I have been looking forward to the new Batman movie for several years now. No, I am not kidding. I guess I’m not the typical Batman demographic: I don’t read comic books, I’m not an adolescent boy, and action movies ordinarily make my skin itch. I watched the 80s Batman franchise movies, and remember being excited about them at the time, but I lived in a small town with my parents and was excited about any prospect of getting out of the house on a Saturday night. Plus, it was the 80s, and I think it’s pretty well-established that people were aesthetically stupider back then (cf. the popularity of The Cosby Show, and the creation of the Flock of Seagulls haircut).
Why is this series appealing to me, then?
First, there is the Christian Bale factor. I have yet to see a bad Christian Bale performance. Even in a low budget indie with a plot full of holes and Eva Longoria working against him (Harsh Times), Bale manages to be great as a troubled Iraq war veteran/psychopath. I have always hated Bret Easton Ellis and especially his “opus,” American Psycho, but Christian Bale made that character interesting and the movie very funny in a macabre way. The Machinist. The Prestige. Even 3:10 to Yuma–a western, people! Great, underappreciated, chameleon-like Christian Bale. The Gary Oldman of my generation.
And, wait, Gary Oldman is in these movies, too! Morgan Freeman! Yes, there was the liability of Katie Holmes in the first movie. And Michael Caine (of the Smell-the-Fart School of Method Acting) is in both installments, but they are in smaller roles. And Holmes is ditched in the sequel for Maggie Gyllenhaal who, as Mr. Right-Click observes, looks like a pug dog, but who is at least talented.
And Heath Ledger . . . well, I’ll save that for later.
But I think the real reason this series is so much better than the previous franchise is because of the moral ambiguity. Bale’s Batman is more interesting because he’s more human and displays moral complexity. The Dark Knight does a good job of navigating the line between being too darkly realistic and too cartoonish.
So yeah, I have been looking forward to this movie and we went to Westwood and waited in line with all the kids (a line that stretched all the way down the street, and around the corner, and into the next block) to get in. We had to sit in the balcony. Still.
The movie looks cool, it is very film noir, and although I suspect Christian Bale is using steroids for this role, and Mr. Right-Click was annoyed by the computer-distorted voice he uses when he’s masked, he does not disappoint. The story mixes the comic book elements with realism, and shows that heroes and villians are constructed by some of the same forces.
And onto Heath Ledger as the Joker. Obviously, his performance has an aura about it, given his recent death. This is the last film in which he acted, and I think we must acknowledge that this colors our perception of his performance. But he is also trying to follow Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and that’s not an easy task.
Physically speaking, the filmmakers, writers, costumers, makeup artists et al. do a good job of giving Ledger the tools to distinguish himself from Nicholson–as probably everyone can see from the trailers, Ledger has a creepy, smeared/Coyote Ugly version of the pristine Joker makeup that Nicholson wore. Similarly, his clothing is colored in the Joker’s trademark purples and greens, but they are subtler shades and do not stand out the way Nicholson’s technicolor purple suit did, even against the gloomy black backdrop of Gotham City. One of the more clever ways in which this physical distinction is made is that Ledger’s hair is colored green in the manner of blonde hair that has been exposed to too much chlorine, rather than a bright green dye. So the whole movie, you are looking at his greasy hair and wondering, “that’s not his natural hair color, is it?” The green is there, but they don’t beat you over the head with it.
And Heath Ledger’s performance is comparable to this last sentence–it is remarkable without the flash of Nicholson’s Era-of-Excess Joker. Ledger is creepy, nihilistic, more of an anarchist than a psychopath with a sense of humor. Nicholson used his real larger-than-life persona to comedic effect–but Ledger-as-celebrity is nowhere in this movie. He is all whiny-voiced, slurpy-lipped, creepy-yet-droll sociopath. Ledger’s Joker accomplishes what the most successful literary adaptations are meant to do: his performance demonstrates familiarity with the Jokers of the past, is informed by their strengths and weaknesses, and allows him to insert himself into the conversation through developing innovations (chiefly accomplished, in this instance, through the characterization his voice inflection and wordplay provide) that are all his own.
This film is not gong to change the world, and there are some somewhat schmaltzy references to the immorality of the Patriot Act and more than a few unlikely triumph-of-the-human-spirit-Oprah moments mixed into the plot. But this is real, old skool summer blockbuster entertainment, and oh yeah I was unapologetically eating it up.
So go see it, you!