how indifferent and perfunctory Tim Burton is as an action director, for all his stunning gifts for atmosphere and a general sense of weirdness. — 2/24/96


Batman Forever is a pretty strange movie — directed by Joel Schumacher, vaguely “produced” by Tim Burton, it starts right in with a big action scene with no exposition at all! Well, after two previous movies in the series, maybe Burton, Schumacher and screenwriters Lee Batchler & Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman assumed we didn’t need any exposition — but it’s still nicer to ease into a movie rather than to have it in your face right from the end of the opening credits. The film casts Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face, a.k.a. former District Attorney Harvey Dent — whose origin is preserved from the comic books: a gangster he was prosecuting threw acid in his face during a trial and scarred the left side of his face, thereby leading to his mental derangement and his emergence as the villainous Two-Face. (Since Billy Dee Williams played Harvey Dent in the first Batman movie, the acid seems not only to have scarred part of his face, but to have changed the skin color of his entire body.) Jones is a superb actor, but he’s been playing demented villains of one sort or another for so long that it has scarred his acting talents as thoroughly as Two-Face’s face — and it doesn’t help that he decided to play this one as a flagrant imitation of Jack Nicholson’s beautiful performance as the Joker from the first Batman, all colorful vocal intonations and vulpine laughs.

Jim Carrey does considerably better as the Riddler — whose origin from the comic books was also retained, at least somewhat (in the comic books he was a sideshow trick artist; in the movie he’s an employee of Bruce Wayne’s research lab who gets fired for inventing a mind-manipulation device that offends Our Hero’s rather prissy sense of morality — but his real name, Edward Nigma — “E. Nigma” — is retained, though the last name is respelled “Nygma” for the film). He’s essentially playing the same dual character he did in The Mask, a mild-mannered clerk type who becomes a highly flamboyant, colorful person in his alternate identity — only he’s surrounded by so much padding that he doesn’t have the opportunity to build gag upon gag the way he did in The Mask, so whereas he had me falling-down laughing in the earlier film, he only evoked mild chuckles this time around.

Had The Riddler been the only villain in Batman Forever, the way Nicholson’s Joker was in the first Batman, and had the plot not been so drawn out with pseudo-psychological padding, Batman Forever would be a much better movie than it was. Indeed, the first half promised an intriguing change in direction for the series, a lighter tone that blended the campy approach from the 1960’s Batman TV show with the darker, more 1920’s-German look from the two Tim Burton-directed Batman films. When the new, redesigned Batmobile turned and started driving up a building — and, in a later scene, Batman swung down on his Batrope in a descent so long and steep it began to look as if he’d acquired his old friend Superman’s power to fly, and subsequently he survived gas fires and all manner of hazards that would have killed an ordinary human being, it appeared as if Schumacher and the new writing team were taking a cartoon approach to the movie that boded well for it as sheer entertainment, however much it may have been sacrificing Burton’s dark, Gothic vision in the two previous films.

Instead, about midway through, with the introduction of Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) as a police psychiatrist fascinated by Batman, the film made an odd turn into psychological depth and introspection that took a lot of the energy out of it. The writers set up the same old man/woman/superhero romantic triangle we remember from the Superman comics — remember how Clark Kent loved Lois Lane, but she only loved Superman, and even a five-year-old comic book reader could appreciate the irony of this given that Clark Kent and Superman were the same person (uh, being, or whatever)? Well, they did it again; Bruce Wayne loves Dr. Meridian, who only loves Batman — though by the end of the film, having been kissed by both men (I expected her to do a Mae West imitation and say, “A man’s kiss is his signature,” the way West did in My Little Chickadee, but she didn’t — though it would have been appropriate for a movie with so many “in” references, from H. P. Lovecraft and Hitchcock’s Saboteur to Ghostbusters and Superman), she’s figured out Batman’s dual identity.

Indeed, by the end of Batman Forever the fact that Bruce Wayne is Batman has become the worst-kept secret in Gotham City — not only does Dr. Meridian know it, but so does Dick Grayson (of the Flying Graysons, gunned down by Two-Face during a circus robbery — yes, Robin finally appears in the modern Batman series this time around, creating a surprisingly Bisexual ending in which Bruce Wayne/Batman ends up with both a girlfriend and a boyfriend!) and even the two villains — though Two-Face ends up dead and the Riddler totally insane (in a dramatic final scene at “Arkham Asylum,” where he’s visited by Dr. Meridian in the company of the asylum’s attending psychiatrist, “Dr. Burton”). All the psychological heavy breathing — in which, as in the first film, Batman relives, again and again, the murder of his parents that made him determined to be a crime-fighting superhero in the first place — really takes away from the action and makes Batman Forever — still an entertaining movie — a lot less fun than it could have been. — 11/2/95


The fourth film in the current Batman cycle — and the seventh in all (counting the two 1940’s serials for Columbia and the 1967 film with the TV cast — interestingly, though there have been seven Batman films only one actor, Michael Keaton, has ever played the Caped Crusader on the big screen twice) — Batman and Robin opens marvelously, with a highly baroque fight sequence between the Dynamic Duo and Mr. Freeze (played by a top-billed Arnold Schwarzenegger) that doesn’t even try for narrative relevance. All we see is the voice and face of Commissioner Gordon on a TV monitor in the Batmobile ordering Batman and Robin to the museum to fight a new villain called Mr. Freeze — and we’re in for 10 minutes of pure, joyous action that’s the best part of the whole movie, full of leaps, tumbles and dazzling effects that proceed in cheery disregard of the established laws of physics. (The final credits list no fewer than 77 stunt people for this film — I believe it — and also credits John Dykstra, the man who made the spaceships fly in 2001 and Star Wars, as head of the special effects. One can tell.)

From then on, alas, Batman and Robin sags — not as seriously as the last Batman film, Batman Forever, a dreary farrago partially redeemed only by Jim Carrey’s dazzling performance as the Riddler, mainly because it doesn’t take itself so mind-numbingly seriously. But the marvelous mixture of dark background and camp foreground that Tim Burton so beautifully hit in the 1989 Batman that started the current series has consistently eluded the filmmakers since. Akiva Goldsman, the rewriter of Batman Forever, gets sole screenplay credit this time, and perhaps it was his (her?) idea to minimize the “serious” subplots (we get only a few seconds of the young boy Bruce Wayne grieving the death of his parents this time, not the whole leaden flashback that brought Batman Forever to a dead stop for about five minutes). But I couldn’t help wishing that Goldsman and director Joel Schumacher had gone whole hog and done an all-out camp job a la the old TV series with Adam West and Bruce Ward.

As it is, Batman and Robin is good clean comic-book fun whenever the actors are actually in action, dreary and dull when they are in repose — and George Clooney’s Batman is no help. One would think that Clooney, with his more buff physique than either Michael Keaton or Val Kilmer, would have been a good Batman — and if he’d had a campier script he could have been a good Adam West-style Batman — but his military haircut and his wooden voice are all wrong for this conception of the Caped Crusader; and Chris O’Donnell, who was much more interesting in Batman Forever despite the longueurs of its script, this time tries to ape Clooney’s woodenness. The most charming performance in the film is Alicia Silverstone’s as Batgirl (even though we’re supposed to believe she’s Alfred the butler’s grand-niece from England, yet Silverstone doesn’t even make the slightest attempt at a British accent!); and Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy is a close second, though even with her character Goldsman and Schumacher miss some opportunities. She crashes a benefit Bruce Wayne is giving as a trap for Mr. Freeze and does a great dance number to an instrumental version of the old Coasters song, “Poison Ivy” — what else? — yet this scene would have been so much more charming had she sung the song as well!

Add to this Stephen Goldblatt’s overwrought photography — there are scenes in this film (mostly involving Poison Ivy and her artificially enhanced strongman sidekick, Bane) where there is so much color, and it’s so densely packed into the frame without regard to possible clashes, that it almost literally hurts one’s eyes to watch the movie at these points — and Elliot Goldenthal’s serviceable but unmemorable score (Danny “Boingo” Elfman, come back; we miss you!), and we have an all-too-typical example of modern mass entertainment with a few good moments — the kind of movie that, as one recent critic put it, doesn’t so much entertain the audience as bludgeon it into submission. I still love the whole mythos of Batman, but if the lucrative Warners franchise on this character is to continue, they have to make the next film more exuberant, lighter, cheerier, campier and more fun — in other words, lighten up! — 10/25/97


The movie I picked was Batman Begins, the latest (2005) entry in the Warners/DC franchise and the film that was generally acclaimed as the return to form for the series after the much-maligned Batman and Robin (which I actually rather liked, at least early on ), though which both Charles and I found to be a quite decent comic-book movie buried under a lot of pseudo-philosophical padding. It begins in Tibet (“played” by Iceland, by the way), where Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has escaped the rigors of growing up an orphan after her parents were gunned down by a street criminal (a central element in the Batman mythos, but less central in the comic books than in these films: this is the third time in the five Warners Batman films that we’ve seen this event dramatized) only to find himself in an Asian prison, from which he’s bailed out by an agent from the mysterious “League of Shadows” headed by the mysterious Ra’s Al Guhl (Ken Watanabe).

He’s given a blue flower and told to ascend a mountaintop à la Ronald Colman at the end of Lost Horizon (about the last movie I expected to see ripped off in a Batman film!), where he finds a decrepit version of Shangri-La (well, it has been under Chinese occupation for 46 years) and is trained to become a League of Shadows warrior, only to draw back from that rather dubious honor when he’s told that his mission will include the total destruction of Gotham (Batman’s home town is shorn of the “City” that used to be part of its name); it turns out the League has historically taken down every city that was threatening to destroy the rest of civilization with its excesses, including ancient Rome, Constantinople, London (they sent plague-bearing rats thither in the Middle Ages), etc.

Since the director of this film is Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) and Nolan also co-wrote the script with Blade creator David S. Goyer, one can expect a lot of confusing flashbacks and playing with the time sequence, and indeed that occurs. At various points during the first hour of this film we learn that once upon a time the young Bruce Wayne and his childhood girlfriend Rachel Dawes (who grows up to be Katie Holmes, Tom Cruise’s current main squeeze) were playing in the Waynes’ gargantuan yard when Bruce fell down a well and was assaulted by a flock of bats (in a scene that’s an almost exact visual quote of Hitchcock’s The Birds, by the way) — giving him a lifelong phobia of bats that proves fatal to his parents when, in the first act of an opera (I thought it was either Turandot or Otello but according to the credits on it’s a piece based on the Faust legend with a bass as Faust, a soprano as Marguerite and a tenor as Mephistopheles), Bruce sees bat-like shapes descend from the theatre’s ceiling as part of the staging, and makes his parents take him out — thereby unwittingly setting them up for their murder by street robber Joe Chill (Richard Brake).

Chill later becomes an informant for the federal government against Gotham’s crime boss, Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), only to be shot down in the courthouse corridor by one of Falcone’s hit men just as Bruce Wayne was about to dispatch him himself. (This is depicted as taking place in the days before metal detectors and searches became de rigueur in public buildings in general and courthouses in particular; indeed, one of the most annoying aspects of Batman Begins is the general uncertainty as to when it takes place — the attribution of Chill’s crime to Depression-induced desperation suggests the 1930’s, the decade when the Batman character debuted, but the settings, fashions and cars are modern.)

This sets Bruce Wayne off on his wanderjahr and his rendezvous with destiny in the Icelandic version of Tibet, which ends with his presumed annihilation of the League of Shadows — though he preserves the life of his own teacher, Henri Ducard (played by Liam Neeson with full British accent, ignoring the presumably French derivation of his character) — his return to Gotham, his discovery that the CEO of Wayne Enterprises is about to sell the family stock holding and take the company public, and his hooking up with the Wayne family butler Alfred (Michael Caine, in the film’s most delightful performance), and Wayne Enterprises’ resident scientific genius, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, once again an éminence negre lending more weight and gravitas to a fundamentally silly film than it deserves), who manages to channel all the high-tech gadgetry in Wayne Enterprises’ vaults to Bruce Wayne without once suspecting he’s turning it all into Batgear.

As this film unrolls across two hours and 20 minutes of running time (though the last 10 minutes of that doesn’t really count because it’s the closing credit roll) the plot complications pile on: they include the revelation that even Falcone answers to a higher boss than himself; the theft of a microwave water vaporizer from Wayne Enterprises; a corrupt psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Crane (played by Cillian Murphy in a performance that has some of the same demented charm as his work in Breakfast on Pluto); a new hallucinogen that makes people look as if snakes are coming out of their heads and provokes them to fight each other out of fear; and the final revelation that Henri Ducard,the real head of the League of Shadows (ya remember Henri Ducard? Ya remember the League of Shadows? This film is full of Anna Russell moments) is the higher boss of Gotham’s crime syndicate and his plot is to destroy the city by using the microwave gizmo to vaporize Gotham’s water supply, already “spiked” with the hallucinogen, and thereby blow it all into the faces of the city’s entire population.

Batman Begins has flashes of the old camp spirit — notably in the scenes between Bruce Wayne and Alfred — but for the most part, even more than Batman and Robin, it takes itself way too seriously: instead of the annoying strategy of The Mask of Zorro, which camped up the action and took the exposition all too seriously (the Fairbanks/Niblo and Power/Mamoulian Zorro movies had camped up the exposition and taken the action seriously, a much more entertaining way to make a movie), in Batman Begins the exposition and the action basically sit on each other, with hero and villain barking pseudo-philosophical mal mots at each other during the big fisticuff sequences. (I began to miss the splattering of words like “Pow!” and “Zap!” across the screen, and at one point told Charles it made me want to run some of the 1960’s Batman TV shows just to remind myself that once upon a time, Batman was fun.)

Add to that a serviceable but pretty generic score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard that made me miss Danny “Oingo Boingo” Elfman’s contributions to the Tim Burton Batman films that much more, and that Mixmaster editing style in which shots are flashed so fast and cut so seemingly at random it’s hard to tell what’s supposed to be going on or who’s doing what to whom (this accursed style, born of music videos, that’s supposed to be the only way you can make a movie that holds the attention of teenagers), and Batman Begins turns into a sporadically entertaining but surprisingly dull movie whose annoying pretentiousness (like that of Spider-Man 2) may have wowed the critics but leaves me pretty cold. I find myself wanting to say to the suits at Warners what I said about Batman and Robin eight years ago: “make the next film more exuberant, lighter, cheerier, campier and more fun — in other words, lighten up!” — 12/29/05


The Dark Knight is a compelling movie but one that really doesn’t achieve the greatness it was clearly aiming for — and it’s a film that’s sincerely out of whack in its attempt to graft intense moral, social and political meaning onto a story based on an old comic book about a rich guy who fights psychopathic criminals dressed in a bat costume. It’s essentially a nightmare vision of Gotham (Batman’s abode is here shorn of the “City” that was traditionally the second word of its name) beset by dueling crime lords from various foreign countries (Italy, Hong Kong and Chechnya — the last of these villains is identified in the dramatis personae just as “The Chechen”) as well as home-grown psycho The Joker (Heath Ledger),who’s targeting the Mafia by sending his gangs to rob all the banks where the Mafia stashes and launders its money. The Joker also murders all his sidekicks so he won’t have to split the money with them — just like Bela Lugosi’s crime lord in the film Bowery at Midnight — and as with that movie one begins to wonder how he’ll be able to get anyone to work with him once his cavalier (to say the least!) treatment of his associates becomes known throughout the underworld.

On the side of good are Batman (Christian Bale, only the second person to play the Caped Crusader in a film more than once — Michael Keaton, who played Batman in both of Tim Burton’s Batmovies, was the first), his long-suffering butler Alfred (Michael Caine), his R&D chief Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, éminence noire as usual), along with Gotham’s crusading D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhardt, who was the one good thing about the 2006 film The Black Dahlia and equally dominates here); his assistant/girlfriend, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes from the first film), who’s also Bruce Wayne’s es-squeeze (so Heath Ledger ended up making movies with both Gyllenhaals!); and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), who in this version starts out as a police lieutenant commanding a squad of formerly “dirty” cops Dent investigated before as an internal affairs officer for the Gotham Police Department, and doesn’t get to be police commissioner until midway through the movie when the Joker assassinates his predecessor, Gillian Loeb (Colin McFarlane) — a boy named Gillian? — and Gordon gets the nod to replace him.

The part of this movie that rings truest is the sense of Gotham as an environment where law and order have almost totally broken down; criminals knock off city officials with impunity and have so thoroughly penetrated the official police that people who are trying to work within the system, like Gordon and Dent, are virtually powerless because they have no idea who they can trust. I’d have thought this portrayal was exaggerated were it not literally coming true in Mexico — where the police and the government are so honeycombed with agents for the drug cartels that through much of Mexico law enforcement has virtually ceased to exist (it’s one thing when that happens in a place as sufficiently remote as Colombia; it’s quite another when you read about it in Tijuana and realize how quickly and easily the poison could spread to our side of the border).

The film also aspires to be a metaphor for the “War on Terror,” especially when the Joker boasts that he’s been able to demoralize Gotham and virtually bring down its entire city government just with a few sticks of dynamite and some drums of diesel oil — it’s hard to miss the obvious parallel with the 9/11 hijackers and their ability to transform the politics of the United States and send us on a self-destructive course of invading Iraq and trashing our own constitution and laws just with a few box cutters on airplanes. The parallel breaks down, though, with the refusal of writers Christopher Nolan (who also directed), Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer to give the Joker any comprehensible reason, either ideological or financial, for his actions; Michael Caine’s Alfred describes him as “someone who just likes to watch things burn,” which is as close as we’re going to get to this character — at least Osama bin Laden, as maniacal as he is, has an idealistic goal behind his actions, however much his goals (“purifying” the world and re-establishing the Muslim empire from Spain to India on a hard-core fundamentalist path ruled the way the Taliban ruled Afghanistan) are as repulsive as his tactics. The clash between Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox towards the end — Wayne has used one of his high-tech gizmos to turn every cell phone in Gotham into a microphone so he can monitor all conversations throughout the city and eavesdrop on the Joker, and Fox says that if Wayne goes through with such a hard-core mass invasion of people’s privacy he will resign — also has its obvious parallels with the real-life debates of privacy vs. security during the Bush administration (security won, and given Barack Obama’s vote for the NSA spying bill security will probably continue to trump privacy for the foreseeable future in this country).

The Dark Knight is an impressive movie — the visuals are stunning and the use of real cityscapes (Chicago’s, even though “Gotham” was originally a metaphor for New York), though not quite as effective (at least to my sensibilities) as the Ghostbusters-out-of-Caligari painted (or digitally rendered) backdrops of Tim Burton’s two Batman films, works well and blends effectively with the studio work from Britain (with a side trip to Hong Kong for Batman to kidnap a Chinese gangster hiding out there — how they got the Chinese government to greenlight this sequence given how bad it makes them look is a mystery to me!). Where it’s less fun than it could have been — and I’m sorry I’m being a broken record about this in my comments about all the latter-day Batman movies — is in the sheer ponderousness of it all, the fact that the entire movie (even the action!) is taken at a deliberate pace to try to give the impression of Seriousness to the material when it’s really about a cop and a crook in funny costumes chasing each other across a cityscape.

Aaron Eckhart, a favorite of mine, really takes the acting honors; if he seems a bit too stuffily self-righteous as Harvey Dent it’s because the self-righteousness is part of the character, and when (way too late in the picture) he gets caught in the Joker’s trap, half of his face is eaten away and he becomes the villainous Two-Face (though in this reading of the character Two-Face only kills criminals and crooked cops), he acts the part with real authority and makes the character’s bitterness over the death of Rachel Dawes (yes, that’s right, Nolan and company kill off a major returning character from the immediately previous film, Batman Begins!) believable as motivation for his moral turn. Heath Ledger, by contrast, is just completely wrong; whereas Cesar Romero overdid the camp aspects of the character and Jack Nicholson married menace and camp superbly in what probably remains the greatest performance of his career, Ledger is so relentlessly evil, so utterly un-charming and creepy, that he can’t make an effect.

This was quite deliberate on the part of the filmmakers, but it pissed Ledger off; in the New York Times interview he did a month before he died (the same one in which he confessed he couldn’t sleep for more than about an hour or two at a time) he complained that the Joker was the first role he’d ever played in which the character had no redeeming qualities, nothing he could hold on to as an actor and build some depth. I don’t know that much of Ledger’s previous work — the only films of his I’m familiar with are Monster’s Ball and Brokeback Mountain — but I get the impression that he was a very closed-in performer and he was best at playing introverts, which is the exact opposite of what you need for a spectacular extrovert like the Joker. If Ledger gets any awards for this performance, it’ll be as a memorial and a gesture towards what he could have done if he’d lived rather than for any intrinsic quality he showed in this film!

But then the problem with the whole movie is its air of strained seriousness, the ponderousness with which it’s paced (it times out at 2 hours and 33 minutes, at least a half hour too long for its own good) and the sheer nihilism of the ending: the Joker is captured alive (Batman rescues him from a fall off a tall building), Harvey Dent a.k.a. Two-Face is killed, Batman agrees to take the rap for the five murders Dent committed in his Two-Face identity to preserve Dent’s heroic image and make him a martyr for law and order — which means Batman will be an outlaw and all the police in Gotham will try to capture him — Lucius Fox, on his way out the door at Wayne Enterprises, erases the entire computerized network and destroys the company’s whole R&D department; Rachel (the girl both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent loved) is already dead; and the mood is one of hopelessness and despair, not at all how one wants a superhero movie to end nor what one would expect from the most popular movie of the year Obama won the presidency! It also makes me wonder just how on earth even the best screenwriting brains Warner Bros. can hire can come up with the inevitable sequel! — 12/14/08