Movie Review: "The Dark Knight"

This weekend a friend and I saw The Dark Knight, the highly-anticipated sequel to Christopher Nolan’s celebrated franchise reboot, Batman Begins. I can confirm that the media hype is legit: this film is amazing.

Orphaned billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has been Batman for about a year, and Gotham City is improving for the first time in ages—criminals are scared, the mob is in disarray, and the efforts of new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) leave Bruce hopeful for the day Gotham no longer needs his alter ego, leaving him to a normal life with his beloved Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes from Begins). But all of Gotham’s progress threatens to be shattered by the rise to power of a self-described “agent of chaos” known only as the Joker (Heath Ledger).

Knight excels as an action movie (the ambitious action sequences will thrill you all the more when you realize digital effects are used very little), as a crime drama, and as a case study in human nature. I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen a movie that took such a strong grip on my attention, and maintained it throughout a 2 ½ hour running time. Nolan, along with writers Jonathan Nolan (yep, his brother) & David Goyer, have imbued the story with a real sense of unpredictability, and at times even fear of what might lurk around the corner (by contrast, I thought The Incredible Hulk was both a respectable effort and a lot of fun, but there was virtually nothing surprising or unpredictable about it).

Aiding the immersion is the fact that, just like Begins, Knight is far more grounded in reality than the average comic adaptation. Granted, the technology at Batman’s disposal still has one foot firmly planted in science fiction, but it’s decidedly more James Bond than Adam West (plus, Batman’s the only one with access to hi-tech gear). As fanciful as the idea of costumed crusaders is, Nolan’s vision comes closer to making you believe what you’re watching could really happen than any other superhero film ever has. And none of this grounding comes at the expense of the source material’s essence (a refreshing departure from mangling things
for no better reason than the whims of Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher…).

It’s also due in part to the film’s oft-mentioned darkness. If you’re expecting cartoonish villainy, or even something akin to the League of Shadows’ master plan from Begins, think again. This Joker isn’t some unscrupulous goofball out for world domination—he’s a sociopath and anarchist without the slightest hint of decency beneath his grubby clown makeup, and his actions reflect that. While there’s no real gore (save one character’s fate I won’t mention, but every Bat-fan knows who I’m talking about) and there’s no sex (indeed, it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that a sex scene doesn’t happen at a certain point where it would have in most other movies), Knight is violent, even brutal, and there’s a lot of disturbing imagery, harrowing situations, and tense buildups to disaster and tragedy. Young children simply should not see this movie. At the very least, parents should watch it in advance so they know which scenes to skip when watching the DVD with their kids.

But teen and adult audiences would be hard-pressed to find a fictional movie more powerful and rewarding. Everything you’ve heard about Ledger’s phenomenal, menacing performance is true (Jack who?), but as great as he is, he doesn’t overshadow the rest of the cast. As the protagonist, Bale perfectly conveys, and balances, Bruce Wayne’s public image of carefree excess and Batman’s obsession with justice. Without giving too much away about Harvey Dent, let’s just say Eckhart won’t disappoint in the role’s broad range of emotions. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman display wit and gravitas as butler Alfred Pennyworth and gadget guru Lucius Fox. Gary Oldman’s role as honest cop Lt. Jim Gordon is larger than in Begins, and he soars in it. I thought Maggie Gyllenhaal was a tad too spunky early in the film, but she proves her dramatic credentials later on—and then again, a little spunk helps lighten the load in a film this heavy (unlike some viewers, I wasn’t bothered by Katie Holmes in Begins, and I have no opinion on who is ultimately better).

On that note, don’t take all this talk of darkness to mean Knight is some sort of depression-fest. It’s not. Tragedy strikes and human depravity is on full display, but so are the heroism, courage and decency of Batman, his allies, and even the people of Gotham (refreshingly, the film actually affirms several basic conservative tenets: the futility of appeasement, the occasional need to do harsh, ugly things to defeat evil, and the importance of doing the right thing at the expense of public opinion). There’s wit, humor, and moments that are simply fun and cool. Without giving too much away, the film ends on a bittersweet note that drives home the sacrifices that make Batman compelling in a way few cinema or comic-book heroes can match.

Sure, there are imperfections here and there—a minor plot hole or two, if you look hard enough—but they are eclipsed by the film’s sheer quality. The Dark Knight is easily the best Batman film ever made—not only does
the beloved 1989 version pale in comparison, but the contrast shows just how limited an application Tim Burton’s style really has. But it’s also the best example of the superhero/comic book genre, and an outstanding cinematic achievement in any genre. Simply put, it’s a masterpiece.

Odds & Ends

Sen. Jesse Helms has died. Rest in peace, Senator.

Now apparently four-year-olds
need sex ed. Yes, you read that right. How does one even reason with such insanity?

This Independence Day, Thomas Sowell
reflects on patriotism.

Now ABC News is noticing that Barack Obama has an Iraq problem. Looks like it’s
time to wake up from the Hope Dream.

A few weeks back I saw the Robin-Williams-runs-for-president comedy
Man of the Year. It was entertaining, but certainly no side-splitter. Williams’ “independent, third-way” character tilted left-of-center, predictably, but what really stands out is that, for a movie about the position of commander-in-chief, I don’t recall a single acknowledgement that there’s a war going on (I understand it’s a comedy, but still.). Kinda hits home the point that the war just isn’t real in the minds of Hollywood.

Speaking of movies, I went to see
The Incredible Hulk the other night, and thought it was great, the only drawback being some inconsistent quality in the CG work. It was everything the 2003 film should have been.

Movie Review: Iron Man

This weekend, Marvel Comics’ latest big-screen superhero adaptation, Iron Man, hit theatres. The film has garnered some attention for touching on political themes, and some liberal reviewers are trying to claim it as their own. Is Iron Man a lefty propaganda piece? I saw it last night, and will give my answer in the following review. Be warned, though: I’ll try to hide plot spoilers as best I can, but if you don’t want to know anything at all about the film until you see it, here’s the bottom line: conservatives (and pro-military Democrats) can rest easy buying a ticket for this one.

When we first meet Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), he hardly seems like hero material. Though a quick-witted charmer and technological genius, the billionaire weapons manufacturer is also a gambling, womanizing, hard-drinking scoundrel, much to the exasperation of those around him: indispensable personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and best friend Air Force Lt. Col. Rhodey Rhodes (Terrence Howard). All that changes, though, on Stark’s own Road to Damascus, which happens to run through Afghanistan. While visiting the warzone to demonstrate Stark Industries’ newest toy, the Jericho Missile, his convoy is hit by a roadside bomb. He wakes up to find himself in a terrorist camp, and is horrified to discover his name stamped on a whole lot of their arsenal. Ordered to build a Jericho for the bad guys, Tony instead builds a makeshift suit of armor with which to escape (and kick terrorist butt in the process, of course). Upon his return to America, he announces that his company will cease weapon production, and secretly builds a new hi-tech suit with which he plans to destroy whatever other Stark Industries weaponry has fallen into enemy hands. Naturally, business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) is none too pleased about this, and villainy ensues.

First, is Iron Man any good as a movie? The answer is a resounding yes. The writing is coherent and certainly doesn’t ask for any more suspension of disbelief than the average superhero or sci-fi film. The casting of Downey Jr. as Stark is absolutely perfect. From wisecracking and sleazy to courageous and driven, Stark has a wide range of traits throughout the story, and Downey nails them all, never letting his changes of heart seem unnatural while doing so. By contrast, while I’ve come to like Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker in the Spider-Man films, he does take some getting used to. Not so here: from the opening scene on, there’s no doubt that Robert Downey is Tony Stark. Paltrow is smart and charming as his right-hand gal, and the chemistry between the two is genuinely sweet. Howard doesn’t have a whole lot of material to work with as the responsible straight-man to Downey’s wild card, but he works out just fine, and as comic fans know, he’ll have his
time to shine in the sequels. Bridges is great as the main villain, too, though by the time he goes into full bad-guy mode for the climactic showdown, his performance is a bit on the generic side, if still enjoyable. The special effects are excellent, and while not every shot of the hero’s digitally-animated stand-in looks photo-realistic, many do, and the CGI blends quite well with the actual constructed suits. Overall, Iron Man is a faithful adaptation of the comic book and Marvel’s best big-screen offering yet (though not necessarily better than the crown jewel of the genre, Batman Begins, or its forthcoming sequel, The Dark Knight). If you like comic books, science fiction, or action movies in general, you simply have to see it. (Oh, and comic book diehards probably already know this, but be sure to stick around after the credits…)

OK, then, what about the politics? In
Time’s review, Richard Corliss describes Iron Man as a “semi-pacific” hero who “resolves to study war no more” and is on a mission “to dismantle his own company.” While it’s true that Tony puts the kibosh on his company’s weapons program, it doesn’t come across as a blanket condemnation of military force, for a few reasons. First, it’d be a sensible move for anyone in that position—yes, even evil, heartless conservatives—to stop the weapons flow, at least until figuring out how terrorists are getting a hold of them. Second, both the United States military and the government are portrayed as benign and heroic, without the slightest hint that America’s current conflicts in the real world are unjust—a refreshing image, and Iron Man deserves credit for bringing it to the screen. And third, there’s no way somebody can even remotely be called a pacifist when his armor is packin’ that much heat! Furthermore, the line about “dismantl[ing] his own company” is simply false—Tony only [Spoiler; highlight to read] plans to destroy the weapons he discovers Stane has been selling to terrorists.

Also noteworthy is the depiction of the terrorists. All are portrayed by Middle Eastern-looking actors, dressed in the same sort of grimy fatigues we’ve all seen jihadists wearing on the news. The imagery of a captive Tony bound in a chair, flanked by armed terrorists as a hostage video is being filmed, is chillingly similar to the videos of captured journalists like Steve Centanni and Daniel Pearl. This, along with another scene of [Spoiler; highlight to read] the militants terrorizing an Afghani village and almost executing a defenseless father, helps ground the film in reality and leaves the unmistakable impression that the people our nation is fighting in the Middle East are truly evil, with no rationalizations or excuses for their behavior, be it Western imperialism or economic depression, anywhere in sight. Granted, they are not overtly portrayed as Muslims with religious motivations, but this is not for reasons of political correctness—their group [Spoiler; highlight to read] is called the Ten Rings, which is a reference to Iron Man’s longtime archenemy the Mandarin, and is likely intended to lay the groundwork for the villain’s appearance in a sequel. In addition, it’s worth mentioning that when Tony initially refuses to meet their demands, he’s waterboarded, which is certainly portrayed as an ugly, painful procedure. But it does no lasting damage to him, and the conservative position on waterboarding has nothing to do with whether or not it’s pleasant to go through.

Iron Man is a great movie—equal parts excitement, humor, and heart, with political undertones that shouldn’t divide audiences, but do offer a healthy dose of moral clarity about our armed forces and our enemies, which should always be welcome on those rare occasions it comes out of Hollywood.

PS: While we’re on the subject, here’s
an interesting snapshot of Robert Downey’s real-life political leanings.

Iron Man Blasts Off against Political Correctness

Here’s the theatrical trailer for the latest comic-book film, Iron Man. For those unfamiliar with the character, Tony Stark is a billionaire arms inventor who is taken captive in a war zone and forced to build a weapon of some sort. Instead, he fashions a suit of armor to escape, then battles evil with a more sophisticated suit. But the interesting thing is how un-PC it is. Since the film is set in the present day, Stark is captured in Afghanistan. Thus, we see Iron Man beating the tar out of jihadists which are actually portrayed as Arabs. How the heck did this make it out of Hollywood?