Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Darkness Of "The Dark Knight"

I finally saw "The Dark Knight".

Mentioned time and again that I refused to watch this movie but I did. Picked up a cheap bootleg DVD yesterday and saw it with my wife and kids. My wife dozed off in the middle of the movie and the kids complained that it was boring. They started playing with their toys and reading their storybooks instead. My youngest daughter (5 years old) could see through the thin plotline and predicted that Harvey Dent would get his face burned by the Joker and become Two-Face. Guess what? She was right! Haha! My youngest son (4 years old) was more interested in his Kellogg's mini Batman figurine than the movie.

As for me, I think it was a decent enough movie. Heath Ledger was masochistic and scary as the Joker and he got the best lines. Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent was the "Apollo"-faced District Attorney that I've always pictured him to be – which made his descent into Two-Face all that more tragic. Gary Oldman's Jim Gordon had a bigger role here than in the prequel so that's not a bad thing. My problem is with Christian Bale's Batman. He's not terribly bad but neither is he terribly good either. There's no romance in his Batman. Almost like he's actually quite tired of the role forced upon him. He's not even interested in being Bruce Wayne actually. He's just disinterested throughout. Somewhat like Brandon Routh in "Superman Returns". They seem to put forth the "Hey, I'm deserving of better roles than playing this superhero in spandex but I'm doing it because you idiotic fanboys like this sort of thing!" notion in every scene.

My original complaint (after watching the trailer) remains: there is no cheer in this movie. If anything, the overall feel was even more unpleasant than "Batman Begins". No more soaring, dramatic Danny Elfman soundtrack. In its place is a constipated, claustrophobic piece to match the movie's drearily brooding atmosphere. Nobody smiles in the movie. There is very little colour. Everything is grim and gritty. And the viewers absolutely loved it! [Latest box-office reports show that it's the highest grossing superhero film ever and possibly among the highest grossing films ever! Add in merchandising and a later DVD release, Blu-Ray release, Director's Cut release, special 2-disc edition release and this movie is the biggest cash-cow ever!]

In the recent comic-con, current Batman scribe Grant Morrison praised "The Dark Knight" as the finest Batman movie to date. To a certain extent, I do not disagree. The film works as a character-piece. Batman, Joker, Two-Face and Gordon are more fleshed-out here than ever. Joker's "You complete me" line is especially memorable and poignant. Every encounter between Joker and Batman, Joker and Harvey, Harvey and Gordon are character studies of contrasts and parallels. So much that the "talky"-scenes carry far more punch than all the explosions and action scenes. The Joker-Batman dynamics work far better here than in Tim Burton's original 1989 version. Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton arguing about "who made who" was nothing compared to the psychological word-play here between Heath Ledger and Christian Bale. Batman is played as the rational and logical figure that forces order into his world. Joker is his complete antithesis as the agent of chaos and anarchy. Therefore, Batman struggles to understand Joker because he was approaching him in a logical way – looking for motives behind his insane acts of cruelty, etc. In the end, the whole thing was about Joker proving a point – the corruption of man hidden behind the public face of civilization. Batman managed to save his city but ended up losing his friend, Harvey, to Joker's corruption (and Rachel to Joker's manipulations). In short, the Joker won.

My friend La Tey is reading Ellen Brown's "The Web of Debt" at the moment. It's a book about the financial system that keeps us all in bondage. It's interesting that most people spend their lives chasing after money but not knowing what money is. Some of them know it better than others (i.e. money = debt) and become richer than their wildest dreams. In short, the whole financial system that is based on debt is the product of schemers who devise this sort of thing. It was the prophet Jeremiah who denounced this sort of thing by pointing to the evil devices of the human heart. The Joker understood that and that was why his motives were not financial (he actually burned his 50% share of the cash from his heist). His primary motive was to put up a bloody middle-finger up to the world-system of schemers (of which Batman is a self-appointed protector).

That was what I admired about the movie–the character studies. The problem with the movie is that it is very little else. You see, the average movie viewer is not used to such things in their movie-watching diet. They see the depth, the complexity of characters and they go ga-ga! A local reviewer even said that watching "The Dark Knight" is akin to watching "Star Wars: Episode IV" in the 1970s. Almost like an epiphany. I strongly disagree. "Star Wars" took us further than we were (in the 1970s) because it wasn't just a character piece – it was a whole fictional universe to be explored. It gave us a sense of wonder and a thirst to discover more of the world that George Lucas envisioned in his head. Same thing Tolkien did with "The Lord of the Rings". But not so "The Dark Knight". This movie harkens back to the grim-and-gritty era of comics than began in 1985/6. In short, it is a move backwards rather than forward. Let me explain: it is agreed that the grim-and-gritty era began with the works of two men – Frank Miller and Alan Moore.

Frank Miller was a fan of crime stories and hard-boiled detective novels/movies. He wanted to bring that into the comics but everywhere he looked, people were only interested in spandex-clad superheroes. Finally, he got his chance to work his magic into the monthly "Daredevil" book. It was a dream come true for Frank (especially when he was paired with a penciller/inker who shared his sensibilities, Klaus Janson). They brought in their mutual love for seedy bar-rooms and smoky pool-saloons, the femme fatale and the exotica of the orient (in the form of mysticism and ninjitsu). And they created a classic. Heroes were not so black-and-white anymore, they compromised their ideals in order to take down the bad guy. The bad guy wasn't just a guy in a silly costume anymore, he became an immovable wall behind which all the corruption of the city festers (i.e. the Kingpin). [Frank was also mugged one night in NYC so he got to work his angst into the book!] Frank later took his visions further in "Ronin" and culminated in "The Dark Knight Returns". Fans who were expecting more "Daredevil"-stuff in "The Dark Knight Returns" were shocked to find out how different that was – but nobody complained. It was an instant classic. In that pre-internet age, everyone was on the phone the day "The Dark Knight Returns #1" hit the stands – "Did you get it yet?" "Did you see how crazy this Batman was? He was threatening to drop that punk from the top-floor of a building!" "Batman is more like a terrorist than a hero here!" Frank Miller was distilling his own vision (paranoia?) of corrupt cities, sexual-angst, right-wing political motivations and mixing it with Kirby-power (he was befriending Kirby and fighting for creator-rights at that time) into that seminal work – "The Dark Knight Returns". At the same time, the British magician/musician, Alan Moore, was slowing working his magic by reworking Claremontian whimsy ("Captain Britain"), mysticism/occult/horror ("Swamp Thing") and C. C. Beck's "Shazam" ("Marvelman/Miracleman"). Moore's work culminating in the study on superheroic-fascism called "Watchmen". Both "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Watchmen" were very reflective of the politics of the 1980s – of Reaganomics, Thatcher, the missile crisis, etc. The mass media took note and everyone sat up to listen to them.

Then came the bastardization of it all. Everyone wanted to create dark, grim-and-gritty comics to follow in the footsteps of Miller/Moore. Jim Starlin gave us "Batman: The Cult" and "Batman: A Death In The Family"– the first showing Batman swallowed up by homeless scavengers and the second featuring the brutal killing of Robin II (Jason Todd) by the Joker. J.M. DeMatteis did the same with Spider-Man when he wrote "Fearful Symmetry/Kraven's Last Hunt"– a very dark piece of work mixing Freud, Blake and Dostoevsky showing an insane Kraven swallowing spiders, "killing" Spidey and burying him, then taking his costume and finally killing himself. Mike Grell gave us "The Longbow Hunters" and turned the freewheeling Green Arrow into a hunter going after the men who kidnapped and sexually tortured Black Canary – it was a work that was so brutal even some hardcore fans were turned off by it. Howard Chaykin did the same to the classic pulp-hero, "The Shadow" in a twisted, amoral, sexually-ambivalent miniseries. Now, the works mentioned above at least pretended to have literary qualities. The rest were very crappy imitations – all attitude, no substance. The early Image works (Deathblow, Bloodsport, and other comics with "Death" and "Blood" in the titles and within the pages) were representative of such cheap imitations. Along all the "Blood" and "Death" was an attempt to make comics "realistic"– that is, real world settings, real world crimes (rape, kidnap, drugs, money-laundering, etc.)

Incidentally, the ones who were most vocally complaining about the comics of the time were Frank Miller and Alan Moore. They were pissed off at the cheap imitations. Frank Miller lamented that the imitators did not understand the "romance", the heroic imaginations, the reworking of myths that he was putting into "The Dark Knight Returns". Alan Moore's "Watchmen" was more cynical but he was really working in all sorts of paneling tricks, storytelling gimmicks, Silver-Age homages, etc. (that he later used to great effect in "Supreme", "Tom Strong", etc.) In other words, Miller and Moore were craftsmen and the rest were hacks! Besides, Miller and Moore were writing the "fantastique"– the stories were all solidly set in the fantasy-world of the superhero-genre. They lamented that the hacks, in order to show forth the "attitude", the "machismo", the moodiness, the grim-and-gritty, had to set their stories in real-world settings. In short, this newfound "realism" wasn't something to be celebrated in the four-colour fantasies of the comicbook form. Alan Moore's tribute to the imaginations of Swartz, O'Neil, Swan, etc. came in the poignant final story of the "original" Superman–"Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?". It was a last hurrah to the times when superhero comics were about bringing out the best in us, celebrating the best in our imaginations ("Look! Up In The Sky!"), and inspiring us to better things. The cover to the second issue in that story showed a teary-eyed Superman flying off and the DC editorial bidding him farewell. It was the end of an era.

The grim-and-gritty era reigned from 1986 to 1996. If you were a kid looking for heroes at that time, it's unlikely that you'll find them in the comic racks down at your grocery stores. But it was a time when kids were more interested in their Nintendos and Playstations anyway. The height of the grim-and-gritty era came when Superman was killed by Doomsday, Batman was crippled by Bane, Green Lantern went insane and slaughtered the entire GL Corps, Wonder Woman lost her mantle, Captain America became a werewolf, Wolverine/Ghost Rider/Punisher were featured in a gazillion books a month and Spawn was the number one comic in the world!

Interestingly, the "Batman" movies were the only things during this decade that really wasn't soooooo grim-and-gritty. Thanks to Tim Burton's fantasyworld Gotham and Joel Schumacher's camp, the "Batman" movies were, for lack of a better word, FUN! They harkened back to the spirit of the 1960s TV series and comics. True enough, Burton's vision was considered "dark" at that time but it was still colourful enough to be whimsical (of course, it was helped by Danny Elfman's soaring score). Paul Dini and Bruce Timm came along and gave us the perfect balance of fun mixed with modern sensibilities in their award-winning "Batman: The Animated Series" and later on, "Superman", "Justice League", etc. This in turn influenced the comicbooks. In 1996, Mark Waid and Alex Ross released "Kingdom Come"–a majestically awesome painted work that served as an indictment of what comics had become. At the end of the 4-issue work, the grim-and-gritty era in comics was over. Waid continued in his crusade for the warmth and imagination of the Silver Age by giving us "Flash" (teamed with the late Mike Wieringo) and "Justice League: A Midsummer's Nightmare" (this second one became the launchpad for Grant Morrison's much lauded "JLA" series). Around the same time, James Robinson's "Starman" series showed us that a modern comicbook can be sophisticated and fun without being grim-and-gritty or "realistic" (this later became the launchpad for the hugely successful and wonderfully nostalgic "JSA" series). Then there were the other visionaries like Jeff Smith (Bone), Mike Allred (Madman), Stan Sakai (Usagi Yojimbo), Mike Mignola (Hellboy), etc. who continued creating fun and imaginative tales every month.

The recent "Infinite Crisis" series by Geoff Johns and gang is another reexamination of the fun/imagination/inspiration versus realism/dark/grim-and-gritty debate. Waid/Ross did it with the older "Kingdom Come" Superman confronting the "Image/Marvel"-like heroes of the 1990s. Johns did it with the original Siegel/Shuster "Golden Age" Superman confronting the "current versions" of Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman that were born in 1986/87 (at the height of the "realism" drive). The end of the series showed the heroes going off on a soul-searching exile to discover once again what made them "good". Grant Morrison took over the "Batman" books after that and showed us a fun-loving, romantic Batman who is at peace with himself and the world – so much that he became a father (to Damian and Tim), a lover (to Jezebel), a son (to Alfred) and a friend (to the JLA/JSA folks). This is the current state of comicbooks. We've come a long way since “Showcase #4” introduced the Silver Age Flash. We've tried the grim-and-gritty and found it wanting.

Alas, the evolution of superhero-movies are at least 20-years behind that of their four-colour counterparts. We went from the brightly imaginative "Spider-Man I & II" to the morbidly dreary "Spider-Man III". Same thing with the "X-Men" movies. When the comic-reading world is long past the grim-and-grittiness of "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Watchmen" (gosh, those books were released 22 years ago), the movie-watching public is cheering for "The Dark Knight" film and the upcoming "Watchmen" film! To me, "The Dark Knight" represented the decade that was–1986 to 1996–as another bastardized hack of Miller/Moore. Was it realistic, with a real-world feel? It certainly was. Was it lacking in imagination? It certainly was. (Pick up any Sheldon Moldoff/Dick Sprang/Neal Adams/Frank Robbins/Marshall Rogers "Batman" to see what I mean!) Was it drearily dark? Amen. It couldn't even hold the attention of kids (and my kids are among the biggest Batman fans ever!). As for the plus points of the film–the complexity of the characterization, well, surprise-surprise, it's nothing that we've not seen a million times in the comic-books! We get the Joker-Batman confrontations every month in the books written by Alan Moore ("The Killing Joke"), Michael Green ("Lovers & Madmen"), Ed Brubaker ("The Man Who Laughs"), Chuck Dixon ("Joker's Last Laugh"), Grant Morrison ("Arkham Asylum"), Greg Rucka ("No Man's Land"), etc. It's nothing new to us comic readers but to movie-viewers this stuff is revolutionary. An epiphany even! Hahahaha! Maybe that's why I'm more thankful for recent gems like "Hellboy II"–a truly beautiful adaptation of a genuinely fun comicbook. Not so much for "The Dark Knight"–in my opinion, it represented everything that was wrong with comics in the past two decades and is now infecting the films. Warner Bros. just announced last week that they're rebooting the Superman franchise in a series of films that will be "darker"! See my point? Studio idiots (read: people who knows shit about the original material, namely, the comicbooks) now think that DARK = BOX OFFICE HIT because of the success of "The Dark Knight". I mentioned above that it was a decent enough movie – but that had more to do with the efforts of Chris Nolan and David Goyer in producing a complex character piece than simply because it was "dark"! So we'll be getting a "darker" Superman. Now, why am I not cheering? Perhaps, I'm recalling the tears in the eyes of that Superman drawn by Curt Swan in "Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?".

[Postscript: Steven Grant was one of the grim-and-gritty writers of the 1980/90s. He was responsible for bringing the Punisher back into the limelight with his "Circle of Blood" and "Return To Big Nothing" graphic novels. But Grant is too smart to remain just a grim-and-gritty writer. He also writes Hardy Boys novels! He just wrote a piece on the "dark" Superman following Warner Bros' announcement. Go read it here and tell me what you think!]

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