We’re at that time of year when the big studios role out blockbuster after blockbuster so that Americans looking to escape the stifling heat will choose to find comfort in cinema air-conditioning and we in New Zealand hope that the cinemas are warmer than our lounge rooms.
Apart from the Spielberg/Abrams collaboration Super 8 (next week, folks) all of the biggies this season are either sequels or comic book adaptations, demonstrating that despite all indications the bottom of the barrel hasn’t quite been scraped yet.
After three X‑Men films and a horrendous Wolverine spin-off Marvel/Fox have gone back to the beginning in the now traditional franchise re-boot strategy perfected by Batman and stuffed up completely by Bryan Singer with Superman Returns.
It’s 1962 and the Cold War is heating up. In Oxford a smarmy super-intelligent booze-hound (James McAvoy) is scoring with girls thanks to his ability to read minds. The CIA asks him for some help unravelling the mystery of some unexplained phenomena in Las Vegas and is perturbed to discover they get his freaky mind control powers as well as his analysis – and his “sister” Raven (Jennifer Lawrence from Winter’s Bone) who has the ability to change shape at will.
Back in 1986 Frank Miller single-handedly reinvented the Batman franchise in book form with “The Dark Knight Returns”, a four-part mini-series which saw an ageing Bruce Wayne come out of retirement one last time to fight the scourge of lawlessness that beset his beloved Gotham City. Fans have waited in vain for that story (dark, cynical, epic and powerful) to arrive on the silver screen but Christopher Nolan’s current version of the hero (introduced in Batman Begins in 2005) is still heading in the right direction, even to the extent of cribbing Miller’s title for this second episode.
In The Dark Knight we join the action not long after the end of the previous film. The forces of Gotham City law enforcement (with the help of the masked vigilante and a few unfortunate copy cats in hockey pads) are squeezing the city’s organised crime syndicates and cleaning up the city. Only psychopathic freakazoid The Joker (Heath Ledger) seems to be able to act with impunity and he offers the Mob a deal: he’ll dispatch the flying bat in exchange for half their business.
Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) still hankers after beautiful Asst DA Rachel Dawes (this time played by Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes) who promised they could be together if he could ever give up his double-life. The arrival on the scene of handsome and principled District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) as legitimate crime-fighter (a “white knight”) might just give him a way out, only Dent is also in love with Rachel. Meanwhile, The Joker’s plot to destroy Batman strikes closer and closer to home.
Despite being more than 20 minutes longer than it needs to be, The Dark Knight is a successful attempt to balance the thrills and spills of a modern day blockbuster with something a little more psychologically demanding. Nolan has claimed that there is very little digital effects work in the film and that he tried to shoot as much of the action as real as possible and it pays off – there must have been some digital in there but (apart from Dent’s astonishing and grotesque transformation into Two-Face) I couldn’t pick any.
It is disappointing that Nolan’s vision of Gotham City from the first film seems to have faded. Instead of the hyper-modern city in disrepair we got last time, now it looks like plain old modern day New York crossed with Chicago crossed with Toronto, and I guess that was one of the sacrifices made in the decision to ditch digital but the city itself is well short on atmosphere.
Bale, as ever, leaves this reviewer cold, but the supporting players are all fine actors in great form (particularly Michael Caine as Alfred, the former Special Forces butler). Ledger is tremendous and provides hints of the kind of liberating work he might have been capable of had he lived, although talk of a posthumous Oscar seems excessive. After all, since Cesar Romero in the 60s The Joker has been a license to ham and this version specifically is supposed to be all show and no depth.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 31 july, 2008. Sorry, I am so behind with posting. I’ll try and get this week’s edition up before the end of the weekend.
Notes on screening conditions: The Dark Knight screened at a surprisingly busy Monday morning session at Readings. And when I say “surprisingly busy” I mean over 100 people. At 11.00am!
This week’s Capital Times film review: Casino Royale (Martin Campbell); China Blue (Micha X. Peled); Flushed Away (David Bowers & Sam Fell); Tiger and the Snow (Roberto Benigni). Illustrated but not annotated, too late at night, sorry.