Why So Serious?, or, I Miss the Giant Penny

250px-Batman-Outsiders-1.pngAccording to the box office numbers, there’s a good chance that everyone reading this has already seen The Dark Knight. But just in case, I’ll include a spoiler warning: it’s pretty damn good.

The movie mentions several times how the Joker and Batman are both “freaks” and outsiders, and how lonely it is to be different from everyone else. Now this, I can relate to somewhat, based on my lukewarm-at-best reaction to Batman Begins, and being in packed rooms at conventions where everyone else is practically wetting himself at the notion of a sequel. I’d have to smile nervously and clap and give a half-hearted “whoo!” and then go home wondering if maybe the problem is with me, and then cry myself to sleep under my X-Men 2 poster. I just didn’t get the attraction.

But The Dark Knight is an excellent movie. When you consider the performances — not a bad one in the entire cast, and Heath Ledger really is as outstanding as people have been saying; the production values; the dialogue; the unabashedly and unapologetically mature tone; the music and phenomenal sound design, it’s probably the best comic book movie ever made. But it’s still not my favorite, and I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what it is that doesn’t work for me.

I can’t accuse it of being too dry, because there are loads of genuinely clever moments. Or of being self-important Oscar-bait, because there’s an action scene involving a truck, a motorcycle, and some cable that may be the first objectively bad-ass scene in action movie history. (Which is to say: it’s not a matter of opinion; it would be impossible for a human being to watch that scene and not say, “Now that was bad-ass.”)

I can’t really even fault the two-and-a-half-hour length, since it did a remarkable job of keeping up the pacing. Even late into the movie, when you hear that weird “Joker noise” come up on the soundtrack, you can’t help but get every bit as tense as you were during the first scenes. It was only in the last half hour when I started to get “adaptation fatigue,” when I thought, “Wait, you’re going to try and squeeze The Killing Joke in here too? Really?” It felt like they were afraid they weren’t going to be allowed to make another Batman movie, so they had to squeeze every “serious” Batman story they could into one movie.

What it comes down to is that these movies are for the people who’ve been wanting a real Batman movie ever since the 70s. Back when people were desperate to “take back” the character from the campy 60s version and get back to his sinister and tragic roots. When I first got into comics, I was already in college, so I felt like I had to make up for lost time by getting big stacks of them and reading through several issues of Batman at a time. And I always ended up with the same feeling as I did watching Batman Begins: sure the story is competently told, but it’s going to end up ridiculous if you put any amount of thought into it, so why bother? Comics continue to swing back and forth between “joyless” and “ridiculous,” and Batman is the poster child for that.

Several times during The Dark Knight, I was struck by how it’s so much better, by several orders of magnitude, than any interpretation of Batman done so far. The Tim Burton movies seem even more embarrassingly silly now than they did when they were released, and it’s unsettling to think that at the time, they were supposed to be a counter to the “silly” version of Batman. When you consider all the indignities the character’s been made to suffer over the past 50 years, it’s perfectly understandable that people would want to see a version that does the character justice.

Especially when the movie is as good as this one. But still…

The Dark Knight is a much better movie than Hellboy 2, but the latter had earth elementals and fairies and giant clockwork monsters and the Angel of Death and ectoplasm in a diving suit, all memorable images that stand out in my mind and make me want to see it again. The Dark Knight is more realistic and less corny than X-Men 2, but there wasn’t really any moment I was inclined to stand up and cheer as when Nightcrawler bamfs out of a plane to save Rogue.

As good as The Dark Knight is, it still feels like it’s targeted at the people who want to be able to pinpoint Gotham City on a map. The people who insist that comics can too tell meaningful stories. Personally, I don’t feel that defensive about the term “comic book movie,” and don’t think they have anything to prove. I’ll take a Miyazaki-inspired 40’s art deco nightmare over Chicago any day, and a dark cave with a giant penny over a big Matrix-y room with concrete floors and fluorescent lights.

3 thoughts on “Why So Serious?, or, I Miss the Giant Penny”

  1. Yeah. I agree with you. It’s a good movie, but it’s not a fun movie. Ledger was great, in a really scary role.
    I guess that at its heart, it’s not a super-hero movie. It’s a movie about a
    mass murderer, and an almost supernatural mass murderer at that.
    It’s like those oscar bait movies that everyone appreciates but no one wants
    to watch a second time. Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood.
    It’s impressive, but you walk out unnerved and challenged, but without that release of
    tension you expected from your comic book movie.

  2. I loved the fact that as a superhero movie it had the guts to completely abstain from origin stories and flashbacks. Batman was Batman, Joker was Joker…who cares how they got there. It left so much more room for interesting storytelling without all the baggage.

  3. The problem is that it is just too hard to walk the line from being true to the comics without being too campy. It is easy to forgive so much when reading a comic. But when you are watching it on the screen, at times, it is hard not to stop yourself and say, “Wait, is that guy really wearing a bat-suit?”. “Are people really taking him seriously?” I really liked the movie (a lot), but if Nolan and crew do anything other than what they did, they cross the line and it doesn’t work. It becomes silly. You’re right, the Burton films don’t hold up (I hated the second one anyway). Someone put the trailers for all the movies online to compare to Nolan’s and the first four movies looked ridiculous. (The third and fourth film could have really come straight from the TV show.) It’s just for a character like Batman to really work on the screen, you have to have the realism.

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