Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Dark Knight Fades (Retrospective)

NOTE: The writing and publication of this piece were made possible in part by The MovieBob Patreon.

THE DARK KNIGHT FADES: On the Striking Non-Impact of Christopher Nolan’s Bat-Masterpiece.

By Bob Chipman

What happens when the movie that’s supposed to change everything… doesn’t?

Every filmmaker probably hopes, however secretly, that their movie will change the world; even if the change is limited to one new recognizable box occupying shelf-space on the DVD racks (or iTunes queue, for you fancy Millennial tablet-swipers.) Bigger, more substantial cultural-landmark stature is a rarer achievement; and when it happens it’s seldom predictable. “No one ever sees The Big Ones coming!,” Old Hollywood logic will tell you, gesturing to the yellowing first-run posters for JAWS and LOVE STORY always posted hypothetically nearby.

Except when they do.

Every once in a while the mix of cultural readiness, marketing hype, genuine anticipation and collective societal desire all line up; and you get that rare scenario wherein a movie that wants to change the world debuts to a world that’s already cheering, begging and pleading “I’m ready! Change me!” like pubescent Beatlemaniacs at the Sullivan show. Sometimes it starts out as a minor surprise (think the first LORD OF THE RINGS feature), sometimes we really should have seen it coming (think STAR WARS, a “surprise” to an industry that hadn’t yet realized the Famous Monsters/comic-shop set were champing at the bit to be their new best customers) and oftentimes the movie itself isn’t exactly a classic (think AVATAR… for the first time since 2009) but it happens.

Such was the world that assembled to receive Christopher Nolan’s second Batman-epic, THE DARK KNIGHT, in the hazy summer of 2008. Granted, it was to be expected that the second (in that particular cycle) cinematic outing for what was then still the movie world’s most popular cinematic-superhero would land with a certain amount of welcome: Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS may have only been a sleeper hit four years earlier, but it’s reputation had borne out well on cable and at Blockbuster Video (ask your parents) and – perhaps more importantly – it had inspired absolutely ravenous devotion from the grown-up comic book devotees whose obsessions were the primary fuel of the newly-dominant Internet Film Press.

To the so-called “fanboy” contingent, the Christopher Nolan of 2008 was the new God Auteur of big-budget moviemaking. Through BEGINS he’d claimed their undying loyalty by cleansing the BATMAN-franchise of Joel Schumacher’s mortal sins (primary colors, a sense of humor, an unwillingness to pretend he wasn’t working with cartoon-archetypes created for 7 year-olds and, of course, homoeroticism – in case you’ve forgotten your Bat-Catechism) and returning the 70+ year-old icon to the dark n’ gritty “roots” everyone seems to forget he only acquired as recently as the mid-1980s.

To web-critics and indeed also the older-guard film press, he’d inspired gooey love-struck awe via his potent technical acumen, affection for analyst-flattering labyrinthine story-structure and Film School Approved roster of (obvious) stylistic influences – notably Michael Mann, Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Mann, Stanley Kubrick, Michael Mann and also Michael Mann. Fewer things will inspire fealty among the traditional (or traditionally-inclined) film press than a structure-fixated craftsman who can boil any far-flung scenario down to a cast of well-regarded, overwhelmingly-male character-actors “Just doin’ a job!” in sharp suits and oh-so-serious faces.

“Nolanizing” had even become a movie-culture buzzword, referring mainly to the slew of productions begun in this period that clearly aimed to impose BATMAN BEGINS’ formula for adaptation (strip out anything resembling the fantastic or whimsical, ramp up the business-school machismo, flatline the sexuality, keep things as “grownup” as possible and don’t you dare crack a smile!) onto other intellectual properties. The proof of its efficacy seemed to be in the pudding: 2006’s CASINO ROYALE, which applied BEGINS’ outline to none other than James Bond, was heralded as a franchise-reviving hit – albeit one that proved unable to defeat an animated feature about a tap-dancing penguin for the top of the box-office. Still, the meme had been cast in iron: Nolan as the savior of the blockbuster, his style and methodology as the new key to success and acclaim.

And if Christopher Nolan was a Hollywood Messiah, THE DARK KNIGHT arrived pre-ordained as his Sermon on The Mount: Its trailers, promising enormous action and grim theatricality, had been ubiquitous for at least a year; with mainstream audiences primed for a payoff promised since BEGINS (a new incarnation of the iconic villain The Joker via rising-superstar Heath Ledger) while hardcore fans poured over screencaps and dialogue snippets for early clues: Would Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) become Two-Face? Was Harley Quinn (Joker’s girlfriend) a character? Did the title indicate any thematic ties to The Dark Knight Returns, a landmark comic series by Frank Miller whose shadow had loomed over (and indeed consumed) the Batman character since the mid-80s?

And then Heath Ledger died.

Fandom hosannas and the promise of being at the spearhead of the pop-culture zeitgeist are nice; but for turning a movie into a myth before anyone even gets to see it, nothing beats a Promising Young Artist™ with His Whole Life Ahead Of Him© dying unexpectedly before his preordained starmaking performance. To be clear: Ledger was an unmistakably natural-born movie star, and his Joker indeed demonstrates the flowering of a truly ferocious screen talent – his loss, as with all artists taken before their time, is incalculable. But none of that dispels the fact (quite the opposite, really) that his passing was the Fates’ final flourish in the alchemy that transformed THE DARK KNIGHT into the “event” it ultimately became: This was no longer merely a monument to fanboy wish-dreams and DC Comics licensing deals… this was to be an Egyptian Pyramid – a mountain-sized headstone at the grave of a mourned soul taken too soon.

Which, of course, meant the film (or at least that one performance) was now an Oscar Contender.

I can say from personal experience that, before fandom had realized that it was more fun to own The Culture than The Culture’s trophies, the legitimizing of “our” genres (science-fiction, fantasy, comic-book adaptations) through Academy Awards recognition was a prize never far from the minds of Film Geeks. The three consecutive years the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy spent gobbling up nominations (and technical awards) before culminating in a colossal near-sweep was reported on by the AICNs and CHUDs like an insurgent military campaign – a thumb in the eye to every book snob who ever sneered that this or that 29+ volume worldbuilding exercise about Elven Swordmaidens wasn’t “real literature” - And now it was starting to feel like the next Big Victory, a story about masked vigilantes in capes thwarting gimmick-nicknamed gangsters sitting between the period-pieces and political dramas at the Best Picture table, was within striking distance.

At that point, the movie didn’t even really need to come out – though it did, in July of 2008 to near-universal acclaim from fans and critics alike. Thunderous, shrieking acclaim of the sort that greets a film so hotly anticipated and featuring parts that work so well (Ledger’s now-iconic Joker, Nolan’s fully-realized “Batman, but as a thing that could happen” vision) that you want to actively undermine your own creeping misgivings about the parts that don’t (Christian Bale’s cringe-inducing “scary” Batman voice, a weirdly-structured extra third act, what feels even more so today like an implicit thumbs-up to Cheney Doctrine domestic security policy) lest you begin to think yourself a Bat-heretic.

Even the kinds of iconography-bending or material-flouting that would normally drive the fanboy set into a seething frenzy (The Joker wears makeup instead of bleached skin!? Two-Face dies rather than live on to bedevil Batman in future adventures!?) was, if only for a moment, forgiven: This was a great film. More importantly, this was the one comic-book movie to rule them all. The future of the genre. It’s box-office would blow open the doors for even more adaptations of DC’s ignored-by-Hollywood characters (maybe we’d finally get a great new Superman movie!) with “Nolanizing” as the magic cure-all for anything perceived un-filmable. It would make the critics shut up and take notice. And best of all, it’s stature as a Serious Issues™ crime-thriller that incidentally happened to involve Batman made those vague hopes of Oscar glory seem more real and vibrant than ever.

In fact, the idea that THE DARK KNIGHT “deserved” a place as a 2008 Best Picture contender became such a foregone conclusion that when it ultimately wasn’t among The Chosen (though Ledger’s family would still collect an all-but guaranteed posthumous Supporting Actor statue) it was immediately decided that its absence would be transformative instead! So widespread was the outcry among the press (I myself made a rambling monologue about the outrage of The Snub my video-resume to a potential employer – and got the job), the punditry and the public that it was widely viewed as the deciding factor in The Academy’s subsequent decision to increase the number of Best Picture nominees, a move obviously designed to allow bigger, more popular (with audiences) films to have a shot in the future. THE DARK KNIGHT was now poised not only to re-chart the course of its entire genre, but of the entire industry, all the way up to its yearly awards bonanzas.

And then… it didn’t.

It’s hard to put a finger on when it became fully apparent that THE DARK KNIGHT was a paper tiger as far as movement firebrands go. Maybe it wasn’t truly visible until its own sequel, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, landed as a dreary, convoluted slog a few years later. But it feels apparent now, and increasingly so as each new superhero-blockbuster goes by, that the notion of Nolan’s prestige-format Bat-opus as the transformative moment of the genre was both premature and over-sold. Its expected influence over subsequent comic-adaptations has waned, almost no one involved has moved that much further in their careers and even its own studio appears to be in no small hurry to change directions.

In fact, I’d say that it’s worth positing that, outside of its own individual lasting popularity, THE DARK KNIGHT has had almost NO substantial, lasting impact. Not on film, not on the popular-culture, not on comics and not even on Batman. And that feels close to astonishing considering how sure the entire cinematic world was that it had experienced a GODFATHER-level sea change.

It hasn’t been much of a long-term boon to Christopher Nolan, whose post-TDK auteur-invulnerability lasted for exactly one film (INCEPTION), unable to protect him from a gently-disappointed critical drubbing for RISES and widespread audience-indifference to his ambitious mess of a sci-fi epic, INTERSTELLAR. More problematically, the focus on the minutiae of his aesthetic sensibilities has turned “Nolanizing” into something of a cinephile punchline, with many of the same fandom-obsessives who once poured over his recurring themes and tics like Rosetta Stones of moviemaking now pointedly asking if this filmmaker is trapped in his own box; culminating in a lukewarm reception for the Nolan-overseen would-be successor to the KNIGHT trilogy, MAN OF STEEL that found more than a few pinning the film’s myriad shortcomings on the influence of his grim, joyless sensibilities.

Whether that appraisal is true or not is beside the point: In terms of the pop-hivemind, Nolan’s memetic identity has flipped from “The thinking-man’s action director” to “The guy who sucks the fun out of everything;” a caricature that (fairly or not) fits far too nicely with everything from narrative criticism (Why does nobody in INCEPTION dream about sex? Or fanciful settings? Or anything other than macho heist-movie scenarios?) to aesthetic disagreements (Who decided to wash the color-contrast out of, of all things, a Superman movie?) And sure, while he’s in no danger of not being able to get a project off the ground any time soon, it’s an extraordinary turn to see a filmmaker previously touted as the blockbuster’s new gold-standard become an Internet Comedy punchline for “This movie is dreary and no fun.”

Likewise, leading-man Christian Bale has found himself unable to secure another Batman-scale role. Though he finally picked up his Oscar for an impressive supporting turn in THE FIGHTER, a high-profile attempt to become the new face of the TERMINATOR franchise (an aim which reportedly led to a complete reworking of the storyline for the fourth installment, SALVATION) fizzled at the box-office, as did a turn as Moses in Ridley Scott’s poorly-received EXODUS. And while some critics (not me, by any stretch) embraced his showy turn in David O. Russell’s Oscar-baity Scorsese-a-like AMERICAN HUSTLE, audiences were less enthusiastic. And while Batman is already making his way back to theaters for DAWN OF JUSTICE, it’s a new version played by Ben Affleck in what’s already being touted as a marked departure from Bale’s interpretation.

Its hoped-for effect on the Academy Awards’ perception of genre film, too, never materialized. Though the following year’s Best Picture nominees did notably include Neil Blomkamp’s surprise alien-apartheid crowd-pleaser DISTRICT NINE, it didn’t help any fellow “outsider genre” offerings crack the victory ceiling: Despite dominating the cinematic landscape of the last decade and change, comic-book superheroes are an almost entirely-absent presence come Oscar time. Instead, a certain number of nominees each year became the butt of jokes as the recognizably-extraneous contenders among the Awards-blogger set, and The Academy began walking back the parameters of the arrangement as of last year; effectively making Oscar one more industry institution THE DARK KNIGHT ultimately failed to upend.

But, of course, nothing speaks to how profoundly wrong film culture’s educated guesses at the lasting influence of THE DARK KNIGHT really were than the subsequent fate of the comic-book superhero genre. This, above all else, is what Nolan’s work was supposed to form the new foundation of; a genre purged of both the “toyetic” technicolor nonsense of the earlier BATMAN features and the haphazard studio-handling that seemed to produce two X-MEN 3s or FANTASTIC FOURs for every one SPIDER-MAN. TDK was supposed to represent the future course of the entire genre: Characters stripped of their more film-unfriendly fanciful quirks, stories framed as “deconstructions” of the medium, aesthetic-sensibilities belonging more to the mainstream action genre and an almost defiant seriousness of purpose.

But the promised imitators never really materialized - except, once again, for the James Bond franchise, which paused its ongoing meta-story about a evil secret brotherhood to let Bond battle a Joker-like disfigured “funny” villain with a similarly Joker-like ironic-anarchy scheme in SKYFALL. Meanwhile, the lone film to be openly positioned as a DARK KNIGHT spiritual-progeny (read: another “deconstructed” superhero refigured for a dark, gritty modernization), MAN OF STEEL, found its dreary tone savaged by critics and fans alike.

The greatest irony, of course, is that the impact THE DARK KNIGHT was supposed to make wound up being made by another 2008 superhero feature. Marvel’s IRON MAN debuted to big money and solid reviews months before the Batman film bowed, but apart from devout fans crowing about a post-credits teaser floating the idea of other heroes lingering on Tony Stark’s margins and something called “The Avengers,” it (like the rest of the genre) was seen as being permanently consigned to Nolan’s bat-shadow. And in this case, the contrast couldn’t have been clearer: IRON MAN was a mid-budget (by today’s standards, anyway) romp whose plot-machinations were secondary to a quip-filled leading man turn by Robert Downey Jr. and an aesthetic determination toward faithfully translating the more colorful and fantastical side of the comics medium to screen. Fun, sure, but only just that – a trifle, compared to TDK’s quest to elevate “mere” comics into something Important™ and Meaningful© (as determined by the cadres of largely aging, humorless white men who hand out movie awards.)

And yet, that “trifle” has proved to have an impact and an influence that KNIGHT could (and did) only dream of: The Marvel Cinematic Universe that spun out of it has changed the blockbuster landscape like nothing since the debut of STAR WARS, establishing a new template for success that not only every other superhero series but every other big-budget moviemaking apparatus period is now chasing. Back in ’08 it was assumed that every cinematic hero (super or not) would find themselves “Nolanized” for success, but instead everyone from Robin Hood to King Arthur to the Universal Monsters are being set up for their chance to be franchised, crossed-over and eventually (hopefully) AVENGE’D.

So a movie that was supposed to change everything ultimately changed very little. Not in its genre, not for its medium, not even for its lead character; who’s already found himself recast as part of a planned decade-length interlocking multi-film narrative that will dwarf its predecessor by design. What everyone assumed would be a centerpiece is now more of an outlier - so what now becomes of it?

A better question might be why anything needs to become of it. Outliers are, after all, just as much landmarks as centerpieces. What fandom’s obsession with what THE DARK KNIGHT was meant to do on behalf of its tertiary elements long-term managed to obscure was that it remains a fairly excellent piece of work as is – even (perhaps more so) when removed from the broader superhero movie phenomenon, the Batman legacy and even its own prequel and sequel. Maybe it will take a while for the moviegoing world to take note of that again, as TDK continues its rotation in Saturday afternoon cable programming while the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes slug it out at the multiplex for the next who-knows-how-long – pushed too early to the background because of everyone else’s expectations… punished by pop-culture for being “only” a good movie.

NOTE: The following piece was written for outside publication but didn't quite find a home. Posting here now, in the interest of not over-dating it any further. Are you a publisher/site-owner who'd like to see work like this on your outlet? Contact the author at BobChipman82@gmail.com Want to see more material like this published here? There's a MovieBob Patreon for that. Thank you.