With new installments of both Star Wars and Star Trek on the way, it could not be more clear that nerd culture has had its revenge on cinema. Rather than waiting to see either of them — I don’t really care to, since I’ve never been especially interested in either franchise — I decided to revisit The Dark Knight. Superheroes were my science fiction, and I had to suffer through a long drought of them not being taken seriously by the culture at large, followed by a lot of fumbling garbage, before the Spider-Man and X-Men series, in their first two installments, proved that it was possible to actually make good movies about flying weirdos in tights. Although I now consider superhero movies to be a bane (if you’ll forgive me) on the art of filmmaking, I wanted to return to a series usually cited as a high-water mark to see if it held up well after eight years and a revolution in popular taste.
Here is a shocking thing: Dark Knight is not a great movie. It’s a good movie, and one that holds up better than I expected — although this may be more due to what a disappointment subsequent superhero blockbusters have been than an inherent quality of the work itself. Is it the best Batman movie? Probably, as Batman Begins was more subdued and uncertain and The Dark Knight Rises was more sprawling and confused. I’d have to give both a few more viewings, to be sure. But my initial reaction is that each had positive qualities lacking in the others, but all three also had flaws that were hard to ignore, and I came away from Batman Begins focused more on what I liked about it, while I left Dark Knight thinking a lot about what bothered me about it.
Now, this isn’t to say I didn’t like it at all. I still haven’t lost the thrills I felt in its best moments. I still love comic books in spite of myself, even ones that aren’t that great, and I always hold out hope against hope that comic book movies won’t be terrible. (Most of them are.) But in order for a comic, or a movie, to be great, it has to transcend both what it is and what it’s about, and become something more. Very, very few superhero comics do this, and with the very possible exception of the first two Spider-Man movies, no superhero comic book movies have done it. To be great, it’s not enough to just not be stupid; you have to be revelatory. A failure to do this is not a total failure: there are hundreds of movies that are not great or profound things, but which I love very deeply. A lot of the early wave of superhero movies fulfilled their goals of being superhero movies admirably, and if they tried to toss some profundities at us that didn’t quite stick (the X-Men flicks are the main offenders here), at least they didn’t do so in such a ham-handed way that they embarrassed themselves, or us. I still very much enjoy Dark Knight, but it’s got some problems that make it a bumpy ride.
The main problem that the Christopher Nolan Batman movies had that most other superhero films didn’t is that, because he chose to go in a dark, somewhat sinister direction with these movies; because this direction coincides with the tone of some of the superior Batman comics of recent years that also tried to transcend genre and become something profound; and because he has shown (with Following, but especially with Memento, one of the most philosophically interesting mainstream films of recent years) that he is capable of dealing with meaningful material — because of all these reasons, we have an expectation that his Batman movies must, therefore, be more than what they appear. They must be profound, because they are dark and because the good comics about Batman are also dark and because Christopher Nolan does not make big action blockbusters that are devoid of meaningful content.
But dark doesn’t always mean deep, and we have to judge things for what they are, not for what they aspire to be. As much as I love Batman, as much as I can (and do) expound at great length about why the character is so great, that great, deep, psychologically profound Batman barely exists in any portrayal of him. There have been almost no profound portrayals of the character anywhere, meaning that the image of him that I and other people lionize is at worst a product of our own imagination, and at best a cannibalized construct made up of bits and pieces of the handful of stories in which he was written by someone who shares that vision. And yet this Batman is the one on which many people stake their notion that he is a worthwhile character, and are thus easy prey to the mistake of thinking stories in this mode must, by necessity, be more than they seem.
Batman Begins wasn’t more than it seemed. And neither is Dark Knight. It certainly tries to be; but because, thanks to commercial demands and limitations on the part of the storyteller, it limits itself to telling a story that is bound by the tropes and necessities of blockbuster storytelling, it can’t be. And because it’s trying so much harder to be profound, because of the very ‘darkness’ that makes us expect so much, when it falls on its ass, it hits a lot harder. The first movie asked us to consider the thin line that separates the good fanatic from the bad fanatic; but because the storytelling constraints of big-budget action movies don’t allow for much subtlety or moral ambiguity, we’re denied the R’as al-Ghul of the comics (an environmental terrorist whose intentions are so noble that he often questions why Batman even opposes him) and are given instead a gentlemanly lunatic, an educated Travis Bickle who wants only to bring the real rain that will wash the scum off the streets. Because male-targeted blockbuster movies demand a romantic female lead, we are denied the profound sadness and loneliness of Bruce Wayne’s life; romantic leads don’t work for Batman, because Batman is not a human at all, and Bruce Wayne is a little boy. (It’s for this same reason that Rachel Dawes is such a failure, even with the upgrade in casting we get from Katie Holmes to Maggie Gyllenhaal: since she is invented for the film, and has no backstory — and hence no resonance — there is no real reason for her to exist. And any character in an action movie who has no reason to live is there only to die.)
In Dark Knight, we are asked to consider, in a handily executed but necessarily rather shallow metaphor for the war on terror (which, sadly, has not become in any way dated as a topic) how a good man can win against the forces of evil when he is unwilling to use the same methods that the forces of evil employ. In the comics, this theme can be developed quietly and subtly over time, so that they add even further depths of tragedy to Batman’s character; it makes him all the nobler that he is so tragic: he goes on fighting with every ounce of his life, even though he knows he can never win, than he can never save everyone, than he can never bring back his parents. Given the right storytelling circumstances, we can see the frightening consequences if he does take that final step, as in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
But here, we receive only hints of it, little bits and bobs that float to the surface only to be swept away by explosions, story twists, and the demands of the plot. Where it seems like it will come most to the fore — in the Joker’s final speech to the Batman — it is immediately subsumed to the depths when we are given the final showdown with Two-Face, which not only makes no plot sense (why on Earth make Batman take the blame for Harvey’s handful of murders? Why not pin them on the Joker, who’s probably killed hundreds of people by this point and isn’t likely to quibble about a few more?), but which sets up Commissioner Gordon’s hokey speech at the end, which I will bet the cost of my DVD came from the pen of that hack David S. Goyer?
In the end, it’s not enough. Not deep enough, not dark enough, not bleak enough — but especially not deep enough. There is a profound and meaningful Batman story to tell, and Nolan is possibly the man to tell it, because he clearly wants to, but he hasn’t told it yet. Which is, again, not to say that I didn’t really enjoy the movie: I did. But it goes in the same category as Iron Man, a very successful entertainment that in no way should be considered any more than that. It tries to be something more, and bless it for trying. But it isn’t.