The Dark Knight (2008) / Action-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense violence
Running time: 152 min.
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Eric Roberts, Monique Curnen, Anthony Michael Hall, Michael Jai White, Nestor Carbonell
Cameo: Cillian Murphy, William Fichtner, Edison Chen, Patrick Leahy, Tommy 'Tiny' Lister, Nicky Katt
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Review published July 24, 2008
It's difficult to believe that, with all of the superhero franchises that have come out prior to 2008, the creative minds didn't employ the strategy of saving the most popular and interesting villain for the second film in their respective series. Usually, the main nemesis is featured and killed off in the first film, and with the origin of the main superhero, the supporting players, and setting up the main themes, this magnificent villain is given short shrift, gone from the scene before we had the chance to truly appreciate him. Batman Begins was a smart move, as the powers that be knew that Batman had what it took, popularity wise, to deliver on at least a trilogy, so they ingeniously saved his main nemesis, The Joker, for the second film, and delivered a great deal of buzz in the interim years by tipping off fans to that fact. Heath Ledger's (Candy, Casanova) death during the end of the production phase certainly drummed up a great deal of additional publicity, especially given that this may be, arguably, the role that would have catapulted him from star to superstar status.
Picking up not long after where the first film leaves off, the city of Gotham's criminal underworld is on its heels, reeling from the onslaught of Batman (Bale, 3:10 to Yuma), who has been busy dismantling the vast, intricate criminal understructure piece by piece, with some help from his partner against crime on the police force, Lieutenant Gordon (Oldman, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). The two aren't alone in their quest, as on another large front, the tenacious and honorable Harvey Dent (Eckhart, No Reservations), Gotham's hotshot newly-elected district attorney and new lover for Bruce Wayne's former flame Rachel Dawes (Gyllenhaal, Stranger Than Fiction), has been diligently putting away every two-bit thug and big-time crime figure found under every slimy rock he looks under. Just when things seem to finally be coming under control, to the point where Bruce Wayne thinks that the Batman may no longer be needed, a new breed of criminal emerges -- a sinister, scarred presence with the face of a clown, leaving his calling card, a joker playing card, around wherever he goes. There's only one agenda on the Joker's mind, and that's to send Gotham into complete anarchy, undoing all of the law and order that Dent and the Batman have built up.
Brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan (The Prestige, Memento) take a chance that is rare for such a production, delivering an inordinate amount of drama to what many perceive as an action film first. The gamble pays off in spades, as we see sides to the Batman saga that feel fresh and inventive, even if the conflict between Batman and Joker has been the oft-told story in the character's history. What distinguishes The Dark Knight from most of its brethren is that it targets adults much more so than teenagers. Batman Begins started the trend to a certain extent, but this sequel removes many of its predecessor's lighter touches, and in its place, a great deal of psychological thriller elements that is unusually intense for a grossly commercial PG-13 endeavor.
Batman, as a character, had originally been born out of "Detective Comics", and that's essentially what this feels like, a hardboiled detective story with very colorful characters and schemes that speak right to today's headlines. This isn't just Joker doing dastardly deeds until Batman thwarts him. This is a multi-textured commentary on the state of a society coming to terms with living in a post-9/11 era, having to face such issues as whether it is right or just to be as unscrupulous in the manner we fight terrorists as the terrorists are in targeting agencies of government and innocent civilians. Even such things as the "wire-tapping" debate are brought up. Should government be allowed, in the name of protecting us, to monitor areas we deem to be private in the pursuit of those who seek to do us harm? These are the issues that Batman must deal with in this film, as we see a flawed character constantly at odds between doing what's right and doing what's just. That's really the heart of The Dark Knight -- the struggle in all of us in our desire to combat abject wickedness without becoming just as wicked in the process.
What The Dark Knight gains through the many scenes of talking heads is a sense of scope, relevance, and thematic resonance. There are moments of action, some of them approaching the epic scale of a typical Hollywood blockbuster, but none of them are on the level where they are trying to blow away audiences with their sheer magnitude. Nolan sets up his action scenes like thrill rides that still manage to give character nuance, as we see Joker manically try to keep his schemes together while dealing with a formidable foe in Batman, who is becoming increasingly agitated that the enemy keeps slipping like mercury through his fingers. Like the playing card Joker leaves around the city to give clues or take credit for his misdeeds, Batman continues to sense that there's always something more up his adversary's sleeve, not sure if he's winning or losing, and even unsure that, when he's caught, if it's just another power play scheme underneath.
Interesting that, like opposite sides of the same coin, the two foils fight for their respective sides for reasons that lie above and beyond personal ambition. Just as Bruce Wayne is compelled to become the Batman in his quest to serve a higher calling, so too does the Joker in his attempt to expose the rest of humanity as fallible and corrupt. Joker has the opportunity to use his guile for personal gain, but he'd rather use the pursuit of monetary gains in others to manipulate the political environment to his favor, setting the wheels in motion that would seek to topple the pious and holier-than-thou Batman and his goody-good counterpart, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Freud would love the id-ego-super ego dynamic). We never quite know what events in Joker's past created such a monster out of a man, and his embellishments suggest that he may no longer know fully himself. However, one thing that is clear: Joker is the mirror image of Batman, seeking to stamp out all do-gooders in Gotham with the same conviction that Batman seeks to eradicate the evil-doers.
Much of the buzz surrounding the film comes from the fact that Heath Ledger delivers the performance of a lifetime in what would be the final completed work (his true final film will be Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). Due to his death, the cloud of mystique over the film is quite thick indeed, and while I wouldn't rank his performance up among the upper echelon of screen greats, the statements that it is at least worth entertaining an Oscar nod are not without merit. His version of the Joker is creepy and cancerous, like a gnarly thorn in Batman's side, getting his goat at every opportunity in his attempt to bring out the dark elements of the crime fighter, His goal is to make the side of the law no different than the crooks, evening the playing field until one can no longer tell who the good guys and bad guys are -- a state of complete anarchy. Ledger's mutilated face, seductively serpent-like tongue, and jerky, agonized body language all work in unison to give the sole figure a depth of evil that can't be easily estimated, as he looks and acts like no one we've seen before. Whether or not the praise for his performance meets the hype is a subject for debate, but I can state with reasonable certainty that Ledger makes Joker the most effectively diabolical and interesting movie villain in any superhero film to date. It's hard to imagine a better portrayal of him within the context of the movie, or a better performance.
As a whole, The Dark Knight is an impressive achievement for Christopher Nolan, who deals with the comic book medium as if he's adapting a work from Shakespeare, with all of the gravitas that decades of mythos in the print and screen command. For years I have debated which superhero film is the best, as there are many solid candidates. There's no longer an argument, at least in my mind. The Dark Knight isn't perfect, as it runs long enough for its length to become noticeable, especially when action scenes are put on hold to give way to extended explorations of underworld dynamics. When the action does take hold, it can be rather dark and confusing, with an abundance of shadows that generates an overriding mood, but it's difficult to see just what's going on during the long stretches of special effects-laden thrills. Thankfully, these scenes don't necessitate intricate analysis, and Nolan does mix it up with personal moments between characters to continue the overall story arc's momentum throughout.
Whether you're a comic book fan, action movie buff, or just want to see an example of a superhero film that manages to transcend its pulpy roots to deliver a work that holds substance, The Dark Knight is practically a must-see experience. Many other superhero films have been fun and exciting times, but the effect of The Dark Knight lingers far beyond the end credits, giving us something more to think about in terms of the complex and crazy world we live in. Nolan challenges us to look at our efforts to combat what we perceive our notions of evil are, and asks us to look in the mirror to see if we are really any different in how we behave in our pursuit to eradicate the Jokers of the world, both real and of our own making.
-- Followed by The Dark Knight Rises.
©2008 Vince Leo