Sunday, July 20, 2008

Heroes, Hollywood Style

Someone viewing Christopher Nolan’s well-earned second stab (this time with co-screenplay author, brother Jonathan) at the Batman franchise looking for a big, dark, violent action-thriller doesn’t need to own a copy of the Principia Discordia — unless or maybe especially if that person is a movie reviewer who sets out to be unimpressed. Perhaps it's because I do own a copy that, in spite of my own penchant for being unimpressed, I found The Dark Knight both entertaining and rewarding. More about the negative criticisms later, because they are making the news or at least the ‘sphere.

The film opens with a bank heist perpetrated by a bunch of clowns; their ringleader brilliantly set up the job in such a way that each of the robbers would kill off one of his cohorts in daisy chain fashion, until the mastermind slips away as the sole beneficiary. And that’s only one of the many grand entrances made by the villain, Heath Ledger’s much-talked about Joker. Joker, it is eventually laid out, is an agent of chaos.

The basic plot: the mob is upset that Batman is making life difficult for them and wants him gone. An underworld upstart in clown make-up, with a penchant for destruction, offers to do the job — for a price. In addition to the money, for his own satisfaction what he wants more than anything is to see Batman unmasked. Throughout the film, Joker will present moral dilemmas for most of the film’s major characters and even more of the many minor ones.

Batman’s team, meanwhile, is joined by a new player on the scene: Harvey Dent, an incorruptible idealist dedicated to bringing down the above-mentioned mob, headed by Eric Roberts. In addition to their fight against Evil Bad Men, Dent and Batman alter-ego Bruce Wayne share a romantic interest in Rachel Dawes, this time portrayed by Maggie Gyllenhaal in a take that’s so sexed up compared to Katie Holmes’ version 1.0 that it’s no wonder Rachel makes the choice she does about 2/3 in.

Heath Ledger’s Joker is mesmerizing. The haphazardly-applied lipstick mirrors his random body movements and dialog; everything he does and says seems to have been pulled out of his ass. It’s a truly terrifying Joker owing nothing to Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholsons' wicked uncles. He's far more the creepy cousin who never comes out of the attic, showing glimpses of a whiny loser lurking underneath rationalized malevolence. A psychopathic destroyer and liar, however, does not an anarchist, make. Not necessarily. This is where the brothers Nolan fail, but at least they fail on the side of glory.

Although on the surface it seems the film is a meditation on good and evil, the corrupt and the incorruptible, The Dark Knight is appreciated more fully as a dialog on the varying forces of control and chaos, with a side trip about the importance of letting people have their legends and myths.

On the side of negative control are mob interests and their underworld economy; in the corner for benevolent control are the representatives of the good people of Gotham City (or at least their less corrupt representatives, anyway), with Harvey Dent as white knight and Gary Oldman, in what may be the most subtle performance of his entire career, reprising his role as Lt. Gordon. Gordon's the fulcrum between Dent's heroism and Batman's despair; like Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox, he's a good guy who's cynical enough to get things done. On the side of chaos, supposedly, we have Batman and Joker.

There's the sole flaw: Joker isn’t really a chaos agent. In his own way, Joker is as dedicated to control and displays of power as Harvey Dent and the double-headed coin he tosses as a way of deciding his own next move. It's not Joker but Batman who represents the force of anarchistic, destructive chaos. He blows up what needs to be blown up and lets others do the rebuilding. This leaves no agent of constructive chaos, unless you consider Batman's alter-ego Bruce Wayne - but Nolan only shows us a hint of this. In the greater scheme, all this isn't that huge a thing because, really, how many people regularly try to work their way through control/chaos constructs outside of a few nerdy Discordians?

There’s been some brouhaha on the interwebs; the few critics who’ve given thumbs down and thrown squishy tomatoes at The Dark Knight complain about a few things: its relentless bleakness and violence; it’s too talky on the headier aspects, entering into pretentious Matrix-like territory. Some even suggest that it veers into apologia for George Bush and the War on Terror, perhaps thanks to a certain eavesdropping situation. Finally there are some complaints about action sequences being choppy.


There’s also talk of a posthumous Oscar for Ledger; the odds of any film actor so embodying such a riveting a character between now and December, let alone in a supporting role, are crazy low. With the death factor, though the outpouring expression of loss that accompanied his OD may have seemed over-exaggerated at the time, compared to his short career span and seemingly low box-office appeal (mainstream media would have you think Bubba isn’t going anywhere near the theatre for every next flick made by the Brokeback guy), what was so heartbreaking about his death was not just the personal tragedy, but losing someone with his ability to take such heavy risks as an artist and bring in the publicity machine to create audiences for movies that dared to inspire, and be inspired by, expression that went far beyond making things that go ‘boom.’

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