Thursday, July 24, 2008

Unnecessary Advice, Part The First

There's this movie out called The Dark Knight. Perhaps you've heard of it. I'm told it's doing rather well for itself at the box office. And not inconsiderably, it has also garnered near universal critical acclaim.

A success all the way around. Kudos.

But this universe of ours never gives out success at that scale without a couple of strings attached. It won't be long before The Dark Knight fades from theaters, cycles through home video and becomes just one more 2 1/2 hour chunk for the cable movie grist mill. And when that process commences, the inevitable question will be asked.

What next?

There's no doubt that director Christopher Nolan, his brother Jonathan and their writing partner David Goyer know what they're doing. The proof is in the multiplex. The last thing any of them need is advice from some blog doofus.

And that would be my ironic cue.

First, let's look at the most obvious potential pitfalls.

1. Bigger is better. Wrong! "Bigger" is a trap. So are "darker," "edgier," and "more extreme." These strategies are harbingers of that old franchise-movie bugaboo, sequelitis, the tendency for sequels to suck because creators just slathered on a lot more of what was in the first movie. The Batman team has already successfully avoided sequelitis, following up Batman Begins with that rarest of movie beasts, the sequel that actually exceeds its predecessor. The Dark Knight can take its place alongside The Empire Strikes Back, the Paul Greengrass Bourne movies and a very few others. Good for them.

But the success of The Dark Knight has been unprecedented and the pressure will mount from the studio to give the fans more of the same. This pressure should be resisted with all possible will. The Dark Knight is emphatically not an escalation of the action in Batman Begins; it is a completely different animal, a canny reaction against most of what the first film encompassed. Where Batman Begins painstakingly told of the origins of its title character, The Dark Knight introduces Heath Ledger's Joker and outright refuses to tell us where he came from, even having him lie repeatedly about what might have caused him to be the way he is.

Daring. And brilliant.

The challenge now is to react against what The Dark Knight does in the same fruitful way. Which brings us to pitfall number ...

2. Whoever the next Bat adversary is, he/she will have to out-Joker Ledger's Joker. Absolutely not! Ledger is magnificent in The Dark Knight and his unhinged tour de force is unlikely to be matched soon. Also, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, his tragic loss gives the performance an added poignancy that (hopefully) won't happen on the next movie. Even if he were still with us, Ledger's definitive madman should take all the other homicidal maniacs in the Bat Rogues Gallery off the table. That means no Riddler, no Poison Ivy, no Penguin, no Harley Quinn, obviously no new Joker, none of the villains whose primary goal is to off as many Gothamites as possible. They will all pale in comparison.

So what can you do?

Batman is a dark individual. He inhabits a dark world. There's always going to be darkness associated with any serious interpretation of the character. What the filmmakers should realize, however, is that there are forms of darkness that have nothing to do with how high your movie's body count is.

The Joker -- in almost all of his many incarnations -- is an effective foil for Batman not because he's tougher or more powerful. He's an effective foil because he attacks the very heart of what Batman is all about, justice and order. The Joker makes a mockery of justice and order simply by being wildly unpredictable and motiveless. Or seemingly motiveless. He's not going to put Batman on the mat with a hard right cross. Instead, he's going to cast doubt on everything Batman is, everything he's worked so hard to become.

The villain in the next movie should also be capable of striking at the core of the hero's being, calling into question everything Batman is. But not by being a loon or an especially vicious killer. We've just been down that road.

No. The next movie needs someone who can get under Batman's armored skin in a different way. It needs someone who will prey on Gotham City and its denizens with guile and cunning, rather than with insanity. It needs someone who is as tempting as the Joker is repellent.

It needs Catwoman.

And I can already hear the groaning out there. Knock that groaning off! In the next installment of Unnecessary Advice, I'll show how this iconic villainess can be rescued from Lousy Pitof Movie Hell.

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