Further on The Dark Knight (or: I knew I liked Robert Downey, Jr.)

Via IO9, a link to a Moviehole interview in which Robert Downey, Jr. trashes DC and The Dark Knight:

My whole thing is that that I saw ‘The Dark Knight’. I feel like I’m dumb because I feel like I don’t get how many things that are so smart. It’s like a Ferrari engine of storytelling and script writing and I’m like, ‘That’s not my idea of what I want to see in a movie.’ I loved ‘The Prestige’ but didn’t understand ‘The Dark Knight’. Didn’t get it, still can’t tell you what happened in the movie, what happened to the character and in the end they need him to be a bad guy. I’m like, ‘I get it. This is so high brow and so f–king smart, I clearly need a college education to understand this movie.’ You know what? F-ck DC comics. That’s all I have to say and that’s where I’m really coming from.

Now first, it’s worth noting it sounds incredibly tongue-in-cheek.

But as I noted in IO9’s comments, I don’t think that makes it necessarily less true.

I noted just after seeing the movie that I hadn’t terrifically enjoyed it. I don’t think I actively disliked it, mind you, because I thought it had a lot of strengths and I thought I could see what it was going for, which I admired. Much of it had a very noir feel. Anyone who’s read my collection (as always, free here) probably picked up that I enjoy noir, as two of the stories are noir. I think the best thing Billy Faulkner ever wrote was The Big Sleep and that was because Chandler did it first, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is among my favorite movies.

The thing about The Dark Knight as noir was that Nolan nailed the atmosphere but not really the conflict, which caused the writing to suffer. I can quote The Big Sleep off the top of my head–

“I don’t like your manners.”
“And I’m not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don’t mind your ritzing me drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”

But not so much The Dark Knight.

I think it was a little too dark, especially when Batman Begins had some nice, humorous touches (Morgan Freeman ftw [and: get well soon!]).

But I think my biggest problem was with the Joker. I’ve seen people cite the Joker, as a character, as the thematic counterpoint of Batman/Bruce Wayne, but he’s in fact not if solely because he has neither motivation nor backstory. The reason Bruce Wayne/Batman works is that we know how and why Bruce Wayne took up his cowl. We know his personal inciting incident (the death of his parents), and why he does what he does. We in addition know that he constantly wrestles with his own anger: witness the moment in Batman Begins when Wayne sneaks a revolver into the courtroom but then decides not to use it.

We know nothing of the sort about the Joker. Not where he came from, not why he does what he does. We don’t know why he paints his face. And most importantly, we don’t get any sense that he wrestles with his demons like Wayne does, or even that he has them. If we knew that he wrestled with them at some point and gave himself over to them in precisely the way Wayne refuses to, it might be effective. But we don’t.

“Agent of chaos” is one-dimensional characterization and lazy motivation at best and insulting at worst. At first I tried to view the Joker as a trickster-esque character, but he’s not that, either, because the trickster is amoral, beyond morals, lives by a slightly different moral compass than the rest of us but still has that moral compass. It’s why Jack Sparrow works so well. Total embodiment of the trickster archetype. And true, we don’t know his backstory, either, but we know his motivation, or, if we don’t, at least realize he has some.

Because of that lack of motivation, because it’s never clear what the Joker wants (he seems to start out wanting to kill the Batman, but it later turns out he feels the Batman “completes” him and seems to want to challenge Batman, which he never really does), the movie suffers. Especially in the final half-hour or so when every major character has an existential speech about the nature of good and evil and herodom so that they can telegraph to the audience everything the movie itself could not. The final half-hour of The Dark Knight may well be the most egregious example of telling over showing, lazy filmmaking, expository speech, and handing all your major characters philosophy theses as dialogue because you don’t trust what you’ve just made to stand on its own I have ever seen.

Oh, and after having seen Ledger’s performance, I still think Nolan missed a huge opportunity in not casting Christian Bale in triple roles as Bruce Wayne, Batman, and the Joker.

3 thoughts on “Further on The Dark Knight (or: I knew I liked Robert Downey, Jr.)

  1. GOTHAMGIRL

    Hmm. I suppose I liked this joker becasue I actually know the back ground story. (the face painting thing? I figured they were gonna find out later it’s not piant and that it’s slowly spreading through out his body) I never thought about it as a stand alone movie. No comics to explain it. No previous movie. Nothing. I suppose then that, the joker leaves soemthing to be desired.

  2. WILL ENTREKIN

    @movie: yeah, definitely, but I wonder if he would have found a better argument just noting TDK is bad, rather than “too smart.” It’s really not too smart; it’s the kind of “smart” that’s trying way too hard to prove its own intelligence, and it actually ends up becoming kind of dumb and talking down to its audience (esp. at the end).


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