There’s a long-standing website called ‘Superhero Hype!’ which has covered the phenomenon of Hollywood’s growing interest in comic books over the last decade. This summer, more than ever, Superhero Hype seems the perfect catchphrase for the majority of the year’s blockbusters so far. Following Iron Man, The Hulk, Hancock, Wanted, Asterix at the Olympic Games, Speed Racer and inevitably the no-frills Superhero movie we have The Dark Knight, which opened in American cinemas on the 18th of July. There’s nothing wrong with the genre as a whole and obviously, within that list, there are good films and bad films – and I’m happy to report that The Dark Knight is a good film – but the level of hype and interest in this movie is phenomenally over the top. The film grossed $158,300,000 in its first weekend, breaking a record (unadjusted for inflation), and has made it to the #1 slot of the 250 best films ever made according to users of the internet movie database.
Something absurd is going on. At the risk of stating the obvious, TDK isn’t the best film ever made; it’s not even the best Batman film ever made, or the best film released in cinemas this month, being up against new films by Guy Maddin, Errol Morris and a re-release of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. And yet reviewers are comparing it to The Godfather II and it’s had 70,000 votes on the IMDb after only 4 days of release. Perhaps the story of a vigilante who fights both with and against the system in order to pursue justice has struck a chord with audiences made insecure by constant reports of crime and terrorism.
I certainly don’t want to begrudge the film’s success. We live in a world where the blockbuster is king, where audiences like to see things blowing up on screen every five minutes and this is something TDK does well. As a spectacle, the film is astonishing. In fact you’ve never seen such beautiful explosions (though strangely, nowhere to be seen is the burning Bat signal on the side of a skyscraper that features on the poster), particularly as several sections of the movie are shot in IMAX format. The movie combines 35mm ‘widescreen’ sequences with IMAX ‘full screen’ sequences, switching between the two formats fairly seamlessly. So for instance, the opening credits have black bars above and below the image while the first scene of the movie, shot in IMAX, fills the whole screen. This continues intermittently throughout the movie, the IMAX format being used mostly for establishing shots as well as some of the more spectacular action scenes. Occasionally, the director cuts back and forth between high-res full screen and lower-res widescreen 35mm within the same scene. I didn’t find this distracting but rather an intriguing technical device that adds to the filmmaker’s set of tricks. IMAX is the highest resolution film format currently available, so if you see the film at an IMAX cinema, you’ll see these shots on the largest screens with the crispest image you can get. For that privilege you’ll also pay some of the highest ticket prices – but since the film runs over two and a half hours you certainly get value for money.
Paradoxically, the long running time is also the film’s downfall. At 152 minutes, it feels unnecessarily long, with some sections verging on repetition. As is the modern way, following the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and The Matrix Reloaded, it feels more like an instalment than a film in its own right and lacks structure. Of course, this is also because it is based on the Batman ‘graphic novels’, which are themselves collections of a myriad of stories and do not sit in isolation but are part of a continuing narrative. So instead of a well-defined beginning, middle and end, the result is two and a half hours of relentless middle with lots of little climaxes but no real sense of an escalating structure, even though the script keeps on telling us that events are escalating.
Despite this, most of the film is entertaining. The cast is uniformly excellent and the resounding praise aimed at the late Heath Ledger is deserved, excellent as the Joker and even eclipsing Jack Nicholson’s turn in the role. Aaron Eckhart is terrifying (look away now if you somehow didn’t know this) as Two Face with make-up redolent of Freddy Kruger, and dispels all memories of Tommy Lee Jones mugging for the camera in Batman Forever. Christian Bale is still an engaging lead even if he’s occasionally more James Bond than Batman in this film – particularly in a bizarre sequence set in China, in which the character, taken out of context, becomes somewhat generic. That said, Gotham City in this movie is almost indistinguishable from Hong Kong, and this only serves to remind audiences of what was great about the Tim Burton films. The Anton Furst sets, supported by Danny Elfman’s scores have left an indelible cinematic take on the story that is hard to improve on. Tim Burton’s films may have erred on the side of fairy tale, but Batman is a new mythology for our times and it is perhaps perverse and ill-judged of writer / director Christopher Nolan to try and make the new Batman films ‘realistic’ – is that really possible when you’re telling the tale of a kung-fu billionaire who fights crime dressed as a bat?
The tagline of the film and catchphrase of the Joker in the movie is ‘Why so serious?’ and ironically this is a question that should be asked of the production as a whole. Like Batman Begins and indeed Superman Returns (so, perhaps it’s endemic in current DC Comics adaptations) this is a dour movie with few moments of levity or normal human interaction to lighten the tone. The darkness is so relentless – although this film has ironically the most daylight in it of any Batman film since 1966 – that there is a point where the audience starts to feel browbeaten. When the funniest scene in the movie is when a serial killer in drag with pancake make-up on blows up a hospital, it begins to make you wonder if the audience is starting to feel as traumatised as some of the characters.
So my vote for best superhero movie of the summer so far goes to Iron Man (although I have high hopes for Hellboy II) because it mixed the adventures of another billionaire vigilante with stunts, explosions and daring-do, while striking a better balance between humour and pathos. I left Iron Man wishing the film had gone on for another half hour and didn’t leave the cinema numb from sitting or emotional and visual battering. Top marks to The Dark Knight for filmmaking acumen then, but not for its effect as a whole.