(I haven't read what you other guys wrote yet, cause I wanted to just dump my thoughts as they are before having them challenged and, like, learning and loving and growing and hugging. So I might be parroting stuff others have already said.)
I don't like comic books. But it's a benign sort of dislike; it's fine that they exist, I'm not offended by their existence, they're just not my thing. But when comic book sensibilities spill over into the movies, I tend to get … well, pretty pissed off.
I used to have a blaaaagh. Remember when blogging was a thing? Well, I used to have one. And I just dipped into the archive and pulled out two things I wrote on the same day, June 18 of 2005, two hours apart. I'm going to bury them behind spoiler tags to keep from overwhelming the page.
Here's the first thing, which I wrote shortly after seeing Batman Begins:
Saw Batman Begins
last night. Two-and-a-half stars out of four, I guess. Entertaining movie, pretty good. But here’s the thing: Don’t
think about it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t think about it too hard. I’m saying don’t think about it at all.
Seriously. The plot has more holes than a colander. Christian Bale looks great in the bat-suit-thing until he opens his mouth. When he’s not in the suit, he looks like he’s acting really hard.
Katie Holmes is a complete waste of space. She has neither charm nor charisma.
The best roles in the film are the ones in the background: Michael Caine’s Alfred is a little over the top but expertly drawn. Morgan Freeman commands attention every minute he’s on the screen. And Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordan is a masterpiece of slow play.
The movie looks good but not great, with way too many stylistic nods to Blade Runner. The script is good but not great; it has moments of greatness that betray the skillful hand of a script doctor — after Bruce Wayne’s first night of crime-fighting, Alfred throws open the curtains; Bruce rolls over in bed and whines, “Bats are nocturnal!” — but the story is a train wreck. If I ever see another super-hero movie the plot of which depends on the phrase “water supply,” I’m gonna demand my money back.
The infuriating thing about Batman Begins is how uneven it is. The film has two bad guys: the demented psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane and the anarchist mastermind Ras al Ghul. Crane (Cillian Murphy) is utterly two-dimensional. He’s worse than two-dimensional; he’s a sketch, a silhouette. The story behind Ras al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and his League of Shadows is brilliant. The fact that one villain gets a rich and gripping back-story while the other is tacked on as an afterthought is pretty annoying. The script needed three more rewrites before shooting.
There’s a problem with super-hero movies, and that problem is this: Super-hero stories are inherently silly. There’s just no way around it. So when trying to pitch a super-hero story to an adult audience, you have to somehow overwhelm the inherent silliness with something else. The most successful super-hero movie of recent years — probably of all time — was Spider-Man. (The Incredibles is in a class all its own.) It avoided the pitfalls of inherent silliness by mixing equal parts unapologetic sincerity and knowing self-parody and ladling the result on top of a solid storytelling core. The opening and closing scenes of Spider-Man establish the heart of the story: It’s not about a kid in a silly suit or fighting criminal geniuses or any of that nonsense. It’s about a girl. That’s the kind of storytelling honesty you need to sell a movie about a kid in a brightly colored spandex body-suit.
Batman studiously avoids creating any such emotional heart. There’s some lip-service given to Bruce Wayne’s guilt over his parents’ deaths, but it’s strictly there as an establishing device. The middle and closing acts of the film are one action set-piece after another, with all the required plot twists in all the required places. There’s not a single surprise anywhere. It’s an entirely by-the-numbers treatment.
Kind of like this stream-of-consciousness, dashed-off, no-editing review.
LATER: After publishing this, another thought occurred that I thought was worth documenting.
In the film, Ras al Ghul sees himself as a check on civilization. When a culture reaches the zenith of its decadence, he tells us in one of those speeches that so obviously shows the signs of being punched up late in the writing process, the League of Shadows comes along to knock them back down again. They sacked Rome, they introduced the Black Death into Europe, they burned London to the ground. Over the years, the weapons employed by the League of Shadows evolved; lately they’ve been using economics.
That’s where the story should have stopped. Put Ras al Ghul and his League of Shadows behind the entirely mundane problems of poverty, unemployment and street crime. No comic-book weapons or psychotic genius villains. That’s an interesting story. That’s a novel approach.
But no, instead the script had to abandon the interesting and novel stuff and go right back to the cartoony, laughably implausible inventions of the comic-book genre. Instead of crime and poverty, it’s magic dust and super-weapons.
That, I guess, is what pissed me off about Batman Begins. It could have been a super-hero story for grown-ups, dark and serious. It was so close to being just that. But at the last minute, it made a hard left turn and stayed right in the middle of the comic-book neighborhood. That’s disappointing.
And here's what I wrote a couple hours later, under the title "Notes for an unpublished Batman script":
Batman is not a good guy, okay? He’s a fucking psychopath. He lives in a world where the police are corrupt and the justice system is corrupt and he’s just totally lost faith in due process. He sees himself as a one-man judge, jury and executioner. And executioner,
got that? Batman doesn’t knock criminals out with bat-gas and leave them for the cops to find. If he did that, the crooks would be back out on the streets by dawn because the system is totally corrupt. Batman doesn’t catch crooks. He murders
them. In cold blood. Just fucking kills them, no regrets, no remorse.
Except he does have regrets and remorse, but not as Batman. He takes off the mask, and the burden of being a human being with a conscience falls on him like a ten-ton weight. He’s haunted by the memory of the things he’s done. He has chronic insomnia, which explains how he can lead the whole secret double life thing, and when he does sleep, he’s plagued by nightmares. Not stupid, whiney “I was frightened by a bat as a child, woe is me” nightmares. Nightmares about the string of bodies he’s left in his wake.
Alfred is inherently amoral. I know it’s become fashionable to think of Alfred as this angelic figure, but he’s not. If Alfred had a shred of decency, he’d raise up his own army and wage all-out war against Batman. But he doesn’t. He’s content to be Batman’s butler and accomplice and confidant because he basically doesn’t give a shit about what goes on outside the gates of Wayne Manor. He’s no idiot. He sees the world crumbling around him. He knows that if he walks away from Bruce Wayne, he’s gonna have to get a job sacking groceries or something and that’ll basically be it for him. So like a wife who looks the other way, Alfred just seals himself up inside his little cocoon and ignores everything else.
The evolution of the suit thing: This is tricky. It has to evolve organically in order to be believable. Wayne starts by going out at night dressed in a kevlar vest and a ski mask and mugging gang-bangers and other petty street criminals. He’s totally vulnerable, but that’s part of his thing. For Bruce Wayne, picking fights with thugs is a form of ritual self-abuse. It’s basically no different from a teenage girl who cuts herself with nail clippers. Every time he comes home with a cracked rib or a dislocated shoulder or a gunshot wound, he gets an emotional rush, a sort of self-destructive high.
Eventually he gets a reputation among the crooks and the bangers. They start calling him “the bat” or “bat man” or something, just like a nickname. Wayne hears about it — not through sensational headlines in tabloids; J. Jonah Jameson belongs in another story — and takes a grim satisfaction from knowing that he’s terrorizing the criminal underworld. He starts wearing a cape to exploit the myth, and the suit evolves from that.
There’s a very thin line that has to be walked here. The body armor, the mask, the cape: fine. Batarangs and bat-gas and bat-whatever-the-hell-else: dumb. Think about what a special-forces assassin would carry: A big-ass knife, night-vision goggles, rappelling gear, a silenced pistol. Yes, it’s okay to get a little silly as Bruce gets more and more disconnected from reality and descends into the fetishistic aspects of his other personality, but the line between Batman and camp must be clear and bright.
The moral arc of the story, of course, has to end with Batman being no better than the crooks and thugs and gang-bangers. Gotham City is at war with a corrupt City Hall on one side and Batman on the other, and the ordinary citizens are caught in the middle. It’s this all-out war that shakes the citizens out of their complacency and causes a good man to rise, somebody who will speak out against the corruption and the crime and the poverty even at the risk of his own life. If Batman embodies everything bad about vigilante justice and righteous fury, this new guy will embody everything good about it.
He needs a name. Let’s call him Joe Black. It’s just a name, plus the allusion tickles me.
Joe Black is a middle-aged teacher at one of Gotham’s crumbling high schools. He teaches math and government and coaches the girls’ basketball team. His wife left him two years ago, moving out of Gotham with their son. Joe stayed behind because Gotham’s where he’s lived all his life.
Some of the kids in Joe’s government class are members of a street gang, and one night Batman attacks and kills them. Joe hates the gangs and he hates the crooked cops that let the gangs control the streets, but he hates Batman more. Joe’s an idealist. Fighting violence with violence just makes things worse. Pushed to his breaking point by what he sees as an escalation in the violence that’s already crippled Gotham, Joe starts to speak out. He organizes a neighborhood watch, he starts an after-school basketball program to keep the kids off the streets, blah blah blah. His story gets picked up by the press and he gets elected to the city council. Eventually he becomes a realistic challenger to the Mayor.
Bruce despises Joe. He believes that power corrupts, and that whomever occupies City Hall will end up being no better than the deadbeats and crooks who are there now. But as election day approaches, Bruce starts to feel just the tiniest glimmer of hope. (Probably insert some moral-sounding-board character here to give Bruce somebody to verbally spar with.) He decides to do his version of the right thing: He attacks polling places where the incumbent Mayor is expected to do well. The results come in, and because of Batman’s interference, Joe wins the election by 2,000 votes.
Joe thinks he won fairly because news of Batman’s interference hasn’t made it into the campaign headquarters yet. Joe gives his victory speech on live TV, the high-school marching band plays “Happy Days are Here Again,” and Joe goes to the bathroom. He turns around and sees Batman standing there in full costume.
This is the first time these two have ever seen each other in person. This is the big emotional climax of the movie.
Joe heads for the door to call security; Batman pulls a gun on him. Batman tells Joe that he only won the election because of his tampering. He gives Joe a big speech about how power corrupts, how it’s inevitable, how even a good man with good intentions will turn into a criminal. Joe says he can see that, and Batman has a moment of self-doubt. Then Joe asks, if it doesn’t matter who runs the city, why Batman went to all that trouble. Batman turns and walks to the window without saying anything. On his way out, he looks over his shoulder and says, “You’ve got six months. Show me what you can do with it.” And then he disappears.
So if you read those, what I want you to take away is this: I don't like Batman, apparently. Apparently I think the character's silly and insufficiently realistic, and I have for at least seven years.
That said … The Dark Knight is one of the best movies I've ever seen. It's a gritty, grounded, nihilistic crime drama that just happens to feature a dork in a rubber suit in a minor supporting role. I mean, think about it. Your challenge for today is to rewrite The Dark Knight's shooting script to remove both Bruce Wayne and Batman entirely. How hard is your job? Your job is not hard, is the answer. Most of the work can be done by just cutting out all Wayne's scenes, and changing all the other character's in-dialogue references to Batman to in-dialogue references to Harvey Dent. That's, like, half the job right there.
(You'd need to substantially rewrite exactly one scene and change one plot point. Without Batman, the Joker has no reason to approach the Gotham City crime lords, and you'd need to cut the China extradition side plot. There are probably those out there who'd argue that the China extradition side plot needed to be cut from the movie anyway, so that's no big loss. And the trade-off is that you get to lose the two worst contrivances in the movie outright: the fingerprint-reconstruction montage and the sonar visual-effect fight scene in the third act. Those problems just go poof.)
Point being, here, that The Dark Knight is the least comic-booky comic-book movie yet made, and the least Batmanny movie of all the Batman movies made, and that's what makes it a great film.
I want to give each of the Nolans a big wet kiss for having the stones to say "You know what? Less Batman. Just less Batman overall. Less is better." That's a ballsy thing to do, considering, y'know, big franchise, title character and all that stuff, but it was the right thing to do, and I applaud them for it.
I think what sums it up for me is one scene — one shot, really — that comes right after the Joker's big scene with the crime lords. I'm too lazy to dig out my copy and put a timecode on it for you, but it's the scene where Gordon — fuck it. Hang on, I'm gonna dig out my copy and put a timecode on it for you.
Okay, it's at the 26-minute mark. It's the scene immediately after the Joker leaves his card for the crime lords (and I've got something to say about that, so remind me to come back to it). It starts with an establishing shot of the Gotham skyline with the batsignal shown unobtrusively in the background — we see the beam of the spotlight, but we don't see the symbol on the clouds or anything like that. Cut to Dent standing next to the light on the roof, his back to us, scanning the horizon. It's a dark shot. In a dark movie, it's a dark shot. Batman enters from camera right, but we see only a hint of movement to know he's there.
At this point, Nolan starts moving his camera. Dent approaches Batman and we dolly left around them. As we move, the door to the roof comes into frame and opens: It's Gordon. Dent immediately starts yelling at him, and the scene evolves into one that could've been lifted right out of any crime drama on record. Gordon's pissed at Dent for interfering, Dent's pissed at Gordon for having dirty cops in his unit. The two of them get right up in each other's faces. Nolan keeps the camera dollying around them, and as he does, Batman passes behind and between them in frame … but we don't see him there. Gordon and Dent are lit from overhead, high key, and they've got the dialogue and the action. Batman's in shadow, dressed in black, in front of a blacked-out sky and an underexposed city skyline. He's literally camouflaged, and when he passes right in front of our eyes, we don't even notice he's there.
After a little more of this — camera dollying the whole time — Dent turns to Batman for the first time since Gordon entered the scene. "We need Lau back," he says, introducing the extradition side-plot. Batman delivers his line just as the camera stops dead for the first time since the scene started. (We also get our first cut since the scene started, by the way; this has all been a oner to this point.) Batman says one line, Gordon says something to Dent, Dent replies glibly, they both turn back to continue the conversation … and Batman's gone. Gordon gives us the punchline — "He does that" with a shrug — and we're out of the scene.
That one scene, for me, with its orbiting oner with three characters in it that really only has two characters in it, sums up the sensibility of the whole film. It's not a Batman movie. Batman, the character and the whole ethic, is very much in the background — literally so in this scene. The spotlight — again, literally — is on Dent and Gordon, and their story to take down the mob, and the unintended consequences of the resulting power vacuum.
That's what makes it a great movie. Yes, there are fantastical elements in it, but they're pushed to the background as far as possible (though I wish it'd been farther still; I hate the sonar-bat-fight sequence at the end, and just mentally check out during it). It's a story about ordinary guys trying to do good things in an ugly situation, and the consequences of their actions.
People like to talk about how it's really the Joker's movie, and with a performance like that on screen, come on … how can you not call it the Joker's movie? But the Joker isn't really a character in the film, as I'm sure has been observed about a zillion times. He has no backstory, no motivation, no arc. He's not a person. He's a force of nature. He's the catastrophe in the story; he's Sauron. He exists only to fuck shit up, and he's in the story because we want to watch what the actual human beings in the movie — and Bruce Wayne I guess — do in response to this force of nature. So really it's Harvey and Gordon's story more than anyone else's. Harvey's the hero and Gordon's the sidekick, and we get a tragic ending when the hero dies and the sidekick is left to deliver his eulogy to the audience. Gordon is Benvolio to Harvey's Romeo, and the movie couldn't have been any more Shakespearian if Nolan had had the Mayor of Gotham come out in the last scene to say there never was a story of more woe than this of Harvey…o.
So what have we got, here at the end of all this rambling? We've got a stylish-but-restrained, gritty, nihilistic crime drama with a tragic ending … and the Nolans made this out of a funny-book story about a guy who dresses up as a bat? Seriously? Well done, gentlemen. You started with nothing and created a truly great story, and if you got dragged down in parts by that comic book thing chained to your ankle, well, I certainly couldn't have done any better.
TLDR: Don't like Batman, love Dark Knight cause it doesn't have much Batman in it.