Pass the Popcorn: City of the Dark Knight (Issue #3)

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

We’re now on our fourth issue of the series and we haven’t said anything yet about Heath Ledger. That was intentional, for three reasons.

First and most important, there’s not much interesting to say, or at least not that I can say. It’s obviously a virtuoso performance, and would have been a career-making breakthrough. Ledger was clearly one of the most talented performers of his generation, and it’s a shame he never reached his potential until the end of his abbreviated career.

Beyond that, what’s to say? If I were in the acting business, I could no doubt analyze the performance and say more about what makes it great. But I lack even the rudamentary ability to do so, and I’m not interested in bluffing.

Second, too much of the chatter about Ledger and this performance is shallow and feels exploitative of his death, and I don’t want to contribute to that.

And third, I think Ledger’s masterpiece contribution is overshadowing other contributions. I don’t want to take away any of the honor Ledger has justly earned, but for this movie to be what it is, a whole lot of people had to turn in top-flight performances.

Back in Issue 1, commenter Captain Napalm mentioned Aaron Eckhart and Gary Oldman – both of whom were indeed outstanding. I’ve just praised Morgan Freeman in Issue 2, and Michael Caine’s contribution shouldn’t be overlooked – one of the most important differences between a good film and a great one is that all the little things are done right, as well as the big ones. Caine and Freeman didn’t get the big drama, but they delivered fantastic little gems – “We burned down the forest” is one of the most memorable moments in the movie. So is “You have no idea.”

Everyone – by which I mean the handful of movie geeks whom I personally know – seems to agree that Christian Bale had essentially nothing to do in this movie. The first movie was about Batman, not the villains, so the villains were (as I mentioned last time) unmemorable. This movie was about the Joker, so Batman was unmemorable. But serving as the Joker’s foil is something. The Joker carries the movie, but he can’t do that if Christian Bale doesn’t act well his part, wherein all honor lies. Imagine this movie with Ledger playing opposite George Clooney – or even Michael Keaton, who I thought did surprisingly well as Tim Burton’s Batman, but would have been totally inappropriate as Chris Nolan’s. (And let’s also acknowledge that “I’m not wearing hockey pants” was well delivered.)

And naturally we should be crediting Chris Nolan. Having done a little amateur acting, I know how much a director contributes to an actor’s performance – or doesn’t. When any six actors, even six really good ones, all deliver a top-notch ensemble performance, it’s as much the director’s work as theirs.

Above all, though, we should be thanking the writers. Think about every scene you remember of Ledger. Isn’t it the brilliant lines as much as the brilliant performance that make this movie so amazing? “When you think about it, I knew your friends better than you did. Would you like to know which of them were cowards?” That’s really brave writing. And of course, all those clever one-liners we’ve been taking notice of in this and previous issues had to come out of somebody’s keyboard before they could come out of Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, etc.

You do know who wrote the movie, don’t you?

Chris Nolan shares the screenplay credit with his brother Jonathan Nolan, and shares the story credit with David Goyer. The Nolan brothers also co-wrote Memento and The Prestige (which came out between Batmans). Goyer has a long track record on comic book movies that includes Blade and co-writing Batman Begins with Chris Nolan, as well as sole story credit on Batman Begins. And of course Frank Miller should get a nod for his influence.

All that said, Ledger did pull off an amazing feat. In addition to what’s on the screen, consider how much prior baggage he had to overcome with the Joker character:

First Appearance!

The Clown Prince of Crime

The Ultimate Psychopath: “Whatever’s in him rattles as it leaves.”

The Outer Edge of Insanity

(Wrong “Joker,” moron!)

A lot of people thought no one could play the Joker after Nicholson, particularly not the star of A Knight’s Tale. Nicholson himself, for one. He said as much, as The Dark Knight was approaching release. I wonder if he repented after he saw the performance.

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7 Responses to Pass the Popcorn: City of the Dark Knight (Issue #3)

  1. matthewladner says:

    I must admit, I went to see the movie thinking that Ledger’s performance had been over-hyped. I was even half expecting to walk away thinking “bring back Jack” but, um, that didn’t happen at all.

  2. ryan marsh says:

    I have to disagree on the statement that this movie was about the Joker. This movie was about the essential question of Batman’s secret identity: why hide? The simple answer is to protect the ones you love, but here another is provided: to allow someone to become more than a man and in so doing bear burdens that no man can shoulder. Alfred says as much when telling Bruce that he has to just let people die. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something like “That is the point of Batman” and goes on to say that a figure like Batman can do greater good by being willing to be painted black with others’ sins. The title emphasizes this point and is justified in the closing lines when Gordon understands what Batman is going to do and indeed must do for the good of the city. The reason that Ledger’s performance is so great is that in order to come to this decision, Batman has to face an evil at once so completely human and personal and also so foreign and inhuman. Ledger was tasked with this, to be a human villain who delights in causing harm on a personal level while being devoid of all the restraints that define humanity. The contradiction forces Batman to make decisions to blur his own lines and finally accept that his methods may have to cross the lines, thus adopting fully the role of dark knight. This is not without risk, though, so to insure he can stay human and basically good, Batman decides to maintain only one rule,thou shalt not kill. This is why Joker’s personal battle with Batman hinges on trying to get Batman to break that rule.

    Ledger pulls off the role magnificently, but I still think the movie is about Batman more than him.

  3. Jim Vining says:

    If you haven’t seen the movie at an IMAX – you need to go – it’s amazing!

  4. Greg Forster says:

    I’ll go halfway with you, Ryan. There’s more about Batman in the subject matter of this movie than I’ve been giving it credit for so far – “this movie is about the Joker” may be too strongly worded. That said, I think the stuff that’s really about Batman is there in the service of a main point that is more about the Joker’s “war for the soul of Gotham City.” As exhibit A, I would point out that the script gives us a lot more interesting stuff from the Joker than from Batman – Bale’s dialogues with Caine are generally brief, and Caine gets all the interesting lines. By contrast, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is clearly all about Batman and his doing what it takes to save civilization from self-imposed disaster. I think Nolan did his “what kind of person does it take to save civilization?” schtick in the first movie, which was much less Miller-influenced than this one. Nolan is clearly intrigued by Miller’s doing Batman through the lens of civilization’s self-destructive tendencies, but Nolan has already explored the psychology of the hero and in this movie is more interested in the threat to civilization than in the savior.

    Perhaps it would be better to say that the movie is really about Gotham City – or, to be more precise, the movie is about human societies and how they tend to self-destruction and what it takes to hold them together. I chose the title “City of the Dark Knight” partly with this in mind, though I’ve been holding off on explaining the full significance of my choice of that title until a later date.

  5. Brian Kisida says:

    You praised Morgan Freeman in issue number 2? Somehow I missed that. Had I seen it I would have chimed in. Freeman is wrong, wrong, all wrong. He needs to hang it up. I cringe every time a good movie comes along that has him in the cast. I am so tired of Morgan Freeman as the calm voice of wisdom, reason, and reassurance. How many times is he going to play the same character? Let’s see, Batman, Bruce Almighty, Gone Baby Gone, Million Dollar Baby, Deep Impact, Seven, The Shawshank Redemption, AI, March of the Penguins—yep, all the exact same character. But, wait, March of the Penguins is a documentary, you say? Exactly!! And this is only a sampling of some of his ‘roles.’ I am willing to bet that if I subjected myself to watching his full catalogue I would only find more examples of him playing a calm, reassuring, smug know-it-all. Just listen to how he is described on IMDB…”With an authoritative voice and calm demeanour, this ever popular African American actor has grown into one of the most respected figures in modern US cinema.” Really?! Is that how an actor should be described? Shouldn’t an actor sometimes have a not-so-calm demeanor?
    And the truly shameful thing is that he was cast in Batman, a movie which used two of the best chameleons in the modern film industry. Christian Bale and Gary Oldman have such a range that half of the time you don’t even realize they are in the movie, and if you do you quickly forget. Just think about Oldman–everything from Sid Vicious to Dracula to Lee Harvey Oswald. I’d like to see Morgan Freeman pull that off. And Bale. With a range that can go from American Psycho to the Machinist to Rescue Dawn, he truly is incredible.
    Casting Freeman in Batman is especially annoying because it is a movie that attempts to transport you to another world. Suddenly having Morgan Freeman on screen destroys that suspension of disbelief–much like Samuel L. Jackson playing a Jedi can take you from Tattooie back to Earth at lightspeed.

  6. Greg Forster says:

    Well, if you find something you do well, why mess with it? :)

  7. Ryan Marsh says:

    Here you go Brian, just for you. http://xkcd.com/462/

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