Yesterday I saw The Dark Knight. Frickin' sweet, dude. It was ten times better than Batman Begins, which I enjoyed but didn't love. First off, Chicago looks fantastic in it. In Batman Begins, the city was basically a nameless backdrop. They made much better use of the city this time around--if you know Chicago, you can actually recognize most of the locations, and they look completely bad-ass. Lower Wacker (or Gotham's Lower 5th Avenue) gets its best film usage since the Blues Brothers. LaSalle looks like a gothic urban canyon (and if you look close, you can see the word "Chicago" on a sign in the background of one shot). Navy Pier looks like a seaport, and the best "Chicago shot" of the movie is an aerial of Upper Wacker, packed with traffic, including the southern ends of several of the river bridges. I feel sorry for people who love Chicago but no longer live here--seeing this movie is going to make them ache with nostalgia. (One thing they may not miss though is our traffic. At one point in a chase scene, Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon yells at the officer driving his car, "Mount the curb!" because the street is packed with cars. I whispered to Marissa, "Ah, now it looks like Chicago.")
Marissa thought, and I agree, that another reason why Chicago works so much better in this movie than the last one is that you care more about the city this time around. In an effort to make things really dark, Batman Begins made Gotham into a place where all the citizens were creepy and evil (that is, when they showed the citizens at all), and consequently you had a hard time drumming up much sympathy for them. This time around, the plot draws in many more "normal citizens" and "non-hero cops" and the city feels more alive with innocents caught up in the action.
The performances are also quite good. I've had a little issue with Christian Bale as Batman since the last movie: he has sort of a weird mouth, and when he's dressed up as the Caped Crusader, that's the only part you see, so your eye is constantly drawn to his mouth and you get distracted wondering why it makes weird shapes when he talks. But, minor quibbles aside, he does a nice job as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Dropping Katie Holmes like a hot rock was a great idea--Maggie Gyllenhaal blows her away as Rachel Dawes. And Aaron Eckhart is a nice addition in this installment as Harvey Dent/Two-Face. Cillian Murphy is brought back to play Scarecrow in exactly one scene. That character was completely underused in Batman Begins, and apparently the filmmakers intend to keep it that way.
But of course, the performance everyone is talking about is Heath Ledger as the Joker. And everyone who's talking about it is right: he's really good. He has a completely original take on the role, so much so that it takes you several scenes to flush out your preconceptions and see where he's going with it. And even then, you can't look away when he's in the frame. I'm not sure if his recent death may have something to do with the fascination you can't help but feel toward his character, but you literally have a hard time not paying rapt attention to his every little twitch and tic. In one scene, he's shown walking in the foreground while a complex of buildings explodes and burns in the background. It's a testament to how engaging his performance is that you ignore the pyrotechnics behind him because you don't want to miss it if he does something interesting.
His job was made easier, though, by the fact that the Joker is way cool in this franchise. Gone is the whole Joker-creation story that every other previous version of Batman has been saddled with, where he falls in a vat of nastiness that turns his skin white, his hair green, and slaps a permanent smile on his face. This Joker looks like a clown because he chooses to wear makeup, which is infinitely creepier. He has no goals except disruption, chaos, and terror. As Alfred says, he just wants to watch the world burn. That's pretty dark. And that's where I've been getting to with this post.
I see a lot in common between this new Batman franchise and the revitalization of the James Bond franchise that began with last year's Casino Royale. They both took a popular movie series that had become cheesy and too cute for its own good and kicked it in the ass by making it more visceral, more grounded in reality, and way, way darker. In the opening sequence of Casino Royale, when Daniel Craig was beating the piss out of some dude in a physical, brutal scene set in a tight bathroom, I remember thinking, "Roger Moore never could have done that.... I'm really going to like this movie." I got the same feeling during one of the Joker's first scenes, when he performs a little magic trick involving a pencil and some dude's head. I'm not sure Jack Nicholson couldn't have gotten that nasty. Cesar Romero might wet his pants watching that scene.
So why did everybody love that last James Bond movie and this new, really dark Batman? I think there's two reasons. First, in order to continue to affect an audience, the ante has to be upped. Now that we've seen Jason Bourne kick and punch like a badass, who wants to see James Bond played with a wink and a smile? Who wants to see Batman and his nemeses prancing around in brightly colored tights (which is one reason the Spiderman movies suck)? That explains the turn toward more visceral, realistic filmmaking.
But why so dark? Here's my opinion: just like James Bond movies have to be more physical to compete with other action movies' abilities to affect an audience, fantasy movies like Batman have to compete with... the news. Let's face it, these days it seems like everything's going to hell in a handbasket. War, shitty economy, you name it, we've got it. A new NBC/Wall St. Journal poll, finds that just 13% of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction (a new low, woohoo!). Now that we all know we live in a world where our safety is threatened by terrorism, we want a Joker who's not playing around. You want to scare us? Make him a psychotic, schizoid terrorist! Not just creepy... an actual TERRORIST! These feel like dark days, and it would be jarringly incongruous to go to a movie that's supposed to be about criminals and justice and have to look at... oh I don't know, Chris O'Donnell wearing spandex. Escapism be damned--art imitates life.
So dark is in. I loved Casino Royale and I can't wait for Quantum of Solace (even though that title is shit). It really is a shame that Heath Ledger won't be around to reprise his role in the next Batman movie (I'm pretty sure they intended him to), because he was perfect for the tone. But hopefully, the Batman gang will keep up the good work. Even without Heath, I'm sure the next one will be good, too... that is, as long as they (please, GOD!) do not even think about bringing in Robin. Or Chris O'Donnell. Or especially spandex.