When the smoke clears, The Dark Knight should emerge as just another comic-book movie, the fourth of the summer (Hancock wasn’t based on a comic book too, was it?), avowedly “darker” than the others, certainly the only one to think of putting the darkness right up in the title — a synonym, that, for “the bat man,” as he is frequently and unfamiliarly referred to, or simply Batman to you and me. History, however, will likely show what current events are now showing, that darkness is the fashionable shade for comic-book movies (and comic-bookish movies) in our time. It will likely show further that the comic book is the fashionable literary model for the movies of our time. For those reasons the second installment in Christopher Nolan’s restyling of the DC Comics superhero earns no points as a trailblazer. It would earn none even were it the first installment. That said, we must acknowledge that this trend-follower sets itself apart as an exceedingly oppressive, grinding, grueling, torturous experience. (The relentless, rumbling, theater-rattling background music alone could be a health hazard to anyone with mild depressive tendencies.) It requires the stock figure of the Joker — banish all memories of Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 edition, “dark” though it was itself, as well as Cesar Romero in the glaringly light TV series from the late Sixties — to carry the banner and the burden of the post-9/11 terrorist, targeting the pillars of the community and closing all doors to negotiation, taking hostages and videotaping their torture and murder, tempting the Caped Crusader to stoop to the same level and indeed getting him to employ his own torture tactics (short of waterboarding) in the police interrogation room, forcing him thus to go over to the Dark Side and ultimately to accept the bum rap of a fugitive from justice. (Ostensibly the hero accepts this rap to protect the reputation of the handsome straight-arrow D.A. who halfway morphs into the Crypt-Keeper of another comic-book series. But it’s not altogether apparent why any and all misdeeds can’t readily be appended to the Joker’s rap sheet.) “Some men,” Batman’s manservant succinctly sums up the emblematic evildoer, “just want to watch the world burn.” Men, that would be, like Osama, Saddam, the Joker.
Asking the movie to carry so much weight (and so much length: nearly two and a half hours) is asking an awful lot of a movie revolving around a martial-artsy crime-fighter in a bulletproof rubber Batsuit, driving a gadget-laden Batmobile with an ejectable Batcycle (wheels the width of a tractor’s), and risibly speaking in an electronically deepened voice whenever in costume, though not when in the well-tailored suits of his philanthropic public persona, Bruce Wayne. Christian Bale, an ostentatiously tormented actor, disappears into the Batman persona almost as completely as Edward Norton disappeared into the computer-animated Hulk, maybe a smidge more completely than Robert Downey, Jr., disappeared into the armored Iron Man. It would be nice, meanwhile, to report that the swan song of the late Heath Ledger was a tribute to him as fitting as his jeans in Brokeback Mountain. Surely such a tribute needn’t have been terribly grandiose to fit a Hollywood career that spanned less than a decade. Even so, his characterization of the Joker seems too grotesque to serve as a tribute to anything much but his grandstanding. To strive to invest some psychological realism and topical relevance into this figure — the parched and cracked face paint, the raccoonish circles around the eyes, the greasy stringy hair, the obscenely writhing tongue, the adenoidal voice pitched somewhere between Al Franken and Bugs Bunny — is not only a losing battle but a foolish one. However high Nolan might pile on the gravity, however long he might stretch out the agony, the comic-book iconography inevitably simplifies and trivializes the moral debate: Can you fight fair when you fight terrorism? Somehow bat ears and clown makeup ill become a crisis of conscience. The truth is that Nolan’s lack of faith in the superhero of olden days — the White Knight — goes hand in glove with a larger lack of faith in the fairy-tale form. He can’t trust it to convey its import (in spite of all the scholarly efforts of Bruno Bettelheim, Joseph Campbell, et al.) without an additive of grand-operatic bombast. His reformer’s zeal amounts to just another aspect of his pretentiousness. That, all the same, does not divest him of a childish delight in splashy spectacle, even if it’s the spectacle of terrorism. Even if, to say it another way, it’s the spectacle of hypocrisy. And nor is this pretentiousness any help to him in staging coherent action scenes in which you can tell who’s where and what’s when. Evidently nothing needs to make sense as long as it makes an impression. And to make an impression it only needs to lug weight.
Mamma Mia!, the Catherine Johnson stage musical brought to the screen under its stage director, Phyllida Lloyd, is a romantic-comic bauble about a scheduled wedding on a Greek island, to which the bride-to-be, unknown to her mother, has invited the three men who are sole candidates, according to her mother’s uncovered diary, to be her biological father. (All three prove to be remarkably uncurious and acquiescent guys.) But that’s a mere pretext for the players at short intervals to warble tunes from the ABBA songbook. Among the things that might be said about the movie are (a) that the trailer, apparently hoping to ensnare the unwary, does its damnedest to hide the fact that the movie is a musical; (b) that ABBA, infectious though they can be, are not exactly the Beatles, as witness the latter’s similar use in Across the Universe last year; (c) that another and better wedding movie, Muriel’s Wedding, had already successfully plundered the ABBA songbook, without asking its cast to do the singing; (d) that this cast for the most part are not singers (Pierce Brosnan in full throat looks as if his head’s about to explode), although no apologies need be made for Meryl Streep, who, besides her lusty belting, supplements her usual emotion-plumbing with some peppy physicality; (e) that the natural settings, clearly, brightly, sunnily photographed, somewhat temper the inherent campiness; and (f) that this tempering, in a work of such fragile artifice, is not necessarily a good thing.
To get down to a couple of specifics, the “Super Trouper” number on the eve of the wedding is a definite high point, and despite the shortage of competition for high points, the closing credits are well worth hanging on for, providing two higher points in the form of encores — twin peaks, if you please — with Streep and her bosom buddies (the blissfully confident Christine Baranski and the indomitably plucky Julie Walters) stepping off the Greek island and onto a secluded concert stage, in disco-era Vegas costumes. I can’t predict how well this will play to a matinee crowd of eight or nine customers in the third week of release, but I had a hearty laugh when Streep, generating her own electricity between encores, calls out to an imaginary audience, “Do you want another one?” Whether you answer or not, you get another one.
Step Brothers [sic] is a mainstream comedy, at the broadest point in the stream, about a pair of developmentally arrested forty-year-olds (mental age in the seven-to-fourteen range), still living at home with their respective single mom and single dad, then living together after the parents meet and marry, living first at loggerheads and later in boisterous accord. One of the big babies is predictably, perhaps inevitably, Will Ferrell, under a plush-pile rug. The other one, thinner on top, is John C. Reilly, lowering himself from The Promotion to earn a presumably fat paycheck, a sobering sight. (Richard Jenkins as his father stands in a similar relation to The Visitor.) Everything is pushed to extremes with the intent of making it extra, extra funny, and with the result of making it not at all funny. It is to co-producer Judd Apatow rather than director Adam McKay that we are prone to ascribe the prosthetic testicles; and it’s between the scriptwriting team of Ferrell and McKay that we are obliged to split credit for lines like “I want to roll you into a little ball and shove you up my vagina” and “I feel like a lightning bolt hit the tip of my penis.” In holding back from such extremes, The Promotion of course stigmatized itself as an “art film,” to be segregated on the specialty circuit.