Thursday, July 31, 2008

Dark chocolate peanut butter Batman

I saw The Dark Knight a couple of weeks ago and thought it was very good. Batman Returns has always been my favorite Batman movie because Michele Pfeiffer is amazing as Catwoman, but the differences between Tim Burton's take and Christopher Nolan's take are instructive. Burton's Gotham was a closed system with few gestures to the world outside of the film. Nolan is more ambitious in scope, so the film feels like it's trying out some exciting directions for the superhero, even if not all of those directions work. I've had several conversations with people lately about Where Batman is Going:

Ben looked at me like I was crazy when I asked him why Batman Begins was obsessed with exploring Batman's psychology through his origin story. I might as well have asked, Why is Law & Order predictable down to the minute? Why do the main characters in romantic comedies have to break up at least once in the story? I get it, I get it: it's a convention, one that's high on the hierarchy of generic features of the comic book.

But there's an interesting moment in the middle of The Dark Knight when Harvey Dent is about to torture one of the fake cops who's kidnapped Rachel Dawes, and he keeps asking the guy why he did it. Batman swoops in and says (in his distractingly distorted voice) that the guy is a paranoid schizophrenic, and he's not going to be able to give a satisfactory motive or reason for what he did. Would it matter why the goon did it? He's matched by the Joker's switching his "why am I evil?" backstory at every moment of violence, so that the multiple explanations are equally grim, banal, and useless. Motiveless malignancy works, we know from countless examples, but does why does heroism inspire ambivalence? The two heroes of the movie, the White Knight and the Dark Knight, are obsessed with understanding the root of their neurosis. The excess is supposed to be instructive for showing the depth of Two-Face's and Batman's ambivalence about heroism (turned to villainy in the former case), but the movie just wouldn't end while they analyzed themselves.

I just read two crime procedurals with mild twists in them, but the twists were overshadowed by the hoary convention of having the killers explain themselves and their motives in very specific detail at the end of each novel. That one detective can make the sure assessment that someone was obviously a sociopath takes some of the interest out of the characters, as though the whole thing turns into a diagnosis and not a story. Gotham is a city populated by sociopaths and nihilists, I know, but is that really the most interesting thing you can say about it? Where do you go from there?

So I'm vacillating between knowing that it's a convention that I shouldn't harp on and trying to figure out its function. Can you call it psychological depth if it's a rehearsal of a conventional explanatory mode? It's an effect, not something that's inherently compelling about the character.

(You might also say that the How Can Gotham Be Politically Relevant to Today? moves that Nolan makes--wiretapping, FISA, torture, how trying to stop terror foments it, what the ordinary populace will do to protect themselves at all costs--are in a similar category of obviousness. Some of those directions work in the movie, but I'm a little wary of having movies prove things rather than explore them. Many of those politically relevant topics get shoehorned into comic book conventions such as Lucius Fox's rejection of technological overreaching, the ferry-boat scene of people showing innate goodness/badness which gets frustratingly close to becoming a reductive retelling of the Milgram experiment, and so on. But do those situations show anything new about the subject--or the convention itself?)

Heath Ledger is an extraordinary Joker. He was interesting and different in every scene.

How about that William Fichtner cameo as the mob bank boss in the beginning! I wish he had had a bigger role--he's perfect for a Batman movie. Oh well.

Maggie Gyllenhaal was miscast. It's a thankless role, but she wasn't right for it. That became especially clear in the scene where they're about to set up the conspiracy charges for all the criminals: it's obvious that the move is going to create serious blowback, and Aaron Eckart does a good job of telegraphing this with his smug smile from behind the two-way glass. Rachel Dawes (Gyllenhaal's character) bounces around glibly and is obviously proud of getting the suspect, so she, too, has misjudged the gravity of the situation, but it comes off as unprofessional and immature. Her character doesn't act like that in other situations in the movie, so this behavior seemed inconsistent.

And her costumes? In a nice Tim Gunn moment, Lucius Fox tells Bruce Wayne that "three buttons is a little '90s"--someone should have said that to Rachel Dawes. Those suits were terrible, particularly the one with the wide collar (from the interrogation scene) that looked like Vincent's design for Uli's mom on Season 3 of Project Runway (an inexplicable winner from that episode). I think I tried on that wine-colored suit from her courtroom scene when I was 16.

From bitchy comments about suits to the utterly frivolous: Has anyone seen the bat-shaped dark chocolate Reese's peanut butter cups? I'm a sucker for chocolate-summer blockbuster tie-ins: even though I never saw any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, I was delighted by the white chocolate "pirate's pearl" M&Ms a few summers ago.

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