The Limits of Batman

A.O. Scott, on the box-office juggernaut:

I don't want to start any fights with devout fans or besotted critics. I'm willing to grant that "The Dark Knight" is as good as a movie of its kind can be. But that may be damning with faint praise. There is no doubt that Batman, a staple of American popular culture for nearly 70 years, provided Mr. Nolan (and his brother and screenwriting partner Jonathan), with a platform for his artistic ambitions. You can't set out to make a psychological thriller, or even an urban crime melodrama, and expect to command anything like the $185 million budget Mr. Nolan had at his disposal in "The Dark Knight." And that money, in addition to paying for some dazzling set pieces and action sequences, allowed Mr. Nolan and his team to create a seamless and evocative visual atmosphere, a Gotham nightscape often experienced from the air.

But to paraphrase something the Joker says to Batman, "The Dark Knight" has rules, and they are the conventions that no movie of this kind can escape. The climax must be a fight with the villain, during which the symbiosis of good guy and bad guy, implicit throughout, must be articulated. The end must point forward to a sequel, and an aura of moral consequence must be sustained even as the killings, explosions and chases multiply. The allegorical stakes in a superhero are raised -- it's not just good guys fighting bad guys, but Righteousness against Evil, Order against Chaos -- precisely to authorize a more intense level of violence. Of course every movie genre is governed by conventions, and every decent genre movie explores the zones of freedom within those iron parameters ... "The Dark Knight" has some advantages from being the second movie in a series, with less need for exposition and basic character development, and its final act is less of a letdown.

Instead the disappointment comes from the way the picture spells out lofty, serious themes and then ... spells them out again. What kind of hero do we need? Where is the line between justice and vengeance? How much autonomy should we sacrifice in the name of security? Is the taking of innocent life ever justified? These are all fascinating, even urgent questions, but stating them, as nearly every character in "The Dark Knight" does, sooner of later, is not the same as exploring them.

I say something very similar in my own review, forthcoming in the next NR, which takes the possibly daft point of view that over the long haul, Tim Burton's interpretation of the Batman saga - especially Batman Returns - will hold up somewhat better than Nolan's mega-grossing effort. (And the box-office numbers are stunning: Watch your back, Titanic.) This is not to say that The Dark Knight isn't a remarkable achievement in certain ways. But I think you can feel the strain as Nolan labors, sometimes successfully but more often not,  to transcend the genre he's working in, whereas Burton was content to have fun within the lines, making the most of his material's essential two-dimensionality rather than struggling against it. His Batman movies don't kinda-sorta want to be The Godfather; they just want to be Batman movies. And I think they're slightly better for it.