[27 July 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It only took 10 days. Less than two weeks. It remains a stunning accomplishment. It took Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest 16 days to get there. It took the overly hyped third Star Wars prequel Revenge of the Sith 17. Even Spider-Man 3 had to wait 19 days to pull in such scratch. But the superhero phenomenon which is The Dark Knight crossed over the $300 million mark this weekend, cementing the film’s place as 2008’s biggest cinematic story. No one could have predicted such a response, especially for a 150 minute drama that’s more serious than spectacle. Add to that the messageboard concerns over the film’s dark quality and downbeat ending, and the suggestion is that something significant is happening here that just doesn’t occur with your standard popcorn flair.
One thing is clear - Hollywood hacks who think material must be dumbed down and homogenized for audience consumption are probably rethinking said position (and looking for work, hopefully). The Dark Knight is indeed a savvy, smart thriller, built more out of a model similar to the crime epics of Coppola, Mann, and Scorsese than the cut and paste product of your typical comic book adaptation. Co-writer/director Christopher Nolan took some major risks with the material, keeping the danger palpable and the characters complex. As a result, there was a real possibility that this film would not click with crowds. And with the already sizeable returns for other superhero movies this summer (Iron Man and Hancock making the most monetary noise), there was a real risk of something akin to also-ran status
But $300 million big ones speak for themselves, and Knight shows no signs of letting up. It is still a watercolor work, something everyone it talking about in reverent, must-see terms. Granted, the Oscar buzz for the late Heath Ledger may be a bit premature (a nomination is not out of the question, but let’s not hand the statue over to his family just yet), but it is clear that this will be a movie remembered come awards season. But the biggest question, as always, is this - what does this level of success mean for everyone involved? What does earning such a vast sum so quickly signify for the studio? The comic book company? The individuals in front of and behind the camera? For that, we’ll need to do a little above the bottom line analysis. Only then can we see if there’s anything other than triumph for all involved. Let’s begin with:
The Studio - Warner Brothers
After the debacle known as Speed Racer (the audience’s fault, not the film), Warners really needed this sort of monumental result. It helps make that major misstep in marketing seem like nothing more than a business model blip on a high return radar. The studio has been lucky like that as of recent - backing Will Smith’s Christmas hit I Am Legend while taking a drubbing for failures like The Invasion and 10,000 BC. Of course, the real challenge will come when the subject of a third installment is breached. Does the studio rely on Nolan to continue his winning ways, or will they balk and pull a Schumacher out of thin air. Either way, their upcoming releases (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Watchmen) seem to suggest more pluses than movie minuses.
The Source - DC Comics
With Marvel making all the news during Summer’s inaugural months - both good (Iron Man) and not so (The Incredible Hulk) - the comic rival really needed something like this to settle the score. With such underperforming efforts as Constantine and Superman Returns, it was clear that Nolan and his take on the Caped Crusader would make or break the company’s cinematic fortunes. Now, with $300 million and counting, DC has a real reason to smile - and the accolades just keep coming. Last week, the long awaited teaser trailer for Watchmen finally hit the ‘Net, and along with the highly praised Comic-con panel, hinted that 2009 might be equally successful for the catalog - both critically and commercially.
The Writers - Christopher & Jonathan Nolan
If there is any justice in the business of show - and there usually isn’t - Chris and his brother John will become the script doctors du jour of a failing Tinsel Town talent pool. Let’s face it, if Akiva Goldsman can claim an Oscar (and the literary omniscience that seems to accompany it) for his work within the genre, the Nolans should have a rec room full of accolades. The one consistent thing about the product they present is how smart, substantive, and cocksure it really is. When characters speak, they do so in assertions that seem perfect for the situation they are facing. Even better, the dialogue resonates in ways that come back to complement the conservation’s true intent. If Chris decides to drop directing for a while - that is, until the right project comes along - he and Jonathan could clean up in the screenplay polishing department.
The Director - Christopher Nolan
If he didn’t already have carte blanche from the film’s critical reaction, the man behind the Bat’s recent success can surely write his own ticket anywhere in Hollywood now. While there have been hints that he will go back to his inventive indie roots (more Memento than Insomnia, one supposes), it’s clear that Nolan can claim any commercial project he wants. Even better, he’s proven that, within the right framework, audiences will sit through even the most serious, complex entertainment. If he chooses carefully, he can cement his status as one of his generation’s guiding cinematic lights. And of course, there’s always the third installment in the Caped Crusader’s saga to fall back on should he fail. Given his amazing track record so for, that doesn’t seem very likely.
Bale has already proved the impact of a multimillion dollar opening weekend - he was accused of assaulting his mother and sister before the British premiere of The Dark Knight, and even the tabloids have taken his side. Of course, the personal scandal may be nothing more than old school family dissention fueled by sudden financial success, but this is one actor who really doesn’t need the money to make his mark. He’s already keen to revisit the Bruce Wayne saga again (as long as Nolan is behind the lens), and he’s signed on to play another heroic icon - John Connor, the man behind the human rebellion against the machines in the new Terminator film(s). His resume from the past few years is so impressive, that it’s hard to imagine he ever struggled. Hopefully, his success as the Caped Crusader only broadens his potential performance horizons.
Eckhart has been an indie idol for so long that it’s hard to remember when he was the one getting the push for mainstream leading man status. Remember his turn in the disaster flop The Core? Of his solid work in Erin Brockovich? Returning to smaller projects surely helped his acting cred, but he still needed a breakout part to produce a kind of casting clarity he will surely have now. His amazing working as Harvey “Two Face” Dent delivers that knockout blow. On equal par with the work done by costars Bale and Ledger, Eckhart elevates his spurned and scarred District Attorney into something akin to a Shakespearean tragedy. His arc is so fully formed, and his transformation within it so authentic and real, that when he goes on his last act spree, we sigh at the inevitability of it all - and marvel at how this underrated performer pulls it off.
The saddest element of Ledger’s untimely death isn’t the fact that he’s not around now to enjoy the universal praise his eerie work as the Joker is receiving. Nor is it the fact that he won’t be around for the inevitable big money payday once the next installment comes calling. No, what’s most disturbing about Ledger’s passing is that, with this undeniably diabolic characterization, we realize just how much talent we as film fans will be missing out on. No one could have predicted that the sweet, vulnerable man from Brokeback Mountain or The Brothers Grimm had this much menace in him. Even better, his work as the clown prince of chaos leaves a lasting legacy that, in essence, could have tainted the actor forever. If one has to go out - and there is never a rhyme or reason for doing so by your own hand - this unbelievable blaze of glory surely brings things to a clean, karmic conclusion.
This is perhaps the hardest question for the entire post-modern Batman movie. For those who’ve not seen the film, this SPOILER will probably be an unwelcomed bit of advance information, so perhaps you should simply skip this paragraph. Otherwise - having taken the advice of newly appointed Commission Gordon, the Caped Crusader has decided to accept the blame for the many deaths caused by Dent. Instead of a hero, he will become a renegade - or even worse, the stuff of social nightmares. By becoming the bad guy (indirectly, that is), the entire mythos takes a tantalizing turn. Nolan has said that he spent all his creative wealth making this version of the comic book hero, and may not have an answer as to where it goes from here. Between potential villains and likely storylines, there is a lot of uncertainty present, that’s for sure. But where there’s a will - and a big pile of cash - there’s a way. And as they proved this time around, as long as there is true talent involved, anything is possible.