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The dark hype
July 24, 2008 - Rick Chatenever
Sure is dark in here, I kept thinking as I watched the latest adventures of Batman. Of course, dark is what it’s all about. Dark is Batman’s signature. It’s there in the title, “The Dark Knight.” It’s what your high school English teacher would call the theme of the whole thing.
It’s always night in Gotham City — at least it feels that way. And it’s always dark in the tortured souls of villain and hero alike in this week’s record-setting box office winner.
One thing about dark, though: it makes it hard to see. Director-co-writer Christopher Nolan is superb at orchestrating stunts — we’re talking Batmobile chases, Bat-cycle wheelies, flipping 18-wheelers, repelling down high-rises, crashing helicopters, setting vicious dogs loose — but they’re hard to make out in the dark. Add quick cuts and shifting points of view and you can’t quite tell what’s going on. That’s assuming you have a clue what’s going on in the first place.
Where I was sitting in the theater didn’t help. Real close to the screen, way off to one side made the soundtrack so muddy, the dialogue kept getting buried in the bombastic music and noise.
Those were A-list actors pondering profound subjects: What’s the difference between good and evil? Heroes and villains? Chance and destiny?
I kept missing those parts. Deep philosophy is not well served by a fuzzy soundtrack.
And then there’s Heath Ledger. As the Joker, his performance is mesmerizing, amusing (at least as close as this movie gets to humor), totally psychotic and thoroughly reprehensible.
Unlike control freaks, the Joker is a chaos freak. Considering the way most of us crave order in our lives, that’s pretty scary.
Some critics are already touting Ledger’s performance for an Oscar. But that’s not what’s bringing the crowds to the theater. It is, instead, Ledger’s tragic and well-publicized death from an accidental prescription drug overdose.
Ledger’s co-stars have denied any connection between the haunting role and the actor’s untimely death. It was pure coincidence, they say. An accident. Which makes that $150 million opening weekend — ka-ching! — feel like a price on his head, as it transforms those huge audiences into ghoulish gawkers at a car crash.
Which means, I guess, that for all the critics hailing “The Dark Night” as a masterpiece, I’m the one who doesn’t get it.
Moody Christian Bale portrays Gotham City’s reluctant savior who’s ready to hang up the cape and relinquish the job to more noble humans like Aaron Eckhart’s fearless district attorney or Gary Oldman’s resourceful police commissioner.
Oldman’s work is especially touching, as is Michael Caine’s as Alfred, butler and confidant to Batman when he’s in Bruce Wayne mode. Morgan Freeman and Maggie Gyllenhaal are two good reasons to see almost any movie.
Then there’s Ledger, performing like he has nitroglycerin in his veins. Volatile, sardonic, turning every frame into a dangerous surprise, his character’s name is the cruelest joke of all.
Although “The Dark Knight” has intellectual ambitions to match its breathtaking special effects, it winds up showing the limits of trying to build a philosophy on a comic book foundation.
Batman was conceived in a different time, when there weren’t glass and steel high-rises, but skyscrapers that said Acme on the roof.
He was the most fun when he became a parody of himself in the campy ’60s TV series. (Holy heroism, Batman!) He’s not fun anymore.
And for all Nolan’s Deco-style filmmaking elegance, I kept being reminded of other more enjoyable screen icons of late.
Brilliant billionaire Bruce Wayne trying to make his life more meaningful is like Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man” — minus Downey’s humor or humanity. The villain deciding his victims’ fates with the toss of a coin is a pale echo of Javier Bardem in “No Country For Old Men.”
In a recent radio interview, director Nolan recalled being a 7-year-old boy with the family Super-8 camera, taping firecrackers to the backs of action figures and blowing them up.
That’s what he’s still doing, he acknowledged.
Fans in their own Joker makeup are proclaiming Heath Ledger the next James Dean. The media see those huge box office figures as proof that “The Dark Knight” must be great — right?
Even before Christian Bale’s little run-in with the law this week, the Batman buzz had me feeling like someone along the parade route for the emperor’s new clothes. I can’t quite make out what everyone’s talking about. It’s too dark.
• Rick Chatenever (firstname.lastname@example.org) is going on vacation. His column will return Aug. 21.
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