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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Greenbriar Posting # 500 --- When Knights Weren't So Dark

One of those 4,362 prints of The Dark Knight wound up at the Liberty. I went for my first Saturday matinee there since The Abominable Dr. Phibes in 1972. Ann demurred because she says movies are too loud in theatres and 152 minutes of Batman would be just that many spent in Hell. I drove over figuring for long lines, being this was Hollywood’s all-time socko weekend. Nobody stood out front but a twenty-something with carrot red hair and a bat shirt. He said they’d sold out for Friday’s midnight show, but not since. Alas, it seemed those who could drive, bike, or crawl went the thirty miles or less to watch on bigger and better screens. The Liberty once sat seven hundred fifty with two balconies. A dividing wall came down the middle in 1974 and made hash of all that. Me and a quarter filled house who’d paid four dollars admission watched The Dark Knight letterboxed on a screen maxing out at the 1.85 ratio. I thought back on a summer day in 1966 when the same (bigger and fuller) auditorium looked at Fox’s Batman feature, a thing as removed from this one as silents are from talkies. What happened in that interim other than a Liberty bisected and levity gone all together out of comic heroes? Batman began in dime stories and funny papers. He spake as unto children and most of these put away (or Moms threw away) such childish things in due course. What kind of world would this be had we taken Batman so seriously since 1939? Could we have won a World War with such conflicted role models as super-heroes have become? Bat-motives are at the least suspect now. This Dark Knight wants to turn himself in for an excess of duality with better nuanced villains packing traumatic backstories that put his in the shade (what’s seeing your parents shot in an alley against Dad carving a permanent grin on your face?). Just being Batman nowadays raises a host of moral, if not political, issues. Everyone prattles about Gotham City needing heroes in a movie seemingly dedicated to withholding them. The whole cast is weighed down in guilt. All save the Joker go around apologizing for wrongs that escaped me. Stealing this picture would have been a cinch for actors not half so good as Heath Ledger. What you’ve heard about his performance is true. It’s old style bravura amidst hand-wringing cardboard. He’s fun even when loaded down with monologues explaining what writers assume we’re too dense to see for ourselves. Does youth have eyes to better follow darkened and frenzied action in these shows? Maybe it would have helped if I’d grown up playing video games. Where’s Lewis Wilson getting tangled up in his cape when we need him?

I went Bat-maniacal on January 12, 1966, the night ABC’s series premiered. By September, it was over for me, but for those eight or so months, I dug Batcaves out of neighborhood construction sites, polished my Cesar Romero voice impression, and begged parents for a color television like ones I watched in neighbor houses. My hero costume had its genesis in pajamas and swim trunks, shown here on a surprisingly unfaded Instamatic pose from forty-two years ago. The cape doubled as Count Dracula’s in that school pageant mentioned previously. I drew flip-books and one had Batman trapped on a pit and pendulum device. DC comics took the place of Archie, Hot Stuff, and Richie Rich. Castle Of Frankenstein would put Romero’s Joker on its cover. The editors weren’t otherwise pleased with what ABC did to the characters. Purists were an eccentric minority then. Everyone else loved the camp-up. Guest villains viewed it all as a slumming joke. None were young enough to have read Batman comics (except maybe Roddy McDowell), nor would they take stands upholding the integrity of Bob Kane’s creation. Cesar Romero didn’t even shave his mustache before donning clown white. Laffs were very much at the expense of comic books and those who read them. Imagine anyone daring such a thing today. Television’s Batman was the very definition of a fad passing through in a hurry. The bloom was off the rose for me by second season’s beginning. Tuning in close to the series’ end, I encountered the Joker riding a surfboard, and wondered whatever could have appealed to me about this program. Will The Dark Knight’s followers react similarly when they revisit the feature a decade or so from now? Critics applaud Heath Ledger going over-the-edge and suddenly Jack Nicholson’s Joker looks passé. Jack used to be the coolest act in movies. Wonder how he feels reading such reviews. Men of Nicholson’s and certainly Romero’s generation saw comic villains as merely that. They had fun with Batman before it became Holy Writ. Where does the Joker go from here? Once you’re past him, it’s tough finding Bat-opponents fans can take (overly) serious. The Penguin and the Riddler are too retro silly and lack gravitas befitting lofty aspirations of latter-day comic adapters. One of The Dark Knight’s four or five endings (I stopped counting after the hour and a half that should have wrapped things up) saw a principal character disfigured but no less able to endlessly and pointlessly flip coins upon arriving/departing repetitive scenes. Was this part enhanced to compensate for a seemingly unresolved Joker plotline? Warners may have had a My Son John situation they’d be loathe to acknowledge, let alone publicize.

The purest incarnation of Batman outside the comic books might be those dog-eared Columbia serials. The first one was made just four years after the strip began. We damn their crude economies but shouldn’t lose sight of the fact these chapter-plays represented Batman as kids knew him from the forties until 1966. Lewis Wilson’s hero fought Japanese saboteurs in 1943, sparing audiences moral equivalencies muddying latter-day caped crusading. He and Robin execute costume changes out of satchels in the back seats of cars. It’s so austere as to be sublime. I wonder if a single adult paid attention to these serials. Superheroes then ran generally on matinees, with the noteworthy exception of Paramount’s Superman cartoons produced by Max Fleischer, which got bookings in first-run houses and played to a wider public than comic heroes would for another twenty years. As to respective costumes, Batman’s holds up best for modern palettes. Others date woefully. Superman doesn’t wear well with tights and primary colors better suited to drawn panels. Robin’s problematic for reasons beyond the pixie-boy outfit he wears. I wonder if they’ll ever bring him back. Batman’s costume is so jet black and threatening as to evoke suits of armor, and is about as flexible. How does anyone move in such encasement? Whenever he clanks onto a scene, you figure bad guys could outrun that cumbersome outfit as easily as victims eluding Kharis the mummy, accessible only after having backed themselves into inescapable corners. Mostly it’s the new Batman voice that alarms me. I kept waiting for people in my audience to laugh out loud when he spoke. Is that Christian Bale or some combination of growls like MGM mingled for Tarzan yells? Must have something to do with preserving his secret identity, though it reminded me of suddenly lowered registers they used in radio programs whenever Clark Kent switched personas --- This looks like a job … for Superman. What’s amazing is critics going gaga over all this. Pressed to choose, I’d say The Dark Knight is the best Batman movie, but what does that amount to? The dread curse of third act collapse didn’t spare it. If only these shows would conclude when it’s so clearly time. They too often start with a bang and finish up dog tired. The first five minutes of The Dark Knight is exemplary. For an hour, most of it works, but by the second (l-o-n-g) half, you’re headed for a cumulative letdown. In an attention deficited society, shouldn't people want their movies shorter?


Blogger The Siren said...

What an excellent, thought-provoking review, the first I have read to really try and put the movie in some sort of Hollywood-historical context, despite the fact that it's what, number 7? A pleasure to read, as always. And the third-act collapse -- you nail something that bothers me about so many action movies in general, although superhero movies are particularly susceptible. The fight has to go on and on and on and on and he's dead no wait he's not. Who do we blame for that?

9:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an excellent review of a wildely overrated movie. Yes, I totally agree it should have been over in an hour and a half, or so. Part of the reason, I believe, that so many of these superhero movies go on forever is that they have to justify their huge budgets - somehow it seems more credible to justify a $180 million dollar budget when the film is 150 minutes, instead of just 90 or 100 minutes -- or at least that's what the Hollywood mindset must be.

10:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A most excellent article, as every other article on your site! :)

Elsewhere, other reviewers came to the same conclusions (too long, Batman voice resembles Clint Eastwood, etc.) and received massive bashing from the fanboys.

Fortunately, the fanboys of this site are all grownups. ;)


4:59 AM  
Blogger Poptique said...

Heartiest congratulations on post 500! A very insightful view of Hollywood then and now - and I especially like the vintage super-hero snap (my parents have a video of me as a kid jumping around in a Spider-man costume that they recently subjected my girlfriend to...).

I must admit I did skip a few passages which gave away some plot details - I'm still a dyed-in-the-wool comic book movie fan and The Dark Knight doesn't come out here until the end of the week.

(May I cheekily point out I've just stuck up a blog post detailing some of the most obscure interpretations of the Caped Crusader, by the way?)

Anyway, once again Greenbriar makes my day - many thanks! ;)

8:04 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Campaspe/Siren --- Thanks for the good words and the recent boost at your fine site. I really liked your recent post on "Frenchman's Creek", by the way. Wonder if Universal's video master of that was lost in the recent fire ... hope not, because it looked beautiful when AMC ran it several years back.

Hi ZAR --- Don't think it hadn't occured to me I might in for "massive bashing from the fanboys", and I'd hasten to add that there ARE a lot of good things in "The Dark Knight", but who among fanboys would bother reading something like Greenbriar Picture Shows?

Poptique, I went to your website and really liked all those oddball posters you featured on various counterfeit Batman(s). I didn't realize so many of these things existed!

8:26 AM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

A youthful actor croaks, and all hell breaks loose - remember what they say about the higher value of dead artists' work, as if it is suddenly better post-mortem. I'll see what all the hulabaloo is about "Dark Knight", but these comic-book blockbusters are getting old; too much FX, too little intelligence. Must work in as much boom as possible, I guess, even if the budget is already bigger than a Zeppelin fulla worn C-notes.

2:26 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Yet critics complained about Will Smith's "Hancock" clocking in at 90 minutes on a $150-million budget. Seems like they should be complaining about the cost rather than the running time.

My 12 year-old daughter, by the way, has no interest in seeing "Dark Knight," saying, "I don't like comic book heroes." There's $8.75 I'll save at the box office.

8:08 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

I ended up liking the movie more than I thought I would, but it took me an hour and a half to get to that point (I wouldv'e enjoyed it a lot more if they'd jettisoned the whole Hong Kong sidetrip). A big problem, though is that everybody else in the movie is more interesting that Batman--like you, I couldn't stand how he talked.

I remember thinking that Burton's first Batman was boring and turgid, and was amazed that it caught on with audiences. And while this is a much better movie, I'm amazed by the critical response. (my 18-year-old hasn't seen it yet, but by he has friends who'd sat through it three times by the Friday after it opened) (I'd never take my 8-year-old to this--like at least two people in the audience when i saw it--but I can't get him into a theatre because "it's too loud!")

2:26 PM  
Blogger J.A. Morris said...

I was huge comic fanatic growing up (not so much a Batman fanatic, I was more of a Marvel fan but I did read Batman comics occasionally). But I agree with most of your review. I would say it’s better than ‘Batman Begins’. I thought the dumbest part of the movie was the “cell phone” surveillance device. Where did that come from?

As a comic fan, I don’t like the way they’ve turned Batman into James Bond, with Fox as Q. He’s been described as “the World’s Greatest Detective” in comics, didn’t see that in ‘The Dark Knight’. It would have been nice to see him use his brain a little more than his gadgets.

As for Ledger, yes it’s a good performance, but not exactly earth-shattering. In the comics, the Joker (in the past 40 years, at least) is a homicidal, nihilistic psychopath. So his portrayal wasn’t that shocking to me.

I’ve found the comic book movies to be generally mediocre. I thought ‘Superman II’ and the ‘X-men’ franchise were the best so far.

I heard a few laughs in the theater when Bale did the “batvoice”.

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, if Bale's Batman sounds like Eastwood, let me ask: does anyone here find Ledger's joker a trifle familiar? Throughout his performance, I was struck by little mannerisms and inflections that made me think of another actor. I hesitate to mention the man's name for fear of spoiling it for anyone who hasn't yet seen the film ... and maybe I'm completely off-base, but it sure seemed like Ledger was aware of what he was doing. Sort of tipping his hat to one who has gone before him.

3:54 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

MDG 14450, I'm intrigued by your eight year old saying theatres are too loud. I'd begun to think only people my age and older felt that way. The biggest reason I don't go out to movies anymore is that they're just so ear-splittingly LOUD. It didn't used to be this way. Who made the decision to crank up volumes (seemingly everywhere), and for what insidious reason?

About Heath Ledger, I've got a post forthcoming about boxoffice effects of James Dean's sudden death. 2008 isn't the first time Warners has been down this road ...

9:11 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Movies are louder because it's supposed to make people think what they're watching is exciting. it's why movie ransoms are always in the billion-dollar range -- it makes up for the lack of genuine drama.

10:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Comic book movies, much as I enjoy some of them, put me in mind of something Pauline Kael once wrote: "Red River is not really so 'great' as its devotees claim (what Western is?)..."

Whether or not Kael was right about westerns, I think the same concept holds for superhero movies -- the absolute creme de la creme among them are only about half as good as the fanboys (and they're all boys) think they are.

As for Earl B's inquiry -- yes, Heath Ledger's Joker definitely reminded me of someone. Don't know who Earl is thinking of, but it struck me even in the trailers, and I mentioned it in my review: Richard Dreyfuss.

12:49 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Received the following e-mail from reader Kevin ---

Hi John: I love your blog, it's one of my favorite sites of the web.

I particularly liked your post about “The Dark Knight.” I posted my thoughts about it on my blog ( My blog is a minor effort compared to yours and someone like the Self-Styled Siren. I’m in awe of people like you and her who write so eloquently…and are witty at the same time.

I was going to post a comment linking my blog but I didn’t know if that was appropriate or not. I wanted to run it past you first. It’s kind of long, but I tend to get impassioned (but I hope not mean-spirited).

Again, I always look forward to your posts.

Take care,

Thanks for writing and the link, Kevin.

1:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I guess everybody's seen it by now, so ... I saw a good deal of Jack Lemmon in Heath Ledger's Joker. Just a touch here and there, but certainly throughout. If anyone's planning on seeing DARK KNIGHT again, pay particular attention during the Joker's hospital visit to Harvey Dent. That's got the highest concentration of "Lemmony" bits. Subtle, but definitely there.

3:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought Ledger sounded like Andy Rooney myself.

4:39 AM  

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