Batman battles his better half in Nolan’s latest.
By Fiona, a contributor to The Stub.
In the closing minutes of Batman Begins we left our hero gazing at the business card of the man they call The Joker. According to Lt. Jim Gordon, The Joker was a man with a “taste for the theatrical” like Batman himself. We too stared at the card, a bad card by any standards. In a game where winning is everything, no one wants to be left juggling the joker. But by God did we want to see Batman try. With The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan gives us our chance.
For everyone longing for the flashy entrance, take heed and remember Nolan is a man of explanation, of small scale beginnings. Batman Begins opened by showing our hero start a brawl which was not unlike those ones you’d see outside McDonalds at 2am on a Saturday night. After all it’s been three years since we saw Batman chase the Scarecrow out of Gotham. Nolan wants to show us how he’s been faring since. He wants to show us Batman is still a real man, fighting thugs on a real level. However, the fast-paced, choppy scene involving Batman wannabes and set in a multi-storey car-park was not the way to greet our hero after so long. Witnessing Batman in his wonderful bat suit (so glorified in Batman Begins), against the back-drop of a greying, and frankly boring car-park only makes his aspirations and costume seem cheap and unnecessary. Realism is one thing but introductions are everything.
Which is why Nolan lets The Joker have two. His first is merely a fleeting glance by an injured man. His face lurches into shot. A teaser. The second, a meet and greet with the best and brightest of the mob, sees him do something so unexpected and shocking it induced the most interesting response I’ve heard from an audience in a while. It was a reaction of horror mixed with surprise and admiration, all caught up in guilty laughter. And of course, relief; Heath Ledger’s Joker really was going to be just as good as we expected.
For The Joker is “man of his word”. He tells us this himself. He makes good on his promises. The villain, who is as psychotic as they come, does not let us down. Outright flashy, brutal violence is not what makes him so disturbing, but rather the confidence he exudes while dripping with inconsistency. The tale about how he got his glaring facial scars (made raw anew with red face paint), jumps from blaming his father, to blaming himself, leading us to realise this man actually has no backstory, and nothing to suggest he was ever normal or sane. There is no guidebook for the highly un-chartered territory of his mind.
The Joker was originally the man revealed to have killed Bruce’s parents, but Nolan prefers him to have no convenient place in the tale, to simply be a “mad-dog” let off his leash. He does still, however, possess some of the traditional Joker. In the style of Nicholson’s clown, he is a man who has a way with words, and who is possessed of an unsettling likeability. The difference being that Ledger lets his own Joker veer erratically between the most eloquent of opinions, the wittiest of phrases, to mere animalistic yelps and mutterings, not to mention incessant lip-licking. He is the embodiment of unpredictability.
In fact, he is the chaos to Batman’s order. And there lies right alongside each other, both the best and worst elements of the film. On one hand, Nolan has given us a near flawless incarnation of the most interesting hero/villain duals of the comic book realm. What better man to challenge Batman, than the one who can really get under his skin. He’s trying to get under his mask at any rate. It’s a common cliché that movie villains talk too much, explaining the reasoning behind their actions, to the point where they slip up and lose the fight. The Joker talks aplenty but only to unsettle the core of his prey. He knows something, we and Batman do not. He knows what it is like to live without the chains of obligation to society, to morality, to himself. He does whatever he likes. Batman does whatever he should. The Joker hides nothing (well except maybe explosives and hostages). Batman hides behind his mask, Bruce Wayne hides behind a smug smile and a fancy lifestyle. While the contrast between the two makes for excellent viewing, on the other hand it sends Batman and poor Christian Bale straight to Blandsville: population two. Alfred is also there, since Lucius Fox seems to have now taken up the reins as Batman’s main man and proprietor of witty banter, leaving Alfred with nothing to do but make tea.
There is nothing Batman can conjure up, not even a rasptastic fake voice, to win our hearts from The Joker. In a scene where Batman addresses Lt Gordon, in the throatiest of registers, he at very least does evoke an unintended laugh or two. Bale is actually at his best when not suited up, and simply living the high life as Wayne. His smug satisfaction and playboy personality is a reminder of his turn as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, where interestingly he also had quite a lot to hide, namely his seriously warped thoughts and actions. Dare I suggest that, were he not playing Batman, he could have made quite a good stab at being The Joker himself?
If Batman appears to be somewhat lacking next to The Joker, the film itself is certainly not so deprived. Nolan tries to reward our wait for The Dark Knight, with a film not so much comfortably full, as utterly crammed with characters, action, wise words and underlying messages. While no one wants to hang about and watch The Joker’s face paint dry, the speed at which Nolan flies through the scenes and dialogue is, at times, exhausting. The best are the moments he devotes precious minutes to; Batman’s free fall and spectacular glide through the city of Hong Kong, the painfully fluorescent interrogation of The Joker, and that unexpected tipsy scene when he lets the film become void of music, a silent vacuum in which The Joker laughs manically, hanging his head like a dog out the window of a speeding police car. There may be flaws in the way Nolan holds it all together, but the pieces from which he forms his picture, are sometimes as perfect as they come.
In a way, The Dark Knight could never have aspired to perfection; its very message is that everyone has a dark side. No one is perfect. There are two sides to everything. In fact, there are two halves to this Batman game Nolan has been playing, and I for one, hope he leaves it at this. Harvey Dent says “you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. Nolan is the hero of the critics right now but if he tries for a third, he may fall from grace.
However, maybe Nolan doesn’t care, for the final message of The Dark Knight indicates that how we see people says more about who we are, than them. Through Lt. Gordon he makes a point that doesn’t just refer to the people of Gotham; that Batman will always appear to be whatever we need him to be. He can be background music or the bigger picture. He can be a super freak or our Knight in darkened armour.
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