Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid: The Dark Knight is just ‘okay’

Heath Ledger as the Joker

If you haven’t heard the news, we are under-cloud of a cinematic masterpiece. The Dark Knight is now the new standard of cinema classic – the greatest film ever made, by some accounts. Indeed, it appears we must rework the grading curve to assess the pantheon of film history. Consider, if you will, that Citizen Kane, Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Godfather, Schindler’s List (and a hundred other important movies) all rank noticeably lower than The Dark Knight on the Internet Movie Database. At least Rotten Tomatoes—the alleged bastion of professional film critique—still has a modicum of perspective on some of these other films, but The Dark Knight remains high atop the heap there as well. Okay, maybe internet sites aren’t exactly cinematic imperiums, but one can’t help but ponder the audacity.

So while the critical world unilaterally spits up on itself, and fan-boys across the world stampede each other with orgiastic glee to see who can proclaim the “awesomeness” the loudest, could the rest of us quietly, and thoughtfully, consider for a moment just what this film is… and isn’t?

What it is: Entertaining. Exhilarating. Dark. Well-acted. Complex. Impressive. Tedious. Overly long. Full of holes. Full of itself. Overwrought. Silly. (more or less in chronological order).

What it is not: For the timid. Easy to follow. Uplifting. For the kids. A masterpiece. Subtle. Well-written.

Maybe those are too easy: swipes which work better as buzzy sound-bites than clear and balanced critique. But is the film good? Well, it’s not bad. I mostly had fun watching it. Does it belong in the top 10 films of all time? Definitely not. Not even in the top one hundred, I dare say. And why not? Because the standards by which the greatest films of all time are measured have nothing to do with the elements by which The Dark Knight is esteemed: showy special effects, mood, and acting. Great films do share one thing in common however, regardless of genre, subject or year of release – they’re well-written opuses that reflect the universal character of humanity, however great, however flawed. And while The Dark Knight does dress itself like a film concerned with these matters, ultimately it would rather be a wham-bang amusement park sensation that enjoys chewing up the audience and crapping them onto the parking lot, thanks for the $10.50, next in line please.

Many are eager to proclaim the dark complexities, and complicities, of the film, as if to suggest we’ve never encountered the profound struggle of a superhero coming to terms with his crime-fighting persona, private and public. Superman? Spiderman? X-Men? Iron Man? Mr. Incredible? Bruce Willis?… any of these characters ring a bell? We’ve been there, and we’ve done that… repeatedly. Whatever hard themes The Dark Knight wants to challenge itself with are nothing new, and don’t really matter in the end anyway. It’s not as profound as it thinks it is. It doesn’t really “say” anything other than: “Evil is bad. Batman is good. Sometimes it’s confusing which is which, but that’s okay, ’cause Batman can still kick ass.”

I guess, for whatever it’s worth, that’s the sort of mantra that just feels sooo good to the modern moviegoer, awash in a miasma of crass, whiny, quirky and pointless post-modern movies. In the face of all that rot, the film does sweep onto the screen with an admirable confidence few films wear these days. I can appreciate that kind of cinematic punch to the face, but you’ve got to let the audience up once in a while. The non-stop intensity of The Dark Knight churns on relentlessly for so long that you simply wish the thing would end. Somewhere in the third hour I found myself studying the track lighting in the floor, sighing deeply, wanting to scream out “somebody please win and get this over with!”

And that’s really the most disheartening piece to this puzzle. Less really could have been more. And by that I mean intensity for substance. A simpler through-line with one villain (did we learn nothing from Spiderman 3?) a three-act structure and savvier instincts would have made for a smarter and better movie that might have cracked the top 100 in my humble opinion—maybe even the top 25. Instead we get “more is more”, as in intensity and mayhem for intensity and mayhem. You almost felt the director/studio croaking incessantly at the climax of every scene: “But wait! We’ve got something even cooler in the next scene!”, to which the film-going audience happily obliges with bug-eyed enthusiasm.

Sadly, this is the new populist art. No longer motivated by accessible and simple acts of humanity, we thirst for a salvo of pyrotechnic and FX-trumped madness—a thickly layered billion-dollar simulacra that points to nothing but itself.

Thanks, but I’ll save the hyperbole for the next truly great masterpiece, if one ever arrives.

One thought on “Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid: The Dark Knight is just ‘okay’”

  1. Consider the genre first and foremost.

    I don’t know what critics you’re reading or listening to… but I haven’t come across any that proclaimed Dark Knight the best movie ever. Not saying there aren’t those out there doing that very thing. However, I have heard this…

    “It’s the best ‘COMIC BOOK’ movie ever.”
    (Insert Comic Book Guy voice at your own discretion).

    I have not seen the movie yet but heard Ledger’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. And combine that with the movie being his swan song… then you’re certain to get those who’ll want to anoint this film a religious experience. Back to Ledger’s performance… Not sure if that is enough to justify $10.50 (or $21.00 if you bring your better half) but certainly anything on top of that can be considered “topping.” I also heard that Nolan avoids CGI as much as possible… not sure if that counts for anything. But it would be pretty tough to pull off a comic book based movie without ample special effects and pyrotechnics… “Unbreakable” not withstanding.

    Again… I haven’t seen the movie and really have no opinion on it as of yet. I’m just commenting on some of the gripes you have with the flick based on what I do know. I know Batman Begins was one of the best comic book movies ever and all I’ve heard is that Dark Knight overshadows that effort by a long shot.

    And yes Dave… we’d be interested in reading your top 100 movies… in order. (There’s your next post?)

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