Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Oh, how I hated the Batman movie.


Long time readers know that at one point, I threw fundraising parties for Republican members of Congress professionally. It wasn’t as hard for me as I suspect it would have been for a lot of UUs as I’m plenty socially liberal but have something of a libertarian twist to my thinking on economic and government power issues.

Anyway, I often ate lunch with my boss, who was the wife of a retired army guy. She knew I was fairly socially liberal and sometimes liked to quiz me on why I believed what I did. I would do the same in turn for her views. It was fun and I learned a lot. Anyway, one time, the subject of torture came up. She brought up a lot of toy situations where her husband was in danger or there was a ticking bomb. There was a certain unfairness to the conversation in that there was no way I could say “Actually, I would rather your husband be blown to smithereens than have my country torturing people, Boss.” But I think I got that message across, as annoying as she found it.

Watching the Batman movie felt a lot like having that conversation over again, albeit with an imaginative emo college kid rather than my relatively staid and realistic ex-boss. The whole movie to me felt like one big toy situation contrived to make me sympathetic to the “There are times when we have to destroy our values to save them” cause and I’m just not gonna get on that bus.

Heath Ledger's portrayal was technichally good, but his character just felt like a big cartoon in that the Joker for all practical purposes has magic powers in this movie. He can do anything, and the movie wants us to believe this so badly it doesn’t bother to explain how he does some of his more amazing feats. (E.g. Joker can sneak lots of bombs and arguably surgical equipment into jail with him.) Also, Joker has to have 30 mooks throughout this movie that follow his orders to the letter, no matter how dangerous or weird they are. Said mooks have to have heard that everybody who helps Joker do anything dies, but they play along anyway and are all dead by the end of the movie. Joker’s mooks can dress up as a police honor guard and of course they look exactly like one with convincing military manuvers and the mooks had no problem kidnapping the real honor guard and stealing their uniforms.

So much of this movie feels so incredibly contrived. For a non-Joker example, a mob boss is either going to visit Prosecutor Harvey Dent in the hospital, or just happens to be standing around alone outside his hospital room, convenient for questioning at a crucial moment. There are a couple of obvious moral dilemmas set up that made me feel like I was back in torts class.

I’m annoyed because I defended Batman on Peacebang’s blog a couple of weeks ago, saying that his brains made up for his lack of super powers. This Batman doesn’t have much in the way of brains as far as I can tell. He doesn’t design and build his own stuff, Lucius Fox* does it for him. He doesn’t even do much detective work. Commissioner Gordon seems to do a lot of the actual thinking and Batman’s technology does the rest. I wasn’t a tremendous fan of Iron Man, but when FortiesGirl pointed out that Tony Stark won his battles by being a better engineer, I had to respect that. This Batman doesn’t need brains. He has toys. But he didn’t build them himself.

One of Batman’s most impressive toys is a pretty clear stand-in for domestic wiretapping (I guess thanks to Obama and McCain's agreement on the issue, Wayne Enterprises won't even get fined) and even my beloved Lucius Fox is taken in by the argument that “We will only use it just this once. Because we REALLY REALLY need it right now. Then we won’t use it again ever." (Admittedly the machine self-destructs, but lots of stuff blows up in this movie and that doesn’t always mean it is permanently gone.)

I’m already getting crap in the comments for having called Batman “neo-con” in what I posted last night, but I think it’s a pretty fair call. Batman is all about protecting Gotham and talks about Gotham City in much the same way as Bush talks about protecting America, almost as if he’s protecting the concept and the ideals rather than the actual people. But then, Batman and the police repeatedly betray those ideals as they torture people**, a quality I feel they share with the Bush administration. The movie spends much of the time trying to convince us that things are so bad that our cowardice justifies betraying who we are.

No, it doesn’t.

Washingtonians have a pretty good idea how people react to a couple of crazy guys randomly going around killing people and then seeming to disappear only to reappear a few days later and do it again. Frankly, we’ve been there. Were some people nuts? Yeah, I guess. But most of us pretty much went on about our lives as usual rather than rioting in the streets or calling for revenge at press conferences.

The sort of mass hysteria the Joker causes is just so extreme as to be unbelievable. Even in after 9-11, people were a little nuts but not this bad and Joker does nothing on 9-11's scale.

I know, I know, it’s a comic book movie. And I know I’m giving it a very large compliment by taking it so seriously, but it still freaks me out to see the number of people who see this as a deep and thought-provoking study of evil.

To me, it looked like one big excuse for the inexcusable.


*Morgan Freeman was great, I gotta say. I think I enjoy him more as Fox than I have in any other role. Please Mr. Freeman, stop playing mystical folks and concentrate on playing tweedy super geniuses.

** At one point the Joker obviously baits a cop into beating him in the interrogation room. Even the cop gets what is going on with the baiting, but attacks Joker anyway, setting in motion a chain of events leading to the Joker’s eventual escape. If the cop hadn’t let himself lose his cool, the movie would have ended a blessed hour earlier with the Joker in the pokey for good. Yet of course, nobody in the movie seems to learn anything from this.


Anonymous said...

Amen! I love the first one - LOVED it. This one left me cold. Thank you for naming many of the reasons why.

Comrade Kevin said...

Bad art, no matter how earnest the portrayal, is what it is.

PeaceBang said...

This was such a good review I'm going to forgive you for including so many SPOILERS!!! With no warning!

Stephanie said...

Your review reminds me of how I feel about 24.

Chalicechick said...

Much of what I revealed is really REALLY predictable when you're in the movie. There are a few things that could qualify as actual surprises in the movie and I don't talk about those.

That said, I will put a spoiler warning up top.

Steve Caldwell said...

I thought you might enjoy what PZ Myers said about the way that ethical dilemmas were presented in The Dark Knight.:

"As a plot mover, the Joker was less an agent of chaos and more like the TA for a freshman philosophy course, leading everyone through twisty little exercises in artificial circumstances that present the poor student with difficult choices. The answers in the movie were about the level of superficiality I'd expect from naive freshmen: he's not a hero, he's more than a hero, he's a guardian, or something."

Myers does go on to say that it might make freshman philosophy courses much more interesting if the students had to make their arguments in fistfights and pyrotechnics instead of verbally or through papers.


That being said, I do think that Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker was masterful in spite of the script's flaws or the holes in the plot.

I also appreciated the world-weariness of Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon and Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent transformation into Two-Face.

As a cultural phenomenon, this Batman movie has out-sold all previous Batman movies and may break Titanic's record. Apparently, this is tapping into something in our culture.

Why this movie is resonating with our culture is probably the starting point for a sermon.

Anonymous said...

1. the bomb was placed inside the inmate before he entered the prison, not during.

2. the mob boss sought out gordon, he wasn't just 'hanging out.'

3. most of the joker's goons were former asylum inmates. They were lunies to begin with. That being said, I agree with your assesment regarding them being able to pass as cops.

4. If somebody starting picking off prominent public officials, regular people, and blowing up random hospitals chaos and panic would ensue no matter how you slice it.

All in all I can agree that as a comic movie their are absolutely stretches of the imagination in this film. This is not Citizen Kane, BUT compared to the action/comic fare we're normally treated with it's a refreshing film that takes risks. After I watched Iron Man I forgot it almost immediately, this film stayed with me.

Chalicechick said...

1. (((the bomb was placed inside the inmate before he entered the prison, not during.))

Ok, then either the inmate was working for joker or he wasn't.
If he was working for Joker, it seems odd that he would complain so much about his stomach and keep trying to get the police to look at it.

If he wasn't working for Joker, then it seems very strange that Joker could get that thing put inside him against his will AND manipulate things sufficiently to get him arrested.

2. Ok, if you say so.

3. For "loonies" they were very exacting in following Joker's instructions. And I'm not sure they were loonies at all. Gordon mentions at some point that the guys who robbed the bank were small time criminals and we see Joker recruiting guys from the dead mobster.

4. I don't know that the events of this movie would be likely to cause greater panic than 9-11 or the Beltway sniper, and while some people panicked, it didn't create this kind of chaos.


L said...

I didn't like it quite as much as Batman Begins, but I still liked it. That doesn't mean that I don't feel like it was overrated. I feel bad saying this, but I think people gave the movie more credit than it deserved because Heath Ledger died. Just because someone dies doesn't mean their last work is a piece of art.

Your arguments are a lot of the same complaints my husband had about the movie. Personally, I just didn't care that much -- it's all just comic book movie stuff to me.