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.
Thence comes the thesis that a movie about a superhero just can't, on some level, be a great film. I think The Dark Knight has enough specific problems, especially in terms of the quality of the dialogue and some odd plot holes, that one is well-justified in cautioning that audience enthusiasm for this film shouldn't be allowed to go overboard. But I think moving toward a generic point about inherent limits of movies about Batman is pretty off-base. What is Homer writing about if not superheroes?
And at the same time, some of this winds up letting the artists off the hook. If a story's quality has been compromised in order to set up the next edition of the franchise, that's a storyteller compromising his story for money. Inevitable, perhaps, and thus not the most condemnation-worthy thing in the universe but still a real compromise that deserves to be criticized on the merits and not just waved off as an inevitable consequence of superhero-dom.
Meanwhile, not to be too much of a super hero apologist, I should say that over the weekend I went to see Werner Herzog's documentary Encounters at the End of the Earth and at the end of the day Herzog's made a much better film.