The “Sooper Hero” Movie

I’ve seen The Dark Knight twice and while I really would like to write a review, there’s nothing truly critical I can add. However, I’d like to talk about something that I think gets overlooked when reviewing/talking/commenting about these types of movies: The difference between super hero movies and movies based on comic book properties.

I am not a fan of any of the Batman films prior to Batman Begins. I don’t own the DVDs and probably never will. I used to say Tim Burton was much more interested in the Ying Yang of Nicholson’s Joker and Keaton’s Bruce Wayne than bringing to screen the Batman I knew.

Everything in those movies looked like a giant set piece. It looked fake and “movie real.” I know Furst won an Academy Award for the set design. Still looked fake to me. Don’t get me started on the Prince music.

I was also fed up with the movie the moment Alfred brings Vickie Vale to the Batcave. Thinking back on the story and the performances, its hokey, campy and ridiculous. It’s a comic book movie that knows it’s a comic book movie. The sequels that followed are simply deteriorating levels of crap. I hate them all.

Which brings me to Batman Begins and the re-imagining of Batman in the movies.

I reviewed Batman Begins three years ago yesterday and said:

Finally, they got it right. Everything made sense – the plot, the motivation, the story, the performances (mostly) and the tease at the end.

It was played straight – none of the homoerotic, nipples on the suit, my codpiece is bigger than your codpiece bullshit. It had a threat that was straight out of a comic book and a hero that was real and larger than life.

Hollywood has finally, created a Batman movie that works as more than just a “sooper-hero movie.” It’s a good movie first and then a good comic book movie next.

Iron Man is a great super hero movie about a conflicted billionaire who puts on an armored outfit to fight… another person in armor. The Dark Knight is a great movie about a conflicted billionaire who puts on an armored outfit to fight the creepiest villain this side of Hannibal Lector.

Do you see the difference? Iron Man is one of the best super hero movies ever created. The Dark Knight is one of the best movies every created. Big difference.

All the previous Batman movies prior to Batman Begins were super hero movies. They made their money and people liked them for the most part. Not me. I kept waiting for a director/writer/actor combo who would understand the material, translate it to the silver screen and use actors who would play the role, not the character.

There have been flashes over the years. Certainly Rami’s Spider-man comes as close as possible with a mainstream movie based on a comic the average person would know. I think one of the biggest reasons Iron Man is so well received is because Robert Downey Jr. is playing the role of Tony Stark, not playing the comic book character of Tony Stark.

I would like to count movies such as The Crow and Sin City in the mix since they are based on comic book properties, have directors who understand the source material and actors playing roles instead of characters, but nobody knows who Marv is. They know who Batman is.

Batman Begins was so good because it was grounded in a reality that wasn’t a comic book reality. Sure, you have to suspend your disbelief in various places, but that goes with the territory of practically all action adventure movies. Plus, Chicago as a set piece works much better than giant gargoyles on fake buildings. It works even better in The Dark Knight.

The best super hero movies tell fun popcorn movie stories. Everyone involved knows they are making a “sooper-hero” movie. Think all the X-Men movies. The best movies based on comics use the source material to create a film, not a “sooper-hero” movie. Think The Crow or The Rocketeer. The Dark Knight is a film first and it just happens to feature characters from a comic book property.

And that makes all the difference. The Dark Knight is on a different level.

The Dark Knight takes the idea of a “movie first” up a notch mostly because everyone from the writing and the directing to the actors are making a film not a “sooper-hero” movie. The whole Batman in Hong Kong sequence could have easily been dropped into a Mission Impossible film or any other action adventure film.

As many others have also noted, The Dark Knight is more akin to Heat than any other genre film. It’s a story about three people trying to clean up the city and ultimately what it does to them. Dent is the white knight to Batman’s dark knight with Gordon skating the line in-between. Dent’s foreshadowing line about living long enough to become the villain, Batman torn between a normal life with Rachel and cleaning up the streets and Gordon realizing that trust has to be earned are all themes you don’t find in “sooper hero” movies.

Of course, Ledger gives an Oscar-worthy performance totally eclipsing any other actor portraying a comic book character ever. Yes, even Christopher Reeve as Superman/Clark Kent and Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier. He deletes Nicholson’s campy Joker from memory. He is electrifying on screen. He’s controlled chaos. He is madness on the level of a serial killer. He is exactly what the Joker needed to be in the universe created by Nolan.

I’ve read the Joker as written by decades of comic book writers and have seen interpretations from Casear Romero to Mark Hamill. Heath Ledger brings bits and pieces from a wide variety of material, much of it not comic related, and creates a Joker that is a frightening and terrifying figure. Every line. Every tick. Every second on screen, he is unforgettable.

The magic trick scene, the penthouse scene, the hospital scene are all amazing bits of work. Even if Ledger was alive, I’d like to think there might be some Oscar buzz. As it stands, it is still a creative juggernaut, tour de force, performance and a fitting last role. I sincerely hope he is nominated and wins the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Ledger, because of the talk about a posthumous Oscar and his untimely death, unfortunately takes away from the performances of everyone else in the movie. Aaron Eckhart is truly the backbone of the movie’s major story arc and his decent from cocksure DA to Harvey Two-Face is menacing. Gary Oldman as Gordon brings a sense of gravitas to the role with much more to do here than in any of the Harry Potter films.

Batman Begins wasn’t perfect and neither is The Dark Knight. However, it is as close to a perfect movie, based on a well known comic book property, we are likely to get.

Until the next one.