The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan
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To my mind the most ironic thing about The Dark Knight is that Batman is the worst thing in it.
So yeah: finally after a whole bunch of films about other stuff (Blackness, Time Travel, Mothers and Monsters): we arrive at our first actual superhero film. Which you know: seeing how this is the London Graphic Novel Network seems like maybe a design flaw – but come on: you can only talk about films based on comic book stuff before you eventually run out of things to say – right?
Insider baseball: I did um and ah quite a bit before I finally settled on The Dark Knight tho. I mean: let’s just get the obvious out of the way right from the start – the best Batman film is obviously Batman Returns and anyone who says otherwise has dubious aesthetical taste and is not to be trusted. (It also has the single best line that there can ever be in a Batman film which is: “And Bruce Wayne. Why are you dressed up like Batman?” Which is frankly just in every way… *kisses fingers emoji*)
But Batman Returns feels more like some higher level advanced thing when we’ve all gotten to know each other a little better and everyone’s critical faculties have been a little more sharpened and you’re better at realising when you’re wrong.
There was a part of me that was desperately raking my brain for a good Marvel film that we could all get our dirty mitts into – but unfortunately the best Marvel film of all time was never actually made (*cough* Edgar Wright’s Ant Man *cough*).
Actual serious non-rhetorical question: what would be the best Marvel film for us to do a Film Club on? I mean you know: bearing in mind that they’re all basically just the same movie and the best thing you can say about any of them is that “it was pretty ok.” Am currently thinking like Iron Man 1 because *sigh* it’s the first one or Iron Man 3 because Shane Black. But I’m not really feeling a strong pull with any of them because come on: they’re all basically just the same movie.
But yeah – I thought it would be best to choose something big and obvious that everyone has seen and really they don’t come bigger and more obvious than Christian Bale doing that thing with his voice (altogether now: “WHERE IS HE?”)
I mean: I think I read at some point that this was tied neck-and-neck with The Shawshank Redemption for like the best movie of all time on IMDB or something? So obviously this is a film that a lot of people love and have a lot of strong feelings for – but it’s only just occurred to me halfway through writing this that maybe that means it’s not going to be that much fun to talk about? I mean: all the low-hanging fruit has already been picked, shrink-wrapped in plastic and sent out to the supermarkets – right? Yes Heath Ledger does lots of really good acting. Yes it’s all about like Bush and the surveillance state and stuff. And yes when you stop to think about it The Joker’s plan makes no sense whatsoever (in fact: it’s almost as if the whole thing is just a movie designed to be as thrilling and as exciting as possible?)
But here’s my two cents: that opening bank heist scene might just be the single best thing that Christoper Nolan has ever done and the damn thing still gives me absolute chills every time I see it. If Alasdair wants to make another graph like he did for Cloverfield then it’s basically going to be a massive high every time Heath Ledger is on the screen and a massive low everytime he’s not (anyone else hear that the original plan for the next film was going to be The Trial of the Joker? Oh man – that would have been sooooo sweet).
Oh and hey – if anyone wants to get like really nerdy about editing and shit then I very much recommend watching this: In the Cut, Part I: Shots in the Dark (Knight) by Jim Emerson (and then this by A D Jameson: A Critique of Jim Emerson’s Recent “The Dark Knight” Critique).
But yeah actually the main thing I wanted to talk about how in this super-serious Christopher Nolan film that (oh thank god) finally brought the realism to Batman that everyone had been crying out for for so long (booo Tim Burton boooo!) the whole concept of Batman suddenly seems really really silly.
I mean: Heath Ledger’s Joker seems like something that could actually exist. Crazy plans aside – he has a weight and a gravity and an awful scary realism. I mean: shit – open up a newspaper and there he is – smiling back out at you: committing random acts of murder, cruelty and psychotic nastiness.
But Batman. I mean: it’s not just that there are no real good guys that seem to exist on a large social scale anymore (random thought from the other day: there’s so many well-known famous real life villains that exist nowdays: Trump. Hillary, Putin, Zuckerberg, Assange etc – but fuck: where are the heroes you know? People well known for doing something good? Like: of course there are a few I could name – but then my political bias’ will be all out in the open for everyone to see….. And I think what I’m really looking for are some heroes that everyone can agree on but – whoops – maybe that doesn’t exist anymore: hell – maybe it never did?)… I mean more that pretty much every shot with Batman in it makes it seem like you’re watching someone cosplay as Batman because erm – isn’t Batman kinda ridiculous? You know: one of those ideas that only works on paper or in a grotesquely over-the-top version of reality (*cough* Batman Returns *cough*) and as soon as you try and make him into something that exists for real – you realise how absurd he is (I’m pretty sure there’s a relevant Zizek line here but I don’t know what it could be….).
Just to get into the comicy side of things: I actually thought that it was a bit of a shame that for all of it’s talk about how much it borrowed from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns that The Dark Knight doesn’t actually go way way way further. I mean: Nolan basically keeps things on the same level as Michael Mann’s Heat which feels like the very obvious major touchstone – while I would argue what would have been made the whole “watching someone dressed up as Batman thing” feel less absurd is if Nolan had gone down the Verhoeven route and just amped up everything to a sickening 80s level of excess. But I guess that kinda of gaudy brightness isn’t a tone that Nolan knows how to play… (is it just my imagination but is every Christoper Nolan film kinda all shot in metallic blue?).
I mean – my secret hope for a while now is that someone in Hollywood would read Paul Pope’s Batman Year 100 and decide to make a Batman movie where his whole outfit is streamlined and urban like so
But then obviously I guess that would defeat the point right? No one wants to see a Batman film where Batman doesn’t really look like Batman anymore right? (Unless you know: your name is Darren Aronofsky… (Altho damn: what’s it going to take for someone to do a version of Batman where he can walk around without a cape on? It just kinda makes him look like a pretentious goth no? Or is it like a trademark corporate thing: and that without the cape on he’s not officially Batman and is more just like a dude with a pointy hat and bad attitude?)
And so instead I guess we just get Christian Bale lumbering around, looking uncomfortable and making a silly voice. Which yeah – I dunno – kinda maybe strikes me as a pretty solid metaphor for the idea of making a “serious Batman movie” in the first place. You know: maybe it’s a project that’s doomed from it’s inception…
Speaking of: I’d be interested to hear what people think of Christopher Nolan in general. Like: how would you rate his movies? Which ones are his best? And which ones are his worst? (And was anyone else pleasantly surprised by how good Dunkirk was?).
But hey: I’ll leave it there for now.
What do you think?
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I thought this would be a really easy film to write about, but it’s taken me a while to get my thoughts together because there are so many ways to look at it. But I will say on the record that it stands up proudly as an actually “good” super hero movie, although one of the reasons for that might be that the super dial is turned right down.
I think either Mazin or Joel described the Film Arrival as “sci-fi for people who hate sci-fi.” And if Dark Knight has come out after Avengers then maybe you could throw the same accusation at Nolan.
There is that old rule that DC does bad guys better than Marvel and Nolan’s bad guys, even the worst one (Bane) is still more memorable then 90% of the Marvel movies (100 points to Gryffindor if you can name the three enemies Thor has defeated).
I would like to see Poison Ivy as an eco-terrorist who has made the not unfounded calculation that humanity has had its day. Again played not as a snarling villain, but with the cold logic of the Plot of Utopia, that nature simply cannot sustain a human population. How about a Riddler who was basically Batman’s Moriarty, creating crimes so ridiculously complex that only the world greatest detective using billionaire technology could solve it. (Indeed, I think Batman as Sherlock Holmes has been overlooked by movies, partially because it’s probably annoying to write and also annoying to film. But a sort of Batman meets Primer Riddler plot would be cool for me anyway.)
There is no “right” way to do comic movies and I am glad that largely, despite its success, there are not lots of Dark Knight clones with other characters (Man of Steel – Shaking.My.Damn.Head). It’s a fools errand because this movie has a lot of tracks running into it beyond the “what would be a realistic joker/two-face situation”. As has been mentioned it borrows from Heat, and you have to give credit for making the effort to flesh out a dozen characters, with Rachel massively upgraded as a character although again she gets fridged for the sake of colouring in two male characters.
Another influential movie has a crazy psycho trying to wake up society with a series of dramatic murders, and ultimately murdering the main love interest. I put it to you that Dark Knight is basically the Se7en’s optimistic sister, where Brad Pitt’s character goes mad while Somerset rides off on a motorbike for unclear reasons which somehow make everything OK.
What makes it stand apart is that rather hideous murders (although the pencil trick, the face burning, the knife in the cheek, the leg breaking ouch ouch ouch ouch) is some really digestible action sequences. Bank heist is great. The kidnap of the Chinese banker is also great. The big truck flipping over and then the joker staring down Batman (Stop trying to hit me and hit me!) is cinema for the ages (the joker proves here he is as strong, clever and brave as Batman – they really do complete each other).
The whole movie doesn’t set up actions sequences, it just spends its time catching up with the joker, who remains one step ahead to the end. In some ways it pulls a similar trick to Cloverfield (also in the truck scene the Private Hudson character giving a running commentary), where it gives the impression that a lot of crazy shit is going down elsewhere. After all between the beginning and the end of the movie, the Joker took down the entire mob and set up his won fearlessly loyal group capable of infiltrating the police; kidnapping the DA: killing the police commissioner; and a judge and planting enough explosives to destroy an entire hospital.
Batman: No. No, we would have got you eventually.
Joker: Oh, really? So, what were you doing? Biding your time? Toying with me? Allowing “innocent” people to die until you felt like springing your trap?
Last mention is for the music, which is brilliant. I know it’s a bit hackneyed now, but the music brings atmosphere to what is fairly soulless environment. Nolan abandons the “Gotham is a character” pretence of the first movie and instead let’s Hans Zimmer instead paint everything in ticking clocks, brooding menace and so many drums.I think that is why the Dark Knight works. It’s all more than competent. The music, set pieces, acting, photography are all brilliant enough to help you ignore the incomprehensible plot. I guess really there isn’t supposed to be a plot, for Nolan it’s all about escalation.
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I’ve just rewatched this and found the Joker’s diatribe against ‘schemers’ unintentionally ironic given his ludicrous schemes basically propel the entire film forward. For an agent of chaos the man is very disciplined. And in this he bears the hallmarks of his creators. The Nolans have a thing for very very intricate plots, which I would normally find tiresome. In the Dark Knight it works because they are being spun by the Joker, and you keep wanting to figure him out.
The Joker is right to a degree – he does tear down an upstanding idealist and turns him into a hypocrite. And although the boat scene is a little OTT, on this rewatching I got the sense of how precarious the decision not to blow up other people really was. Bruce Wayne’s parting message that you have to reward people’s faith is the crux of the film’s message. Civilisation may be a sham but believing in it ends up making it work.
And there’s a private dimension to this as well. Alfred destroys the evidence of Rachel betraying Bruce Wayne, leaving him to think that she stayed true to her promise. That lie keeps him going, gives him a purpose. It’s a thought the Nolans keep returning to – it’s there in Memento where the amnesiac wilfully destroys evidence in order to keep himself on the chase for villains. Inception’s spinning top is also a return to the idea – Cobb no longer cares if he’s dreaming so long as he has what he wants. Repeatedly the Nolans’ heroes ignore the truth in order to escape chaos or despair and keep on living. The Dark Knight may be their most powerful film because in the Joker, we get to see what happens when you don’t make that choice.
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Part of me wishing that instead of doing Dark Knight I’d chosen Inception instead… Altho they’re already pretty tightly bound inside my mind (altho would Leonardo DiCaprio be better as Batman or the Joker? Hmmmmm – thinking face emoji. Not sure….).
There’s this by A D Jameson: Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception that’s really cool (go ahead and read it if you don’t believe me).
I reread it again a few days ago (come on: it’s research!)
And there’s one bit in particular that leaped out at me: when discussing a small scene where Eames throws a grenade into an armored car and then zooms away on his skis like “an action-movie star.”
This (besides all the dialogue) is the actual content of Inception. The folks who love this movie, who think it’s an instant classic, one of the all-time greats (right up there with Shawshank and The Usual Suspects!)—this is what they think great filmmaking is: scenes of casual slaughter. (What’s the body count in Inception? How many shots of death by bullet did Nolan have to plan and then execute in making this personal project? …Quite a lot.)
What so many folks really like about Inception, I’d argue—the reason why it’s currently #3 of all time at the IMDB, and has grossed $200+ million—is that this summer’s big dumb blockbuster has some intellectualismness about it, so no one need feel any shame for liking all the ‘splosions. (Just like with The Dark Knight!)
(Oh, but not you, of course! You like it for the philosophizing!)
This is a very interesting point of view and I think there’s a lot of truth to it. But I’m not sure if it tells the whole story. I mean if the equation is just violence + some intellectualism = hit movie then wouldn’t everyone be doing it? Like: isn’t there at least some credit we should be giving Nolan? (However much that may hurt).
Like Christopher Nolan is (like so many people) a very polarizing kinda figure and the two sides are basically: OMG He’s the BEST THING EVA! And everything is touches is somekind of complex intricate intellectual gold that we must decode in order to understand and fully appreciate and if you don’t like him that just means that you don’t get it. OR: he’s a punching bag for hack that doesn’t know how to do basic cinema right and anyone that lauds him is so simple-minded dumdum. And after thinking it over (and at the risk of being completely predictable) I’ve gotta admit that I’m kinda stuck between both extremes and that my position is one that’s more of frustration than anything else – because yeah at points he can be really good – but also: goddamnit – he could be so much better.
The memory/feeling that stuck with me most coming out from seeing Inception at the IMAX (and this applies to The Dark Knight and pretty much all of his other films too) is that from the point of view of all the films I’ve ever seen – it was a kinda cool / vaguely interesting kinda film that was pretty much competent. But in terms of the films that I’d seen at the cinema in the past however many years – it was the best one. Which just made me all kinds of sad.
So yeah: basically echoing what Jonathan said above: “But I will say on the record that it stands up proudly as an actually “good” super hero movie, although one of the reasons for that might be that the super dial is turned right down. ” It’s like – shit – saying that The Dark Knight is one of the best superhero movies out there might not be saying something so much about Nolan etc – but more about how everyone’s expectations have almost shrunk down to nothing (for some reason I’m thinking of Chris Rock’s bit where he’s all: “You’re not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherfucker …”)
Again at the end Jonathan is all “I think that is why the Dark Knight works” but I’d be way less positive than that and say: “well you know – this is maybe why the Dark Knight doesn’t feel painful to watch.” And “”really digestible action sequences”? Hmmmm – insert thinking face emoji. Actually you know what? – I think it might be more: just: every single thing that Heath Ledger’s Joker does and says. And in fact – actually – maybe just taking back everything I’ve already said: he’s the reason why the film is such a rush and if you took him away you’re basically left with The Dark Knight Rises – which I think I’d go on record as saying is probably one of the worst Batman films ever made (joint tied with Batman and Robin and fuck it you know – at least Batman and Robin had great dialogue).
But yeah: basically what Ilia said: “In the Dark Knight it works because they are being spun by the Joker, and you keep wanting to figure him out.” and also because the Joker is just hands down one of the most charismatic characters that I think has ever been committed to celluloid. (Here’s a little – most probably completely meaningless – thought experiment. But is there any film that wouldn’t be improved by having the Joker appear in it – even if only for a few minutes? Cloverfield? The Shining? Schindler’s List?)
But the thing that’s really weird about the Joker and something I’ve only just realised now thinking the film over and reading over what Ilia said: is how completely and utterly sui generis he is compared to every other Christopher Nolan character. Imean: maybe this is a little too harsh – but the feelings and tones I most associate with people in a Christopher Nolan is a certain type of middle-management blandness. A white guy (most probably in a suit) all self-contained and buttoned-down, driven by a sense of duty due to something tragic that happened to a woman in their past that they just can’t escape: wearing the same expression as the one Leonardo DiCaprio sports throughout Inception – a kinda crumpled up frowning…. You know: something like this:
Like – I’m not totally saying that they’re all interchangable – but come on: I can’t be the only one that got just a little lost watching Dunkirk right? (Which sad driven white guy is this one? Oh wait. Cool. Got it….)
And then shit: there’s the Joker.
It’s like they took all the residue of everything left behind when they make their Typical Nolan Protagonist™ and then mixed it together and poured out this completely opposite thing. So oh my god – you’re watching a Nolan film and the character actually has a sense of humour! (However twisted it may be). (The only other character I can think of in a Christopher Nolan film that actually made me laugh is this bit here: but it kinda seems more accidental than anything). Also: instead of being defined and haunted by somekind of defining incident from his past – he actually feels free of it: and instead of it being an engine that drives him forever forward the Joker’s past is used as just another form of weapon (“wanna know how i got these scars?”) and with the same sense of it being something he could just throw away as soon as it’s outlived it’s usefulness. And instead of being someone who keeps everything inside and driven forward by a sense of duty: he’s free-wheeling / free-spinning anarchy and disorder and doing whatever he pleases. I mean – seriously: it’s actually kinda hard to work out how on earth he ever managed to make it into a Nolan film in the first place. And in fact: maybe it’s actually one of the very few positive cases you can actually make for franchise film-making… Batman needs to have a Joker so of course they had to go away and build one and you know: they obviously managed to create a winner. But without that impetus – I wonder if they would have ever managed to create such a lovely character? I mean: thinking of Inception or (YAWN) Interstellar (YAWN) or Dunkirk and there’s no other character that comes close to being so… flamboyant. Instead it’s just – fifty shades of grey.
Ultimate irony = “Why so serious?” is actually a question that I would love to ask Mr Nolan himself. I mean: will there be a point where he actually starts to lighten up? Surely I can’t be the only one that would love to see a Christopher Nolan comedy? (Ominous Hans Zimmer music starts playing….).
Or if quite that: at least a film that didn’t feel like it had to be so goddamn dour all the time. Jonathan pointed out already that at the end of The Dark Knight Batman “rides off on a motorbike for unclear reasons which somehow make everything OK” and you just know it’s because the Nolans felt like they had somekind of big point to make but my big take-way from that was just a kind of: “huh?” and you know: shit – instead of trying to be all cerebral and stuff (which I just don’t think is their strongest suit): maybe they should have just had a few more explosions and stuff?
(I first saw The Dark Knight at the IMAX and the bit with the truck flip was so “OH MY GOD FUCKING WOW!” that me and everyone I saw it totally missed that little Batman Batbike flip that came straight after: which you know – is kinda cool).
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Maybe one of the things that makes the Joker so un-Nolan-like is that his motive remains mysterious, or at least open to different interpretations. And that’s partly because although he delivers plenty of speeches, the guy is always with people and trying to play them. So with Batman there’s this desire to destroy a faith in the goodness of men’s hearts, with Harvey Dent it’s this anarchist/libertarian argument that chaos is fairer than a broken rule of law, and the sage Alfred just envisions a man who wants to see the world burn. His conflicting accounts of how he got his scars all point to some dark past, but there’s no definitive explanation for the Joker’s origin. Unlike Batman, he has no beginning, and that makes the character seem larger than his surroundings.
Speaking of surroundings, the Dark Knight reminds me a lot of the Brubaker / Rucka series Gotham Central, as much of it follows Gotham’s institutions and how they deal with Batman, rather than the other way around. The film even has the same murky, grainy look and feel of Michael Lark’s artwork. So it came as a bit of a surprise that when asked which comics inspired their take on Batman, the Nolans singled out Loeb and Sale’s The Long Halloween, which is an ok series, but doesn’t really convey a sense of a real city in the way Gotham Central and The Dark Knight do. (Btw the best Loeb / Sale Batman collab is actually their first: the horror anthology Haunted Knight).
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HA! OMG – I mean at first glance it seems counter-intuitive that Nolan would cite Loeb and Sale’s The Long Halloween as a influence but actually: it makes so much sense. Like it’s the Batman comic for people that want their Batman comics to be a little more serious and *cough* realistic than all the others – but (as anyone who’s read it will know): it’s actually one of the least good ones. Like it starts off well and it has a nice little high-concept thing going on (one Batman villain for every month of the year!) plus draped a little in somekinda bullshit Godfather trappings but by the time you get to the end it’s all pretty forgettable (who even did the murder? I forget). Which you know – is kinda Nolan all over.
Like: I don’t think if I’ll be able to articulate this properly – but there’s this kinda “serious paradox” that exists in my head and has actually served me pretty well when it comes to films and art and etc. Basically: the more serious something tries to be – the more you should realise that it isn’t. And sorry – but Christopher Nolan is kinda a good exemplar of that. He’s like: a teenager’s idea of an intellectual. He has all the trappings of being smart and all that – but the very fact that he has to have everything so serious is kinda the give-away that he doesn’t really have anything serious to say (I know I said that the Joker was funny before but erm – now I think about it: he doesn’t ever really do anything that actually makes me laugh – pencil trick notwithstanding obvs).
I mean: the big obvious influence on The Dark Knight is The Dark Knight Returns: but jezz – The Dark Knight Returns has actual funny jokes. Alfred especially. That bit with the washing machine? “He’ll just have to wear it wet….” Which erm – in terms of jokes about costumes actually (oh here’s a surprise) puts it closer to Batman Returns (“hmmmm – what should I wear tonight?”) than Nolan Batman that (of course) only has the one….
Which feels so perfectly apt in way that I don’t know I can’t quite put my finger on. So will just leave it there.
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(Sorry this is all a bit messy and unresponsive to the cool chat above, my brain has been all “why would you write this down and communicate? It’s beautiful as the weird alphabet soup broiling in your half broiled skull”)
Begins was about explaining why a man would choose to be Batman, Knight is about asking why an audience would accept him. To me, it’s why they work and in Knightit’s why Batman’s is a surprisingly dull part of the story. Batman’s arc is the absence of an arc – he basically just keeps on keeping on and in doing so, he’s proves why he’s a good vigilante, someone who’ll fight the extreme situations with extreme means without ever tipping into too much vigilantism. If Begins was his journey from angry rich kid to balanced law and order vigilante – Knight is about explaining what would it take for an audience would accept his vigilantism as part of a social order.
Ironically on that, The Joker being the magnetic chewy centre of the film comes from his lack of character, he’s a threat. Nolan referred to him as Jaws at one point and it makes beautiful sense. Our villain isn’t a character, he doesn’t have motivation – he doesn’t want to gain, he just wants to take. And that’s a great story – watching heroes cast in the fire of trying to stop an unstoppable force. And it feeds into the War on Terror context of the film – Bats, Gordon and Dent are basically trying to quell an idea. They’re trying to stop chaos. It’s like Grant Morrison said in one of the Fatman on Batman podcasts – that’s like a fireman trying to stop the idea of fire. It can’t happen. The film isn’t about Joker, it’s about what happens to people trying to stop Joker – in the way Zodiac was about watching people’s lives break down over decades trying to catch a serial killer that was already gone.
The Nolan trilogy has always been more interesting to me because they are about exploring the relationships between citizens and central authority figures in turbulent times. The Dark Knight films are, as close as he’s ever likely to do, his political works. In part because he has a apolitical persona (Nolan has always been about the tenuous relationship between subjective memory and identity) and to make Batman grounded, he has to figure out reasons why he’s a tolerable and necessary figure in Gotham. When I say the film is political, I mean it less in a specific political party policy kind of way and more in an abstracted contemplation on how and why an audience would accept the rule of law curtailed by vigilantism.
In part, Nolan does this by a plot that shows Batman as the figure whose morals won’t bend to the situations/political demands of the day. Dent breaks down and Gordon is somewhat shackled to shitty institutions. Nolan’s Batman is the one who says “fuck this noise” and extradites a mob accountant in China, the one who doesn’t insist the 8 year old kid play Russian Roulette with him – he’s the one that manages to actually serve a higher purpose than his own personal vendetta in the film by saving The Joker. Batman and Dent undergoing the same trauma (excluding Dent getting half his face blown off) when Joker kills Rachel is basically Nolan underlining the idea. Dent is presumably the ideal hero, a brilliant, politically savvy public prosecutor who responds to mob threats by punching them in the face. Trouble is, as the story eggs in – he’s a person, who reasonably loses his mind and ideals when he’s hit by desperate trauma. Batman managing to avoid deviating from his narrow, morally absolutist notion of heroism is what proves the legitimacy of his quest to us. Where Dent falls to the problem of the day, like a politician would, Batman is positioned as a statesman. His power is stubbornness far past the point of emotional logic, as Alfred says, he “can endure, withstand the punishment”, maintaining an accepted value set regardless of how emergent external forces make it a better short term play to abandon them.
Knight is about Nolan looking at the changing face of civil liberties in the aftermath of 9/11 and basically wondering – what would it be if the person waging a war on terror was actually a really good dude and without question the best person to wage this fight for us? You know, what if instead of a shitty rich guy, it was a really cool awesome guy with a car that turned into a bike and his “hunting accidents” were actually bad ass fist fights with the scarecrow? That’s why the “live long enough to see yourself become the villain” line is in there, Batman isn’t a superhero in a physical manner. It’s in a narrow moral manner, in that as a person he can embody a certain dedication to a form of justice we can (to at least some extent) accept in the dire situation at hand and not waver from it – regardless of the political or personal cost that comes his way. Put it this way, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeus corpus during the Civil War, effectively what Cheney/Bush did for the War on Terror – somehow the Abe Lincoln pill is a lot easier to swallow isn’t it?
That brilliant sounding yet difficult to comprehend quote for the film “not the hero we need” only makes sense in that context. Knight is the answer to the question – Why Batman? Why not a civil servant? Why doesn’t he become a civil servant? For a film brewed in the shadow of the war on terror and the Patriot Act, it’s a fun idea to explore. What does it take for an audience, for us, to entrust and legitimise someone with all these extra-judicial powers?
But this is what I want to talk about when I talk about this film – the structure.
We live and die in 5 acts, they’re the storytelling bible, we deviate, we go to hell. And I hate that. I want more stories that beat a different rhythm, creators with the nerve, skill and imagination breaking past the quiet presupposition that domineered the definition of what every story ever was supposed to be.
Of course, this new structure has to have a reason – it has to be demanded by a story rather than someone like me going “man we should like experiment or whatever”. Here it’s about turning the literal plot of Knight into chaos – after the interrogation it is just The Joker attacking and the heroes reacting. The characters, the ideas, they all come from the reaction. It doesn’t on it’s own make it a better story, but it makes it more interesting to me and something I appreciate more. Bucking the 5 acts is the riskiest, boldest move a story can make and it almost always results in a story that isn’t necessarily better, alienates some of the audience that are used to resting on a specific flow and say “it was poorly paced and weird”. Which is the problem a couple of favourite blockbusters of mine like Last Jedi (structured to the contours of a military skirmish) or Scott Pilgrim (structured to the drum of a relationship in a series of fights) run into despite being bold, awesome films. After the interrogation scene – everything becomes reactive, it becomes chaotic. We’re not in the comfort of the world we know, the story telling norms we typically expect at the multiplex – we’re in The Joker’s world now – and that’s fantastic. The Joker attacks, the heroes respond. That’s where all the film ideas and characters and brought to the final boil – and it’s brilliant for it. Sure there’s a part in your head that’s like “no this isn’t what a story should be, all the other stories work like this” and you sort of express that nagging feeling in your head with phrases like “it was over long” or “it didn’t really know how to end itself”. But you are wrong – this is daring, risky and totally what the story needs.
Hilariously enough considering the above, the film already does a standard film structure – everything up until the interrogation scene religiously follows the Vonnegut wave. We start, Batman needs to stop Joker, things go well, Gordon dies, we are very sad and then there’s the amazing final battle, Gordon is revealed alive and The Joker is captured! Mission accomplished! Oh wait. CHAOS O CLOCK. We’re trying to stop the hospital blowing up and dealing with The Jokers demands for Batman being unmasked before he gets bored and changes his mind on that and does the moral play on the boat all the while Gordon is trying to save hostages. We’re limping, scampering, struggling to react to whatever situation The Joker throws up – it’s a film deliberately overrunning for an hour without shape. Because we’re in the bad guys world and this is what that looks like. Fuck Yes Nolan. MORE FILMS LIKE THIS PLEASE EVERYONE.
Joel – this is from an afterward Mazzuchelli did for Batman Year One, kinda sums up my take on the difficulty of lending realism to the world (though I think Nolan manages it very well, partially because his Gotham is effectively a farcical reality, it’s an extremely improbable one but one so rooted in contemporary tensions that it feels desperately real.)
Also – that Pope page? Hell yeah. I love that rant he has about artists not include seams and creases in his fabrics – always rang with me and explained why his work has such energy and realism to it. You need to do a Comic Club on Paul Pope – any Paul Pope. I think I brought up Batman Year 100 for the one LGNN piece I did on Batman, god that art. That art. That art. That art. That art.
Ilia – yes to the Gotham Central ref! That was such a brilliantly realised world, one of the few comics i’m desperate for an adaptation of. Such a brilliant story of people trying to survive broken institutions and the interrogation scene in Knight absolutely cribbed from it. I can’t go back to the ending, years later and it still hurts. Also your summary on the Nolan’s works was good ear worms. The idea about Knight being the best because of the lack of a choice from Alfred burning the letter? YES.
Also Also – I still love Long Halloween. Yes it hasn’t aged particularly well buuut. There were 3 killers, Alberto Falcone, Gilda and Harvey Dent. I can remember that 10 years later and loads of little character beats. Plus that Tim Sale art is still gorgeous. Admit it. It’s not as brilliantly novelistic as it was praised back in the day, but it’s still a good story with some really great character and dialogue in it.
Also Also Also – if we’re going to do a proper bollocking of Inception, let’s do a proper chat about it. It’s become the film for people to say “isn’t as smart as everyone says it is” so that those people can sound smart. Goddamn, it’s a summer blockbuster where the climax is a husband accepting the subjectivity of reality as he reconciles with his guilt for said wife’s suicide by lamenting on how a subjective memory can never account for the full person as someone’s conciousness literally collapses around him – and Hans Zimmer scored the fuck out of it. I mean, it’s like turning up to a dinner party with Vonnegut, Phillip K Dick and Ursula Le Guin complaining that the dinner party is in Dalston.
Barbican Comic Forum
The Joker is right about one thing: everyone is completely clueless. Especially Batman and pals. They have this idea of a pre-White Knight Gotham and a Post-White Knight Gotham, which much like Toy Starks plan to replace the Avengers with Ultron is super-dumb.
With this characterisation Batman is somewhat self-servingly saying that everything he does: the kidnapping; the beating of prisoners; the leg breaking; the tank! Are not desirable, but necessary actions because of Gotham’s current status on some sort of civilised-o-meter. He believes he’s the necessary corrective force to a city gone bad.
His fantasy of Harvey Dent is that Dent should mark a golden era when the police force and judicial system should be able to handle itself, should be self-correcting and able to remove corruption, only then can Batman stand aside. Indeed the movie repeatedly remarks on the corrupt nature of Gotham’s judicial system, and police force, and banking system!
So what does victory look like? Well as we have seen in Dark Knight Rises in the end it looks much worse. The police may no longer be corrupt but they have almost total authority to detain any “trouble maker” they wish, and the only fly in the ointment is that poor old Batman has to go back to being a reclusive billionaire and Jim Gordon feels a bit guilty about it all. Otherwise it’s all golden as far as the Gotham managerial class are concerned.
Of course there are dissenting voices. Especially the weird stab at the surveillance society with the radar phones gadget, enough to make Lucius Fox threaten to quit. Very noble, except for a few problems:
1. Fox invented it;
2. He invented it to the enable the extrajudicial, extraordinary rendition of a foreign national.
3. He does all this to provide military grade support to an unaccountable billionaire.
When it comes to money laundering Lucius Fox is all “who’s to say what’s right in this modern world? With all our new ideas and products.” But when it comes to finding the Joker (who has killed Rachel among many many others, wounded the DA; and is threatening to blow up a hospital) he’s like “well I’m not sure about the ethical implications.” When following the events in the Dark Knight we see virtual marshall law imposed in Gotham, big ethics champion Lucius Fox, doesn’t quit the city, or try to persuade his best mate, a billionaire superhero, to intervene. No he dusts his hands together and starts working on his clean energy project, satisfied with a job well done!
This is the world centrist-liberals want – basically authoritarian law enforcement but with a friendly (white!) face where the police are given a free reign to rough up undesirables as long as they leave “good” folk alone.
And so the de-escalation becomes as bad as the escalation as the state becomes more and more smothering. Who is the next Agent of Chaos? Drugs? Bin Laden? When the murders have all been stopped; when the mob have been rounded up; when the thieves have all been arrested; who is next for all those police with their Judge Dredd powers? Fly tipping? Jay Walking? Way to replace anarchy with tyranny Lucius Fox, you hack! If they really wanted to empower the people of Gotham they should have Batman referendum. Yes it’s time for Baxit.
Batman and Gordon and Fox and Alfred know that billionaires and the mob are the same people, and they know that even the “good” police are both stupid and brutal, but no one, least of these liberal clowns are remotely interested in changing the material conditions of the people of Gotham.
“You think this can last? There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”
OH DEAR GOD WHY Presentations
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Out of time I know – but I’d counter and say that I saw the surveillance system (which IIRC Fox only created for Bruce’s own phone?) as a plot point designed to show Batman being willing to give up his power and put it in the hands of the citizenry. If you could the citizenry as the CEO of one of the biggest corporations on the planet and run by a man utterly beholden to Batman…
Though I guess the messy Rises, as you say, was all about “Hey rich guy, maybe share the wealth? We’ve literally got kids doing propaganda with chalk at this point”
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