By Willie Krischke — July 19, 2008
Right off the, um, bat, “The Dark Knight” establishes itself as a different kind of comic book movie. Actually the seeds of its change are in its predecessor, “Batman Begins,” when Batman declares Gotham a city worth saving. Now Batman carries the city on his shoulders, and must prove that he was right in his decision to not let Gotham go the way of Rome. Many superheroes have saved their city in a physical sense – defusing the bomb, defeating the megalomaniac – but never before has a superhero needed to save the city’s soul, as well. Christopher Nolan, who wrote the script for “The Dark Knight” with his brother Jonathan, makes that Batman’s task. The result is a movie with more weight, gravitas, and moral energy than any superhero movie before it.
Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker was legendary before anyone ever saw the movie, due in part to the actor’s tragic death shortly after the shooting. It is with great relief that I can report that the performance lives up to the hype. The Joker is the scariest villain to come along in quite a while, primarily because Ledger plays him with such ferocious intensity, intelligence, and bone-chilling aggression. Jack Nicholson’s Joker always seemed to be on stage; he was primarily a circus performer, with the unfortunate habit of killing people in his act. He was evil, but only incidentally. Ledger’s Joker is evil primarily. He is a villain on par with Iago and Mephistopheles; he never offers a reason for his destructive nature, and never needs one. As Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, says, “some people just want to watch the world burn.” Some credit should go to the writers; the Joker may come across as a nutcase, but he is truly scary precisely because he’s not insane. The Joker is, if anything, an extremely evangelistic nihilist. He describes himself as “an engine of chaos,” and yeah, he’s got a hemi.
In a way, it’s a movie about the human condition, a spiritual as well as physical battle for the city. As Batman strives to bring hope to Gotham and looks forward to a day when the people will unite, take pride in their community and themselves, and no longer need the symbol he provides, the Joker wants to reduce the people of Gotham to their most base, self-serving and primitive tendencies. He continually sets up situations in which regular people must make impossible choices; his aim is to demoralize the people and cripple their spirits. Batman, on top of tripping up the Joker’s destructive traps, must find ways to make sure the Joker doesn’t win the moral battle. If Batman saves the girl, but the soul of the city dies anyway, the Joker has won. The stakes have never been higher.
“The Dark Knight” has an amazing supporting cast for a summer blockbuster. Gary Oldman returns as good cop Gordon, and his performance is more important to the whole feel of the movie this time around. Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. This casting change is on par with upgrading from a blowup doll to a real girl. And Aaron Eckhart is Harvey Dent, the DA and “hero Gotham needs,” in Wayne’s own words. Dent is Rachel Dawes’ current squeeze, and surprisingly, the movie chooses to mostly underplay the ensuing love triangle, allowing the men to actually listen to and like each other. Filling out the cast are Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, as Bruce Wayne’s support team. Both are given more to do this time around, and neither performance is wasted.
“The Dark Knight” gives the viewer about twenty minutes to remember the characters and enjoy Batman’s awesomeness, then cranks the dial to 11 and doesn’t let up for two solid hours. There isn’t a moment that isn’t tense and exciting; Nolan has solved the pacing problems he had with “Batman Begins” by just never letting up this time around. I’ve heard it described as dark and depressing; this seems odd to me, as so much of the movie is concerned with hope and the future. But it is fast-paced, intense, and at times, ruthless. It is a vision of a film, well realized and unforgettable. Let’s hope it sets a standard other movies will feel compelled to acknowledge, and strive toward.
- if you felt like “Batman Begins” was a much needed reboot to the series.
- If you like movies with a deeper, darker, more spiritual element to them.
- If you want to see the best action flick of the summer, and one of the best movies of the year.
- if you like the campy, Adam West/George Clooney Batman better
- If you think comic book/superhero movies ought to be shallow and kind of silly. These are men dressed up in costumes, after all.
- If you’re easily frightened. Ledger’s the Joker might be nightmare-inducing.