Reel Rumbles #16 – “The Dark Knight” vs. “Fight Club”
In This Corner…
Duplicity is the order of the day for this week’s Reel Rumbles, and I don’t mean that forgettable Julia Roberts flick that came out just a short while ago. This week, two tales of anarchy go head to head. In one, we join a dark avenger protecting the citizens of Gotham City from chaos. In another, we follow a fed-up white collar Joe out to cause a little chaos of his own. This week deserves a better class of criminal, and you’re going to get him as a certain Caped Crusader, and a guy named Tyler who suspiciously favors Brad Pitt face off for bragging rights in The Dark Knight vs. Fight Club.
Round One: Story
The first rule about Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club. With this bond, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and the Narrator (Edward Norton) begin an interesting relationship of male camaraderie and quarter-life angst that goes from basic depression to a full-blown terrorist movement. It’s an overblown concept, and a story that should not be as captivating as it is thanks to the dark humor and sensibilities of its author Chuck Palahniuk, whose novel receives the pleasure of being one of the most faithful page-to-screen adaptations ever rendered in this 1999 effort from director David Fincher. The Narrator is a man searching for something special to clear his detachment towards society. His penthouse apartment, plush furniture, and comfortably boring job just aren’t cutting it anymore. He wants to shake things up. Anything to break the monotony that surrounds him. He seeks help by attending cancer support groups, where he frequently goes to hear other people’s problems. While there, he meets Robert “Bob” Paulson (Meat Loaf), or bitch-tits, a man whose cancer treatments for the testicular variety have led to an overabundance of estrogen that creates very large, very feminine breasts that the Narrator often finds himself pressed against in tear-filled sobs. It’s his only emotional release. And then he meets Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), a fellow faker intent on invading his sanctuary. Each picks up on the other’s scent, and thus begins a tumultuous relationship that grows even more complicated with the addition of Durden, who befriends the Narrator while catching her eye and turning them both towards a world of anarchy where all bets are off. Fight Club is about the thrill of letting go and finding yourself as much as it is a dark and sometimes hilarious expose of inner male aggression.
The Dark Knight (2008) benefits from its simplicity. On the surface, it is a good versus evil story about a costumed hero trying to stop a maniacal comic book villain from killing a whole lot of people for no other reasons than a love for anarchy and good-old fashioned insanity. There isn’t really anything deeper beyond what you will see in 2005’s initial entry Batman Begins, but the performances add a new depth that makes this a special film. Still, you have to credit the Nolan brothers for doing such a great job of writing these characters and staying true to the spirit of the original stories. It’s a fresh take, and familiar enough to win our appreciation. And while it succeeds in bringing an old character into a new age, it’s Fight Club that takes the round with its generation-defining qualities and inimitable voice.
Round Two: Script
The Dark Knight leaves at its center the performances — more on that later — but it is enhanced by an incredible script co-written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan. Their creation pays tribute to some of the earliest Batman-Joker stories, as shown in the heart-stopping Godfather-like hits the Joker and his men place on some of Gotham City’s most powerful public servants. It also pays homage to recent works such as the graphic novels The Long Halloween and Dark Victory. By respecting the source material, The Dark Knight transcends summer movie escapism, and is, quite frankly, a great film. Stark, brutal, and haunting, it’s about people, not comic book characters — and that’s where its true super-heroics lie. However, it suffers from one small caveat that slightly derails its momentum in act three. After a brilliantly orchestrated false ending, and a great opportunity to set up the sequel, it keeps going. The rest of The Dark Knight after a stunning action set-piece is rushed and contrived. The script really never has a chance to make anything out of the Two-Face storyline, and now it seems it never will. It feels like a wasted opportunity slapped on to the end of a nearly perfect movie. Fight Club, on the other hand, takes its cues from the razor-sharp wit and superb pacing of Palahniuk’s book. Screenwriter Jim Uhls may be following blueprints, but what blueprints they are! As a result, the nod goes to Fight Club, 10-9.
Round Three: Performances
If the definition of a perfect acting performance is to remove all traces of self where only the character remains, then with The Dark Knight there are two indisputable realities: 1) Perfection is very hard to come by no matter how much an actor is paid (or worth); and 2) Heath Ledger has created the rare exception to this rule with his turn as The Joker. Skeptical audiences will no doubt withhold judgment until they’ve seen Ledger work his tragic magic on the classic villain for themselves. Others may be too willing to swallow the advertising and bandwagon-hype before they’ve actually seen whether he delivers. But when you’ve been disappointed as much as I have by Hollywood’s hype and critic-based “causes,” such as the seemingly premature Oscar campaign for Ledger’s performance, you tend to err on the side of skeptics. Taking this under advisement before watching The Dark Knight, it could neither thrill nor sadden me more that things turned out as well as this. To harp on Ledger’s performance as the green-haired clown prince of crime – the man with the scarred grin, whom we can neither trust nor love nor hate – is to give credit where it’s mostly due. But one must be careful not to forget this film has a lot more going for it than one performance. Maggie Gyllenhaal steps effortlessly into the role vacated by Katie Holmes, and makes viewers unaware there is even a difference. Aaron Eckhart provides just the right amount of nobility as D.A. Harvey Dent to make Batman/Bruce Wayne’s embrace of his ideals and character infectious. Michael Caine, returning as butler/father-figure Alfred, simmers with dry wit and insightful fatherly guidance to our hero. Gary Oldman excels with much more responsibility as Lieutenant Gordon, one of the few honest cops in Gotham City. Morgan Freeman proves as reliable as ever running Wayne Enterprises and filling in the few paternal gaps Caine leaves open.
Last but not least, Christian Bale straddles the divide between Batman and his alter-ego Bruce Wayne (and yes, that’s the correct order) with a high-wire act no other actor in the role has compared to. Bale, in this and 2005’s Batman Begins, earns the mantle as this franchise’s Sean Connery, and it’s hard to imagine another actor right for the role at this point in the series.
Fight Club is outmatched when it comes to the performances, and that is saying something, because Norton and Pitt really do make a solid on-screen pairing. Carter’s vamp Marla is also worthy of note as the film’s only real dose of much-needed estrogen, though she, too, seems to be an extension of the character’s neuroses. But this is one area where The Dark Knight reigns supreme, 10-8.
Round Four: Direction
David Fincher and Christopher Nolan are two equally talented men. As a whole, it is difficult to determine which works best behind the camera. Fincher’s Seven (1995) established him as a force to be reckoned with, but in his sophomore effort, Nolan created one of the best films of the Aughties (Memento, 2000). Luckily, this is a matter of isolating two individual works and determining which is handled more aptly. Nolan’s decision to stay too long at the dance is what ultimately proves to be his undoing. The Dark Knight tries to deliver too much and falls just short of its full potential thanks to its rush-job ending, the blame for which must be laid at the doorstep of Nolan for his decision to keep going rather than tie things up more efficiently and wait for the next film. What he seems to be doing here is noble, and that is giving us two great films for the price of one. Unfortunately, he only delivers about one and a half. Meanwhile, Fincher follows suit with an adequately paced and faithful dramatization of Palahniuk’s novel chocked full with subtleties that flesh out the world of the novel in a more manageable runtime. It’s truly efficient filmmaking, and for this reason he lands the win, 10-9.
And the Winner Is…
In one corner, The Dark Knight accomplishes more on a technical level than any other superhero movie ever made. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is the most enjoyable, but it certainly crosses over into the realm of film where other efforts fail to tread. However, it has a thing or two to learn about pacing and showmanship. In the opposing corner, Fight Club capitalizes on these weak moments. It is a biting satire, a compelling thriller, and a hilarious comedy, that moves along at a nice even pace, and leaves the party on a high note. As such, it claims a victory with the final result:
Fight Club – SPLIT DECISION