I have a contradictory confession to make, however. A few weeks ago, I watched “The Dark Knight” for a second time, at home rather than in the theater, and reluctantly came to the conclusion that it’s not quite as good a movie as I thought it was.
In the months leading up to its summer release last year, I’d heard that it was being compared to a kind “Godfather” for the super-hero genre: an ambitious, complex exploration of the visceral ideas that underpin a popular genre normally accustomed to only superficial treatment. Of all the super-heroes who have entered our collective consciousness, I’ve long thought that Batman was the most rife with potential, and I was ecstatic to see Nolan treat the character so thoughtfully. After that second viewing though, I think those early comparison’s to Francis Ford Coppola’s towering mobster epics were too generous, and that they set my own expectations too high.
It’s absolutely true that “The Dark Knight” was forged from greater amounts of raw ambition, verve and intelligence than any other movie of its kind. But it also lacks the subtlety and naturalism that was integral to making “The Godfather” so much more than a cheap gangster movie, that gave its pulp landscape a texture that was recognizably human and intricate.
“The Dark Knight,” in contrast, seems like a clearinghouse for big ideas, some executed with greater vigor and follow-through than others. Perhaps because director Christopher Nolan had the temerity to paint as big a canvas as he possibly could, the movie he completed is as flawed as it is impressive. It alternates between overwhelming the audience with auteuristic skill and dragging the audience through loudly explicated concepts. Its plot is frequently schematic and unconvincing, its sense of narrative time and physical space is disingenuously flexible, and its dialogue too often amounts to little more than bombastic posturing.
All Hat, No Cattle
There’s an obvious irony here: I’m faulting the Academy for failing to honor a movie that I regard lukewarmly. But I’m not sure it’s necessary for me to believe a movie is unblemished in order to also believe it worthy of an Academy Award nomination. Rather, my frustration stems from my belief — or perhaps my prejudicial assumption — that the Academy rebuffed Nolan less on the merits of his movie than as a result of its less-than-serious genre. The Academy tends to reward movies that burnish its own reputation as a lens on serious art; Nolan’s film, after all, is a super-hero movie
Yet “The Dark Knight,” despite its many flaws, is as good a super-hero movie as we’ve ever seen. It represents a maturation of a genre that is becoming increasingly important to the public imagination. And yet it seems as unlikely as ever to me that we’ll ever see a movie like this — a movie in which a man runs around in a ridiculous costume fighting bad guys — receive an Oscar for best picture. That may sound absurd, but there’s a telling parable in the Academy’s historical treatment of another formerly ill-regarded genre: Westerns. For decades, the Western dominated the popular psyche and drove tremendous business for Hollywood, but was often disregarded as serious art. Today it’s considered a legitimate form of cinematic storytelling, having produced countless classic and important films. But if you look back over the history of the best picture Oscar, you’ll be hard pressed to find a winner in there in which a man rides around in a ridiculous hat fighting bad guys.