Dark Knight: Another bad comicbook movie

18 July, 2008

Note: I haven’t actually seen this much-hyped opus from wunderkind Nolan. But I’ve seen the publicity clips and heard a lot of the fanboy and critical praise. The problem I have with superhero films in general is their unbelievability, their tendency toward cliche, and their overwhelming urge to be “cool”. The first X-Men movie is the best I’ve seen in circumventing these problems, but the sequels got too much into goggling at cool costumes and awesome powers (and terrible acting from Halle Berry).

Batman is exceptional in the world of superheroes for having no magical or science-fictional powers. Okay, there are a few others, but they haven’t had one hundredth of the impact. Batman went several better than The Shadow in combining hard-boiled crime fighting with Gothic mood-setting, a sort of Phantom of the Opera burst out onto the dirty streets of the modern city. His portrayal has varied quite a bit over his history, from the primitive gun-wielding Bat-Man of the 1940s, through the cartoonish antics of the 50s and 60s, the noir-ish naturalism of the 70s and 80s, and the angsty kill-fest of subsequent years, famously kickstarted by Frank Miller and Alan Moore.

For me, the 70s and 80s are key. Firstly, because that’s the period I grew up reading, but secondly, and more importantly, because of that key word “naturalism“. Burton’s Gothic camp joined with the over-emotiveness of the Miller/Moore period to shape the current public image and expectation of Batman. However, I think what is most interesting and original about Batman is not his position as operatic super-hero, but the implications of his backstory, the basic elements that make him different from all the other adolescent fantasy figures.

What if a rich guy was screwed-up and crazy enough to spend his nights wearing a mask, trying to “stop crime”? (Never mind that crime is such a pervasive and far-ranging phenomenon that such an enterprise would be doomed from the start.) What would that look like? You can be damn sure it wouldn’t be the carnival show Nolan has staged, which, for all the hype, is a direct heir to Burton’s series and successors in terms of campness, and perhaps even worse in terms of childishness. (No, kids, violence does not automatically make for adult entertainment, if you consider what we actually mean by the word “adult” in its best and fullest sense.)

Another thing that I dislike about the Batman movies is the double- or even triple-teaming of villains. I think only Burton’s first film avoided this foolishness (but on the other hand it included songs by Prince, which is also pretty damning). Surely the drama of the story is diluted if Batman, a somewhat unbelievable figure already, is confronted by not one but several costumed grotesques, each with their own unrelated origin stories and personal issues. In conflict with one villain, Batman’s story has a Manichean quality that sustains its credibility, but if it’s “Batman versus the ultimate evil: the Joker – plus, also, the quite-nearly-as-villainous Twoface, who appears later in the show”, it descends to the circus level of the old Universal horrors, which sought to be “even better” by piling half-a-dozen villains into a picture. Those films are now regarded as trash, whose only value is nostalgia or camp. That will be the fate of the Batman movies too, Nolan’s included, until someone really has the courage to resist the worst fanboyisms of the comicbook culture, and make a film that is genuinely gritty, dark and real.

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