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The Dark Knight vs. Revenge of the Sith

Why Lucas's Much-Maligned Epic is Better Than Nolan's Latest - In Every Respect


Of all the insults hurled at me for my dismissive review of The Dark Knight, the one that rankled most was "artsy fartsy crybaby can't enjoy a popcorn movie." I can take being called a mouth-breathing mountain dweller -- but why go after my nerd cred, man? Where were you to defend me against the snobs when I called Revenge of the Sith the best movie of 2005?

Once again on the wrong side of the consensus, I now offer a comparison of George Lucas's tragically misunderstood pop masterpiece and the absurdly overpraised muddle for which Christopher Nolan is now treated as the second coming of Alfred Hitchcock.

1. Genre Expectations

The Dark Knight is being praised for "transcending" the superhero genre and adding a "dark twist" that makes it "more real." Star Wars is technically sci-fi, although the super-powered Jedi Knights have more in common with comic books than with Arthur C. Clarke. I believe that Sith manages to satisfy as enjoyable space opera while adding tragic depth and political weight, whereas The Dark Knight fails both as comic book spectacle and the gritty, hard-boiled film noir it aspires to be. Both films stretch their genre definitions; only one of them actually kicks any ass.

2. Action, or The Fun Factor

The first thing we all want from a summer blockbuster is stuff blowing up. Chases, races, fights, ka-blooey. I grant that The Dark Knight has its share of action scenes, but on closer inspection, they all disappoint. There's an interminable setup for an excitement-free sequence in Hong Kong, a poorly edited and difficult-to-follow bike chase topped by a truck flipping over (yawn), and documentary footage of a building demolition--what is this, Koyaanisqatsi? Sith's opening shot of a raging space battle offers more kicks than all of The Dark Knight combined, and it's followed by a spectacular crash landing, epic lightsaber confrontations, and all-out intergalactic war. For his grand finale, Batman beats up some guys in a construction site.

3. Visual Appeal

Even on the surface, Sith trumps Dark Knight in terms of eye candy and visual imagination, and that goes double for the IMAX screen. Aside from a few swooping city shots, The Dark Knight wallows in the murk of its drab, modernist Gotham, which has lost its Gothic appeal. Like all Star Wars prequels, Sith is overstuffed with creatures, costumes, and effects, but here, the baroque design is subjected to an appropriate third-act treatment as it slowly descends into darkness: for most of the film, it is dusk, and after Anakin's turn, night falls on the galaxy. The illuminating use of darkness can't be matched by The Dark Knight's heedless back-and-forth between moody night shots and overlit day, serving no dramatic purpose.

4. Heroes

Let me state the obvious first: what's with Batman's tuberculosis-ravaged voice? For me, all pretense of realism went right out the window as soon as the Caped Crusader opened his mouth. Anakin Skywalker may be a petulant kid, but when he finally gets his mask on, it's the classic Vader rasp we hear. They're both broody guys, but Anakin's fighting skills don't need to be chopped into hectic ADD sequences to thrill, and his turn to the dark side doesn't just involve a symbol on a lantern being smashed -- it permanently changes the face of the galaxy. (More on that in a minute.) Also, he's not afraid of dogs. As for the white knight, is Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan vs. Aaron Eckhardt's Harvey Dent even a contest?

5. Villains

This is a harder sell -- clearly, Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker is the most interesting thing about The Dark Knight, and he's got a few horrifying tricks up his sleeve. Ultimately, though, Ian McDiarmid's salacious, insinuating Palpatine is the more powerful character because his evil plans actually work out: he successfully corrupts the hero of the series and turns him into the most recognizable villain in all of cinema, while the Joker concedes that he can never kill Batman -- hell, he can't even convince hardened convicts to push a button. And he goes out like a chump too, dangling from a rope like a punchline nobody cares for. Advantage Star Wars.

6. Romance

The wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Rachel Dawes, the object of desire in a love triangle between Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent, and like Anakin's love for Natalie Portman's Padme, the romance ends in tragedy. But Rachel's demise is neither set up nor paid off properly -- the kidnapping that seals her fate is conveniently skipped, and it turns out that ultimately, a switched address is responsible for her death. Batman gets played like a fool, and then we learn that Rachel didn't love him to begin with. In sharp contrast, in a climactic scene that has been carefully prepared, Padme is killed by her lover and husband -- what could be more morbidly romantic? Her funeral is enough to make Jar-Jar Binks weep.

7. Dialogue

Fine, you say, but what about the dialogue? Surely, anybody can see that The Dark Knight is better written than Star Wars? I say, not so fast. In a cheesy-line showdown, "The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules!" is up there with "Good is a point of view, Anakin," but Star Wars never mistakes itself for anything other than a space opera, and while the dialogue isn't Mamet (it's Stoppard, actually), it fits perfectly into the world Lucas created. But "Either you die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain!" makes a poor fit with "Your balls fall off, or what?" Batman's dialogue can never seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be DC or Scorsese.

8. Plot

Next to its visual imagination and mythic resonance, its increasingly well-structured plot is Star Wars' strongest element. Revenge of the Sith perfectly ties together a cycle of six interlocking films, presenting the precisely drawn final act in its hero's downfall. As the sixth Batman film, The Dark Knight pretends four of them didn't happen at all and dispatches with the previous installment's villain in what seems like an afterthought. Lacking an overarching purpose, the story simply piles up a mess of arbitrary episodes that stop rather than end. Unresolved questions that can't be chalked up to willful ambiguity (did Dent die?) show that the writers were more concerned with leaving options for sequels than telling a satisfying story.

9. Political Themes

For megabuck entertainments, both movies show a surprising interest in our contemporary political reality, spending inordinate amounts of time in the offices of supreme chancellors and district attorneys. Over three movies, Star Wars mapped out the way democracies turn to fascism ("This is how liberty dies - to thunderous applause!"), and Dark Knight references the War on Terror, interrogation methods bordering on torture, illegal wiretapping, and the power of fear. Gotham represents a barely sane allegory for post-9/11 America ("All it takes is a little push!") whose last best hope is a psychopath in a costume operating at the edges of legality. Star Wars posits the possibility of an organized resistance and return to democratic ideals.

10. Good vs. Evil

Aside from the larger political themes, both films are also concerned with personal choices that lead to "good" or "evil." The Dark Knight hints at the connection between hero and villain ("You complete me!"), but when Batman moves "beyond heroism" by fighting his vigilante war with dirty tricks, the film fails to follow through on its gloomy thesis -- as a "silent guardian" and "watchful protector," we can still admire him. Star Wars presents a much more radical (dare I say darker?) view by showing how Anakin, for well-delineated reasons of his own, becomes evil himself. Batman takes the blame for a few murders he didn't commit. Anakin slaughters the younglings and destroys peace in the galaxy for decades. Who's the real Dark Knight?

11. The End

The Dark Knight ends in a speech that is supposed to carry the burden of what we just saw and spell it out: "Why is Batman running, daddy?" Instead of giving his transformation any actual screen time and portraying its consequences, we'll have to take Gordon's word for it. (To be continued etc.) Revenge of the Sith, like all Star Wars episodes, ends in an extended silent montage of pure cinema that carries the accumulated emotional force of six movies and brings them to a magnificent close. Far from completing the alleged rape of everybody's childhood, Revenge of the Sith offers stronger characters, more popcorn excitement, tighter drama, and more consistently rendered themes than Nolan's wildly over-hyped film.

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