20/12/2016

The Dark Knight - The Vanilla Problem

Thoughts On: The Dark Knight

The Joker, Batman, eventually some Two-Face--you've all seen this film.


We all know that The Dark Knight is a great movie. All that is great about it has been praised beyond mention. However, I have what is probably going to be an unpopular opinion to be voiced. This is most definitely an overrated film. In fact, this whole trilogy is overrated. I'm not saying that these films are in any way bad. Many aspects of these movies, apart from some bits of plotting, are incredibly good. However, there are a multitude of elements to The Dark Knight Trilogy that are little more than really good. Thus, these films do not reach the heights at which they often are praised at. Again, these are great movies. They aren't the best films ever made though - not by a long shot. I've then chosen Dark Knight, the best of the trilogy, to make an argument for why.

In short, the problem with these films is in Nolan's incredibly vanilla direction. This is a major problem with all of Nolan's films; from Memento to Inception to The Dark Knight Trilogy to Interstellar, all of Nolan's films suffer from a lack of style, character and nuance. To understand what I mean, I simply ask you to compare how you feel when watching Scorsese's Goodfellas or Spielberg's Close Encounters Of The Third Kind to the likes of Inception or The Dark Knight. The comparison to Goodfellas is the most blunt. There is in no way the same level of style, entertainment and levity captured by any of Nolan's films as in Goodfellas. You're instantaneously swept along with the narrative because of Scorsese's (and crew's) masterful control over sound, light, framing, composition and editing - not to forget, acting and writing. When you compare Nolan to Spielberg, which many have before, there is often the temptation to say that he is the 'Spielberg of our times' because of his audacity to create such successful blockbusters. However, 1) Spielberg is not dead and is still making films, so I'm sure that makes him feel great, and, 2) have you seen Jurassic Park? Indiana Jones?? Jaws??? Heck, even Hook???? All of these films are better, in my opinion, than any of Nolan's films. This is ultimately because Nolan is, in some ways, very much like Spielberg. He creates great blockbusters that you can't imagine anyone else making. Films like The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception and Interstellar are a testament to modern filmmaking as they say that there are still people willing to take risks to create something new and exciting. However, the tone of Nolan's films are so often incredibly drab and boring. He takes astounding concepts and really waters them down. Sure, he presents them in a cool way, with respect and integrity. But, his shooting of films, such as Dark Knight, is little more than competent and so adds little to what the concept and story already have to offer. This is his major fault. He is nothing like Spielberg in respect to his ability to project a script and make it better, to manipulate an audience's emotions and create quintessential blockbusters.

The question I ultimately want to ask with The Dark Knight--in turn, all of Nolan's films --is: how could they be better? Before getting into that, two things. Firstly, I'm not saying I know how to make movies better than Christopher Nolan. I'm just saying that, in comparing his films to all I've seen, I can join together dots to speculate how these films could be better. Secondly, before asking a question of how to make The Dark Knight better, we have to go over its faults.

First things first, aesthetics. The Dark Knight is consistently given a strong colour pallet, some great composition, lighting and framing. However, none of these details are very interesting. This is something very common of a multitude of films being put out these days. With digital filmmaking, having films look good and fit a certain aesthetic isn't incredibly significant. A great recent example of this would be the horror film Don't Breathe...





This film has been shot incredibly well. The lighting is great, the compositions are incredibly strong, but for the majority of the first act, this doesn't do anything. In fact, there is a sense of pretension about the first act and films that fall into this paradigm. There's a great focus on visuals, but they barely impact the telling of the story. However, when you break into the second act of Don't Breathe, you see some incredibly interesting shots that tell the story and engage an atmosphere. This comes with a combination of steady-cam and CGI assisted long shots.





When moving about the house as the criminals first break in, the camera has us walk/run/creep through with them. And in such, we see a fantastic use of cinematic language throughout the majority of the second act. And 'cinematic language' is a key term. The shots aren't just flashy, they aren't just derivative of Kubrick and Scorsese (Goodfellas again and The Shining). These shots draw you in as an audience member and help contribute to the story by giving tone and texture to the mood of the narrative. The third act of the film is drawn out and tiresome, but we'll leave the film at that.

The Dark Knight doesn't have the kind of cinematic language present in the best parts of Don't Breathe. The shot types throughout this film are nothing interesting and neither are the aesthetics. There's a dark tone given by the heavy use of blue and blacks that is often made poignant with the sparse use of reds and oranges, but this does little in the way of assisting story. That is to say that the use of colour, framing and camera movement rarely reaches from the screen and punches you in the gut. There simply isn't that immersive awe-factor in these films. Because of the strong aesthetics not assisting story, not doing much in the way of generating a better tone and atmosphere, there is, again, an air of pretension produced. In short, The Dark Knight has a great facade, but one without much depth - it simply isn't very expressive.

The second major fault with this film is also about expression. It's all about the how the story's message is translated through character. To pick up on the comparison again, this is the true separating factor between Spielberg and Nolan. Almost all of Nolan's characters are just...          . The Dark Knight, however, is probably one Nolan's best films because of Alfred, Batman and The Joker. These are great characters - a rarity in both this Trilogy and Nolan's cannon of films. What makes them great characters is their expressive behaviour. Characters such as Commissioner Gordon and Dent are little more than technically strong characters because they're written and played in a very formal way.



This is one of the biggest faults of technical screenwriting (something explored with Die Hard). When characters are written technically, they do little more than serve their plot whilst having a bit of back story or guiding morals. This is the case for every single one of Nolan's characters. They are strong in a technical respect, but almost all lack strong traits that elevate them off the page and help them evolve to be more than just dialogue and the words that described them. Alfred, Batman and The Joker make this transcendence though. This is largely thanks to the way the actors worked with the given script. Alfred and The Joker are obvious examples of this. They hold an emotive facade that really sells the characters beneath. I won't get too deep into these characters, namely The Joker, just yet though. With Batman, however, what makes him great isn't so much Christian Bale's performance. He is inherently a cool character - he fights crime in a goddamn armored suite and cape. Because of this, he is almost always defined by actions; by him literally fighting crime. This reliance on action is what makes Batman such a great character. He resonates on a very primal and emotive level with the audience - simply due to his behavior. Other characters do not have this. They are words, very rarely action. What this picks up on is a Star Trek approach to narrative meaning...


A large part of what made Star Trek so strong was its powerful messages. These, however, were often said explicitly through dialogue. This is not very cinematic. In cinema, you show, you don't tell. That goes for the plot points of your movie, character motives and the subtextual meaning of your film. You don't shout them out. When you combine this lack of 'show, don't tell' with characters who don't project their personage very well through behavior and action, you end up with very empty and bland characters. You see these kinds of characters riddled throughout The Dark Knight. This is not just true of the main and assisting characters, but the plethora of smaller parts. There are about a billion Cop #1s, #2s, #3s, and #4s in this movie. There are also a billion other Citizen #1s, #9s and #56s. This is a huge issue and something you see in a multitude of big movie blockbusters - an overuse of extras and small parts. This is something we'll pick up on again later. But, to summarise the faults in characters throughout this movie, all you have to recognise is how technical and rigid they are. This hurts how you view the movie as it produces so many empty moments. It spreads the emotional high points of the film like too little butter over too much bread - to paraphrase Bilbo in The Lord Of The Rings.

Before leaving characters completely, we have to pick up on another weakness in Batman: Bruce Wayne. Christian Bale plays Bruce Wayne as little more than a watered down Patrick Bateman...


Instead of being a hilarious megalomaniac by day and a murderous sexual deviant by night, Bale plays Batman/Wayne as a slightly egotistical asshat by day and a quite violent, yet slightly moral, vigilante by day. Whilst this isn't an entirely solid comparison, I make it to suggest the faults in Batman; he is expressive in his actions, but only to a certain extent. Patrick Bateman is, whilst hyperbolic and driven by a different mental predisposition, a much stronger character than Batman/Wayne because his internal arc is projected so much more articulately. This is the crux of what all of Nolan's characters lack. There is just a lack of... this...


Another huge downfall of the film lies in editing. This is something that is linked to both the direction of the movie and its tone. In respect to tone, this film simply isn't violent enough. I say this as a blood thirsty fan of violent YouTube videos - and for that you have my apologies and your critique. But, I can't buy the 'dark and gritty' tone of this film with its ultimately child-friendly design. This is a fault I don't hold as too important, however. This is because it's a subjective opinion, but also because of the obvious fact that this film couldn't have been made or have sold as well if there was blood flying everywhere. However, there is weight to this class of criticism and it's linked to direction. The action in this movie is shot in a satisfactory manor - it's nothing amazing though. I point to the best sequence of the film...



... the chase sequence. I know this will hurt any film buff's heart, but... Michael Bay would have filmmed this sequence better. Call me a know-nothing dickhead, but this is almost undeniable. Michael Bay, for all of his faults, knows how to shoot exciting action - and he does so in innovative ways. Sure, he uses the same old gimmicks quite a lot, but why do we criticise him for this? Because he's not doing anything new or exciting; his directorial style is becoming bland. But, what's the major fault with Nolan's direction of action? It's bland. And guess what, it never was new or exciting. This is where you must say Michael Bay has the foot up on Christopher Nolan. Not only is this chase sequence shot in such a basic and uninspired manor, but the sound design is borderline terrible. This is true throughout the film. Not only is the sound design lacking, but the music is so, here's the word again, bland. This, however, is something that has been picked up on by many before me. Music is a huge downfall of many big blockbusters nowadays. I suggest this video as great look into this topic...


The final note on the action in this film must be made on the fact that we never see Batman do anything particularly cool, badass or Batman-like. We got to see a glimpse of this in the shit-show that was Batman V Superman near the very end...


... but this is something lacking in all of DC's films. However, what this all segues into is the final major fault in The Dark Knight is something first touched on with my review of Batman V Superman. This is the concept of Human Cinema and is at the crux of every moment of banality in this film. Though this concept has a lot to do with the confines of cinema in respect to fantasy, to the everyday, Human Cinema is a concept that can pervade an entire movie. You see this in The Dark Knight from the myriad of minor characters and heavy focus on morality to the persistent focus on the everyday. This underlies the movie with a very boring human touch as well as imbues the film with an ugly sense of self-centricity. In other words, this is a film designed by and for people in a very direct sense. You see this in the constant appeal to the average Joe. Whilst this is a noble approach to cinema in some people's perspective, it's complete dog shit in mine. This is because all films are ultimately about people anyway. Just look to Disney to understand why...





Despite these films being about lions, tigers and bears, they still resonate with us. Why? Because people have an inherent understanding of personification - just ask your kids or younger family members as they watch their cartoons. It's because of this that Human Cinema is such a nasty poison in fantasy. It dumbs down films, but also needlessly confines them. It forces a painful focus on realism and plot. And this is the absolute worst part of The Dark Knight: it's plot-centric design. Every single goddamn moment in this film is about plot--there are very little fun moments in which we get to enjoy the fact that this is a Batman movie. This is what I meant when I said I wish there was more action and violence in this film. I didn't just mean to suggest that it makes more sense to see more blood and violence, but that the movie should capitalise on its crucial draw: Batman vs The Joker. We get some great moments of Batman vs The Joker throughout the film, but the plot really cuts this down. This is all down to the way this film was both written and edited. Everything in the movie is fined tuned to the max - something admirable. But, without fat, a film like Batman V Superman is... kind of disappointing. The reason why highly fine-tuned films work is often because they're either Back To The Future or Die Hard. These films are so fun in their initial design that each moment has the texture of 'fat'. (That is to say that it's juicy and tender). Films like Back To The Future don't need to have add-in scenes to inject extra humour or fun - this is what they've been designed to be. The Dark Knight could use a bit of fat, could use a few cooler sequences that aren't slave to a plot. Moreover, this film is begging for some fattier, juicier, flashier direction. However, we're about to find ourselves retracing familiar ground.

So, with the major faulted aspects of this film outlined, we can ask the question of how to make this film better. We'll start with the characters. You only need to look to The Joker to see how to better characters. Heath ledger's work with this character, whilst over the top and indicative of Jack Nicholson's kind of acting...



... is so enjoyable because he sinks into the insanity of this character in an incredibly genuine way. (P.S A comparison to Nicholson's The Joker has not been implied). Ledger doesn't just foam at the mouth and scream, but allow the insanity to imbue all the little gestures...



It then comes as little surprise that some of the best moments of the film are not only provided by The Joker, but by accident. This speaks to Nolan himself. His direction is way too formal, it is not stylistic and expressive, but rigid and incredibly vanilla. This doesn't just effect the aesthetics of the film, but its tone. Everything is focused on talking about morality, white nights and doing the right thing - and always as a preface to action. The action is rarely allowed to speak for itself, nor is it given breathing room to really blow our minds. This films ultimately needs to relax, needs to push its bounds in respect to being a fantasy film - not just a nitty, gritty crime thriller. It needs to relinquish itself from plot, explore its world and characters - even in the simplest ways. I mean, wouldn't you like to see more of this film from The Joker's perspective? Take out the trillion minor characters and show us his side of things. If not, at least the movie from over his shoulder from time to time. Where does he go at night? What does he do to relax? How does he get around? All, in my opinion, interesting questions than could, in a positive respect, dehumanise the cinematics of this film.

The final notes I'll make on this film is that it will inevitably be looked back on as a classic or great film. However, The Dark Knight will be a great in the same respect Double Indemnity or Casablanca are. These films have so many great elements to them, but are't the best of their kind. This means that just as Rififi is much better than Double Indemnity in respect to crime thrillers and film noir, so is Intermezzo a better film than Casablanca in respect to romance and drama.

  

  

This all suggest that The Dark Knight will go down in filmic history as great, but in a class of great that, whilst revered, has faults in design. Furthermore, I think The Dark Knight can be bettered. In fact...


... maybe it has been? To end, I'll say that, for The Dark Knight to be great, it doesn't have to be the Goodfellas of the superhero genre - but it does need something more to it. This is ultimately a strong film, but one that is definitely lacking.

So, what do you think? Am I talking out of my asshole, or do you think The Dark Knight is overrated, at the least, subject to many primarily directorial faults?




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