With the exception of Indiana Jones, I don’t think I’ve been looking forward to any movie this summer season more than this sequel to Batman Begins. I attended the 3:30pm Saturday showing at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC with a couple of bloggers from Baltimore, Claude and Jomiwi, and Jomiwi’s friend Len. Here’s to prebuying tickets on Thursday: no waiting in line for us. We actually met up at Cleveland Park Bar & Grille (although Jomiwi and I wound up bumping into each other on the Cleveland Park Metro platform, both of us coming north on the Red Line) for drinks and food beforehand.
Here’s a warning: although this post is not going to be a blow-by-blow description of the plot, I’m probably going to mention some plot points. Actually, I’m pretty damn sure I will. So, unless you don’t care if you know what happens in the film, or you’ve already seen it, or you have no intention of seeing it and just have nothing else to read, be forewarned.
So I was actually a little disappointed by this film. I know that the sequel will never be as good as the first, and this is true to that formula. I’m still trying to figure out how to express my feelings towards this film logically and clearly. So here we go: there was an emotional anchor to Bruce Wayne in the first film — primarily, his father’s death. The stethascope, the musical cue, Alfred’s gentle jibe, “Why do we fall down, sir?”, first asked to young Bruce by his father. Now then we come to Rachel, and her passion for justice and laws. If Alfred is the film’s father figure for Bruce, the literal personification of a man gunned down outside an opera house, then Rachel is Bruce’s mother figure. His father installs the work-ethic, the drive to do something, his mother shapes how those impulses show themselves.
That dynamic just doesn’t seem to exist in this film: if that theme was the cohesive thread through the plot, this sequel is missing it. There are some forced attempts between Bruce and Rachel, but the attempt to set up a love-triangle between Bruce and Rachel and Harvey (with whom Rachel is seriously involved) just doesn’t work.
Let me just take a moment to say: I’m not a Katie Holmes hater. I don’t understand why she got into a relationship with Tom Cruise, I don’t care to understand, but while I like Maggie Gyllenhaal just fine, I do wish Katie Holmes had been brought back for this film. Not just for continuity purposes (although this film series might have a legacy of double-casting roles: read in an interview Nolan wanted to bring the Joker back, and Ledger’s death might not have ended that plan).
So if that dynamic is the primary reason I prefer the first film to this, here’s the second reason: the plot. The first film was tightly written, with every scene serving an absolute purpose towards crafting what, at the end, was not just a great superhero film, but was a great film period. Plot holes in Batman Begins? I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Compare that to The Dark Knight, where often times, it seems like the school bus so often being used to rob banks or cart hostages away from a hospital could be driven right through them. I mean, seriously, at the end of the film Batman has Gordon blames Dent’s murderous rampage on him: um, hello? Why not on, I dunno, the Joker?
Here’s another reason I disliked the film: the gadgets. If there’s one thing I’ve found ridiculous about so many of the Batman films and TV shows, it’s the vast array of gadgets he has, seemingly one for every occasion and need, all conveniently on hand. Batman Begins didn’t go gadget-crazy, and played down those it had: the Tumbler, the memory-cloth, the bat-sonar-calling thing. Then, in this movie, we’ve got phones that can display virtual maps of a city, and the Tumbler, originally a military-bridging vehicle, suddenly gets an “escape motocycle” and remote-control functionality. The latter, straight out of 1989’s Batman, the former, totally ridiculous: what was the point of this device? Somehow I figure if the military was to cheap to spend $300k on the armor that becomes the Batman’s suit, they’re equally going to be opposed to spending the money to have a bridging vehicle sprout forth a motorcycle. But that might just be me.
I disliked Jim Gordon’s contrived death scene: one of the nice things about Batman Begins is that when you watched it a second time, you noticed scattered hints about what was coming up. There’s really none of that in this film: it’s almost like the writers just thought of interesting action sequences and then wrote a story around those.
If Batman Begins was Gotham City from the point of view of Bruce Wayne, the Dark Knight is Gotham City from no-one’s point of view. In a sense, there’s no cohesive narrative, no character who holds it down. It almost feels like there’s an attempt for the point-of-view to be of three people, Gotham’s Holy Trinity: Batman, Dent, Gordon, but it just doesn’t come across that way.
Also: what was the point of the Scarecrow showing up? Batman pops him in the face, ties him up with the Batman-impersonators, and leaves him be. Did Scarecrow get his mind sorted out, because he doesn’t seem insane anymore. Weirdest cameo ever, even if only to remind the audience that the whole Arkham crowd is running around.
Minor Nits: did Wayne Tower get a make over? Does Lucius Fox prefer a different board-room? What’s with the set changes?
Here’s what I did like:
I liked Rachel’s death, and the way it was played out. I was sure Batman was going after her, but no, he went for Dent. “Batman must make the hard choices, the no one else can,” Alfred reminds Bruce. Batman can even make the choices Bruce Wayne can’t. It’s just too bad this wasn’t explored further. It could’ve been the emotional anchor for this film, but it wasn’t.
There’s a character, a relatively minor character, who works as an independent accountant for Wayne Enterprises. He discovers Wayne’s secret and is about to reveal it on national TV when the Joker — who really likes Batman — declares that if this joker isn’t killed in sixty minutes, Joker’ll blow up a hospital. There’s a great little sequence where Wayne intervenes and saves the man’s life at the expense of his fancy Lamborghini, and the accountant realizes that a.) his guesswork is absolutely correct and b.) there’s no way in hell he’s not taking this secret willingly to his grave.
I liked the ferry sequence, big cheers for Tiny Lister — best known from The Fifth Element (for me, anyway) — who stole the scene to a rousing round of applause from the interactive audience at The Uptown. As contrived as the sequence was — honestly, I expected that the Joker had lied and the detonators were actually for the ferry they were on (i.e., the asshole civvy guy was going to press the button and blow his ferry to kingdom come, and, um, how exactly did the Joker get those bombs wired without anyone noticing?) — it worked. It really really did.
I liked the Joker. Well, I mean, no. I didn’t like the Joker. But I liked how he was portrayed. Heath Ledger is unrecognizable, although I don’t know I’d go so far as to say it’s his best performance to date as some have. It was enough to wipe Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker out of mind, and I think that was the biggest question of the film. I mentioned earlier that I’d read Nolan wanted to bring the Joker back. While recasting Rachel Dawes was a move I disagreed with, I don’t think Gyllenhaal did poorly in that role, but I also don’t see how another actor could then be expected to remove Ledger’s portrayal from the mass consciousness. I mean, hell, Nicholson’s Joker was twenty years ago about!
Disappointing. Not a taunt work of action-drama storytelling, but a bit like a puzzle whacked out of alignment, sadly missing the unity and cohesiveness of its predecessor.