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The Dark Knight (2008)

DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan

CAST:

Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Eric Roberts

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL MENTION SPECIFIC ASPECTS OF THE FILM’S PLOT

With Batman Begins, his 2005 reboot of the Batman film franchise, hailed as bringing the Caped Crusader back to the screen better than ever, Christopher Nolan had the green light to proceed with the highly-anticipated sequel that came to be called The Dark Knight. For most fans, Nolan’s return to Gotham City was worth the three year wait. Batman Begins returned Batman to respectability; The Dark Knight takes this capital and runs with it, crafting what is easily the most ambitious and adult-oriented comic book superhero movie ever made. As entertaining as the likes of X-Men and Spider-Man might be, The Dark Knight is on a whole other level.

Since defeating Ra’s Al Ghul at the climax of Batman Begins, Batman (Christian Bale) is now an established presence in Gotham City.  Criminals run and hide at the sight of the Batsignal, and once all-powerful mobsters are afraid to show their faces at night.  Officially, Batman is still considered an outlaw by the Gotham authorities, but Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) is working more and more closely with him, and the other cops mostly turn a blind eye to his association with Batman.  Gordon introduces Batman to a new ally, crusading newly-elected District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who, aided and abetted by Batman and Gordon, launches a campaign to clean up Gotham.  The trio actually starts getting things done; in fact, Dent seems so promising that Bruce sees an opportunity emerging on the horizon to hang up the Batsuit, hand over the reins to someone who can achieve the same end results as himself without having to operate outside the law or hide his face, and maybe even have a chance at a normal life with the girl that got away, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), although this could entangle him in a complicated love triangle with her current boyfriend…none other than Harvey Dent.  But Bruce, Dent, and Gordon are about to be facing a much bigger problem. As their hold over Gotham threatens to slip away, the mob turns to a man who presents himself as their savior: a bizarre, twisted criminal mastermind with a slashed smile and clownish facepaint known only as The Joker (Heath Ledger), who publicly promises dire consequences if Batman does not reveal his true identity and turn himself in.  When Batman stays in the shadows, The Joker unleashes a reign of terror on Gotham, and an escalating and unpredictable chain of events is kicked off which sets The Joker on a collision course with Batman and those close to him.

 

The most key thing that The Dark Knight does right, which was also the biggest reason for the success of Batman Begins, is that Nolan and his cast and crew treat the material completely seriously, without a whiff of camp or condescension. Nolan has mentioned not only the obvious sources of the Batman comics, but crime epics like Heat as influences (the movie’s bank robbery cold open feels a bit Heat-esque, right down to a bit part by Heat cast member William Fichtner, which may or may not be coincidental). While Batman Begins revolved around Bruce Wayne, The Dark Knight is working on a broader scope, including enough supporting characters and subplots to rival a Batman graphic novel. The movie includes any number of nods to various Batman comics, such as a rooftop meeting between Batman, Dent, and Gordon inspired by and even directly using one line of dialogue from “The Long Halloween”, and The Joker disguising himself as a policeman as in his first appearance in the comics, and making television broadcasts announcing his upcoming crimes as in “The Man Who Laughs”. Unlike many of Nolan’s films, which have reputations for toying with chronology (possibly his best-known film, Memento, goes backwards from the end to the beginning, and The Prestige and even Batman Begins feature numerous episodic flasbacks and jumps backward and forwards in time), The Dark Knight is straightforward and linear, but that doesn’t mean Nolan has abandoned his fondness for convoluted plotlines. Unsurprisingly, considering his brother and The Prestige screenwriter Jonathan Nolan co-wrote the script with him, The Dark Knight is filled with twists and turns and heads in unpredictable directions. And what might be more impressive than how completely and utterly straight Nolan plays the material might be how far he is prepared to go to defy superhero movie expectations. In everything from Superman to all three Spider-Mans to even Batman Begins, we’re used to seeing damsels in distress flung from high places and snatched from certain doom at the last minute, the villain hatching some climactic evil scheme but the innocents being rescued, good cleanly triumphing over evil, and all being well. That doesn’t always happen here, and the fact that audience members assured that certain characters are safe might be in for a surprise gives the movie a tense, uneasy feel where it seems almost anything might happen. At the time, much was made of Batman Begins taking Batman back to its darker, more serious roots, but the aptly-named The Dark Knight goes beyond anything in Begins, with a decidedly bittersweet conclusion that’s more downbeat and ambiguous than we typically expect from superhero movies.  The PG-13 rating requires the movie to shy away from graphic violence (which it occasionally skirts around in awkwardly noticeable ways) but even so, parents considering taking small children to see The Dark Knight should be advised that it is geared more for them than their children, and may be a little intense (not to mention dense and complicated) for them.

Of course, the biggest draw is The Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger, whose accidental death of a prescription drug overdose dominated talk of the movie leading up to its release along with sky-high hype and talk of a posthumous Oscar nomination.  Ledger had previously broken out of his “teen heartthrob” career beginnings with an Oscar-nominated and critically-acclaimed performance as the repressed Ennis Del Mar in 2005’s Brokeback Mountainand now he doubly impresses with another bravura performance as a character who is so wholly dissimilar to Del Mar (or for that matter, just about any other role on Ledger’s filmography) that it seems strange associating them with the same actor.  The Joker is probably the best-known comic book villain ever created, and no fictional hero and villain are as inextricably linked as Batman and The Joker. They are flip sides of the coin, order vs. chaos, and fortunately the boundless praise heaped on Ledger’s performance is not empty hyperbole.  Ledger’s all-too-soon swan song is a tour de force, not only doing justice to the character from the comics, but providing one of the most memorable and endlessly watchable movie villains since Anthony Hopkins’ indelible Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.  Ledger is occasionally morbidly humorous, but he’s no goofy caricature. He’s flippant and sardonic, but where Ledger succeeds where in my opinion Jack Nicholson’s overrated version failed is that he also makes The Joker genuinely frightening. Nicholson’s Joker overdid the former at the expense of the latter, inviting us to laugh along with and to some extent almost root for him. Ledger has moments where he gets an uneasy laugh, but his Joker is a vile, sadistic creature who wreaks death and destruction at his own capricious whims, and has zero qualms about harming innocent bystanders…as Bruce will learn painfully.

Ledger might be the most indelible performance, but he’s not the only member of the cast to do a good job. Most of the cast and crew from Batman Begins returns here (the most prominent exception being Katie Holmes, who is replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal). Christian Bale continues to be nearly the ideal Bruce Wayne/Batman, with a steely-eyed stoicism that lends him an imposing presence none of his predecessors in the role was able to match. About the only complaint is that Bale’s Batman voice, which didn’t bother me in Begins despite being a source of criticism at the time, seems more exaggerated here, occasionally to an unintentionally cringe-worthy extent. Michael Caine has slightly less to do this time, while Morgan Freeman has slightly more, but both veteran thespians are welcome in any capacity, and provide their effortless humor and dignity. Alfred again serves as Bruce’s conscience, while Fox again hooks him up with some nifty gadgets; if Bale was playing 007, Freeman would be Q. Gary Oldman has a significantly expanded role, and no silliness about driving the Tumbler. This isn’t one of Oldman’s showiest performances (in fact, he is exceptionally subdued) but he invests Gordon with a simple, dutiful integrity and makes him more of a partner for Batman instead of the vaguely bumbling sidekick Begins had him as. Aside from The Joker, the other main new character is Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent, a crusading idealistic politician of good intentions who any Batfan can tell you is fated to become the psychotic, disfigured Two-Face.  Eckhart plays Harvey with the outward wealth of slick photogenic charm, along with the growing kinks in his armor, and growing intensity as he reaches his inevitable downward spiral.  His performance exists unavoidably in the shadow of Ledger’s, but in the end it’s Harvey who has the closest of anyone to an overriding character arc.  Alas, despite being played by a different actress—Maggie Gyllenhaal instead of Katie Holmes—-Rachel Dawes does not escape again being the weak link.  The character again feels superfluous; her relationship with Dent is insufficiently developed, and the half-baked Bruce/Dent/Rachel “love triangle” is not intriguing.  The switch-up in actresses doesn’t make much of a difference one way or another, except if anything there’s even less chemistry between Bale and Gyllenhaal than there was between Bale and Katie Holmes.  In small roles we have the likes of Eric Roberts doing his patented gangster bit, Nestor Carbonell as Gotham’s Mayor, Anthony Michael Hall as a TV reporter, Michael Jai White as another of Gotham’s gang lords, and cameos from William Fichtner as a gun-toting bank manager and Cillian Murphy fleetingly reprising his role as Batman Begins‘s leftover villain Scarecrow.

Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, despite being done by the same crew, director, and much of the same cast, have markedly different tones. Begins was an origin story that devoted much of its time to developing the character of Bruce Wayne and detailing the creation of his Batman persona. Here, Batman is an established character, and the filmmakers were free to launch headfirst into the story. It opens with a bang— literally— and rarely pauses for breath from then on. Scenes go by at a rapid-fire clip. The storyline, which juggles all kinds of subplots and side characters, is complex and ambitious.  While we know Dent is doomed to become Two-Face, the Nolans put their own spin on the particulars, and we’re not certain how everything is going to wrap up. The Dark Knight is very much to Nolan’s Batman series as The Empire Strikes Back was to Star Wars, a sequel that is far more layered and ambitious than its predecessor and injects more darkness into the mix.  By the end, Gotham City teeters on the edge of anarchy, but just when it seems things can’t spin any more out of control, Nolan shows a glimmer of faith in humanity.  Law and order prevails, at least to a point, but the good guys pay terrible prices for their victories.

All this darkness and complexity doesn’t mean The Dark Knight skimps on one basic ingredient for any summer blockbuster comic book superhero movie: action. The most ambitious and extended action sequence in the film is a car chase between a SWAT van, a semi hijacked by The Joker, and the Tumbler, and there are a number of sure-fire crowd-pleasing moments, including the debut of the Batpod, a suped-up motorcycle sporting cannons and monster tires. Alas, while the hand-to-hand fights are easier to follow than Begins, this only exposes how clumsily Nolan sometimes choreographs them; Nolan may have many strengths, but a good grasp on how to handle these kinds of scenes is not one of them.  The standout sequence of the movie, in fact, isn’t any of the action bits, it’s Batman and The Joker facing each other across a table. The script gives The Joker a lot more to say than just cliched comic book villain one-liners, and we come to understand a measure of what makes him tick . In fact, there are shades in this scene of the encounters between Hannibal and Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs (which almost anyone will agree are the parts everyone remembers).

Will Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale return for a third visit to Gotham City?  The Dark Knight is open-ended enough to warrant a follow-up, but it’s up in the air at this point. At this point, whether this cast and crew ever gives us another Batman film, Batfans owe them, and Christopher Nolan above all, a debt of gratitude for giving us two Batman films that have a right to be called by that name, and in The Dark Knight, one of the most ambitious and mature “comic book movies” ever made.

***1/2

 

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