Superheroes and '70s songs

"The Dark Knight"

Since the 1940s, the superheroes who have sprung from the pages of DC and Marvel comics have been pure of heart and noble of cause. They have stood for truth, justice and the American way. Hence, each graphic tale is a morality play of sorts wherein unyielding good confronts undiluted evil and good triumphs in the end. Traditionally, these stories are generally absent an abundance of complexity or ambiguity. The superhero stands solidly on the side of the angels. The only question is can he (or she) find the strength and the resources to prevail given that the scurrilous villains are never constrained by a moral code thus giving them a decided advantage.

This duality &

good v. evil &

is the scaffolding that surrounds "The Dark Knight" in spades while the film examines shades of gray and the existential quandary created when means and ends are weighed. All, apparently, to good effect, for this record breaking summer blockbuster, which earned $66 million on its opening day, is all about moral ambiguity in the starkest terms. The film brings to mind Friedrich Nietzsche's admonition, "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. When you gaze long into the abyss the abyss also gazes into you." In this, the darkest of the Batman films &

"Batman Begins," also directed by Christopher Nolan, was dark and brooding, yet ultimately redemptive &

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is confronted with a character so malevolent that he is forced to ask himself what he must become in order to defeat him. In other words, Wayne is forced to gaze into the abyss, into the world of the Joker (Heath Ledger), shuddering as he comes to understand that the abyss is gazing into him.

The Joker, the flotsam of a deeply depraved family, has no motive for the damage and carnage he creates other than he thrives on chaos and destruction. A scorched earth is what he seeks, the ruins necessary if he is to nurture his twisted and distorted soul. His scarred face forming a rictus smile, smeared with red lipstick, his features lost behind white grease paint, the Joker wants only to wreak pain and havoc. The psychopath, absent all moral constraints, can, for a time, render a society that values human life powerless. Why does the Joker wage a remorseless and arbitrary war against Gotham City, Batman and the police? Because he can. The mobsters of Gotham pale by comparison.

Unlike previous Batman films, Ledger's Joker is not a parody, or an attempt at high camp. His is the face of pure evil and nothing about him even hints at comic relief. All is serious and grim, his persona conveying the dank smell of graveyards and the sweet, cloying redolence of busy morgues. Where he came from, how and why he appeared on the Gotham scene, is never explained. But then evil is ever with us, made manifest in kaleidoscopic forms: the face of the Joker is a death's head that has appeared on the world's stage before, most recently on the lapel of a Nazi uniform or at the controls of a passenger jet as it flies into the World Trade Center towers.

And so Batman mines his basest and most violent instincts as he duels with this archetype of the angel of death, thus making this film one of the darkest and probing superhero films ever. Scene after scene take the caped crusader ever deeper into the recesses of the Joker's nightmare, a dystopia where the human heart is at its darkest and most desiccated. The question that haunts the film is: can he prevail and still be Batman or must he devolve into something far removed from himself?

For almost two hours, "The Dark Knight" is riveting. If it is flawed in any way, it is to be found in the last 30 minutes when Nolan, who also co-wrote the screenplay, seems to rush to conclude the film with an over-plotted and convoluted wrap-up coupled with nonstop destruction and an ever so brief denouement. There is, of course, the perpetual difficulty faced by Bale (and all his antecedents) of conveying his intensity from behind a mask which hides not only his identity but his emotions. There were moments in the film when it seemed appropriate for him to rip off the headgear and face the Joker eye to eye.

A word about Heath Ledger's amazing performance as the Joker. Within minutes of the film's set up, Ledger inhabits the character so completely, with such strength and verisimilitude, that his presence becomes such a vital source of electric tension that when he is absent the film drops noticeably in wattage. As acting goes, this is a tour de force wherein a hundred small and disturbing mannerisms and tics are brought together making the Joker not a curiosity but a man that is both vile and abhorrent and at the same time intriguing and transcendent. It is deeply regrettable that Ledger is not alive to hear the accolades which have already been bestowed on his performance, concluding, most likely, with an Oscar nomination. He was only 28 when he died.

Mama Mia!

"Mama Mia!" is, well, some two dozen ABBA songs from the 70s woven into a serviceable story which requires everyone in the film to sing at least once. And likely gives teenagers or twenty-somethings in the audience, who have never heard of ABBA, cause to ask: Why, in a pregnant moment between Sam (Pierce Brosnan) and Donna (Meryl Streep), would either launch into song rather than finish their conversation? But isn't that always the hurdle musicals of this ilk have to surmount?

The plot revolves around young Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) whose wedding in imminent. She invites three men, Sam, Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), and Harry (Colin Firth) to her wedding, hoping to learn which one is her father. Apparently Donna, some 20 years before, had a summer of love on a gorgeous Greek Island &

where she now lives and runs a small hotel and where she has raised Sophie who was the result of one her three liaisons (which one is uncertain).

So, with her two best friends, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Waters), who have also just arrived for the wedding, all is in place for some serious dancing and singing, as well as intense discussion as to who will walk Sophie down the aisle. All of this drama is punctuated with song ("Money, Money, Money"; "Dancing Queen"; "Super Trouper"; "Does Your Mother Know"; and, of course, "Mama Mia!"), sung in great part by Sophie and Donna, backed up by a Greek chorus, so to speak, of locals who are helping with the wedding and appear when needed. All of the cast has a chance at a vocal, to include Brosnan who does his best but is far more comfortable delivering a line than singing it.

How engaging is the music? For some it still has real juice. As the film concluded and credits rolled, the screen is split and Donna, Rosie and Tanya, dressed in outrageous 70s outfits, sing "Dancing Queen." In the theatre, several rows away, three women stand up and begin dancing, swaying side to side, their arms in the air, and, like a Broadway production, make their exit. ABBA, apparently, still has that effect on moviegoers. Or so the studio is betting.

Is this a chick flick? Absolutely. Like "Sex and the City," this movie is all about women. The only question is, will they show up and buy tickets? The stage musical, to date, has sold some 30 million tickets. What will the movie do?

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