incoherent blockbusters and the Dark Knight

I think it was Eagle Eye that finally broke me. I just can’t take any more movies that don’t make any sense. Not because that forgettable Shia Labeouf vehicle was particularly nonsensical– it didn’t make any sense, but it shares that attribute with most other major studio movies of the last ten years– but just because of the utter banality of its incoherence. Not just the fact that it didn’t bother with internal consistency or anything resembling logical motivations for the behavior of its characters, but that it doesn’t seem to recognize that a film should pretend to have those things. There was something stunning, to me, in its basic assumption that no one would notice or particularly care about little issues like gaping plot holes, wildly changing premises and characters who do things without any apparent motivation at all. The incoherence is a problem; the assumption that no one could care about incoherence is an insult.

But it’s not an assumption, unfortunately, that I don’t understand the filmmakers making. I remember shaking my head, watching Ocean’s Twelve, thinking “here is a movie that no one can believe makes sense”– hey, guys, I know we already stole the thing we need to steal, but let’s undergo an incredibly convoluted plan involving being thrown in jail and then sprung by one of our gang’s long lost parents, all for the sake of fooling the villains who, logic dictates, have no opportunity whatsoever to actually observe us undergoing this massively complicated plan that we have undertaken entirely for their sakes….

But I knew, at the time, that insult to the audience inherent in that level of narrative ridiculousness wouldn’t actually keep the movie from being hugely successful, and it was, and sent us all hurtling towards Oceans Thirteen. The makers of big budget spectacle have absolutely no reason to believe that they need to make movies that make sense in order to turn a tidy profit. Breaking news: the masses like lousy art; film at eleven.

So it’s not like I’m walking around outraged that, for example, our intrepid archeologist survives a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator in Indiana Jones: Geriatric Edition. (The makers of Frigidaire, I salute you.) I know that these movies never make sense. I just want the courtesy of both of us, moviemaker and moviegoer, pretending like we have some sort of relationship built on trust. It’s like a stripper flirting with you during a lapdance; we all know it’s bullshit, but we like to keep the pretense going. (Uh, or so I’m told.) I don’t need my intellect respected by Plastic Man or whatever else is the latest superhero blockbuster; but it would be nice for some vague moves to be made in the direction of respecting me.

Still, I know that looking to the blockbusters for consistency or logic is probably barking up the wrong tree, at this point. What saddens and frustrates me now is that it seems like the movie critics and awards voters are now demonstrating the same blase attitude towards plot oversights and changed premises that audiences have demonstrated for years. There’s been several movies that have been feted by the critics in the last several years that haven’t made a lick of sense, but I’m talking specifically here of The Dark Knight, a constant presence on year-end “Best Of” lists, and very often, number one with a bullet. And that, far more than the billions of dollars it’s made and will make, depresses me, the fact that some of our last cultural arbiters who are supposed to care about quality and not profitability have fallen for a movie that’s such an utter and shameless fraud.

The Oscar nominations have come out, and Heath Ledger has been nominated. Director Christopher Nolan and the movie itself, thought likely to be nominated, weren’t. Bear in mind that this is being reported as a “snub”, or even a “shocking snub.” Well, taste is subjective and opinion is free, but to me that’s sort of like calling Mike Gravel’s failure to secure the Democratic Party presidential nomination a shocking snub.

Ledger is a favorite to win the actual award. Like everyone, I thought Ledger did a good job in his role, but it wasn’t nearly the kind of acting that I think we should be celebrating as among the best handful of the year. Certainly, his role as Enis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain was a far superior piece of acting, not least of which because Del Mar was a human character, not a cartoon supervillain. Yes, Ledger’s performance as the Joker was a standout performance, great theater, but not great acting, for the simple reason that no one is like the Joker. It’s much, much easier to perform a role when no one in the history of the world has actually been like person being portrayed. It’s much more difficult to actually portray a real human being, believably and movingly, and that, I think, is what we should celebrate.

Still, I can’t complain too much about Ledger’s performance being lauded. What bothers me so much is that so many otherwise bright critics aren’t calling the situation for what it is, a smart and entertaining performance in an insulting, stupid, nonsensical movie. I know that expecting the Oscars to be an arbiter of good taste is like expecting the the Gold Glove awards to be an arbiter of good defense: the process is ridiculous and frequently gets it wrong, but occasionally actually awards the most deserving. So the Oscar talk for Dark Knight and Nolan didn’t bother me too much. But when smart and discriminating critics get bamboozled by a movie that insults its audience at every turn, I just don’t get it.

There are so many decisions that make such little sense–hey, the Joker has just caused massive death in Gotham, he’s the most dangerous criminal ever, and has fought the Batman to a standstill; let’s leave him in an interrogation room with a single, fat, middle-aged unarmed cop, because, hey, what could go wrong? We’ll do that instead of, oh, I don’t know, locking the goddamn door. There are so many plot holes and dead-end narrative alleys– Batman goes flying off of that roof to save Rachel, and we cut away, leaving the obvious question as to what insane murderer the Joker did after they left; shrug his shoulders and say, oh well, can’t find Dent, let’s leave? What did Batman say to himself? I saved the girl, let those richies at my party fend for themselves? There is the incredibly bald-faced “we need Batman to be on the run for the sequel” moment at the end where, for some reason, someone needs to be blamed for the deaths of some crooked cops and criminals, the public is going to be up in arms to find the killer, and it has to be blamed on someone (lest Dent’s shining example be sullied by exposing the truth). There’s the corollary to that bald plot manipulation, where Batman chooses to blame himself for these crimes, rather than the insane murderer who has just killed half of Gotham. There’s that stuff.

But I guess what bothers me the most is the fact that the Joker, the “agent of chaos”, can plan so many far-flung and convoluted plots to such intricate and perfect detail that everything breaks just so and leaves him exactly with the situation he’d hoped for. This kind of overly intricate and impossibly perfect plan is a staple of movies, lately, and it’s exacerbated by the fact that these plans always involved trusting people to have precisely the kinds of reactions you want them to have. In the real world, it’s really hard to get people to behave exactly as you expect them to behave. But the Joker, again and again, hatches extraordinarily complicated schemes that require people to decide to do exactly what he expects them to do. In the micro sense, this involves a goon standing in exactly the right place to get smushed by a bus. In the macro sense, this leads us to the bizarre climax of the movie, where the Joker proves his point that people will kill each other by loading two ferries with explosives, ferries that the authorities have loaded with people to evacuate Gotham… ferries the Joker knew would be used for evacuation, and further knew would be divided between civilians and criminals because, well, he’s Nostradamus, or something. For an agent of chaos, boy, the Joker believes in a deterministic universe.

A lot of people have tried to defend the movies elementary inconsistencies and plot oversights by simply saying, again and again, that the Joker is an agent of chaos. It’s quite frustrating, actually. I mean, look, I suppose you can populate a movie with a character that constantly does things that make no sense and chalk it up to the fact that the guy is crazy. But that doesn’t change the motivations of every other character in the movie, and I personally can’t jibe calling a character an agent of chaos when his M.O. seems to be to devise incredibly intricate and well-executed plans.

The other big defense I have heard is the idea that this is just a fun summer movie, and you should just let go and enjoy the ride…. Well, look– I like spectacle as much as the next red-blooded American. And I am, in many instances, willing to suspend disbelief. But suspending disbelief doesn’t mean that you allow a movie to constantly change its own premises whenever it suits the filmmakers’ needs. You can have a movie with cold fusion, and I’ll suspend disbelief, but you can’t constantly change what cold fusion is or does and expect me to play ball. And you really shouldn’t make a movie where, when you consider the motives of the various characters in the film, and how those motives change given the now inevitable M. Knight Shyamalan-style twists in the movie, none of it makes a lick of sense. I’m not looking for Rashomon in every summer blockbuster. I’m looking for movies where characters do things because they have reasonable motives to do so.

Nominating a movie like the Dark Knight for an Oscar, after all, or putting it on your ten best list, is to exactly deny the idea that it is “just a summer movie”. When you praise a movie on equal terms to the best movies of the year, you are putting that movie on the same intellectual level as the best movies. They don’t have to deal in the same themes, they don’t have to have the same strengths, they don’t have to be as cerebral or philosophical or dramatic. But they do have to live up to basic dictates of intelligibility and consistency. Otherwise, we might as well just make two sets of lists, one for movies worth taking seriously and one for films not worth it.

A lot has been made of the fact that movies today now seem totally divided between smart and dramatic arthouse movies that open on a small number of screens and make little money, and big, dumb blockbusters that open everywhere and make kajillions. What I don’t think people realize is that this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you make a different set of intellectual standards for blockbusters as for “serious movies”, you’re exacerbating the problem. Like a lot of people, I’d like to see the return of the big, smart, serious spectacle. But I’d settle for just smarter, more consistent blockbusters. Jaws, I feel confident in saying, doesn’t have a bunch of glaring plot holes or weird contrivances. Big movies can be better, but for them to be better the critical classes have to call movies out when they don’t make any earthly sense. And that means leaving a movie that has as much disdain for coherence or intelligence as the Dark Knight has off of the Best of lists, and out of serious Oscar contention.

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21 thoughts on “incoherent blockbusters and the Dark Knight

  1. Your comment on internal consistency in movies is so to the point. I recently recommended Tropic Thunder to a buddy. I said it was very funny, which to me it is, but even though it could be called stupid, I did not see any inconsistency within it’s story. And besides Tom Cruse is a treasury, the last bit with him dancing by himself is something I wont soon forget.

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  2. lapdancing: den beste doesn’t know it’s bullshit.

    plus, plenty of art doesn’t ‘make sense’. no one talks like hamlet. what matters is whether we realise or care.

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  3. I too was troubled by the Joker supposedly being an agent of choas, a ‘man without a plan’ pulling off such intricately, impossibly detailed convoluted plans. But then I caught the movie again and I think a different take on the Joker makes better sense.

    Forget about the Joker’s speech to Dent. It’s his final speech that reveals his true nature. The Joker is like the Devil in the Book of Job. You recall the Devil tried to break Job by tormenting him with an array of horrors. Horrors so unlikely to all happen at once that they are almost totally implausible. I think this is what the Joker is about in The Dark Knight. He pushes and tests Batman, Dent and the people of Gotham by constantly upping the ante.

    When I saw the movie I was struck with how realistic it seemed. Many seens took place during the day where Batman and his gizmos look kind of silly. Gotham isn’t the semi-fantastic city from the first movie or the movies in the 1990’s but a pretty real looking city. The reaction to the Joker isn’t all that unrealistic as you make it out. In the real world who would have expected the Joker to not only plant a bomb inside one of his cronies but also to be able to time the arrest of himself and his crony just right so that the bomb would spring him from jail? Like the Devil, the Joker’s torments are realistic in the sense that we can imagine a terrorist or criminal doing any one or a few of them but there is something borderline supernatural in his ability to gather all the torments together and keep inflicting them on the victim. There’s a moment when you imagine the people of Gotham saying ‘no way’ as they hear not only has the Joker escaped but planted a bomb in a hospital…wait blew up a hospital but now will blow up two giant ferries filled with people! How did Job feel when he suddenly woke up with oozing sores AFTER his wife died, his kids died, his livestock died, his house burned etc.

    Unlike Job, the Joker is pushing multiple people. Batman mostly passes, resisting the temptation to violate his rule against killing the criminals he fights. Dent fails, allowing himself to be sold on the idea that his committment to justice was just an illusion and the world is nothing more than meaningless chance. The people of Gotham pass after both its criminals and citizens decide they will not murder others to save their own lives.

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  4. Oddly enough, I actually enjoyed ‘Eagle Eye,’ despite knowing that it made no sense; but maybe this just means that I’ve grown to know standard plots so well that I can make do with half-assed allusions/indications toward coherence.

    But maybe, as well, you’re missing the point that ‘truth in film,’ as it were (and I’m not original in this; see Bazin, Deleuze), isn’t simply propositional or plot-driven. There are all sorts of different aesthetic phenomenological manifolds going on … often I don’t really care about plot at all, and many great films don’t care so much about it either.

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  5. But maybe, as well, you’re missing the point that ‘truth in film,’ as it were (and I’m not original in this; see Bazin, Deleuze), isn’t simply propositional or plot-driven. There are all sorts of different aesthetic phenomenological manifolds going on … often I don’t really care about plot at all, and many great films don’t care so much about it either.

    I respect that. I just think that there’s got to be some sort of artistic tradeoff to be had and, often enough, there is none. But that’s a good point and well taken.

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  6. aboulian, I’m guessing that at one time folks did talk like Hamlet, at least some folks did. Few talk like a Valley Girl today but a movie depicting that time and place had better get the lingo correct. Right? So if the lingo was, say Ebonics, a fair criticism would be that it is not internally constant. (However, a Valley Girl speaking Ebonics might be pretty funny.) But the point was that an internal constancy is desirable. If I see an inconsistency I have a big problem. After all we are talking about a low brow art form, Hollywood blockbusters.

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  7. So if the lingo was, say Ebonics, a fair criticism would be that it is not internally constant. (However, a Valley Girl speaking Ebonics might be pretty funny.) But the point was that an internal constancy is desirable. If I see an inconsistency I have a big problem.

    Right. Like I said, I’m willing to judge movies based on their own internal conventions; I just want them consistently applied. For instance, when the Kevin Costner Robin Hood came out, people criticized him for not having a British accent. That in and of itself doesn’t bother me, any more than a movie set in medieval times having people who speak in conventional times doesn’t bother me. What made that Robin Hood weird was that some people had British accents, some had inconsistent British accents, and some had none. That bugged me. Likewise, if in a movie you have some characters who speak in modern slang but some who speak like era-appropriate people, that’s a problem, to my lights.

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  8. Speaking about incoherent movies, I would like to nominate 88 Minutes. That was so bad. Okay, I’m threaded by a really bad unknown someone. What do I do? Well what any one worth his salt, Hollywood hack writer, would do. Concoct a plot that involves putting everyone I know in danger. 88 Minutes makes Eagle Eye look like a paean to clear thinking.

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  9. Interesting. As I started to get to your take down of the Dark Knight, I was all ready to defend it, but the problem is you make more than valid points. I really liked the movie, but if I were being honest with myself, it really was little more than a summer fun movie with the marked exception of a brilliant performance on Ledger’s part (having not seen Brokeback, I won’t argue which role was better acted, but I do disagree with you on the level of the Joker performance and its significance and artistic value and quality).

    But even before this, there were parts that niggled at me about this movie. One was the disagreement between the “agent of chaos” and the Swiss watch intricate machinations of said agent of chaos. Also, while Ledger’s performance was astounding (at least in my mind), he was surrounded by a cast that was lackluster, at times even laughable.

    It’s a sad thing to say, but the main character of the movie was ultimately a joke. I like Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, but his Batman is god awful and has provoked my favorite afternoon radio show into constantly insulting the BatVoice.

    But I really didn’t want to talk much about the Dark Knight. What I did want to mention was that as I neared the end of your piece, another movie popped into my mind; Silence of the Lambs.

    Now that was a MOVIE, and one that really did respect in many ways its viewers. Part of its success was the nature of the story. It was a dark psychological thriller, but as opposed to the modern day definition of the sub-genre, what we mean by psychological thriller is that actual (or perhaps fantasy, I’m no psychological expert so I admit to not knowing), psychology. Motivation is, thusly, a centerpoint of the movie. You know EXACTLY why Wild Bill does what he does because the lynchpin relationship of the film between Lecter and Clarise is centered firmly on understanding Wild Bill’s motivations in such a manner that those motivations could be used to actually catch the man.

    There’s of course some of the hyperbolic fantasy involved. Lecter, much like the Joker, seems a bit too pressient, too capable of predicting human nature to the point where he can plot out strategies that would hinge on seemingly random events and decisions. But the movie doesn’t go nearly as far as modern fare does in this regard.

    The other thing that really makes SotL is that the movie making was phenomenal. Direction and cinematography were brilliant, and instead of just having ONE actor turn in a star performance, the entire cast brought the house down.

    I’m an avid fan of Monk, and even though I’ve got five seasons on DVD, and watch each new episode religiously the moment it’s available on the internet, I STILL get this weird feeling every time Ted Levine(sp?) comes on screen.

    So I dunno, I just figured I would interject that what you are looking for, it would seem, is that the summer blockbuster machine would look more towards Silence of the Lambs for inspiration than for perhaps the latest greatest comic book movie to come down the woodwork (though, to defend the comic book movie genre, there have been a couple few that have been excellent as well. The first Spiderman, I thought, was very well done. I liked Iron Man because that really was the kind of movie you could write off as a summer fun movie without also trying to defend its artistic qualities. And, to be fair, I think the motivations for the characters in Iron Man might have actually been more believable than those in Dark Knight. And I will urinate on anyone who speaks ill of Sin City. ANYONE!).

    The last point I wanted to make was that I think one of the things that has degraded the quality of the major blockbusters has been technology. I don’t mean just CGI special effects, though that is a big part of it. But you know, the big movies have always had a certain feel to them. There’s a certain polish on the production in a big movie, and once you cross that threshold of polish, it’s like you are automatically leaped into a-movie status.

    What with technology being what it is today, with digital pictures, and computer special effects, and even music composition taking a 2.0 flavor, you can take the biggest heaping turd and spruce it up to cross that imaginary threshold.

    I dunno, it just seems like the turds are a lot shinier and that is really making a difference.

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  10. Yeah, thanks for saying this, Freddie. I enjoyed The Dark Knight, but I turned off my brain for it and reflexively/intentionally opted not to examine the story as a whole for inconsistencies—because I knew they’d be there. I think there are still plenty of things that make it worthwhile, and definitely entertaining, but critics of all stripes seemed to be overly taken with the fact that the first “serious” superhero film was being made. And of course, Heath Ledger’s death muddied the waters of the conversation further. (That’s a good point about his performance not being acting per se—I had never thought about it that way.)

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  11. This is the stupidest thing that I’ve ever read from yu.

    By far.

    But I guess what bothers me the most is the fact that the Joker, the “agent of chaos”, can plan so many far-flung and convoluted plots to such intricate and perfect detail that everything breaks just so and leaves him exactly with the situation he’d hoped for.

    Did you even watch this film.

    What does the Joker do each and every time he tells somebody about himself, Freddie? He lies. And you imagine that that scene was the one exception? The one instance where he decides to let everything slip and just let himself go?

    No Freddie, that scene is where he executes the part of his plan that sends Harvey Dent mad. If you imagine that the Joker is telling the truth then you are suggesting something deeply inconsistent and entirely at odds with the rest of his behaviour. Whenever he offers information about himself at any other time its a piece of deception, there is no evidence to suggest otherwise there.

    And yes, he can predict reactions. Pretty deterministic?Yes, but that’s why a daft existentialist such as yourself couldn’t enjoy it properly. Because the way you understand the world is fundamentally flawed. The Joker could predict how people would respond to his stimulus in much the same way that V could predict how people would respond to his performances (in the original comic, mind, not the relatively shoddy film), except for whereas V uses his sole actual superpower (his knowledge of the human mind and capacity to engage in otherwise impossibly elaborate planning) to topple an authoritarian regime the Joker uses it to inflict carnage upon the world and prove his points.

    The downside being that, unlike V, the Joker is thwarted since despite having the micro down to a T (like you say) his macro is entirely wrong: humanity aren’t a foul bunch, so when he relies upon them to blow each other out of the water he gets it wrong.

    His error regarding humanity is fundamental and much like it has prevented you from enjoying this film properly it prevents him from executing his final, grand, masterplan. In effect it’s much like the comic Killing Joke which heavily inspired this film: there the Joker wants to show that a bad day (enough trauma) can send anyone mad and he doesn’t manage that, because it’s only true of some people, only true of him.

    Both narratives display the Joker attempting to demonstrate that at their core most people are just like him while in fact what he achieves is solely a demonstration of how alien he is to the rest of the world, and how aberrant.

    And if you don’t think that that’s got any meaning behind it then well, fuck you.

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  12. the joker is no more (or less) unrealistic than Batman. no, a normal bad guy couldn’t pull off the stunts the Joker pulls. that’s why he’s a supervillain. That’s why his adversary is a guy who drives around in a 500 million dollar car beating up criminals with his hands. I don’t think you realize in what dangerous territory you’re in here, freddie. You are questioning not just bad plotting but the foundational premise of all superhero stories from the Illiad to the Matrix. do you really wanna go there man?

    p.s. the Dark Knight was AWESOME.

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  13. p.p.s. i (mostly) second James’ post above.

    p.p.p.s. the fact that you think people like joker don’t exist (that is, that one-dimensional people don’t exist) is pretty shocking to me. the unrealistic part of the joker character is his talent, NOT his mind.

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  14. I’ve been wrong before. I could be wrong now. I don’t think so, though. And I have to tell you, extreme defensiveness about movies, books or music almost always says more about you than about the movie, book or music.

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  15. yeah, and extreme aggression about movies, books or music too :)

    maybe i shouldn’t have used CAPS. Some clarification: i don’t disagree with your list of the plot holes (besides the “supervillain defense” i mounted above). it’s still not clear to me how TDK is in any way more of an incoherent blockbuster than, say, Return of the King, which won Best Picture. my point about one-dimensional people is not about TDK but real life.

    still buddies, a’right?

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  16. I admit that I was one of those people, who after first watching it used the Joker’s speech to sorta-justify the movie’s poorly plotted motivation, and thanks for puncturing my poor logic. (I mean that sincerely.) Upon a second viewing on DVD, I think the movie so dumbfounded people (including me, who saw it at the midnight opening), especially in its tonal/thematic seriousness and the realism of the setting, that we missed a lot of these plot holes, which we may have caught in a less overpowering movie. I enjoyed it immensely, but I also have to admit that, yeah, it’s not

    But this is also not a very good year for movies.

    But I’ll second Iron Man as being internally consistent in ways Dark Knight wasn’t. And as for favorites, well, IMO the best movies I saw last year were The Edge of Heaven and Kung Fu Panda (yes, I liked it more than WALL*E). Make of that what you will.

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  17. While I enjoyed Ledger’s performance, more than once he reminded me of Dana Carvey’s Church Lady.

    In general, I agree w/ Freddie. While much of what Raft and the juvenile James say is true, I don’t think it changes Freddie’s point much. Writing has taken a back seat in movies for a long time now. And for no reason.

    The Dark Knight is a visual spectacle and it’s dark. Dark is the new “twist.” Remember how great everyone thought “Jagged Edge” was because of this amazing, unforeseen “twist” at the end? This led to 25 years of plot turns, which as long as they beguiled the viewer, required no internal consistency.

    So it is now with “dark.” The 007 movies, comic books, Jason Bournes, etc., are all: visible interesting w/ more than just explosions, but “artistic” cinematography, high-class directing, and darkness. Though I don’t think these movies are great, I think they’re good and generally enjoyable to watch and better than their category predecessors.

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