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Friday, Aug. 8, 2008

'The Dark Knight'

That joker isn't funny anymore

Like a plague of locusts, the superhero movies descend on us this summer. August brings us "Hancock," with Will Smith as an alcoholic, irresponsible and quite unfunny superhero; "The Incredible Hulk," which is practically a remake of 2003's "Hulk (presumably Ang Lee's version wasn't stupid enough); and "The Dark Knight," Christopher Nolan's much-anticipated followup to "Batman Begins" (2005). Right around the corner, in September, is the launch of a new superhero movie franchise, Marvel's "Iron Man," with Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role.

The Dark Knight Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
The Dark Knight
Christian Bale as Batman and Heath Ledger as The Joker

Director: Christopher Nolan
Running time: 152 minutes
Language: English
Opens Aug. 9, 2008
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Are we witnessing some sort of peak? Or is this the future of cinema, endless comic-book adaptations with $100-million-plus budgets and advertising campaigns as all-powerful as their masked avengers?

When did geek-boy culture take over the movies, anyway? Once upon a time, the original, campy "Batman" TV series was a cultural touchstone for the lunchbox set, while "Spiderman" and "Batman" alike were Saturday morning cartoon fodder for the kiddies. Comic books were best left behind at a certain age, unless one wished to wind up a FYOV (40-year-old virgin). When did superhero fare start being pitched to adults?

One can point to "Superman" in 1978, when massively-budgeted special-effects movies were still a new phenomenon ("Star Wars" was released in '77), and the casting of Marlon Brando — then still a respected actor — managed to give the film dramatic credibility. This strategy is still in place, and I have seen the best actors of my generation — Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kirsten Dunst, Willem DaFoe, Edward Norton — dragging themselves through overrated "B" movies, playing irradiated mutants, evil geniuses — or their girlfriends.

Another development came in the mid-'80s, when graphic novels like Frank Miller's "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" brought darker themes, psychological depth and more adult content to the genre, all of which was reflected in Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman" movie. Superhero comics were no longer slightly naff, biff!-pow! pop culture, but literary explorations of morality. Or so we were told.

No "Batman" film yet has tested that premise to the extent that Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" does. This is the darkest, most violent "Batman" film yet, as Nolan positions his masked avenger squarely in the age of terrorism. Gotham City is menaced by The Joker (Heath Ledger), an unfathomable criminal who seems motivated only by the desire to spread chaos, to prove the essential foulness of human nature. He launches a terrorist campaign of bombings, kidnappings and assassinations in Gotham City.

To stop him, masked crime-fighter Batman (Christian Bale) must resort to some questionable tactics: illegal surveillance of all of Gotham City, violent interrogation of prisoners, and toying with the idea that killing evil-doers may be better than putting them on trial. Meanwhile, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a crusading district attorney, is forced to consider taking the law into his own hands when his sweetheart, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhall), is dragged into the conflict.

At times, the film plays more like an episode of "24" than a "Batman" movie. The Joker presents Batman with fiendish dilemmas, like when two hostages are tied to ticking bombs, and The Joker tells Batman where they are, but he only has time to save one and must choose which. Batman must also consider whether his very presence is what's attracting such mayhem in the first place, a rather existential question for a superhero flick.

The film contains mucho musing on how good can veer into evil and such. Fanboys will see this as profound, but that requires ignoring the essential silliness of a "millionaire playboy" in a bondage suit fighting a schizophrenic in clown makeup. (Even sillier is the ridiculously lame CGI rendering of villain Two-Face's skinless head.) The film's use of contemporary hot-button topics — illegal wire-tapping, torture — is entirely vague: The Wall Street Journal's editorial page wrote this up as a pro-Bush film, while liberal bloggers claim the opposite. Not surprising, given that the film's not really saying anything. It raises questions, but explores none.

Nolan's masterpiece, "Memento," an absolutely brilliant thriller, was a disturbing look at the prospect of revenge gone awry. It worked because the film took us into the character, his pain and confusion. "The Dark Knight" has no characters, just icons. Bale's Batman is almost a nonpresence in the film, agonizing a little over whether to crime-fight or not to crime-fight, but he has virtually no personality.

Far more watchable and entertaining, is Ledger's Joker, a bravura performance full of madness and menace, one that makes this clown truly frightening. "Madness is like gravity," he purrs, "all it takes is a little push." Ledger conjures up a lip-smacking sadism that gives his character presence, but there is no depth. His motivation seems to be — like Two-Face — that his scarred facial disfigurement, his lack of physical beauty, has turned him against society, made him a vile, resentful monster. Let's see, the physically crippled presented as a threat to society, now there's a real dark theme, straight from the Nazis actually.

Nolan delivers a few brilliant action sequences, notably when Batman extracts a shady banker from a Hong Kong skyscraper, and a delirious sequence when The Joker rigs two ferries with bombs, and says he'll spare the boat that detonates the other one first. Still, a fun movie this isn't. "The Dark Knight" aims to be the most profound of superhero flicks, but that sure seems like an oxymoron.

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