Come back Adam West, all is forgiven! Though I doubt TV’s Batman would find much of a home in the new, brutal, unrelenting Batman movie, The Dark Knight. Perhaps he could be beaten to death as a pretext for another set-piece, but beyond that – No. The Dark Knight is not a movie that would welcome West, Burt Ward, or anything fun. I know I’m going against the grain – against doctrine – to say I didn’t like The Dark Knight, but this movie is to summer what a chain-saw is to a daisy-chain. The idea that its primary audience is children and young teenagers (it carries a PG-13 rating in America and a 12 rating in Britain) is pretty bloody depressing.
The movie begins with a brilliantly staged robbery, in the style of Michael Mann’s Heat. The Joker (Batman’s nemesis) leads the raid, and one-by-one he systematically executes his fellow thieves, until he escapes, in a school bus. We are led to infer that life in Gotham City is getting worse. Batman’s heroics have inspired a new breed of criminals. His good intentions (get ready with your Iraq parallels) have gone awry and The Joker is the end result. Fuelled by madness, sadism and a need to one-up Jack Nicholson, The Joker spreads chaos across Gotham; daring Batman, not to face him, but to kill him. It’s a bit like Heart of Darkness, if Kurtz wore clown makeup.
Now ok – I was harsh with that first paragraph. Am I saying the movie isn’t well-made? No. Am I saying it isn’t well-acted? No. My only caveat – and maybe it is subjective – but: is this movie suitable for the kids who are going to want to see it? No. Face facts: this is a Batman movie. It’s based on a comic. There are toys to be sold. I’m not saying all movie violence should be censored, or even that comic-book movies can’t encompass adult themes, but comic-book movies do have some responsibility not to ape The Silence of the Lambs. There’s a passage in the Julia Phillips’ memoir You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, where she wrote that the first Batman movie was “more corrupt than dark”. And that’s The Dark Knight, to me: a relentlessly grim, cruel, wanton trawl through the underworld. More the sort of thing David Fincher thrives on than anything escapist or exciting in a conventional (old-fashioned?) sense.
As Batman, Christian Bale is angry, threatening – like he’s been in his bat-suit too long. He’s a hero the way Charles Bronson played heroes; the kind of man who wins with a frown. His romance with Maggie Gyllenhaal is only really convincing on her side – we don’t really buy that Batman would have a sex life, unless it involved Gyllenhaal whipping him and beat-cops looking on. Heath Ledger’s Joker is (believe the hype) one helluva show, but he’s also the main problem with the movie. He doesn’t play the Joker as a cackling movie villain, he plays him as a man who likes to cut people with knives – the kind who do exist – and he will give pre-teens nightmares for weeks. Aaron Eckhart (as the crusading D.A.) looks dashing and handsome – for a while. But The Dark Knight is a movie hell-bent on wrecking beauty (just look at the way they light Gyllenhaal). In the end, everyone is pulled, howling, down down down.
When Batman came out people wondered if it was too dark. When Batman Returns came out people screamed it was too dark. But both those movies were kitschy compared with The Dark Knight. These early forerunners might have dabbled with dark themes, but always in that Tim Burton, Halloween-and-lollipops style; death dressed in tinsel. The Dark Knight is a bleak thriller that features silly costumes. Its atmosphere is menacing, designed to rough you up. If this is the kind of movie that summer blockbusters are made of: who are we? It used to be we wanted escapism from summer movies (think of Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark). Now we want to be terrorised.