Comic book movies have finally come of age with The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s exhilarating follow up to his 2005 blockbuster Batman Begins. More a morality tale and crime thriller in the vein of a Michael Mann or Martin Scorsese opus than your typical visual effects and action-laden superhero movie, Knight is played as seriously and realistically as possible, which helps make it an early front runner for the best American film of the year.
Knight picks up a short time after Begins ends. Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego, Batman (Christian Bale), have helped deal a hefty blow to Gotham City’s criminal underworld. And yet, for his troubles, Batman and his work have not been universally welcomed by the public he protects. While some do respect and support Batman’s war on crime (he’s even inspired a small group of copycat Batmen), others believe he is nothing more than a vigilante that has caused more harm than good (a charge fueled by the media). It’s enough to make the billionaire Wayne think that perhaps Gotham doesn’t deserve a Dark Knight; it deserves a White Knight instead.
That White Knight could be popular District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who himself has done a solid job waging Gotham’s official, legitimate war on organized crime. But when his crackdown hits a snag, he reluctantly joins forces with Batman (whom he feels is a vigilante) and Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). The triumvirate proves to be so effective, Bruce Wayne seriously considers hanging up Batman’s cowl for good, a move also fueled by the hope of winning back the love of his life, assistant D.A. –and Dent’s current girlfriend-Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
But the trio soon find themselves prey to a rising criminal mastermind, an unpredictable psychopath known only as the Joker (the late Heath Ledger). With no grand plan or agenda to speak of, the Joker’s mission is simple: thrust Gotham into disorder and create more death, destruction and anarchy until Batman reveals his true identity. The scarred freak’s escalated campaign of chaos forces everyone, including Batman himself, to cross lines they’d never dared to before, blurring the line between hero and vigilante.
In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne committed himself to creating a symbol representing the incorruptible nature of Gotham City, a symbol that would strike fear into the hearts and minds of criminals everywhere. In The Dark Knight, Wayne sees in District Attorney Harvey Dent many of these same qualities, wrapped not in abstract symbolism but in the more powerful and effective form of a real-life, flesh-and-blood man. To Wayne, Dent is Gotham and all its potential for good. The Joker senses this, too, and conspires to subject Dent– and all that he represents– to the ultimate test. For the Joker, the road to victory is paved with the Harvey Dents of the world and all their good intentions. And so, Dent’s fate and the fate of Gotham itself become one and the same.
I was one of Batman Begins’ biggest supporters when it opened three years ago. Nolan, who I personally think is the best new filmmaker to emerge out of Hollywood since Steven Soderbergh arrived in 1989, gave us a Batman film that actually had some depth to it. Sure, the film had a few issues (what movie doesn’t?): an all-too familiar Big Scheme for the bad guys, fight scenes shot too close to make things out, Katie Holmes. Those nitpicks aside, Begins was the first Caped Crusader adventure to properly develop the characters of Wayne and Batman and took the time to examine what it was that drove them and made them tick. The movie proved to be a smart, involving action drama that went a long way in erasing the cinematic dark times inflicted by the horrific Joel Schumacher entries from the mid 1990s.
The Dark Knight takes things to a whole new level. On the surface, it is the big-budget action extravaganza you would expect from a summer event movie. But it is also one that rectifies the issues inherent with Batman Begins. The action scenes, chases and fights are all handled more competently here (translation: you can clearly make out what is going on), improvements none more proudly on display than in the breathtaking vehicle chase at the film’s midpoint. This is all beautifully captured in both anamorphic 35mm and large-screen IMAX formats by cinematographer Wally Pfister, expertly edited by Lee Smith and backed by another thunderous, superbly moody music score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer.
But there is more –a lot more- to The Dark Knight than what meets the eye. Under the spectacle lies a morally complex story (written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan) that examines the nature of identity, what makes and defines a hero, as well as the morality and consequences of one’s actions. Add multiple allusions to 9/11 and the War on Terrorism via the Joker’s campaign of chaos, and you have a rock-solid foundation for Nolan’s trademark focused, passionate directing to work its magic once again. The end result is a dense, relentlessly intense film (parents are strongly advised to leave the kids at home) that, to a degree, is overwhelming on an initial viewing but rewarding on subsequent ones.
For all its technical and storytelling professionalism, The Dark Knight would not be as accomplished were it not for its superb acting ensemble. Tim Burton’s 1989 original focused almost exclusively on Jack Nicholson’s grandiose performance as the Joker, and little else. While Heath Ledger’s Joker is certainly a major presence this time, Nolan’s complex story does not allow the character the room to steal the show. Ledger and his Joker character are better integrated; just spokes in the wheel, rather than being the wheel. And so, The Dark Knight plays more like an ensemble and less like a vanity project.
Bale, despite a slightly reduced amount of screen time, excels once again, giving his performance enough shading and gravitas to further develop his characters. Aaron Eckhart is equally as impressive as Dent, smartly balancing his performance with conviction and believability so the viewer buys into his crusade and eventual downfall. Gyllenhaal makes for a nice replacement for Katie Holmes, while the terrifically understated Oldman, Michael Caine (as Alfred) and Morgan Freeman (as weapons expert Lucius Fox) all see their roles from the first movie expanded upon here, and give performances worthy of that additional screen time.
But the real standout performance-wise, of course, is the one we have heard the most about: Heath Ledger’s. Channeling elements of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex from A Clockwork Orange and the late punk rocker Sid Vicious into his role, Ledger gives us a Joker that is a truly unpredictable, terrifying force of nature, someone whose soul purpose is, to quote Caine’s Alfred, to watch the world burn. Ledger’s final completed screen role is everything the pre-release hyperbole made it out to be: darkly funny, incredibly unsettling and always fascinating to watch.
Screen villains are a dime a dozen, always have been and always will be. But every so often, you get one that makes such an impression on you that you feel like they are right there with you in the theater instead of being just a flickering image on a movie screen. Ledger’s take on the iconic crime clown is one that, in time, will stand proudly among the likes of Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigur and McDowell’s Alex. Premature death or not, this is a truly remarkable performance from a talented actor worthy of all the huzzahs it has been getting, and one worthy of the possible posthumous awards it may merit at year’s end.
If there is a downside to be had with The Dark Knight, it might be that the bar has been raised so high in terms of quality and expectation that Christopher Nolan and company might have set themselves up for the fall when they get around to making the third film. There is also the daunting task of creating a formidable foe for Batman to do battle with.
But there is plenty of time to ponder those film-geek questions in our minds and online over the next three years. For now, we have something worth championing: an event movie that is smart, exciting and involving. This Knight might be dark and stormy, but it is also quite breathtaking as well.
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Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine.
Screenplay by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, screen story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer
Directed by Christopher Nolan