August 18, 2008

Makes you stranger

I’m not sure which superhero movie finally killed off any lingering interest in the genre for me – the first Hulk, the third Spider-man, who can keep count? So I resisted The Dark Knight for a while, figuring it’s a movie better to read about than see. But I gave in. And while it goes on too long and it’s confusingly plotted in parts, I'd agree that it’s the high-water mark of a superhero genre that goes back 30 years to Richard Donner’s Superman. And it’s largely because of the way that Christopher Nolan, his brother Jonathan, who co-wrote it, and co-star Heath Ledger perceive the Joker. One of the persistent problems of these movies has been the need to cram in origin stories as a corny form of motivation: how that accident made this villain. None of that with the Joker. He’s simply an agent of chaos, with no real name, no back story, no fingerprint or DNA matches, no particular beef with society, no wish for revenge; he mocks motivation or back story every time he invents a new "how I got my scars" story. He is the mask, or the surface; he’s paper-thin and there’s no interior to him – and that’s why he’s a match for Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman. Since his homicidal mannequin Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Bale has specialised in these men who are only their faces, only what they show the world, who have no discernible inner life. When trauma happens to a Bale character – as in The Machinist and Rescue Dawn – it happens to his body, not to anything inside him. And despite there being crazies on the loose all over, his Batman is easily the craziest thing in this film – he’s an apparition, a phantom, constantly materialising and dematerialising at the edge of your vision. “That which does not kill you makes you stranger,” says the Joker early on, a mangled quote that could easily double as Batman’s personal slogan, and also Patrick Bateman's. So the real reason this is the best superhero movie in 30 years? It's both the most serious and the least in thrall to its hero. In other words, there are times when you suspect that the Nolan brothers are ashamed of who or what their story is officially about.