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Why “The Dark Knight” Disappointed Me July 31, 2008

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Movies, Movies & Entertainment.
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All across America, people are going to see “The Dark Knight,” again and again. The reviews seem to be conclusive from every corner that Heath Ledger is destined to win an Academy Award for his performance as “The Joker” in the latest tribute to the superhero known as “Batman.”

Tonight, I became (apparently) one of the last people in the US to view this movie for the first time, and as the title of this post suggests, I came away disappointed. I’ll attempt to explain why in the remainder of this post, but will warn you that it will probably contain spoilers sprinkled all over the place, so if you have just awakened from a Rip VanWinkle-like slumber and haven’t yet seen it, you’ll probably want to stop right here.

Great Expectations, Never Met

Going into this movie, my expectations were extremely high. There are several reasons for this.

First and foremost, I really enjoyed “Batman Begins,” and was delighted to see the storyline explore questions of why Bruce Wayne chose to become the mythical figure that is shown. “Batman Begins” was a breath of fresh air, but in retrospect, I’m wondering if the previous Batman movies hadn’t lowered my expectations to the point that even the most lame presentation of a decent story would have seemed Oscar-worthy.

Second, all sorts of people have recommended this movie to me, including people whom I have the utmost respect for as movie watchers/critics. These are not casual movie goers, but absolute movie nuts, who find themselves in darkened theaters so often that the lack of sunlight on their skin may pose a health risk for them.

Third, professional critics and movie buffs have pushed the hype for this movie higher than perhaps that of any has been produced in the last 30 years. While most of the praise has been heaped on Mr. Ledger, the special effects, cinematography, and supporting cast have also been found excellent and worthy of possible nominations by the Academy. At times, it’s felt as if any dislike for any aspect of the movie will come across as demonstrating disrespect for Mr. Ledger, which is somewhat equivalent to making jokes about President Kennedy’s assassination.

Add all of these things together, and I sat down in my cushy theater seat expecting to be blown away. I expected to love the hero, hate the villain, and feel the twist of emotional turmoil as the hero is presented with one moral dilemma after another. Instead, I just found myself asking questions.

Questions, Questions, Questions

Given that The Joker is depicted as an evil by-product of the evil/immoral behavior of others, and that Batman is depicted as a slightly-less-evil by-product of the evil/immoral behavior of others, and that Harvey Dent is depicted as someone not-so-evil at first but definitely evil later, and is again a simple by-product of the evil/immoral choices of others…

Why did I walk out of the theater admiring a criminal on a ferry, depicted as someone who was apparently evil-in-the-past, but who is definitely capable of making a clearly un-evil choice, with no apparent reason for the change? Why didn’t I walk out of the theater liking Bruce Wayne?

Why is it that I can watch Bruce Willis or Harrison Ford or Pierce Brosnan depict a flawed character, and still root for them? Why is it that I didn’t come away from “The Dark Knight” caring whether or not the experience destroyed him? Why is it that when he said he was going to stop being Batman, I didn’t really care? If I’m watching a movie about a superhero, shouldn’t I root for him?

Why did I watch “Iron Man,” which depicts a similarly flawed character, and want Tony Stark to make the right choices and be the right person? How did Robert Downey Jr., someone who doesn’t exactly elicit the love and adoration of the public, cause me to ignore the arrogance I’ve seen so often displayed off-screen and root for him? How did he take what amounted to a portrayal of Tony Stark as a Robert Downey Jr. knockoff and make me like him?

Why didn’t I care what happened to Bruce Wayne? I think much of it has to do with Christian Bale. As excellent as Heath Ledger was in portraying The Joker, I found Christian Bale’s performance as Batman to be missing the subtleties that allow the audience to sympathize with someone in turmoil over their moral choices. How is it that I could watch something as mediocre as “Die Hard 2,” see Bruce Willis crying over the plane that is crashed into the runway by the bad guys, and somehow like his character more than Bruce Wayne/Batman?

No Answers

I wish I had answers for the questions above. I wish I could put my finger on whatever it is about Christian Bale’s performance that causes me to not root for him. I wish I knew why I wanted to applaud for the convict who tossed the detonator off the ship, but felt not corresponding joy when Batman is victorious.

I wish watching “The Dark Knight” had caused me to look introspectively at my own moral choices. I wish it had caused me to think about the things I do for myself and my family, and don’t do for the homeless man I saw begging on a downtown street two weeks ago. If “The Dark Knight” is supposed to cause us to look into our own behavior and ask questions, why is it that I’m more intrigued by the choices of a minor character, and largely disinterested with the choices made by the “hero”?

Perhaps when the movie makes it to DVD I’ll watch it again, and upon a second (cheaper) viewing I’ll see things that I somehow missed. Perhaps I’ll spot little subtleties of character or interpretation that I missed tonight. Perhaps then I’ll feel a sense of having watched a deep and wonderful battle of heroic figures and long-tested questions of good versus evil instead of a slightly-above-average cops & robbers tale with a strong supporting cast, incredible special effects, and a leading actor that found a way to make me just not care what happened to his character.


1. batman joker - July 31, 2008

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2. chuck - July 31, 2008

To be completely honest with you, Christian Bale basically takes a backseat to Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart and Gary Oldman. Respectfully, Batman isn’t supposed to be cheered by the public, and Bruce Wayne’s arrogant millionaire behavior was never intended to elicit sympathy. I understand where you’re coming from, I do, but Batman isn’t a sympathetic character. I can’t drive that point home enough. He does what the city needs, not what it wants or admires. It’s kind of like the last dialogue between him and Commissioner Gordon; he’s not the hero Gotham needs, he’s the one the city deserves. Harvey Dent was meant to elicit all the sympathy because he did what Batman could never do, and that’s battle the mob almost singlehandedly and be the face that Gotham admires and adores. You should see it again, and what I’ve written here will make all the more sense. For the record, Tony Stark was a much more likeable hero.

3. Tim - July 31, 2008

Hi Chuck,

(Please note that I’m not so much trying to be defensive as to understand what I’ve missed. Hopefully, it won’t come across as argumentative.)

Do you think there a particular plot point or scene that I missed that will cause me to change my view of Christian Bale’s performance? I’m not sure what seeing the movie again (at $8.50) would reveal that I didn’t see in the first viewing, so I said what I did about watching it again on DVD somewhat rhetorically.

I spotted that The Joker (intentionally or not) told Batman the wrong location for Dent, sending him to rescue one instead of the other. The Joker’s soliloquy near the end to Dent suggests that this was intentional, as though he presumed that Batman would succeed in saving whichever person he went after, but the police would not.

Taking that line further, it would appear that The Joker had seen the less-than-glowing public relationship between Dent and Batman (and how quickly Batman went after Rachel after The Joker dropped her out of the window) and wanted to manipulate Batman toward saving Dent, since his past behavior would suggest that he would save the girl. Though a contrived way to create the villain Two Face, it’s at least a workable plot device to create the situation in which Dent’s girlfriend dies but Dent lives.

Also, I fully understand the “Dark Knight” persona depicted in the graphic novels. I appreciate that, and tend to enjoy seeing “flawed heroes” much more than the squeaky clean variety. This is why I made the association with Tony Stark/Ironman, as well as the criminal on the boat. Why am I (still) more interested in what happens to the moral fiber of the criminal than I am in what happens to Bruce Wayne? Why can I relate to that man more?

If, as has been suggested, “The Dark Knight” is a allegory for the vigilante behavior of the USA in the world, wouldn’t I want average Americans like myself to stop and ask, “Do we make choices for our own gain, or for simple revenge, and turn a blind eye to the suffering that it brings to others?”

Every day, I make choices. I make choices for a variety of reasons and motivations (which a philosophy major could probably explain better than I can). Is it possible for me to engage in a truly selfless act? Can anyone? Does Batman, in the same way, do anything in the movie that is (in any way) selfless, or are all of his actions ultimately self-serving? Is it even a conflict for him?

I would hope to have at least seen a glimpse of the inner conflict depicted on film. Instead, we see Batman lurking in the shadows, and a handful of scenes where Michael Caine does what Christian Bale cannot, and delivers a series of lines that seem to pull emotion out of Christian Bale like a dentist extracting diseased and unwilling teeth.

Not long ago, I read a story quoting a sniper who’d been stationed in Iraq in the past couple of years. He was on a rooftop, watching for gunmen that were roaming a neighborhood. What he saw was a young boy walking through an intersection, picking up a gun, and then appearing as if he was going to threaten or shoot some of the US troops in the area. The sniper had no choice but to fire, but was haunted by his decision for months.

Why shouldn’t I be able to relate to the moral choices that Batman is faced with? Why shouldn’t the movie do what other movies have done, and make me dig into my own psyche, searching for answers to questions that I don’t really want to ask? Is Batman remorseful for saving Dent simply because he’s lost the love of his life, who he (wrongly) believes would have waited for him, is he in anguish over the fact that he had to choose one over the other, or is it because he realizes when he sees Dent that he’s been tricked into saving someone other than Rachel?

Perhaps I’m laying too much of this on Christian Bale. Given the opportunity that directors have for getting multiple retakes, dozens of angles, and massaging the result in post with voiceovers and other processing, perhaps the blame lies with Christopher Nolan for wanting (or at least being satisfied with) the performance that Bale gave.

No… give me the drunk who does his own engineering, who (generally) treats women like commodities, but who finds a way to aspire to something greater than what he’s done in the past. That’s the guy I want to watch. The one who somehow finds a way to become better, even in the midst of his mistakes.

I already know the guy who consistently does things out of selfish motives. I can see him for free in the mirror each morning instead of paying $8.50 for the same view.

4. tiffanytaylor - July 31, 2008

Apologies for the long comment — but, you know, it’s Batman… 🙂

We just had a lunchtime discussion about our take on your opinion of the movie, and much of what we said to each other mirrors Chuck’s comments above. In particular, we talked about Bruce Wayne / Batman ending the film as the hero the city deserves, but not the hero the city needs at that moment. The city needs someone to blame for all the death and violence — the hero it needed was Harvey Dent, but he’s gone; so the police must take Dent’s place as the needed hero to help the city recover from all the horrible things that have happened. Gordon says, “we’ll hunt him, because he can take it, because he’s not a hero.” Batman is haunted, dark, willing to do whatever the city requires — including take the blame for murder and mayhem. He isn’t necessarily likeable.

Tony Stark is a fun, extroverted guy. And at the end of Iron Man, he’s so full of himself and so delighted with his new status as a superhero that he happily stands up at a press conference and tells the whole world, “I am Iron Man.” Sure, he’s got plenty of flaws, but it’s hard to dislike him.

When Bruce Wayne’s press-conference moment comes, he’s ready to reveal his identity in order to save the city from the Joker — but he would do so only under that intense level of duress. He knows that he can be more powerful as an unknown, symbolic presence, serving Gotham by whatever means to root out injustice. He doesn’t care if anyone likes him; he has his own higher purpose.

Having now finished my presentation of Batman Philosophy 101, I’ll say that I didn’t go into the movie wanting or expecting it to make me feel introspective. It’s a deep, dark film about a psychopath who comes from nowhere to demonstrate the worst of humanity, and the damaged man who must find a way to defeat him. I suppose we were supposed to take away some sort of message about Humanity and the Greater Good from the scenes on the two boats, but that part struck me as completely unrealistic. In real life, the prisoners would have mobbed the guy with the detonator. When we discussed the scene after seeing the movie the first time, my husband commented that he could never blow up the other ship — but my response was that if I was on that boat with my children, I would do whatever it took to save them. By myself? Probably not. But threaten my kids, and look out. In the movie, there were mothers with children on that boat, and I don’t believe they would have sat by and let them die.

To wrap up, for me it was a “deep and wonderful battle” — but not of heroic figures. Batman isn’t a hero; he’s the darkest of dark antiheroes. Maybe Christian Bale’s performance presents that darkness so effectively that, in looking for Tony Stark or John McClane, you couldn’t help but be disappointed. Instead, you have to take Batman for who he is.

5. Rosie - July 31, 2008

“The Dark Knight” disappointed me. At least the movie’s last 30 minutes disappointed me. It was so filled with contrived writing that I found myself longing for it to end . . . at least 15 minutes before it actually ended. My disappointment had nothing to do with the running time. That did not bother me in the least. But Nolan could have given the viewers something other than a tacked on plotline that could have been saved for a third film.

6. Mia - August 5, 2008

Maybe it’s about relating to what isn’t for all the world to see and admire. That which perhaps no one else would applaud or even arch an eyebrow up at….you know…when all the world is a stage…sometimes what we do that isn’t at all expected catches us off guard…and its then that we wonder…”Why?”.

Great movie reviews by the way. I enjoyed the different perspectives.

7. Sam - August 17, 2008

People argued to me that Batman has risen above remorse so he doesnt express it. However, for me this is a shoot to the foot as it makes him totally inhuman and very hard to relate to.

p.s i hated how the joker looked when his make up was clean and not smeared. Shallow reason to be disappointed but it did bug me.

8. Joe - September 3, 2008

I felt this movie destroyed everything Batman was built for. This movie makes me long for the release of the original Adam West/Burt Ward TV show on DVD.

The ending was very disappointing.

Has anyone seen Batman Dead End by Sandy Chollera? (sp?) Awesome fan film, way better than this disappointment.

If warner brothers had any sense at all, they’d hire Sandy and have him write and direct the next movie. He will have to retcon the events in DK.

9. David - October 12, 2008

Bale is a fine actor. I think the problem is the story–the phoney-baloney dilemmas and the idiotic conclusion that the only way to “save” the city is sacrifice Batman and gush about the virtues and honor of good man gone bad. And why was Wayne even considering revealing his identity, as if that would accomplished anything but put everybody he cares about in jeopardy? Why didn’t Batman drop Joker to his death in the end, knowing that a Joker who survived would only kill again?

There was much more artistry and mythos in “Batman Begins,” attention to the story, despite a few clunky story elements. The thumping music was developed to much better effect in the earlier movie, brilliantly anticipating and framing the Batman’s emergence. The Batman of the new movie is less mysterious, less scary. Even when he is intimidating, in the cell with the Joker, the villain seems to have the upper hand. Compare that with the slingshot treatment Batman gives the rogue cop in “Batman Begins.” (“Swear to ME!”) It is true that the Joker is a much more formidable foe.

I liked many individual scenes of the new movie as spectacle, and for other aspects, and they are often extremely well done. I enjoyed the performance of the Joker. But one can’t appreciate scenes in isolation. I can never love this movie the way I love “Batman Begins,” which adds up to something much more.

10. Tim - October 12, 2008

Good analysis, David. Thanks for stopping by. – Tim

11. jimmy - January 10, 2009

I don’t think the movie focused enough on Bruce wayne. With all respect to Heath Ledger, they should still put a balance between the hero and villain’s screen time. Bruce’s character/dialogue wasn’t very convincing as a real person to me, especially after the part where “you know what” is “you know what”, without spoiling anything, Bruce should have been more out of control/psychopathic near the end, or at least be angry enough to do something he regrets.

12. bruno - April 4, 2009

you are gay

13. Tim - April 4, 2009

Jimmy, I tend to agree. I think it seems like disrespect to Mr. Ledger to not just fall over oneself praising the film. Thanks for your comments.

Bruno Tattglia, though I don’t usually approve comments that are simply ad-hominem attacks, I felt I would be doing a disservice to the rest of the world if I didn’t go ahead and post yours. I’ll let your comment stand on its own merits. – Tim

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