As an intermission from the somewhat downbeat (if understandable) current nature of this blog, here’s some thoughts that have been burbling around in my head, and which spun out of The Dark Knight…
I was a very craze-driven child. An idea would spark in my head, and I’d follow it completely. My first craze was SF, and most particularly Doctor Who, but eventually I would spread out – and some of my crazes would sometimes surprise me. I can remember thinking “Good lord, those daft metal Citadel Miniatures figures are ridiculously expensive – you’d have to be a complete idiot to be into that”, and barely a year later I was knee deep in them and slapping paint on them like there was no tomorrow. I can also remember thinking the same thing about American comics – I was raised on a diet of Doctor Who Monthly and 2000AD, and the bright, four-coloured universes of American Comics seemed completely alien to me.
Then, however, a few things happenned. I worked out that the same person seemed to have written a lot of comic strips I liked – and his name was Alan Moore. I knew he was writing this US comic called ‘Swamp Thing’- I looked at a recent issue, and it didn’t really look like my kind of thing. Too garish, too comic-y, lacking the grit that made 2000AD work. But then, I picked up a nice black-and-white collected edition of Swamp Thing: Volume Two, and it nearly took my head off. This was creepy, weird and beautifully done stuff, and then I was noticing that a name I recognised from the introductions of various Swamp Thing graphic novels, and a name who’d also written various film reviews in a magazine called Space Voyager (including one about Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which led to me watching what was to become my favourite film) was also now writing comics. In fact, there was this new one that had just come out – I didn’t know anything about it, but I loved Dave McKean’s artwork and he’d done the cover, so I thought ‘Why not’? and gave issue 1 of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman a try.
The thing which opened out the world of comics, however, was The Killing Joke. The combination of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland was more than my brain could take – I already knew Bolland for being the artist on the original (and best) Judge Death strips in 2000AD, and his work and craftmanship was simply amazing, resulting in comics that seemed to leap off the page at you. As a result, picking it up for £1.95 seemed like a slam-dunk, and it was the first ‘prestige format’, square-bound and glossy comic I’d ever read. It was also one of the most amazing, even though it took a couple of reads to completely get all the nuances. The main thing to remember about The Killing Joke is that, at the time, to anyone outside the world of comics, you said ‘Batman’ and the instant result was Adam West. The show had been repeated regularly, and was heavily ingrained in pop culture. It didn’t matter that Batman wasn’t originally like that – that was the most recent screen iteration, and that’s what stuck. And I think that’s one of the main reasons why the ‘Graphic Novel’ craze in the late Eighties happenned – while Watchmen attracted plenty of attention (and has, arguably, ended up with more longevity), it was The Killing Joke and especially The Dark Knight Returns that grabbed the limelight, simply because this was a take on a character we simply weren’t used to seeing. Going from Adam West and Burt Ward dashing around a garish Gotham and battling with Cesar Romero’s hilariously overacting Joker, to a pretty-damn terrifying Joker crippling Batgirl, abducting Comissioner Gordon and putting all his effort into trying to drive him insane – it was a major conceptual leap, and there’s a mythic aspect to both Knight and Joke that plays into it as well. It’s seeing what had succesfully been played as a self-aware joke suddenly turned straight – neither side was necessarily wrong (the Sixties Batman show is, while repetitive, also hilarious fun), it was the shock of the new, it was seeing something familiar in a brand new light. I went on to read The Dark Knight Returns, but while Frank Miller’s style and bombast was impressive, it was the insidious creepiness of The Killing Joke that stuck with me, and the way it managed to make the Joker both fearsome and tragic.
It was probably this that meant I went to see 1989’s Batman (as did most of civilisation at the time), and came out thinking “?” Let’s not mince words – the 89 Batman movie is a triumph of production design, but it”s really not a particularly good movie. Tim Burton is a great stylist but as a storyteller he’s hugely dependant on the script, and it also doesn’t help that he’s far more interested in the freaks than Batman himself – a problem that became especially apparent in Batman Returns. The 89 original has a couple of decent moments, and certainly opened up the idea of a darker interpretation of the Batman mythos, but it’s not a particularly exciting movie, and Jack Nicholson’s turn as the Joker is a shamelessly lazy bit of overacting – a performer who obviously knows his best work is behind him getting paid obscene amounts of money to have fun on a film he wasn’t too keen on making in the first place. It was the first event movie where it didn’t seem to matter how good the film was but how universal the merchandising presence was, and I remember feeling like they really hadn’t gotten it. There were brief aspects of the darker, creepier version of Batman there, but the whole thing was cartoony, played broad, and simply never felt like it completely meant it, combined with the virtual absence of a plot.
The film series spiralled downwards into Shumacher hell with Batman Forever – one of the few films to genuinely give me a migraine – while I went through some serious comic phases, and even picked up Batman itself regularly during one of the OTT multi-issue crossover ‘events’ that were so prevailent back in the early Nineties. Knightfall, where Bruce Wayne is driven to the edge and crippled, and an unbalanced new Batman takes his place, was rough around the edges but had a sense of drama and reality that the films were completely ignoring. It was good, action-packed stuff, even if my attention drifted away as the series started inevitable heading back towards the status quo. I was sensible enough to avoid Batman and Robin at the cinemas – I once attempted to sit through it on video, and only made it about half an hour in before I had to switch it off. The fact that the rest of the world seemed to feel the same was reassuring, in a way, but then the series became mired in development hell, and the idea of anything decent coming out of it seemed absurd.
It was Christopher Nolan who got me interested again. I loved Batman Begins when I first saw it – I still like it, but some of the cheesier dialogue and the ‘blockbuster mentality’ of the final half hour is rather hard to swallow. Most of all, it was a relief to see a Batman film that was actually about Batman, and which approached the whole mythos from a rigidly realistic perspective – taking you in step by step, showing Bruce Wayne finding his way towards being Batman, and making it somehow convincing and believable that a billionaire playboy is dressing up in bat-themed military-spec gear and going out to beat the crap out of criminals. Christian Bale was near-perfect casting – he’s not the warmest actor in the world (it’d be nice, if unlikely, to see him in a comedy) but he completely nails Bruce Wayne as an actual character, and the film served up a whole collection of talented character actors, and a low-key but excellent villain in Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow. It’s a far more consistent film than the fun but over-rated Spider-Man 2 – it just didn’t quite get where it needed to be, and there was the sense that a really, really impressive film was trying to get out from behind all the obvious notes from the studio and blockbuster quips.
Well, it turns out that that impressive film has come out – it took Batman Begins to get to The Dark Knight, and it’s an upgrade that makes the increase in quality between X-Men and X-Men 2 look hilariously mild by comparison. It’s not perfect – there are elements in The Dark Knight that are a little tricky, I’m not completely fond of Harvey Dent’s look as Two-Face (It’s suitably grotesque, but feels just a little too extreme and comic-book to fit with the otherwise rigidly realistic world Nolan has created), the plotline with Gordon’s fake death was bewildering and unconvincing (it’s not like they were ever going to kill Gordon off- or even if they did, they wouldn’t do it in such an off-hand manner) and some of the action sequences could do with being a little clearer and less frantically edited – but as superhero movies go – and frankly, movies in general – this was amazing stuff. What’s most astonishing is that, essentially, it’s an epic crime thriller, it’s Batman done as a Michael Mann film, and the simple excess of “Oh my god, they’re not going to – THEY DID!!” moments is something to behold. It’s a 2 1/2 hour movie that doesn’t really drag, and it’s also one of the most fantastically bleak blockbusters I’ve seen – it’s seriously unforgiving, amazingly violent, and with a tone and reach that had me sat there, in my IMAX cinema seat, amazed. (As a note – the IMAX version was amazing, but it was a little distracting at times – the switch between formats would sometimes happen for a single cityscape shot, and I can’t help feeling it would have been better if they could have kept it purely for specific sequences).
And then, of course, there’s Heath Ledger. Watching an actor who’s died young is always a faintly morbid experience, especially in this case as it’s hard to deny that Ledger is anything other than absolutely phenomenal in this role. Together with the screenplay, this is a version of the Joker that’s the closest I’ve ever seen to The Killing Joke – not a capering, quipping rent-a-villain with a fake smile, but a sick, twisted and utterly psychotic clown who’s near-unstoppable simply because of the fact that he doesn’t care about anything except chaos – and yet they actually managed to take the character even further. I know there have been complaints about the level of violence in The Dark Knight – it’s certainly the tough end of the 12A, and yet most of it is in tone rather than visuals, and frankly, it’s a Batman film. It’s a dark story, and if it doesn’t tackle some dark and disturbing stuff, it’s not doing its job properly. Ledger is incredible in this, nestling comfortably in the top-ranks of cinematic villains. It’s tragic that he’s gone, but as last complete performances go, this is a hell of a note to end on.
The success of The Dark Knight is somewhat amazing, considering how pitilessly bleak it is – and it’s rather concerning that as a result of that success, one of the Warner Bros production heads has said that they’ll be marching lots more DC heroes into production, and aiming for the same kind of dark tone as that’s obviously what people want. It’s understandable from a business point of view, but it’s also a major mistake. Bryan Singer’s dour and misconceived (but still occasionally majestic) Superman Returns may not have relaunched the franchise the way WB hoped, but I can’t even see the point of a dark, hard-edged Superman film. The whole principle of Superman is that he’s the yin to Batman’s yang – together they’re the day and night of the DC universe. Superman Returns failed because it was too faithful to the wrong bits of the original Superman films – instead of capturing the fun, Singer went for the angst and the slow pace, and ended up with a film that’s really not that enjoyable (I feel sorry for Brandon Routh – he’s genuinely excellent in Superman Returns, but doesn’t get the film he deserves). Superman needs to be bold, colourful and brassy to work – Superman II is, despite being a hodge-podge of Richard Donner and Richard Lester, superbly entertaining and gets almost all the notes right. And they should also beware, as superhero comics themselves went ultra-dark as a result of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen – suddenly you couldn’t move for vengeful, driven heroes and dark, unpleasent stories. And people got bored.
Dark works with Batman – it’s not going to work with everything. The Dark Knight returns hasn’t made over $500 million at the US Box office because its dark, or even because Heath Ledger is dead. It’s earned it because it’s a very, very good film thats packed with enough good stuff to warrant a re-watch, and if they can remember that when they green-light their next superhero flicks maybe- just maybe- they’ll have a chance….