For those heading out to theater this weekend to “just get this over with,” helping elevate the latest Zack Snyder joint to ludicrously triumphant box office numbers, I dig into the archive to offer the gentle reminder that it didn’t have to be this way. (To offer an important disclaimer: I have not seen Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and therefore cannot comment with first-hand knowledge on its quality. Perhaps it is exquisite and insightful, marked with startling moments of visual poetry that lays bare the duality of man in ways that will reshape our collective sense of self from this point forward. And my petty introduction will be exposed as foolish ignorance manifest. Perhaps.)
The famous Charles Baudelaire quote–made more famous to American pop culture consumers when it was appropriated by The Usual Suspects–“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” might be in for some modification. After seeing Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, I’m prepared to say the devil’s greatest trick is making a pencil disappear. Invoking a 19th-century French poet seem a little heady for a discussion about a superhero movie? Maybe so, but Nolan’s steadfastly intelligent sequel to his own franchise-reviving Batman Begins inspires such aspirational acclaim. It is as big and explosive as its summertime release date implies, and yet the thing it’s most overstuffed with is ideas.
The screenplay Nolan devised with his brother Jonathan has so much story that there’s no time for recap. The film plunges into its Gotham City underworld machinations, civic intrigue and the caped crusader’s continuing efforts to purge his steely home city of crime and deprivation. Nolan seemingly feels no obligation to remind the viewers of Batman’s motivations or history. Relationships need not be remapped. Exposition is for the weak. Anyway, exposition can now be relegated to era the before the prior installment was available on DVD, through cable showing, via illicit Internet streaming and perhaps through direct download into your frontal lobe. This freedom affords the film a thrilling narrative immediacy. Maybe it would occasionally be a tad puzzling to someone largely unfamiliar with the iconic hero, but who would that be and how would they have found their way to this film in the first place?
Maybe curiosity over the final performance by Heath Ledger? It certainly an acting effort that deserves attention, even from those who find the genre of superheroes generally unpalatable. As the murderous villain the Joker, Ledger is a marvel of wicked invention. Clearly (and reportedly) drawing inspiration from the defining story The Killing Joke, Ledger’s take is informed by a riotous glee in inspired, improvisational mayhem and a swooning camaraderie with the costumed vigilante who hunts him. He is engaged in living life within the world he forges as fully and assuredly as the protagonist of some treacly, inspirational drama. That he expresses that love through concocting deadly anarchy doesn’t make it any less sincere, and Ledger ferociously locks into that verve and drive. The very rhythm of the Joker’s speech is disrupted by his sputtering, warring psyche. It’s a rich performance of many layers, each revelation of fresh nuance almost unbearably exciting.
It’s easy to start seeing the success of this film as entirely attributable to the success of the Joker. Even in the comics, the character has that sort of offhand dominance, casually making everything else seem comparatively pallid. Just as the resounding accomplishment of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman swamps out all memories of other elements of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (blessedly so, according to some), so too does Ledger’s performance threaten to truncate any talk of Aaron Eckhart’s solidly conceived Harvey Dent, Christian Bale’s continued assurance as the titular titan or, most regrettably, Gary Oldman’s further enrichment of the wearily stalwart Gotham City cop James Gordon. The political commentary Nolan interlaces through the film is interesting and commendable in its attempt to invest some genuine complication into the sort of story that can threaten to devolve into a basic good versus evil showdown, but it’s less compelling than the explorations of the dichotomy between Batman and the Joker.
Despite this, in the first flush of the film, it’s nearly undeniable that Nolan’s film labors mightily to fully engage the senses and the mind. The theatrical bombast of the action sequences occasionally swells into some mildly confusing muddiness, but that feels more forgivable because it’s more a byproduct of Nolan’s near compulsion to get as much into the movie as possible rather than an incapability to render sequences clearly. As enough comic characters infiltrate the movie landscape to make the local multiplex into the modern equivalent of the old supermarket spinner rack, Nolan demonstrates that an intellectually committed creator can make this sort of thing into something more than the latest product offered on the franchising assembly line. No matter its origins or box office expectations, it can indeed be art.