Let’s get the muck out of the way. This is an action movie with a few pretensions that mostly succeed. It shouldn’t be excused because of its veneer; neither should it make excuses for being an action movie. Inexcusable in my opinion is Christian Bale’s put-on rasp as Batman. It’s obnoxious when you want to take the story seriously but it also serves up some of the best unintentional fun I can remember—so not a total knock there. Batman has all these whirligig gadgets yet he doesn’t have Wayne Enterprises develop one to modulate his voice? My assumption for the mouth hole has always been for wine swilling or filet mignon eating ease when Wayne wants to dine at home in his suit. No problem there. So install something to mask your voice already. Anyway. Also inexcusable is the overly-expository dialogue, the kind that makes you think the filmmaker thinks you perhaps stumbled into the wrong movie, with corny one-liners flecked throughout. Then there’s this atrocity:
“This city just showed you that it’s full of people ready to believe in good.”
Aside from those hideous missteps revolving mostly around the Batman himself, I have few complaints about this. It’s a rare thing for a summer action blockbuster, let alone one based on a long-revered comics character, to achieve anything like the dissonance, moods and violence perfected here. If a film like this can succeed in raising questions of political economy and paradox with its close-to-home chauvinism, or broach such theoretical fields as rent seeking or public choice theory, then it has to be considered accomplished. I say broach because it presents a rather broad cynicism channeled through vaguely sketched moral dilemmas that inspire our hearts more than our minds. It’s an action movie, you know.
Nolan seems to be proffering the audience (or the citizens of Gotham) as the ‘hero’ of the story, with the understanding that ‘hero’ in this film’s context is one who lies outside the machine. At first blush it seems to be The Joker (Heath Ledger), a man who is hardly a man at all, a phantom really, who is compelled to destroy. He lies outside of Gotham’s framework insomuch as he’s opposed to it. He has no friends, only accomplices who are always potential fodder—well illustrated in a scene where he’s captured two goons and has them fight to the death with the jagged half of a pool cue, the winner recruited. Eventually we learn that, though he may have nothing to gain in the material sense, he does have goals, as much as Batman or any other player in this scheme. He’s as much a part of the politics as the politicians and Nolan’s singular triumph here will be to show that Batman is too.
Nolan takes care to examine Batman’s supposed incorruptibility, previously thought inviolate (except by readers of Frank Miller’s incarnations). He does nothing perfidious or evil, but like any of us his pretensions to goodness collapse like a house of cards when put to the test. He too has to choose one life over another, one course of action that may violate his principles short term for the ‘greater good’ long term. Batman is guided by utility. He’s basically the long, shapeless arm of modern law enforcement. Toward the end of the film, Nolan carelessly throws in a conflict between Wayne and his confidant Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) that evokes the Patriot Act. Wayne is willing to use micro-spying on the citizens of Gotham just this once because it’s the only way to stop a man like The Joker (where have we heard that before?); Lucius objects, but helps him anyway. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is nearly as easily corrupted when he becomes the target of a cruel game. All his sermonizing means little once the crosshairs settle on (half of) his face.
It’s interesting to note that in what’s otherwise a fantasy film, the film is thoroughly grounded in reality, Nolan even linking Gotham (aka New York City) to real-world Hong Kong. The only characters who stretch the limits of reality are Batman and The Joker, but they can almost be thought of as forces not unlike the subconscious forces that really move us. Batman is our desire for justice, The Joker our desire to shake things up. They can even be viewed as halves of Harvey Dent’s psychosis. Harvey the public prosecutor, the white knight and Harvey the vigilante who wants to cut through all the bullshit. Batman really isn’t a vigilante at all. He’s the police’s unofficial silent partner.
I can’t recall another film with so much conflict. Every scene. Either it’s resolved then and there, left unresolved, comes back later on or it’s a part of some overall arc of conflict. People figuratively eat one another. The Joker, despite his manifestly creepy circumlocution, further intensifies this notion. Married to the conflict are a number of moral dilemmas, most being obvious set-pieces with some more methodically folded into the narrative. The great dilemma at the heart of the film recalls the roots of Western philosophy: what is the good life? and how to achieve it? There are a lot of answers thrown up like molotov cocktails at the question.
The Joker’s anarchic ambitions don’t really resemble anarchy at all. It’s a compulsion to govern reality instead of having others do it on your behalf, but The Joker wants as much to manipulate others as the system he accuses of it. He’s a misanthrope and a nihilist and he follows his self-constructed meaning to a tee. His reason for being is to make others question theirs, at the point of a knife if need be. Nolan links his activity and his motives to revolutionary impulses (otherwise known as terrorism): anti-materialistic sentiment, desire to upset the established order, desire to upset people’s notions of the established order, a willingness to use and giddy joy in using materiel got cheaply to ruin empires buoyed by millions. His conspiratorial moves to manipulate the power players to his own ends are also evocative of the idea. The Joker exploits the powerful and affluent to achieve his goals (like so many terrorist networks supported by the political elite) while setting it up so that these zones of power disembowel themselves. I’ve gotta say, aside from the fact that his morality doesn’t embrace human life, his heart’s in the right place. Who doesn’t want to watch the world burn sometimes?
If the above doesn’t pique your amygdala, then the film’s technical grace will certainly impress. The special effects magic is some of the best around, miniatures and CGI seamlessly integrated into original footage. Nolan employed roving IMAX cameras to shoot some pretty high-octane moments, supposedly damaging one of these extremely expensive cameras in the process. He doesn’t rely on close-ups or traditional blocking techniques to sidestep shit, preferring to let us see as much as it’s possible to see. Notice when the film is letterboxed it’s the 35mm stock, but for the action sequences shot with IMAX cameras it’s in full-screen, often subtly jumping back and forth within the same scene. Consult your disc special features to see whether or not these are anamorphically squeezed, as I couldn’t say.
Intrascene editing is sharp, my one complaint being that scenes always tend to cut away exactly when you expect them to, something Nolan hasn’t quite figured out how to get around yet. But imagine having to cut together all of this footage shot with different cameras and different lenses. It’s impressively paced considering the technical feats involved, enough to forgive a few continuity errors along the way.
I didn’t think Nolan was capable of it, but he has really captured the paranoia of our politics and the hypocrisy of mass media. Virtually every ten minutes in this film you see someone or some group watching the television. Was The Joker behind 9/11? If you’re one of the billions who had that tragedy reported to you over the airwaves secondhand, he’s just as likely a candidate as bin Laden. Harvey Dent’s ballyhooed turn as martyr makes the point well enough. We just don’t know who these people offered up as heroes or villains really are. Even Batman plays the politician, willing to disregard Dent’s improprieties if it means giving the people of Gotham someone to believe in. Batman himself is regarded as a protean symbol by his alter-ego, Bruce Wayne. He may be ostracized by film’s end, but we can rest assured that like any disenfranchised party he’ll come back into favor by the next term.