Batman has come a long way since I used to watch reruns after school of the campy, short-lived 1960s TV series and even farther from its creation as a comics series in 1939. I saw the most recent incarnation this week, Christopher Nolan's film The Dark Knight, on an IMAX screen in Reading, and the movie is breaking box office records.
While there were a number of things I liked in the film, there were also some drawbacks to it. I recently read an entry in the Globe's MovieNation blog in which critic Ty Burr tells of being at a family event and having a number of teens and twentysomethings come up to him and ask if The Dark Knight is the best film ever. It seems the more cleverly violent and destructive a movie is, the more young people like it, but -- call me "a bleeding-heart liberal wuss" (and some have) -- that doesn't motivate or excite me as a moviegoer. I can appreciate special effects, stunts and celluloid trickery to just a small degree, but then it quickly turns me off.
I like stories about people and their struggles with life, their ethical dilemmas, their subtle epiphanies. I like long shots, few cuts and wide landscapes. I like witty dialogue, intelligent characters and smart plots. For me, The Dark Knight was a spectacle, and a cool one, but it's not likely to be the best film I've seen this year. In fact, it's already not.
There were, in the somewhat convoluted and hard-to-follow plot, a number of ethical questions addressed by the movie, and most of them relate to the path America has taken in this post 9/11 world: Does an increase in resources and tactics applied to an enemy increase the atmosphere of disorder? Is it acceptable to spy on everyone to keep tabs on the bad guys? Should torture be used to elicit information? Is it necessary and acceptable to violate one's moral code in order to subdue an enemy who seems not to possess such a code of their own?
The Dark Knight cannot really be discussed without mentioning Heath Ledger's role as the Joker. It is one of the most captivating cinematic performances I've ever seen, but some of that is certainly due to our knowledge of his death not long after filming was completed. Still, he is very good and worthy of an Oscar nomination. Whether he wins or not, however, should be based on the strength of his performance as compared to the other nominees (if you agree that such awards have any sensical rubric) and not out of pity because he is gone.
The movie is good -- dark in tone and filled with non-stop action. It is also physically dark, and -- as a review in The New Yorker pointed out -- after Christian Bale, who plays Batman, trained for months in martial arts, it's impossible to follow what he is doing in any of the fight scenes because they are so fast, close and dark. The same effect happens in other scenes and plot elements, causing some confusion as to what is going on.
What is really unfortunate is that Hollywood has wasted and will continue to waste untold millions on movies with violence and explosions that take on none of the ethical quandaries that The Dark Knight does, and our young people -- who have had their ability to appreciate art that has depth and meaning destroyed by our watered down, mass market culture -- will continue to give the studios a reason to do so by accepting all the artless crap they are sold every day.