Batman Begins is roughly my favourite superhero flick. Drawing on a couple of the best Batman stories (Frank Miller’s classic “Batman Year One” and “The Long Halloween” by Jeph Loeb) and ripped to the gills with cracking performances, it gave us a meatier, more grounded, more convincing Batman than we’d ever previously encountered in the cinema, with all due respect to Adam West. Plus it had the Tumbler, which stupid backstory aside (for jumping over RIVERS? Really?) is one of the all-time coolest movie vehicles of all time.
Now there is another one. Of it. Which is even bigger, even grander and adds an absolutely spellbinding villain in Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker. By all rights, The Dark Knight should be one of the greatest films ever ever ever.
So why isn’t it?
When The Dark Knight is good, it’s very very good – see the Joker vs. the Gotham Police Department, the meeting between the Joker and Harvey Dent, the Joker’s origin, the Prisoner’s Dilemma set-piece on the two ferries that involves exactly none of the protagonists but provides the most tense and dramatic scene of the whole film and that the normally-infallible Mark Kermode wrongly believes should have been cut out – but it’s not good anything like often enough. You may have noticed that The Joker is something of a recurring theme in the list of “good bits”. You’d be right. Much as Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent was perfectly watchable, the Joker is the money and there are stretches of The Dark Knight that feel weirdly like we’re marking time waiting for him to show up again. The narrative is just too rambling and unfocussed, something that having two villains elbowing each other out of the way for screen-time didn’t help. By the end I felt somewhat bizarrely like I could have done with about 20 minutes more Joker but about 30 minutes less actual film.
Also, call me Mister Shallow but I had a hard time getting over Batman’s new Gruff-O-Voice, which kept making me a) think of Blackadder doing an impersonation of the Big Deep Booming Voice of his decapitated former prisoner, and b) expect Batman to say “Hi, I’m Duane Benzie”. Plus, I don’t know if there’s been a costume redesign since Begins, but there was something about the cowl that made Christian Bale’s face look offputtingly squashed and weird, like a baby having its cheeks pinched by an overly-affectionate auntie. These are things that probably wouldn’t have made an impression if the film as a whole had been gripping enough, but it just wasn’t.
Don’t get me started on Batman’s magic radar, or that after making a point of showing him unloading and throwing away every gun he takes off every thug he thumps, he’s then shown swerving through traffic / a crowded shopping mall at umpty-thrumpty million miles an hour on his profoundly silly Bat-Bike er… firing twin machine guns. Or the tragic underuse of the always-excellent Maggie Gyllenhaal – yet another example of how women in action movies are no good for anything other than being rescued or being lusted after, usually both at once.
It’s not all bad. The large cast put in pretty universally good-to-very-good performances, there are a number of spectacular set-pieces and it’s refreshing to see a mainstream blockbuster that has the ambition to try and be more than just Things Exploding. At the end of the day, The Dark Knight really isn’t a bad film. It’s just a massively disappointing one.