As I discussed in my reaction to Jim Emerson's blog, I have fundamental problems with the way comic books tend to be translated from one medium to another. On the page, the symbolism and shorthand - the way characters and events stand for ideas and a kind of focused economy occurs, by which unnecessary details are left out of the frame - often packs a powerful punch. But in films, it usually feels like something is missing. This is especially true when the comic-book movie in question makes some gestures towards "realism" or "darkness" or "depth" which it then can't sustain because it has grounded itself in a shallow, surface-oriented kind of storytelling.
Well, The Dark Knight is not a "realistic" film. That observation was cemented tonight by a friend who sat nearby and shook his head in disbelief every time the Joker got away with another one of his stunts. This is not a movie for those who can't suspend disbelief, and so even if the movie is gritty and dark, it really can't be called "realistic." I have no problem accepting this film on its own comic-book terms, although it grates when fans compare its storytelling chops to works which were far more constricted by plausibility. If it doesn't participate in the "this could really happen" school of realism, it also rejects another kind of realism: a cinematic, stylistic realism, characterized variously by naturalistic performances, long takes, the inclusion of idiosyncrasies. However, there is one, relatively substantial chink in this armor and he's the film's most fascinating element.
I don't want to overstate the Joker's spontaneity and unpredictability (though Erich Kuersten has a fantastic post on the Joker's termite-like ability to spread subversion and mayhem in the otherwise stable and staid universe of the film - you can, and should, read it here). While Heath Ledger's performance is delightfully eccentric (someone pointed out a resemblance to Mel Gibson's facial and speaking tics, which I can definitely see now) his wild-card behavior doesn't exactly spread like a virus into the film's form. There are a few exceptions (a shocking moment when one of Joker's victims slams up against a glass window during minor dialogue; the Joker's propensity to appear on TV in grainy, amateur video; the camera's viewpoint hanging topsy-turvy alongside the killer clown at film's end) but for the most part Joker's scenes are presented like the rest of the movie. The camera is usually moving, dialogue is exchanged in close-up or medium close-up, the cuts keep coming...in other words, all the conventions one would expect of a 2008 action film.
So, in rejecting any kind of story realism (which I don't particularly care about) and also a stylistic realism (which I do kind of care about), how exactly does The Dark Knight worm its way into my heart? Actually, it doesn't - save perhaps for Ledger's performance - but I like it because it worms its way into my mind. Curiously for an action flick, this is a movie of and about ideas. Not in the usual blockbuster fashion (where theoretically anything can be read into movies which were basically created to showcase big-budget explosions), but in the sense that the film actually exists and thrives for the most part by the ideas it presents and considers. Even more unusually, these ideas are allowed to permeate in ambiguity (see my earlier review for more on both the ideas and the ambiguity).
In its embrace of ideas, The Dark Knight is actually in line with a number of films from the past decade, a kind of growing subset of cinema (which sadly, many people seem to have taken as the main stream of the art form). Fight Club, The Matrix, Memento, Adaptation - these and more are films that privilege ideas over character, sometimes (most notably in the case of Matrix) incorporating these ideas within a mainstream action film. Where The Dark Knight parts ways with this trend - and why I tend to like it more than these other films - is in the serious fashion and complex way it approaches these ideas (for once solemnity is a virtue in a blockbuster). By contrast, The Matrix explores concepts about being and consciousness in fairly glib fashion, and its supposedly anti-authoritarian, nonconformist attitude translates with frightening ease into a kind of paranoid, unthinking quasi-fascism. The heroes don black leather and sunglasses, then go on a killing spree, murdering countless civilians (remember, even though the computer can take over their bodies, these are still living, breathing human beings plugged in to the Matrix).
Batman and the film he's in, on the other hand, are constantly grappling with the consequences of his actions. Unlike Neo, he doesn't cavalierly kill those who are who cross his path at the wrong time; in fact, he goes out of his way not to kill even the most heinous offenders. When his inaction leads to death, he struggles with the dilemma and considers turning himself in. Though the tenor of The Dark Knight is undeniably elitist, it is a bitter, hard-won, constantly questioned elitism, much unlike the arrogant ethos of The Matrix (question: if the reality of the Matrix was so easily disproved, why so unquestioningly accept this new reality?). And Batman must pay the price for his privilege, for as a certain other comic book hero likes to say, "With great power comes great responsibility." And sacrifice.
Another interesting contrast: Iron Man. Whereas Bruce Wayne is bored with his possessions, and traumatized by his duties, fighting crime and terrorism is more or less a joyride for Tony Stark. Actually Iron Man is the prototypical feel-good action movie for the Bush era: fight terrorists by buying cool new toys, and don't break a (moral) sweat while you're doing it! Remember when the President told us we should go shopping after 9/11? Iron Man proves the wisdom behind the great man's words. If it weren't for Robert Downey Jr.'s charming insouciance (and he's an actor who usually gets on my nerves) I probably wouldn't be able to stand the movie. As it is, it works kind of like addition with two odd numbers: Downey's smugness plus the film's smugness equals, oddly enough, not-smug or (at least not insufferably so).
Still, there's no doubt that Iron Man takes lightly what The Dark Knight does not, even if both could be warily classified as "conservative" (the difference being between neoconservatism and an older, more pessimistic breed). Though this doesn't really explain my acceptance of The Dark Knight as, if not a great film, at least a very good one. The funny thing is I agree with most of the criticisms against it. The characters DO talk explicitly about all the ideas circulating in the film, instead of letting events and subtle behavior speak for themselves. The film DOES present a rigged deck in which it's a no-brainer that a dangerous nihilistic terrorist (essentially an oxymoron in the real world, but never mind) should be stopped by any means necessary, and besides we'll only do it this once, and you know Batman has our best interests at heart. And the storyline IS extremely contrived and jury-rigged to allow all kinds of forced dramatic events which will crystallize the events and tensions the film is trying to convey. But, somehow, it all works within the context of the film.
I think this is because, despite feints towards gritty realism, The Dark Knight fundamentally accepts the tenets of the superhero genre. It is serious, but not in pretentious, unbefitting ways (like its precursor) - it doesn't try very hard to situate Wayne or Batman in "reality," or overplay its personal, psychological factors (Joker's supposedly deep-seated motivation whimsically changes depending on whoever it is he's about to mutilate). Rather, it is serious about the conventions and implications of the kind of world it is conveying. By staying true to the rules of the comic book, it elevates itself to a higher level, I would say the level of myth. I am engaged and fascinated by the ideas and the tensions within ancient epic poetry, even when I find reading the Odyssey or the Iliad to be a bit of a drag, or to be unsatisfying in conventional dramatic terms. The Dark Knight recognizes that it's not drama or depth the comic-book superheroes are reaching towards, but a mythic scope and amplification. It is not as easy to attain the level of myth on film, what with the specificity and documentary aspect of the medium; when you are focusing on themes and ideas at the expense of the characters embodying and articulating them, it often seems like something's being left out. But this movie makes a game of it and is really fascinating to mull over afterwards.
So, like Batman, I'm willing to put aside my cherished principles in order to declare The Dark Knight an excellent, thought-provoking work. But just this once.