Wednesday, July 23, 2008

"Why... so... serious?" The Dark Knight - spoiler free review

“At what cost?”

That’s one of the most important lines spoken by one of the characters during a pivotal scene in Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins.

At what cost.

The Dark Knight is not an easy film. It is, by all means, an extremely enjoyable and spectacular one, but it will work you for its brilliance. Because of that one line. Following from its predecessor, this sequel takes the theme of fear that was so dominant in Begins and twists it into something far more terrifying. What can you do against a person who has no fear? Has no boundaries? No sense of personal danger? The introduction of the Joker into Nolan’s Bat-verse is the perfect foil as the purple garbed villain enters Gotham city’s streets and turns everything upside down and inside out, with only one desire – to show that beneath everyone, no matter how noble, lays a monster. And in doing that he stretches Batman’s moral compass, made all the more difficult with the arrival of Ace Attorney (ahem) Harvey Dent, who’s the shining new beacon of hope for a Gotham creeping under the influence of crime and corruption in both its civilian society and the law.

The film expertly plays off these elements, muddying its waters with complex ambiguity at every turn, leaving no character safe in its pursuit of what is ‘just’ and ‘right’; amorphous concepts that constantly come under the script’s microscope. People ask if Batman has harmed the city more than helped it, through the rise of vigilantism and people like the Joker. Or if Dent’s dogged persistence and belief in the judicial system is realistic when over half the police force is involved in crime itself.

And each time the main characters ask themselves if doing what is right worth their convictions, the answers refuse to come easily, made harder through the reflection each one sees in the other – Batman believes in going outside the law to get things done, Bruce Wayne is less certain, especially in seeing the courage of Dent, who himself has shades of Batman’s lawlessness within him. Rachel Dawes, the one who they both hold their affections for, falls between those gaps, while the Joker shines an unpleasant light on all of them to expose the hypocrisy and contradictions in their lives. The film doesn’t try to answer all the questions it poses – that would defeat the point of them, in some ways – but it does leave you pondering, never letting you settle too comfortably in jumping off the fence before exploding in an incredible action sequence or an emotionally charged or deeply unsettling scene. Naturally, it’s the latter of those that the late Heath Ledger’s Joker really stands out.

A lot has been said about Ledger’s performance, given it was his last full one before the unfortunate events that took his life. Posthumous Oscar material or not, there’s no denying that his Joker is simply amazing. To say he disappears into the role would be an understatement – there’s no trace of Ledger in the character he plays on-screen. He IS the Joker. Each appearance is marked by such a feeling of charisma and dread that you’re transfixed. Not to say the other cast members suffer from this – all are well played, Aaron Eckhart’s Dent especially, who provides the core of the story and so had to be good – it’s just that the Joke- erm, I mean, Ledger, commands his scenes with such force it’s hard not to feel in awe.

While Jack Nicholson may have claimed fans everywhere in his turn during the Tim Burton 90s Batman movie, Ledger’s iteration makes even Nicholson’s cower in despair. There’s mirth to him, true, but it’s layered with a calculatingly sinister streak that’s frightening to watch, yet impossible to turn away from. And while Nicholson’s Joker is fantastic, the 2008 edition has you gripped at every turn because when he’s around horrible, horrible things happen, regardless of whether you’re convinced a character is safe or not. Hell, when you see how the Joker introduces himself with his magic trick, you’ll never turn back.

Is The Dark Knight a masterpiece? At this stage it’s hard to honestly say. Not without a few more (very eager) viewings and the test of time. It won’t change your life, nor is it perfect – some very, very minor moments in the script undermine its tone and on a couple occasions the editing is a little haphazard… but it’s really nitpicking to ever suggest these actually harm the film. It’s certainly the best movie I’ve seen all year and without a doubt the best comic book adaptation created. Which is high praise coming off the incredible likes of A History of Violence, Iron Man, Spider-Man 2, X2, Road to Perdition, Sin City, Batman Begins and a host of other greats. At the moment, after a breathless exit from the cinema and a few hours of contemplation, they don’t even come close.

Some have suggested this is because Nolan’s film is a very strong crime thriller wrapped in the spandex of superhero form. That effectively Batman, Joker and crew have stumbled into a noir classic by accident. I disagree. Remove these characters and replace them with a stock crime movie cast and part of what makes The Dark Knight so special goes missing. Nolan has gone through great pains to show the characters’ evolution from Begins, making their choices a natural progression from the first film, but also underlining their core traits that have made them so popular in the first place. The moral dilemmas on show work in tandem with the costumes and gadgets and high octane action sequences, given a modicum of suspension of disbelief because it’s Batman. We’re just so sapped into the tale that we forget. Yes, it’s a crime story, but it’s also a Batman story – and you remove one from the narrative, the whole wouldn’t be nearly as strong. Everything here is given purpose and reason, making it one of the most tightly plotted films in recent mainstream cinema – and the Batman mythos and its well known concept is an important part of the whole instrument. Saying The Dark Knight works without it is a bit like saying a guitar will still ‘work’ if you cut a couple of its strings. You’d be right, but it kinda misses the point.

Chances are The Dark Knight, as sterling as it is, will leave you exiting the cinema a bit conflicted. Exhausted. Maybe even a little dirty as it thoroughly bathes you in murky moral greys that refuse to wash white come the film’s heavy climax. This is not a leisurely experience. It will ask questions of your morality and challenge you… and for some it may be too much. Too close to the knuckle. Too punishing. Too harsh.

Too dark.

And there, in that moment, comes the answer.

At what cost?

That, is the price of masterful cinema.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Moving you in just four colours

I feel sick.

For anyone who knows me, this isn’t a rare thing. My body turns against me with frightening regularity that usually means I tend to feel sick every so often (it’s a gas thing, and by that I’m not using a colloquialism for it being funny).

But in this case, the sensation of my stomach lurching and my head feeling this immense pressure is because, well…

…okay, let me line up the shot from a different angle.

Whenever I tell people I read and write comics, there’s often one of several responses I get. More often than not, I get a raised eyebrow of slightly concerned curiosity. A nearly-30 year old man, reading comics and writing/about them. Hmm. Even if the other person has briefly read comics in the past, there’s an element of scepticism that’s difficult to ignore. Mainly because it’s slapping you in the face with its obviousness. This is usually followed by questions over what I read and sometimes, how much I typically spend a month, at which when I divulge my ‘addiction’s monetary costs, the sense of concerned curiosity gets a sprinkling of outrage and scoffed ridicule.

So if what I’m going to tell you seems weird, well… I expect it. But allow me a moment to explain.

It was the most recent edition of The Walking Dead – a comic – that has made me feel sick.

Hardly the most glowing way to recommend the medium to you, I’m sure. But I refer to the above caveat about moments and letting me use them to explain as to why this is.

The Walking Dead is a series about the world overrun by zombies. The premise, on its surface, is a typical one – unknown plague/virus/McDonalds has changed people into raving flesh eating mutants and humanity is left to struggle with this by becoming surviors, and as a result we discover that it’s Not the Zombies Who are the Real Monsters, but Humanity Itself. You know, standard horror fiction theme.


The Walking Dead goes beyond that. Way beyond.

Most zombie movies will take you on a journey which emphasises this theme through the changeable brutality of human nature. How people react under immense pressure, devolving to Cro-Magnon ferocity and savagery, turning on each other just to try and survive, something which is mirrored ironically by the zombies, who are, for all their brain chomping nastiness, an expression of human hunger and desire without moral conscience, and thus creatures of purity, untainted by the horrors that we expose ourselves to in trying to find food, keep our loved ones safe and live at the expense of everything else.

However, these films are finite. The longest zombie movie lasts around 2 hours. There’s yet to be a long running TV series about zombies (as far as I know). The Walking Dead has no limitations. Yes, it’ll eventually come to an end, but its current verve and medium allows it to go further than any other work out there as a piece of zombie-driven horror fiction.

To be frank, it’s horrible.

But in the best way possible.

Writer Robert Kirkman has created a universe where no one is safe. Where main characters get maimed, mutilated and killed in the most terrible of ways. Where even the most unspeakable of horrors is carried out on page.

It’s terrifying. It’s shocking. At times, nauseating.

And it’s grippingly brilliant.

This uncompromising zombie tale is meticulously written and drawn (artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard do a stupendous job) with a very easy to follow narrative that envelops you into a world of hope and grime and chokes you on its depravities. It is totally captivating. It feels real. Characters are introduced and fleshed out, each with their relatable traits, and just when you start to get comfortable with them, the sledgehammer of their reality hits and things take a terrible turn. And it’s all within the realm of realism – you could easily see people acting the way they do reflected here because, well, it happens in our world. Just under different circumstances.

The events that occur in The Walking Dead, in particular the most recent trade volume, (Volume 8 “Made to Suffer”) affected me more than any other piece of fiction has in a long time. I’m not going to spoil it, as that would miss the point and me describing them to you wouldn’t have the power as they would you experiencing them, but for the first in a long time, I had to stop reading half way through because it was just all too much. Too intense. Too painful. Here was a book, in a medium which sometimes has me deemed as a some deviant man-child, that had actually left me shaken to the core at what was happening to its characters. And by the end of it, my throat had tightened and stomach felt like it had been repeatedly pounded by a giant sledgehammer.

Hence the sickness.

The sense of relief in finishing that chapter soon became replaced by an urge to find out what happens next, as with all good fiction, but also knowing that this powerful effect The Walking Dead had – not for the first time – was something that will likely stay with me for a long, long time.

To have that same effect, The Walking Dead couldn’t be done in any other form. Film is limited by time and space, and while TV avoids such problems, there’s no TV broadcast company that would be brave enough to allow the sort of stuff that happens in The Walking Dead. It’s too raw and untamed, not to mention the fact there are things depicted here that would be difficult to reproduce on a TV budget to the same level of effectiveness. In a similar vein, a book would lack the dual layer of simultaneous narrative comics are unique with, showing you a picture that freezes a moment while the words lace them with separate, yet combined meaning, playing with time. A comic panel is designed to be looked over as long as the reader allows, without that break in narrative becoming unnatural, meaning the horror of certain things becomes prolonged and fixated, while your imagination moves them in a very personal way between panels. It’s a depth easily taken for granted.

As said by people much smarter than me, comics are the last 'underground/guerrilla' medium out there. They can express anything they want with limited budget and limitless imagination, sometimes with just a team of one person pulling the strings and creating something that visually pushes narrative boundaries without fear of executive decisions and a million other financial fingers getting in the way as often does with TV and film. Again, this is something easily taken for granted.

Comics are generally more accepted than they’ve ever been, but having something that can affect you on that level, the way The Walking Dead affected me and countless others (read the reaction to the series online and you’ll find a plethora of critical acclaim), will probably come as a surprise to those who still think it’s a puerile medium. It’s an attitude that will be sternly tested in mainstream eyes through the cinema screening of The Dark Knight as well, which is being heralded by some quarters as a crime film epic that just so happens to have Batman in it. People are generally walking away from this movie, shaken, disturbed and full of praise for its powerful and intense story. Quite an achievement given its protagonist is a man who dressed up in a rubber bat-suit.

Comics can move you like any other medium – it’s just finding the right story that pushes you. And there’s plenty out there if you’re willing to look for it. From the political, journalism sci-fi edge of Transmetropolitan, to the fantasy and multi-cultural epic of Sandman. From the socipolitical gender commentary of Y: The Last Man, to the hardboiled crime thriller of Criminal. From the revolutionary historical samurai saga of Lone Wolf and Cub, to the equally influential and all encompassing Watchmen. Heck, even if you like to see where you favourite fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters ended up, there’s the fantastic Fables to try out.

And if you’re after the best horror movie that will never be made, something that will genuinely shock you, you could do far worse than The Walking Dead - just don’t blame me if it truly and quite literally moves you.

But then, isn’t that what we all want our fiction to do?