Earlier this week I watched Christopher Nolan's smash hit The Dark Knight for the second time. Last year on the theater's big screen, I was blown away, but this time less so. For one thing, the movie is bloated to well over two and a half hours. It could be cut by at least 30 minutes and be a much sleeker, more effective thriller. The film also emphasizes violence over character and often exploits violent torture. When the Joker is thrown in jail, Batman smashes his head against the bars repeatedly. Various bad guys are dispatched in excruciating ways, usually having no relation to advancing the plot.
The cast itself seems dumbfounded by all the plot twists, and no one seems more out of it than Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne or (spoiler) Batman. Bale began his career as a serious child actor in Steven Spielberg's masterful Empire of the Sun. As an adult, his performances have been stone cold, especially in the new Batman series. In scenes with legends Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, Bale speaks in a dull, raspy monotone. Even legends can't spark any fire in this guy. There are several strong performances that led me and others to over praise the film. Chief among them is the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. He has created a vivid psychopath that is difficult to forget. Watching him ambling away from the hospital he is blowing up is truly scary.
But one great performance does not a classic make. Other great actors are wasted, especially Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, who mumbles unintelligibly to no effect.
Aside from these weaknesses, there is Nolan's complete lack of humor. Nothing causes laughter or even a chuckle. No wonder he's called the Dark Knight. In contrast, think back to the first two films of the first big Batman series, both directed by Tim Burton, a master of macabre humor. Though these two films are uneven as well, they are full of bravura film making and performances. Jack Nicholson's Joker is as much Jack as Joker, but his leering, cackling villain is less frightening than comic. Michael Keaton makes a surprisingly human and likable Bruce Wayne, though it's hard to imagine him pulling off Batman's prowess. In the second film Danny DeVito is a somewhat sickening but fully developed Penquin, and Michelle Pffeifer steals the movie as Catwoman. Her showdown with Batman is full of cunning, sharp dialogue, and sexual chemistry.
As for the look of the two Burton films, they are dark and brooding, but they are also pure Hollywood in that they make no pretense towards realism. Gotham City is a hugh, decaying set. The Gotham Cathedral is obviously a reference to Gaudi's Barcelona Cathedral with its melting decadence and to The Hunchback of Notre Dame with the Joker playing Quasimodo. Hitchcock's Vertigo is resurrected in the tower scenes as the Joker and Batman ascend to the belfry. Anton Furst set designs are some of the most evocative in modern film history and deservedly won an Oscar while Danny Elfman's score combines humor with darkness and fright. Two perfect examples can be seen and heard in the following: the dynamic credit sequence and the delightful art museum scene in which the Joker destroys priceless works of art and attempts to seduce Kim Bassinger with references to the witch in The Wizard of Oz.
Yes, times and moods have changed, but we still need humor and artistry. Nolan's Batman films have the technical panache he is famous for, but he has chosen to place comic book characters in a ultra realistic setting without any relief for his viewers. Instead of comic relief, we get more explosions and more noise. Perhaps The Dark Knight needs to lighten up.