Retrospective: Why Classic Films Ain’t What They Used to Be…

With Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (a title that, in case you didn’t already know that Justice League was a thing, completely spoils the end of the film) coming out soon, it reminded me that The Dark Knight came out 8 years ago. Doesn’t feel like it does it? Despite all the end of high school exams I should have been revising for at the time, the hype surrounding that movie is one of the few things I remember about 2008. And for the most part, the film seemed to live up to that hype didn’t it? In fact, I’d have to say that The Dark Knight is probably my favourite comic book movie… well, after The Crow that is….

…And Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, Road to Perdition, X-Men 2, Akira, Old Boy, Ghost World, Dredd, A History of Violence, Ghost in the Shell, Watchmen, Kick Ass

Well, it certainly is my favourite Batman movie…

…Oh wait. No. There’s still Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. And then Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. And then Batman and Robin… which I just love.

Let’s get one thing straight, I absolutely DO like the movie. But let’s be honest here, the critical appraisal of the movie when was (and still is) absolutely insane. But why not though, right? I mean, it was a pretty game changing film at the time. Some say it cemented comic book movies as a medium to be taken as seriously as any Oscar contender. The film still holds the number 4 spot in the IMDB top 250, bested only by The Shawshank Redemption and first two Godfather films. A friend of mine who took a year in Film studies, once told me that not one class could be had throughout the entire academic year without The Dark Knight being mentioned at least once. I mean, I have met some people who don’t like the film, but these people also tend to throw around criticisms about them being “pretentious” or complain about “Nolan-fanboys” or other trivial stuff.

What do I think of the film? Well, I’d say that The Dark Knight is a film without a dull moment, great pacing, great cinematography, intelligent and appropriate use of themeing and Heath Ledger’s terrific performance really elevates the thing to a whole new level. It is a great accomplishment and, technically, a masterpiece.

Emphasis on technically.

So what movie do I think is a genuine master-piece then? Gremlins baby! My favourite film ever. I must have watched Gremlins movie about… 20 times maybe, even despite it’s weird, at odds with itself tone and structural inconsistencies (my absolute favourite scene in the film goes on for about 5 minutes and doesn’t advance the plot. Even. One. Bit). Okay… perhaps Gremlins is not a good example to compare to TDK. How about another dark comic book movie then? How about The Crow? Talk about style over substance, right? And I mean, the main character is immortal. You know he’s not going to die, so where’s the tension? The thing is though, I’ve watched The Crow about 15 times and could happily sit through it another 15. This is because it’s got something, it’s got style, it’s got a panache that just can’t be pinned down with any kind of name. If I had to use a word, I’d say: organic. It’s an organic work of art.

Now, when I first watched it back in 2008, I was sure that TDK was one of the best films I’d ever seen in a theatre. Certain, in fact. However, half-way through my third viewing of it many years later, I could feel myself thinking “Y’know what? Maybe life’s too short to watch this movie again.”

Why? I’m sure that someone could make a rational argument about how TDK has better cinematography, better music, better pacing, better everything than any of the movies I love. Why isn’t TDK as memorable to me? Well, primarily because you can’t force me to find a film memorable.

Imagine, if you will, that it’s 8 years ago. You’re Warner Bros, and you’re looking to reboot your Batman franchise. You want it to be as different as possible from that last fucking movie you accidentally green-lit and lost a load of money on. Remember? The one with the dancing gorilla in it? You shudder. Yeah, better not let that happen again, right? So you check your emails and, hello, you’ve got this guy who is critically acclaimed for directing smarty-pants, high concept thrillers. Yeah. Him. He’ll do. So you go to his front door, ring the bell and run away, leaving the proverbial Bat-baby at his doorstep.

Now, this Chris Nolan guy is actually pretty darn good at making films. The thing about the way he works is, that main star of his films, above any of the actors, is always the concept. The plot. The log line. His films are VERY high concept. Check out these summaries of his most famous films:

A man with amnesia tries to solve his wife’s murder. The viewer experiences the film backwards so, like him, we don’t know what has just happened.

Two magicians are locked in a game of revenge. The winding, cat and mouse plot reveals itself in the same way as a magic trick.

With the help of some futuristic technology, thieves can infiltrate people’s dreams and steal their ideas. The film follows a group of said thieves who go to plant an idea in someone’s head instead.

Those are some great log-lines. You could probably sell an entire film based on those concepts. The characters and the exact plot will come later (there’s enough time for fine tuning during re-writes anyway). So now, it’s time to get to work. Here comes another high-concept thriller from Chris Nolan only, this time, the primary concept is: Batman! Here’s the log line that comes out:

Gotham, a crime ridden city kept in order by a mask wearing vigilante, finally gets a really amazing District Attorney who starts to put things right. So, the crime bosses turn to this crazy clown hitman guy to make the DA’s life a living hell. Only the masked vigilant can help.

… And, because you’re used to making thinky films and have been given a lot of free reign over this project (just as long as you promise not to put a dancing gorilla in it PLEASE!), you want to make it an ‘ideas’ movie. And that’s cool. There are plenty of ideas to be played with here: themes of anarchy, mass-surveillance, white knights and dark knights, heroes becoming villains etc…

Wow, with all this AND Michael Caine, this is shaping up to look like a pretty cool film.

Now just stop for a moment. I just want to make another comparison. I’d like to compare The Dark Knight with something else. Something Batman. Something like Two Face – a two parter from Batman: The Animated Series. Two Face/Harvey Dent is by no means the main character of The Dark Knight. However, the downfall of Harvey Dent is a big big part of that film’s overall mission statement. I mean, it was cool to see the transformation of Dent into Two Face happen on the big screen, but was I emotionally invested in it when it happened in TDK? Honestly… no. And this mostly comes down to a single scene, one vital scene where Aaron Eckhart’s Dent has one of The Joker’s henchmen strapped down in a chair in the middle of a darkened alleyway and is threatening him at gun point. This scene is carefully slotted into the movie to make sure that Dent’s downfall towards the end of the movie doesn’t come completely out of the blue. The film can appropriately go on to make its statement about white knights and dark knights and yadda yadda yadda….

The film-makers have carefully sculpted how Dent’s character and actions are going to serve the plot.

Here’s the thing though: in Two Face, Harvey’s character and actions are the plot. Every action that he makes, even from the very first scene, make the story and everything that comes with it. In the very first scene of Two Face, Harvey busts some criminals, one of them yells something him, he loses his temper…. And absolutely everything else leads on from there.

Obviously, the format of a TV show may have advantages over a film in regards to things like this, but to me, that is what it means to create an organic dilemma in a story. The conflict is organic. The work of art is lively, fresh and makes you want to experience it again and again. The story flows naturally because it isn’t forced.

But please don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to detract in anyway from the effort of the people who made TDK possible. Not just the famed actors or directors but every member of the crew, make up artist, cinematographer, writer, extra, runner and every other woman and man who made this film possible.

A major film has only two functions really: to make money and for people to enjoy it. And people did enjoy The Dark Knight. On mass. There is no way that any of my criticism takes away from the countless audience members this film brought together in a single space to enjoy themselves. Besides, every problem I have with TDK is not to do with any one person who made it. They are symptoms of a problem on a much larger scale…

You see, TDK is not the only film that gets made in the way I’ve described. In fact, the majority of films that capture the imagination of the public, get mass coverage on social media, get advertised at big comic conventions in this day and age are (to the people who make them) really nothing more than assignment jobs. What do I mean by an ‘assignment job’? Well, the studios approaches some of the most talented (and less talented) film-makers/writers/whatever in the business and asks them “make me a Ghostbusters movie”, “make me a Jurassic Park movie”, “make me a James Bond movie”, “make me a Batman movie…” etc, and that is how those film-makers pay their bills. Those projects are the homework, not the after school band rehearsals. Sometimes they work out. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they are rewarded with an A+. Sometimes they get an F. And hey, sometimes the assignment piece are a chance for people who grew up with characters like Batman and Superman to play with their toys on the big screen. That way, they (and by extension, us) can relive our childhoods for the zillionth f*cking time and Hollywood can continue to pedal it’s ultimate product: that childhood never has to end, that eternal youth can be wrung by the toil of the industry for us to bathe in eternally. Real Elizabeth Bathory shit…

Sometimes homework involves baking cookies. It’s still homework though.

Anyone could sit me down and tell me about the editing and cinematography in TDK and how everything is so technically superior to every film I’ve ever loved and I would never ever be as invested in it as I was in a silly little children’s cartoon depicting the same characters. The Dark Knight is a masterpiece, sure, but it is a masterpiece engineered in a lab.

Okay, thanks for reading that. Now I usually like to end my articles with some kind of media or video but I really couldn’t think of one this time so just enjoy this…

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