Far more disturbing than the heat and the sight of women in black Spoon T-shirts during Pitchfork Music Festival was the new Batman flick, The Dark Knight. Because of time constraints, my compulsion to scatter thoughts hither and thither through the Internets, and sheer loss of nerve, I've avoided writing at length, but since I'm reading and hearing very few critical views from my own generation about the Holy Grail of comic book adaptations (David Edelstein published an intelligent demurral last week) I just couldn't fight it anymore.
As a fan of X-2, most of Iron-Man, and the Richard Lester-helmed bits of Superman II, I don't balk at comic book adaptations. But now that it's a genre as respectable as the western once was, directors try to inject sonorities that the material really can't support. It amounts to an unintended condescension towards the material: comic books aren't serious enough on their own, so they must be longer, more violent, and allude to The Secret Sharer for extra thematic heft. As the culmination of this approach, The Dark Knight confuses darkness with seriousness, portent with drama, homilies for soliloquies, tell for show, and sadism for violence. I can't remember the last time a movie shook me so much. Talk to fans, though, and they assume that since a film "disturbed" them then it must be worthy. Some porn is disturbing, but no one would confuse it with art; and make no bones about it -- The Dark Knight is porn.
A large part of the problem is Christian Bale, who can't compensate for writer-director Christopher Nolan's disinterest in his character; it's as if Nolan relied on the audience's collective memories of the Batman they know from the comic to fill this vacuum. Bale's never been so cruelly exposed as an actor. He's best when his chiseled hauteur convinces us that subtext is an indulgence for plebes (think American Psycho). If we don't accept the tension in Bruce Wayne/Batman -- an urge to yield to the evil he fights -- Nolan's ideas crumble. I never read the comic, only gotten a sense that Wayne's an insufferable cad. I totally wish Nolan had had some fun: filmed more scenes of Bruce Wayne boning Playboy cover models and sucking champagne from between their titties. But Michael Keaton suggested some depth: in Bale's hands he's Anakin Skywalker as the dead tree in Dagobah. It should be clear that I don't mind violence in movies, but bad faith offends me, especially as I get older and I lose my tolerance for gin and bloodletting. If you're going to film a scene in which (SPOILER) the Joker slams a punk into a sharpened pencil, you better make damn sure that the context is morally ambiguous enough to mitigate the sadism. But I can't expect a movie whose fight scenes remain as incomprehensible as its predecessor's to understand context. The Dark Knight doesn't realize it simply has to stop, so frantically does it assemble explosions, lacerations, and threats to women and children. For Nolan, motion denotes progress. He isn't resourceful enough as a director or writer to tease the ambiguities without relying on daft speeches.
The Dark Knight uses violence for kicks and thrills, as if the You Complete Me stuff between Harvey Dent, the Joker, and Batman provided a moral carapace for Nolan's dick-pulling. I don't like how in scenes with the two ferries the movie teeters on nihilism, then timidly pulls back. Then, in a scene whose racial politics -- hell, its politics, period -- are inscrutable, a dangerous black felon does the good deed that his white pussy counterpart can't find the courage to perform. Nolan's point is clear: it takes a man acquainted with evil to understand what's at stake. He wants it both ways: he mourns the loss of man's capacity for goodness, yet can't give goodness the space it deserves without cooking up a way for the good man to soil his hands -- all the while making the metaphorical soil on those hands kinky and thrilling. It reminds me of what Pauline Kael once said about Flashdance: Nolan is like a sleazo putting the make on you.
As for Heath Ledger...what can I add? He's as good as you heard, and a pity that Nolan left him performing this Stalin-esque scourge by himself, without an antagonist worthy of him (the Joker's Tati-esque sashay in a nurse's gown while a hospital disintegrates behind him is one of the movie's few imaginative bits of poetry). While it's possible a character like Edmund haunted Shakespeare's sleep -- how couldn't he? -- the playwright also created three-dimensional portraits of decency (Cordelia) and tortured consciences (Gloucester). If you think King Lear allusions are pretentious, keep in mind that it's as high art that The Dark Knight has been received by fans. Nolan is frightened of his own creation, though, and this can't be right.