So, um … yeah. Iron Man is way better than The Dark Knight.
Pop Culture Item Consumed: Second viewings of Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr., and The Dark Knight, starring a mother-beating, sister-hating, Thanksgiving-ruining Welshman who despises Monty Python.
Beverage Consumed: A bottle of Benton Lane pinot noir, which is a fine specimen of Oregonian goodness in nurturing this delicate grape. For those who enjoy direct, grapey pinots, Oregon’s Willamette Valley (pronounced “will-AM-ette”) produces some of the absolute best younger red wines going right now. I haven’t tasted anything truly rivaling the better Burgundy pinot noirs of France, but these wines are affordable and excellent with spicy foods that still call for a red.
Of course, I drank mine with popcorn and Milk Duds. Oh, and then there was a bottle of Trefethen chardonnay. Trefethen represents Napa Valley craftsmanship at its finest, creating delicious, refreshing chardonnays that aren’t smothered in oak or butter flavors.
This may have been my favorite day of the year so far.
Summary of Action: Two grueling weeks of work justified a day of hookie, and my cognitive dissonance over the fawning reception given The Dark Knight prompted an experiment — Iron Man and TDK back to back, by myself on a school day, with one good bottle of wine per movie all to myself. Every once in a while I like to drink two bottles of wine in one day just to prove to certain doubters that I can still do it. Two bottles in six hours is a challenge, but with a hearty lunch I felt confident I could show those grapes who’s boss.
As for the films, I particularly wanted to test the minor disappointment I had in my first viewing of TDK by giving it another chance on the IMAX screen. When Mrs. socalled and I saw the film on opening weekend, I was, shall we say, a little altered — enough to potentially throw off my cinematic mojo, which yielded “good but not great” as the verdict. Why is everyone pissing themselves over TDK, I wondered, out loud, to a perplexed Mrs. socalled trying to take a nap in the taxi. Ten days later, off I went for a weekday showing of The Dark Knight at noon, messenger bag (translation: man-purse) artfully concealing two bottles of wine and a pre-paid ticket for the 3:30 showing of Iron Man tucked in my pocket. (Bonus Point No. 1 for TDK on IMAX: only one trailer, for Watchmen.)
In the weeks since its opening, TDK has turned into mainstream Oscar bait, with mentions of possible nominations not just for noble cancer-curer Heath Ledger but potentially for Best Picture and a nod to Christian Bale or Aaron Eckhart. Without doubt, TDK is an excellent film. Well-acted and well-shot, it features some of the finest actors of several generations doing serious honor to a true icon of Western lore. The special effects are creative and realistic — except for the chopper/tripwire stunt, which looked terrible — and the dialogue is well-written and smooth, if a bit on-the-nose desperate. TDK is a greatly entertaining action flick and a significant film in continuing to elevate graphic novels to their rightful place as literature and a legitimate source of cultural commentary. My overall opinion of the film did not change, however; it’s very good, not great.
(The Benton Lane was quite nice. I had pre-opened and so plucked the cork out and drank straight from the bottle. Befitting the spirit of San Francisco, my neighbors in a packed mid-day showing of a comic book movie didn’t bat an eye at the man surreptitiously knocking down red wine with liberal gulps right from the bottle.)
After scarfing down a sandwich between films and gulping some water to offset the pinot noir, it was on to Iron Man, still chugging along in theaters after all these weeks. Upon first viewing, Iron Man electrified me like no action movie since The Bourne Identity, with a brilliant cast, a fantastic story translation from comic book to film, and beautiful cinematography and special effects. Beyond those elements, however, was an actual epic action film with a reasonably dense character study of a man who mistakenly got away from his true path. So far, so Batman.
Iron Man had a couple of surprises up its sleeve, however, in the form of one Robert Downey Jr. and a screenplay with style and verve to burn. I don’t want to hurt any of your feelings, and let me preface this with a statement of my admiration for Christian Bale. Bale’s pensive nature and quiet but strong charisma are well-suited to The Dark Knight and make him one of the strongest actors of his generation.
Now let me lay some truth on you: Seen back to back, RDJ blows Bale off the fucking screen. Robert Downey Jr. is to acting as a Stradivarius is to music. His face and body are instruments upon which a good story becomes a great story, upon which a wiseacre one-liner becomes a comment on the overlay of humor over tragedy. At this point in his career, with his physical presence a combination of grizzled and chiseled, he also brings a weathered gravity to even the most frivolous of situations. (Strangely, Gwyneth Paltrow also completely crushed Maggie Gyllenhaal in terms of charisma and presence. I generally detest Paltrow, but some actresses just have it, and she’s one of them. Also, Terrance Howard versus Aaron Eckhart? I’m going with the rapping pimp.)
As with TDK, the script for Iron Man hits the important notes and hits them well: the protagonist’s dramatic internal conflict; the larger commentary on a social structure that drives men to vigilante remedies; the difficulties in distinguishing allies from enemies. Where TDK is most critically lacking, however, is where Iron Man cranks pitch after pitch over the wall — the humanizing element of humor, the baseline acknowledgment that if there’s no laughter, then there’s nothing worth saving.
In Iron Man’s world, Tony Stark has to keep those snarky gloves up to keep from getting scarred by the emotional connections he finds so difficult. Like a real person, he uses the jokes to keep the darkness at bay. Other than the precious few one-liners in the TDK trailers, one is hard-pressed to find the slightest bit of human levity in Batman’s world. I don’t know whether Bruce Wayne will ultimately save Gotham City, but I know that there are no circumstances under which I’d want to live there.
That said, while the critical reception for Iron Man was overwhelmingly positive, it received nothing like the serious consideration given to TDK as a legitimate drama that should be considered for serious analysis and prestigious awards. When I consider the two films against each other, I find it hard to accept that there is a legitimate paradigm under which that result occurs. It’s not that I don’t know the cipher for this code; it’s just that I suppress it from my mind until it inevitably results in snubbery toward a film about which I feel strongly.
There is a prevalent idea that relentlessly dark or grim subject matter is superior to lighter or more humorous work. In any race where the actual nose-to-nose quality or execution is at all comparable, the moody and the melancholy prevails in critics’ minds. This is a primary reason that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences annually announces itself as laughably irrelevant — this idea that grim and grit are just better, that irreverence or an edgy sensibility somehow lessen a work of art or mute the punch of important themes and concepts. Think about the inclusion of Gangs of New York among the 2002 Best Picture nominees; now consider that The Bourne Identity was not nominated. It’s not that Bourne was comedic, but its edgy, jarring nature clearly doesn’t fit whatever vision of “excellence” the film industry establishment likes to pat itself on the back over, despite the inescapable fact that it’s fifty fucking times better than Scorsese’s bloated vanity project by any standard except dollars wasted.
All of which leads to a tricky question for one Ted B. Boozehound: Is TDK overrated? Pajiba regulars know that there are few words I loathe so much as the term “overrated.” “Teetotaler” springs to mind, but no one really uses that one anymore, so it’s “overrated” and “mixology” that get me going these days. “Overrated” is a condescending word, a patronizing word, an “Oh-I-know-what-I’m-talking-about-more-than-other-people-do” kind of word. It’s saying that all the people who claim to like something at a certain level are either crazy or lying. Because if they rationally and genuinely claim to like the work at a certain level, then it can’t possibly be overrated. It’s “just-right-rated,” as indicated by their liking it as much as they say they do.
And obviously the ocean of people who proclaim TDK the best film of the year or damn close are neither crazy or lying. Some of my best friends love TDK. (Also, some of them are black.) They genuinely feel what they feel . I still think, however, that TDK is sharply overrated, as a result of a couple of significant cultural factors relating to this film at this particular time in cinema.
First, the “duh” factor: Heath Ledger’s death put TDK into a special category where perception and reality are likely to diverge. One cannot engage in any serious research of TDK as a film without encountering myriad quotes about Ledger’s cosmically gifted qualities as an actor and gushing recitations of how impressive and wonderful he was to work with. And I believe it’s all meant sincerely - Ledger was clearly one of the more significant actors of his age group in terms of a promising early career and the potential for so much more. Monster’s Ball and Brokeback Mountain vaulted him into the Important Actor category, that group of young actors whose movies get serious analysis just because they’re in them. It’s odd that only after his death did we learn that Laurence Olivier was reincarnated in Ledger’s body as The Greatest Actor Working, but fine.
At the risk of my considerable prom queen popularity with certain unsavory elements, however, I’m putting it out there: While Ledger did good work as the Joker, he was not all that as the Joker. Yeah, yeah, yeah, just punch my ticket to hell and tell it to the judge. I wasn’t frightened of the Joker at any point during two viewings of TDK, nor did I shrink back in my seat at this “new,” “monstrous” anarchist of a super-villain. It was a refreshing, enjoyable take on an archetypal villain, and Ledger did it well - which, guess what, is just what I would expect from Heath Ledger. But when I think of breathtaking cinematic monsters taking human form in films, I can tick off a few that made me shart myself just a little.
Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter is an easy choice to disparage, but don’t let a legacy of crass commercialism obscure the just regard for The Silence of the Lambs. How about Rutger Hauer’s homicidal android in Blade Runner? That one pretty much scared the snot out of me. Or, to draw a link to the current product, does anyone remember a little film called The Professional, featuring Gary Oldman’s amped-up, hyper-corrupt cop? Tell me that Heath Ledger’s Joker was better than any of those performances, and I’ll have to call you a bad name. Tell me that he delivered inspired work in an overall good film - and was better than Jeff Bridges in Iron Man - and I think we’re getting close to the truth.
My point is this: It’s annoying that a fine actor’s tragic end gets blown so far out of proportion that the performance can’t live up to the so-called “legend,” thus unjustly cheapening the genuine merit of the underlying work. I understand that “Us People Star Weekly” has to turn it into a circus to sell magazines and harass Michelle Williams. But ‘round these parts, we’re here to review movies, if not soberly, at least as fairly as can be accomplished. I wish Heath Ledger were alive, but that has fuck-all to do with whether TDK is any good or whether he’s any good in it.
The other major factor is a trick of timing. TDK didn’t just arrive on the scene as a fully formed revolutionary event, a comic book film breaking through the glass ceiling of critical acclaim. A number of high-quality fantasy-type films — including TDK’s own predecessor, Batman Begins — greased the skids over the past few years, creating an environment where fantastical literary sources are treated as legitimate origins for serious films. Spider-Man and its first sequel used high profile, serious actors to convey a dramatically worthy story of a tortured soul thrust into the spotlight of heroism, a young man who just wants to fit in as an Everyman with his life’s love. Batman Begins combined a one-two credibility punch of (a) resurrecting a moribund but beloved franchise and (b) going to Frank Miller’s source material, which in itself had accomplished the minor miracle of forcing graphic novels to be treated as serious analyses of the human condition and society’s ills.
Far more important, however, J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterwork The Lord of the Rings finally and successfully arrived on the big screen after decades of handwringing over how to accomplish the feat. In some ways a Titan-like version of Frank Miller, Tolkien posthumously took a less-than-respected genre, that of swords-and-sorcery fantasy, and turned it into absolute, fuck-me-this-is-good literature. Deserving or not, the film of The Return of the King won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and created an environment where a fantastical story based on respected source material could compete with the Jane Austens and Cormac McCarthys of the world for serious respect as important films as well as important literature.
Unfortunately, this legitimate artistic spadework feeds right into the worst aspects of how the traditional film criticism world determines what is worthy of plaudits and awards. In the surreal, nonsensical world of the Oscars, dark, tortured drama equals greatness, while irreverently humorous equals “have fun at the Golden Globes, peasants.” Tolkien’s work slotted well into this template, as TLotR offers notoriously little humor beyond implied gay hobbit love and dwarf fart jokes. There’s nary a one-liner to be had in the books, and Peter Jackson had to turn Merry and Pippin into circus clowns and sprinkle in some dwarf-tossing jokes just to add some laughs.
And then there’s the hype machine effect, combined with the afterglow of Batman Begins. Many have been waiting for TDK to arrive literally since the closing credits of the first one. Factoring in the goodwill toward the cast, anything better than a massive fireball of failure was bound to be a hit. An actual good film, coasting down the long incline of sentiment and high regard, readily crossed over the praise threshold to become the Best Picture Ever, at least according to the geniuses who rate movies on IMDb.
Does it really matter? Both TDK and Iron Man did fantastically well critically and commercially, and both franchises are poised to deliver high-quality sequels. You could say the good guys are having a good year. In a world where Crash can win Best Picture over Capote and Brokeback Mountain, however, I’m a bit troubled by the canonization of a talented actor who had made three good movies in his life, not to mention the worship of Christopher Nolan at the expense of a better overall work and one of the most gifted artists of our time.
How the Pairing Held Up:Really well. It’s fun to drink wine straight from the bottle any time, but doing so in a crowded movie theater is just exceptionally satisfying.
Tastes Like: Viewing these two films back to back tasted like watching one of the most talented actors of the last 20 years improbably resurrect his DOA career. Also: Mmmmm … sweet, delicious batwing.
Overall Rating: I’m leading the TDK backlash! In the same way that dragonfly that just splattered on your windshield is leading the all-out assault on your vehicular safety.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at email@example.com.
The Dark Knight vs. Iron Man: The Boozehound Cinephile / Ted Boynton
Boozehound Cinephile | August 28, 2008 | Comments ()