Why ‘The Dark Knight’ is a Terrible Film

I love movies. All genres, all styles. A solemn artsy pic, a brainless shoot-’em-up, even a chick flick too full of itself for its own good can be fun (yes, that’s right, I enjoyed Sex and the City).

As a viewer, I just want a few simple things: filmmakers to pay attention to their story and characters, creators to stay within the “rules” of the world they themselves create, for my popcorn to not say “with real buttery taste” (When did the lack of real butter on popcorn become a positive thing?), and for the movie’s story to — quite simply — make sense.

Now, sometimes, I can have fun when some of these things are forgotten. For instance, early in the summer, Wanted — quite simply — made no sense. The big reveal in its climax rendered the entire plot completely inane. But, heck, I had a good time.

More recently in a dark theater, I saw a dark movie, about a “dark knight,” and it was all very, very dark. So dark in fact, they thought they could leave us viewers in the dark. And, considering how many of them have gone back to see it again, I guess that’s OK. But not to me. So here I come on my white steed, to throw a little light on the subject. Get yourself some popcorn, buttery taste optional, this article’s almost as long as their script.

The Dark Knight was summer 2008’s BIG superhero flick. What Wanted and Hellboy and Hulk and Hancock and Iron Man all pretended to be, The Dark Knight was going to be. It had the stars, the budget, the promotion, and a great look. Batman Begins, which was the first in the series that “Knight” continues, was large in scope, cool in style, smart in storytelling, and, overall, made us feel like we were watching a dramatic action flick, not a superhero battle — which was a wonderful thing.

Begins‘ only weaknesses, for me, were 1) the casting of Tom Cruise’s wife, WhatsHerName, and 2) after all the hard work of convincing us that a guy wearing a bat-suit could glide through the sky and call himself “Batman” (and that his nemesis would dub himself “Scarecrow”) — after making all of that feel plausible in a real, modern world — the bad guys were wielding…a ray gun?! And, worse, a ray gun which looked a lot like Marvin the Looney Tunes cartoon martian’s illudium Q-36 space modulator.

Overall, that giant bug zapper was a minor weakness in an otherwise powerful film. So, The Dark Knight, with all its hype, was certainly going to be superior. And, yet, you may wonder why it is I believe TDK was only about as good as your average Paris Hilton film (movies shot in dim hotel rooms notwithstanding)…

Ah, where to begin….

Firstly, let’s start with what was wonderful: The cast and their performances were astounding. We all know this. Effects, visual and practical, were top-notch and seamless. Action was exciting. Sets, costuming, and makeup — gorgeous. And some moments in this flick were just simply…outstanding. Why, I’d wager even the craft services table was something of legend.

That done, my first problem with the film was near the start: After the intriguing bank robbery which cleverly introduces the evil Joker, the filmmakers brought back the Scarecrow, our Begins villain. Great. But here’s a good test for any writer: If you can pull out a character from your script and replace him/her with a log of wood, you may have to rewrite the scene. Or cut it.

The original Batman Begins, on which director Christopher Nolan had a great amount of influence, and which was co-written by superhero movie writer David S. Goyer and sci-fi scribe Larry Franco, had no waste. That is, not one scene, line, or character was unnecessary. The same cannot be said for The Dark Knight, written by Nolan and his brother. Remove Scarecrow from that first scene and what’ve you got? The same scene.

(On an interesting aside, after trusting other dependable writers, Director Sam Raimi and his brother took over on the deplorably sloppy Spider-Man 3, going to prove the famous saying “Brothers who work together, will make a mess of the kitchen.”  Well…OK, it’s not caught on yet, but try it out at parties.)

Also in Scarecrow’s scene were some copycat Batmen — regular citizens trying to join-up in the fight against evil. Great concept, sure, but if we take them out, what would it effect? Well, nothing. A line here or there may need some cutting, but these Batmen never affect the plot or characters in any real way.

Look at that, we’ve already cut out several pieces of fat from the film. And I’m just getting started. (And, by the way, I don’t even touch on the completely nonsensical chase sequence, which was famously — and thankfully — torn apart here. I nearly pulled my hair out watching that so was thrilled someone went through it step by step.)

Batman Begins ended with a complete story but a fun cliffhanger — in the area Gotham citizens call “The Narrows,” some loon left a Joker playing card at the scene of a crime. All Batman aficionados knew it was the calling card of the villainous Joker. So, here we are, in the “Dark,” a year later in movie time, and Batman’s not only never found nor had even seen the Joker, but his only comment upon hearing that the wily clown was responsible for yet more deaths and “another” bank robbery is “Him again?” Seems like Batman’s attitude about catching bad guys has become pretty lax in his short time being the bat. “I know a crazed killer’s on the loose in Gotham, commissioner, but I’ve got these court side seats to a Gotham Knights game…”

So the Joker’s back and causing havoc and lying to victims about his back-story. That was cool — not a new idea by any means (it’d been done in some old crime noir stories more than once), but cool. Now, we don’t need details of any kind, a little mystery is exciting, but a writing professor taught me a great lesson once: “Brothers who work together, will make a mess of the kitchen.” Alright, alright that wasn’t it (but, see? It’s catching on!); this is it: “Be kind to your reader.” In this case, we, the audience, should still have some clue what brought Joker out of the woodwork. The mystery of his origin is great, but what was it that gave him a need to have this coming out party? What was the impetus? Batman? Scarecrow? Nighttime? If he’s Batman’s equal and opposite number, then explain it with a simple line like, “Were you there the night things went crazy in The Narrows? Because I most definitely was!” See, keep the mystery but, you know, be kind to your viewer!

The main plot of Knight also has a few problems. It’s a bit lumpy and underdeveloped (much like my very first jr. high school date), but the biggest offense for me was the character of Two-Face. The change of personality of Harvey Dent to Two-Face would never have been believable if not for Aaron Eckhart’s fine performance. Throughout the movie, there is nothing on-screen or in the script that hints at the cruelty he exhibits later. Instead of wasting time to appease comics fans with the flip of the coin stuff — focused on a bit more than could have ever been necessary — it would have serviced the plot, and character, more to spend time seeing Dent fight with his inner demons. Of which he didn’t seem to have until he came face-to-farce with the Joker.

While Dent’s change is thin, one character is even thinner: Some guy discovers Bruce Wayne is Batman. While it addresses an interesting aspect of the hero’s mythos, it goes nowhere. This character learns Batman’s great. Well, sure, he’s a rich guy who dresses like a giant bat! We know he’s great — we all saw Batman Begins!

I also take issue when movies which, in some manner, take place in the real world are unable to follow the rules of the real world: Gordon’s jump (not to be confused with Gordon Jump, station manager at WKRP in Cincinnati) from Lieutenant to Commissioner seemed like quite a giant step up. And, more importantly, based on everything we’ve learned about Gotham, both in this movie and the previous, it seems there’d be a few more stumbling blocks and quite a bit of politics before Gordon could make it to such a high-ranked position. Maybe Gordon, like the other cops of Gotham, is indeed crooked — he paid-off the screenwriters!

On the subject of our illustrious writing team, I always feel its proof that a writer has run out of ideas when he has to have a character pull a gun on a child. Aside from the fact I feel it’s offensive to have a film aimed at kids and teens (And what action movie isn’t?) put a child in mortal peril (especially when it doesn’t service the plot or characters in any way whatsoever), it screams “We need conflict and can’t think of anything interesting!” In The Dark Knight, during the climactic scenes, when we see Harvey Dent pull a gun on Gordon’s child, I was not only bored, I was disgusted. It was nasty and unnecessary. We the audience understood by this point that Dent had lost his moral center, and there was nothing added to the scene or story by having him do this. It also didn’t act as a catalyst in any manner for either Gordon or Batman. (Mind you, if it’d been Gordon’s daughter with a gun in her face, that moment would be a wink to fans, telling us this is when Barbara realizes she must become Batgirl. But, oh well. Too late.)

Superman Returns, another superhero flick, had a similar scene — not only did Superman’s gal Lois have her son put in mortal danger, but the five-year-old child watched his mother get brutally beaten. I don’t care what the payoff is, or how “dark” you’re trying to be, this is not something that should be in “escapist” fare. It goes against the entire concept of the genre. And, no, I was never held at gunpoint by my parents, but, I can assure you, I should have been.

And, yes, an awfully dark Knight it certainly was. I understand Gotham is a hell on Earth, but what worked about the darkness in Batman Begins, or even in Tim Burton’s Batman films, was the juxtaposition with light. Michael Keaton’s light take on Bruce Wayne, or the over-the-top sex-kitty story of the fantastic that introduced Catwoman, or Michael Caine’s scenes in Begins and the fun Bruce Wayne has in becoming Batman and trying out his new toys — all of that “light” helped make the dark feel even more so. It’s called juxtaposition, and most good storytellers know how to do use it.

There was virtually no comedy relief in this movie — Bale’s fun Bruce Wayne has but one meaty scene, and with just one humorous line leading into a pissing match between Wayne and Dent, “light” is not the term I’d use. Meanwhile, Alfred and the other supporting characters were generally very serious. An utter bore, really.

All your better comedies have good dramatic moments (Stripes and Superbad immediately come to mind). Conversely, good dramas tend to have funny moments to juxtapose the tone. Not Dark Knight — one note the whole way through. All that grim ‘n’ gritty became monotonous at the half-way point. While I don’t want to see former Governor Schwarzenegger skate in with the cast from Starlight Express, I think some contrast would have made the Joker’s macabre sense of humor and Batman’s ongoing anger a bit easier to take — as in, dare I speak its name yet again…yes, Batman Begins.

And one more little note to the filmmakers: Giving your main character better technology than the police does not make him a detective, it merely makes him the guy with better technology. If you’re going to show us that Batman’s a detective, as he is in the comic books, have him actually, you know, detect.

So, where does all this leave us? Well, with an empty tub of butterless popcorn and me, for one, looking forward to sequels to Wanted and Hellboy and Hulk and Hancock and Iron Man — oh yeah, and Sex and the City too.
[Update: It’s important to note that the sequels (those that were made) to each of the movies mentioned ended up being far, far worse than anyone could have ever imagined. But, no worries, the Dark Knight threequel outdid them. Well, maybe not Sex and the City 2. Whotta stinker!]

I am a comedy writer in NYC. You can watch some funny (now out-of-date) film reviews here: youtube.com/planitsreality

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