R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: The Dark Revolution, Part 1

Well, I wanted to follow-up last week’s Superhero Lame-off column with the rest of my list of the spectacularly awful Superhero fights that we’ve been given over the years, but I don’t think that I could possibly get my mind around anything else but Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight right now. The column ahead will be full of spoilers and my own personal reflections on the movie. If you are one of the 12 people left who have not seen the movie at this point I will go ahead and give some quick summations.

1. Is it awesome?

Is it as good as everyone says that it is?
Without a doubt.

Is it the best Comic Book Movie ever made?
I can say without hesitation that it is.

Wait, are you saying that a Comic Book movie has finally surpassed Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie as your favorite of the genre?
Well no, I’m not saying that. Superman has had decades to earn its spot in my top 10 movies, and will always be my favorite Comic Book movie, but I cannot deny that pound for pound The Dark Knight is a better overall movie. Both are near perfection for the subject matter they are trying to convey.

Ok, so that’s enough of my goofy summations, let’s get to the meat of this column. Again, this thing will probably have spoilers, but it’s very difficult to really get to what I want to talk about in this movie without spoilers and some hyperbole as well. So with my short answer versions already established, its time to draw things out and get into some real nitty gritty as to why this movie is as good as it is, and why I feel like Comic Book movies will maybe never be the same from this point on. The rules have definitely changed, and I want to know how movie studios are going to handle the escalation.

Anyone that reads this column or knows me personally knows I’m a huge dork. Yes, I may have the outward veneer of a sophisticated moviegoer to the general public, but as soon as you enter my house or listen to me go on and on about Superman, you know where my heart lies. Movie posters, DVDs, and Comic Books litter nearly every corner of my house, and while I don’t collect funny books as often as I used to, I still try to stay abreast of anything new and fresh.
That said, you just can’t beat the classics, and for my money, that especially goes for Batman. Frank Miller’s double shot about the Caped Crusader’s beginning and end of his career in both Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns are the Alpha and Omega for the character. If you’ve ever just read those two Graphic Novels, you’ll already have a handle as to what Gotham City’s protector is really about. Both books completely put to rest the 1960’s Adam West version of the character in favor of worlds that are steeped in corruption, taking Batman completely out the box and out of the comfort zone we’d had for the character up to that point.
Further explorations into Batman’s earlier years in Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween and the subsequent Dark Victory build upon Miller’s visions and also dig deeper in the mind of his villains, especially those of Harvey Dent, overall maybe my favorite of Bats’ Rogues Gallery. I don’t know if you can consider these classics of the Batman mythos, but they’ve both definitely earned their place, coming out in 1996 and 97 at a time when Comic Book creators seemed lost with the Dark Knight, just as the movies eventually did at the same time period. Loeb’s books essentially did what Miller’s did a decade before, took Batman back to his roots, but stripped away a lot of the Gothic motif that creators just wanted to dwell in instead of just telling a great story.
Lastly, there’s the master of Comic Book storytelling, Alan Moore. Moore’s contribution to the mythos, The Killing Joke, is shorter that any of Miller’s or Loeb’s works with the character, but no less powerful. Where Moore finds real power in this tale is with telling much of this story from the point of view of The Joker, showing the full potential of Batman’s greatest nemesis. Creators in all mediums have been struggling to re-create the menace of The Joker found in this book to no avail, until maybe now.

At any rate, I know this reading list isn’t necessarily revolutionary or anything for anyone that knows anything about the history of Batman (in fact if you‘ve got further suggestions send them in to me), I just wanted you guys to know where I was coming from. This is where the character and his world have always been in my mind, and it seems that perhaps its never been fully realized on the big screen up until now. Batman Begins was in the right direction, but the release of The Dark Knight finally puts a Batman onscreen that is undeniably the best version of the character ever in a live action form.
The Dark Knight Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Morgan Freeman. Directed by Christopher Nolan.

As a guy that loved Batman Begins, the best compliment I can give to The Dark Knight is that this sequel outclasses its predecessor in nearly every way. Much like X2, Spider-Man 2, Hellboy 2, and Blade II before it, The Dark Knight simply leaves its predecessor in the dust, and that’s saying a lot, because arguably Batman Begins was more solid than any of the other first entry examples above. Honestly, the film deserves every bit of this talk of comparison with Godfather II and The Empire Strikes Back, giving you a world that is more vast than its predecessor, and its character studies and dramatic implications amplified to the near breaking point.

Building on the themes of Begins, The Dark Knight pushes its world to be even more realistic, and therefore more threatening. Where Miller was revolutionary in his depiction of Batman was how he wanted to place the Caped Crusader in a world we could all recognize. The Dark Knight Returns took place in Reagan’s America, where the constant threat of nuclear annihilation was as real as the threat of violence on city streets. Sure, the Joker and Two-Face populated this world, but so did gangbangers who would cut you down as soon as look at you. Year One was even more real, taking away super villains altogether in order to present Batman in his grittiest, street level story ever.

Where the 1980-90’s Batman franchise made their big mistake was to take the most human and perhaps most identifiable superhero of all and put him in a world that was completely artificial and fantastic to the eye. Burton’s original Batman from 1989 was clever enough to skirt this issue a bit, because to a large degree his Gotham City still felt like a concrete world, even if it was stylized. From then on though, there was no doubt Batman lived only on a studio lot, and one with way too much architecture at that.
Christopher Nolan chooses instead to make his Gotham City as real a place as possible. It’s easy to picture yourself living in this city (especially the denizens of Chicago where the movie was filmed), and yet I’m sure that you’re glad that you don’t live there. Thankfully, not because of possible Ninja attacks or because you might end up in “The Narrows”, because stylized “Comic Book” motifs like those have been completely excised this time out.

As another reviewer I’d read pointed out, Nolan’s Dark Knight may be the first Comic Book movie sequel in history that has decided to lower the number of elements that would normally have you associating it with its source material, like gadgets and secret societies. Sure, the movie still has some elements that seem to stretch the reality of this particular screen world, but arguably the movie’s big gadget, the cell phone-sonar thing, is perhaps responsible for the movie’s least successful sequence.

Up until that point, this is a world that feels as organic as any Crime Epic you’ve ever watched. Again, many have compared this movie to Michael Mann‘s masterpiece, Heat, and the way that Nolan shoots this movie, the comparison is more than apt. This is epic movie making at a break neck pace, but Nolan never pushes the movie so far that you can’t believe what’s going on. The director never sacrifices character in order to thrill you, and that’s the mark of a film maker of the highest quality.
In fact, this movie feels like Nolan decided to sacrifice nothing except our preconceptions about what a Comic Book movie could feel like and accomplish in its storytelling. If there is some sacrificing of characters its in a much more literal sense. Much like The Empire Strikes Back before it, The Dark Knight is a movie where the film makers take the characters you love from the first movie, add some new ones that may be even better and then absolutely shatter this world around them. No one gets out of this movie clean. No one.

Honestly, you can’t believe just how much this film can hurt at times. I can’t remember the last time a huge blockbuster like this had so much raw emotion in it. Technically, this is still as popcorn and fun at times as any summer blockbuster, but at the same time, everyone’s playing this thing as if it was a limited release getting ready for Oscar contention. Is it a crime for a movie like this to take itself so seriously? I honestly don’t think so, and finally a Batman movie is able to be as insightful to the human condition as it is about thrilling you with awesome villains and mind-blowing action.
It’s odd, because there’s really so much more to write about this, and I haven’t even scratched the surface yet. Next week, I’m going to go further in depth with the characters and try to take this movie apart as much as a I possibly can. I think honestly I’d like to just digest this film for another week and maybe even get to check it out for a third time in order to really get all of my thoughts in order. So until next week, go out and check this thing out for yourselves and experience the best movie of this summer and what may end up being the best movie of the year.

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