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Dark Knight, The (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 18 July 2008
“The Dark Knight” is more than just the latest superhero movie, more even than the newest Batman movie—it takes the superhero movie is a different direction. Here, though there are many stunning action sequences, including a showstopper chase scene late in the film, the emphasis is on the characters and their relationships. The movie is still stylized, still taking place in a world other than ours, but it’s more involving, more a real drama than most such films.

The movie is unusually detailed, with at least five strong central characters. It covers a lot of ground emotionally and in terms of events. It’s complex in the character relationships and in terms of action—and I haven’t even mentioned Batman’s activities in Hong Kong. The production values are strong—with this budget, they’d damned well be—and it’s a great-looking movie. Six sequences were shot in IMAX (in a 1.44:1 aspect ratio), the first time this has been done for a feature film, although the print I saw was in standard format. Christopher Nolan is an inventive, imaginative director; I’m sure the IMAX sequences (mostly action scenes) will look even better in that big-screen format.

The movie has gained an unwanted notoriety because of the death in January of co-star Heath Ledger (effects technician Comway Wickliffe also died, in an accident associated with the film; both are paid tribute on screen). But Ledger’s memorable here for more reasons than having died too young—his performance as the Joker is definitive. In earlier on-screen incarnations, he’s been just a gaudy crook who laughs a lot (Cesar Romero in the TV series) or a vengeful lunatic pitting himself against the Batman (Jack Nicholson in the Tim Burton movie). Here, the Joker is as mysterious at the end as he is at the beginning; all we know about him is that he’s brilliant, has a vivid but usually inappropriate sense of humor, and that he not only loves chaos, he seeks to bring it about. He doesn’t give a damn about money—he even sets a pile of bills ablaze—nor really about power. He has the same function in this story that a joker does in a card deck: he’s a wild card, an agent of disruptive change.

He can’t be pinned down, he’s constantly shifting position and means of attack. His face reflects this: his eyes dart from side to side, his tongue flicks over his lips. The Joker, of course, has always had white skin, red lips in a broad, permanent grin, and green hair. Here, he CHOOSES to have those features—the white greasepaint is occasionally wiped off part of his face; the next time we see him, he’s reapplied it. His matted, dirty-looking hair is dark green, like some seaweed. He does have a carved grin—the corners of his mouth terminate in scars. Twice in the movie, he explains to a captive how he got those scars—and the two explanations are completely different, even contradictory. (We do know he hated his father—there’s a concept, Father of the Joker—and after the exciting bank-robbery sequence that opens the movie, we know he must be a smooth talker, or how could he enlist new henchmen?)
Ledger’s performance is riveting, engrossing; we miss him when he’s not on screen. The Joker’s mind is constantly churning—no wonder he loves chaos, that’s what his mind delivers every day. Ledger makes this incredible, disturbing creature entirely credible; his performance is as valid and committed as if he were playing Hamlet. And the Joker is occasionally funny, as is traditional, and does laugh a lot; even when he falls off a tall building (no, that’s not a spoiler), he’s still laughing. As usual, the Joker favors purple and green for his clothes, but he’s not the flashy clown Nicholson was, his clothes aren’t the modified Zoot suit the Joker wore for years in comic books. He looks like he just crawled out from under a junkyard bus. He’s dangerous partly because he’s unpredictable, partly because he’s completely fearless—he seems at time to embrace pain, and clearly doesn’t really care very much whether he lives or dies. How can you intimidate or even come close to controlling an opponent without greed, who shrugs off pain, who’s casually murderous—and cares no more for his own life than he does for the lives of others? He wants to force those with morals and ethics into betraying their basic beliefs. As Alfred quietly remarks about the Joker, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Batman (again Christian Bale) has his hands full.

But not just with the Joker, though he’s the principal vivid villain in the movie. Bruce Wayne had hoped that the advent of the Batman in Gotham City would reduce the crime rate; instead, he has raised it. Criminals are competing, but trying to get their own money out of the city, hoping to funnel it off through a Hong Kong contact. The Joker, who just stole a whole hell of a lot of money himself, offers to make things easier for the mob by killing Batman—all he wants is half of their money.

Meanwhile, new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) has been making a name for himself by going after major crooks, such as Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts). Police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman), who keeps the Bat Signal atop the police building, respects Dent. Bruce Wayne admires him so much that he thinks perhaps Dent can replace the Batman, that Bruce can hang up the cape and cowl. His loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) isn’t so sure. There’s a certain complication that Bruce doesn’t entirely notice—assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (now Maggie Gyllenhaal) is moving away from Bruce Wayne toward Harvey Dent, who admires Batman. Both of them separately declare their beliefs that you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.

Both Wayne and Dent are convinced that some of the police force are on the take. But who? There’s so much criminal activity, the police are very busy, so the crooked cops are harder to spot. Always seeking to shatter all plans—Ledger has a little speech about how much he hates plans and planners—the Joker announces that he’ll rain terror on Gotham City until and unless the Batman reveals his hidden identity.

Wayne Manor was burned to the ground in “Batman Begins,” so he and Alfred are living in the fanciest penthouse in Gotham City, awaiting the reconstruction of the manor. Wayne has to keep up pretense of being a wealthy playboy—he’s dating a prima ballerina—while also carrying on his Bat-life. This is done with the help of Alfred.

Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who, like Rachel and Alfred, knows Bruce Wayne is Batman, runs Wayne’s necessary Batman research and development facility. Reese (Joshua Harto), a greedy, ambitious Wayne Enterprises employee, has figured out from internal records what Fox and Wayne are doing, and that Wayne must be Batman. Fox is skeptical. You think your multi-billionaire boss has a secret, that at night he goes out and beats the hell out of crooks with his bare hands. “And your plan is to blackmail this person?” This gives Reese pause—but only a pause. But Fox himself begins to doubt Wayne’s wisdom…

The screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan (they also wrote “Memento” and “The Prestige”) is rich with fascinating ideas. Near the beginning, the crooks are confronted by Batman—who’s carrying a shotgun. Then another Batman shows up, and another. When the REAL Batman arrives, we realize the others are vigilantes modeling themselves on their hero—who doesn’t need or approve of this kind of hero worship. (There are consequences to be paid, by the Joker.) There’s a great confrontation between Batman and the Joker toward the end, where the Joker has all the great lines: “You complete me!” he declares to Batman, who fears this may be true. The Joker also suggests that he and Batman are so evenly matched, one is so much the opposite of the other, that their fight will go on forever. (And it almost has.) The world is crumbling into chaos around them, says the Joker, people are becoming more and more corrupt. “I’m not a monster,” he claims, “I’m just ahead of the curve.”

Batman not only has his swift but hulking Batmobile, but a motorcycle-like “Bat-Pod” that erupts OUT of the Batmobile. The Batsuit has been improved, including offscreen: in “Batman Begins,” the suit was in fewer than 10 parts; this time, it has over 100 components. The stunts are bigger and more spectacular, too; that car chase includes an 18-wheel truck flipping forward onto its back. And a Batmobile-police car collision that shakes your bones. Some of the movie was shot on the streets of Chicago, including some of the chase sequences.

The score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer is outstanding; it’s rich, orchestral and driving, working particularly well with the editing to create several sequences of increasing tension. Some scenes are underscored by a single rising tone, increasing in pitch and intensity along with the action on screen. (Truth be told, this is done at least once too often.) The special effects are also excellent, but this movie isn’t about the effects.

To a degree, Christian Bale is a supporting player in his own film. Heath Ledger’s Joker is so vivid and disturbing he seizes control of all sequences he appears in. But Aaron Eckhart is also very good; Harvey Dent is never simply a paragon of goodness; he’s as driven as Bruce Wayne, and probably as brilliant, too. Eckhart always keeps him convincing, even when he undergoes the transformation, late in the film, into the coin-flipping madman Two Face. His face is divided down the middle, with one half hideous—and boy howdy, is he ever hideous on that side. It’s so extreme they had to use computer graphics to fill out the makeup. But Two Face comes in fairly late; the Joker is the primary villain. And Heath Ledger is so strong in the role, so iconic, makes it so much HIS role that if they do want to bring the Joker back in a future Batman movie, they’re going to have an uphill struggle. Who the hell else could do THIS?

But the movie isn’t about the Joker, it isn’t even about Batman. It’s about this situation, or rather a group of interlocking situations, and the characters living through these very tough times. The leading characters are not immune to death.

“The Dark Knight” runs 152 minutes, probably too long, though it’s well-paced throughout. One difficulty is that at about the 2/3 mark, the rhythms of the film seem to be winding down to a finish—but there’s at least another half hour to go. This gives the movie a sense of having a broken back. It overcomes this minor difficulty, but perhaps the script should have been reduced in size a bit.

I wasn’t as fond of “Batman Begins” as most comic book/movie fans, but this wins me over, the rare sequel that surpasses the original in every way. “The Dark Knight” is one of the best superhero movies yet made, even better than “Iron Man.” It’s up there in the rafters with “Spider-Man 2,” and leaves me hoping that Christopher Bale will again lead the way to Gotham City and the midnight world of Batman.

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