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Mr. Beaks Thinks Nolan's Batman Begins with THE DARK KNIGHT!

Christopher Nolan's THE DARK KNIGHT is the Batman movie I wanted in 1989: a savagely downbeat epic that views Gotham City as a disintegrating, crime-choked microcosm of the United States. It's a film about the impossibility of justice in American life and the viciousness to which we'll succumb in order to see another day; a cheerless summer blockbuster that ultimately exhibits just enough faith in humanity to keep from descending into utter misanthropy. It is a movie that enthralls one moment and punishes the next, lashing the audience for giving in to its IMAX-abetted exhilaration when the abyss is beckoning. It is, in other words, as hopelessly conflicted as its hero - and Batman fans shouldn't want it any other way. It took a whole cycle of superhero movies and an attack on our country to prepare filmgoers for a $180 million entertainment this devoid of hope, and now that it's here, I am awed. As a piece of filmcraft, THE DARK KNIGHT is a humbling achievement; it's not Nolan's finest hour as a writer-director (that would be MEMENTO), but it is an inspiring attempt at dragging both a genre and its audience into more thematically complex areas. Working from a story he co-conceived with David S. Goyer, Nolan has, with his brother Jonathan, spun out a narrative that punctuates its plentiful action beats with minor defeats that compel Batman/Bruce Wayne to forswear his principles one by one. By getting drawn into a battle of demented wills with The Joker (one that claims the lives of police officers and endangers innocent civilians), Batman unwittingly does his part to push society closer to the brink of collapse. Most vigilante yarns are about self-destruction, but the Nolans realize that the true danger of one-man justice lies in the unrealistic standard being set. When things keep going south despite the over-extending efforts of this guardian angel, mightn't basic, moral precepts take a backseat to self-preservation? We've come a long way since "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you." I hated that moment in BATMAN BEGINS, and, if the action of this film is any indication, so did Nolan. There are some jolting deaths in THE DARK KNIGHT (The Joker dispatches a mob henchman in a shockingly swift and gruesome fashion), but there are no rousing kills. By injecting a quasi-real world feel into this film (dangerous in that one frequently mistakes Gotham City for Chicago), Nolan has taken on a greater responsibility as a storyteller. This is heightened stuff: if dying was just a punch line, then The Joker's terroristic activities wouldn't touch on our own fears of, say, getting blown to smithereens in an airplane. This approach puts everyone (save for Wayne) at risk. And since we know the disfigured destiny of Harvey Dent (and have been led to believe we know the fate of Rachel Dawes), there's a weight to the proceedings that is more in keeping with a Dennis Lehane crime novel than a comic book movie. Finally, someone gets that the conventions of this supposedly light 'n frothy genre are just as worthy of respect as those of Greek tragedy. Before we start throwing hosannas at the late Heath Ledger's portrayal of The Joker, I'd like to point out that this entire film would be an utter disaster without Aaron Eckhart's Camelot-come-to-Gotham take on Harvey Dent. True, the tough-guy swagger and the perpetually tousled hair are a dead giveaway as to Nolan's intentions, but that's all surface; it's Eckhart's unfettered earnestness - which can at times destroy a movie (see De Palma's THE BLACK DAHLIA) - that unburdens the character of his tiresome history. In a lesser Batman movie, you'd be giddily awaiting the moment of Dent's scarring; in THE DARK KNIGHT, you dread it because you see the crusading DA as a throwback to an era of honor and idealism (and, to a lesser extent, a human hero whose shining example might allow Bruce Wayne to hang up the cowl and, god forbid, maybe crack an unforced smile once in a while). Interestingly, Dent is the true polar opposite of The Joker: he's the best chance for Gotham returning to a place of stability, whereas Batman's vigilante zeal is only creating more patches of lawlessness. If Wayne seems resigned to this, it's because, as played by Christian Bale, the billionaire playboy only has two modes: resigned and perturbed. It's strange that Batman is continually the least interesting aspect of films bearing his name, but, for whatever reason, he's a better catalyst than a character. Batman is unwavering. He will do what it takes to catch the bad guy - even if it requires illegal wiretapping! This is smart (and completely in keeping with his "by any means necessary" approach to law enforcement), but I keep wondering how it would play if Nolan's version of Wayne knew how to enjoy himself. Thankfully, The Joker has the market cornered on "quirk". Nineteen years ago, Jack Nicholson made hay under the painted guise of Jack Napier, and he stole the film from everyone not named Anton Furst. The Nolans, on the other hand, shitcan the origin and just treat The Joker as an agent of unthinkable chaos; basically, he's damned soul who'd like a little company in his lonely ring of hell. Anarchists generally aren't the most sympathetic of characters, but Ledger locates the bent humanity in this flesh-and-blood monster: he's the mutant product of abuse, and he can't abide normalcy; as Alfred says, "He wants to see the world burn". Though normalcy hasn't a thing to do with Ledger's work in THE DARK KNIGHT, you can see the remnants of the poor kid who was denied a fighting chance in our society, and, in the end (thanks again to Bale's charmless performance) his failure wounds as palpably as Batman's. Because THE DARK KNIGHT is largely a writer's film, you can easily excuse its other flaw: the ineptly-shot fight sequences. Unlike Paul Greengrass, who somehow improved with his filming of hand-to-hand combat between THE BOURNE SUPREMACY and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, Nolan is as clumsy here as he was in BATMAN BEGINS. As for the big vehicular action, Nolan (and his stunt team) bring the fury with an exquisitely-staged chase that includes the downing of a helicopter and the upending of a semi-truck. This is one of the many reasons you'll want to see this in IMAX. The aerial photography that enhances Batman's vertiginous dives from any number of skyscrapers is also choice. Given the inherent dourness of the character, the post-9/11 iconography of THE DARK KNIGHT is obligatory. Batman has always been our caped Dirty Harry doing the monstrous work that no one else will do. But there is a price for pressing this far, and, by the end of Nolan's near-masterpiece, when everything's shifted again, it's not that difficult to imagine how the world works without a semblance of justice or Cold War order. We're living in it. Welcome to a world without rules, indeed. Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks P.S. In case you're wondering, it's a cage match between THE DARK KNIGHT and WALL-E for best of the year thus far.

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