Title: The Dark Knight
Play time: 2h 32min
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart
I am impressed with the geek community (of which I am occasionally a part) for its ability to get excited — frenzied, more like — about The Dark Knight. Because the truth is, there isn’t much in The Dark Knight that can properly be the subject of a conventional geek-out. Even Batman Begins, wherein director Christopher Nolan nearly busted a nut trying to bring the superhero genre into a sober, halfway-plausible reality, featured a fair number of traditionally fantastical comic book flourishes: Ra’s Al Ghul and his mystical League of Shadows, for example, and their maniacal plot to poison Gotham’s water supply with an inhalant and then vaporize all the water using a fancy-looking “microwave emitter.” That film’s vision of Gotham was creepy and heavily stylized, all angles and elaborate backdrops; a new place, not a real place. Batman Begins may have been a twist on the comic book movie, but at its core it was familiar. The Dark Knight is something else entirely.
Gotham is Back – The Dark Knight (2008)
Start with Gotham itself. The city still has its share of fantastical flourishes, most notably a huge stretch of underground highway that’s just perfect for a moody, intense chase scene. But no longer is Gotham a creature of myth. Instead it’s the great American nightmare: a huge, corrupt, unforgiving metropolis, danger and death at every turn, with no one to help you. Only the city will hear you scream, and the city will enjoy it.
Then take the villain — Heath Ledger’s Joker. He does not have a backstory; he tells of how he got those scars on his face, eternally giving him a deranged smile, and it’s a typical, maudlin story of parental abuse — until, chillingly, he retells it and it changes into something else. He does not have a master plan. He’s not interested in power and money, only in seeing the world descend into disorder and chaos. He is, essentially, Satan, battling Batman (not a hero, the film reminds us, but a protector) for the souls of Gotham’s denizens. The Joker here is malevolence for its own sake. What other comic book movie has a villain that frighteningly abstract?
Finally, consider the plot. Pre-release buzz pegged The Dark Knight as a “crime saga,” and the description was accurate: the film tells the story of a city terrorized not by genetic mutants or even a league of ninjas, but by gangsters and terrorists in a turf war. The forces of evil are men with guns and bombs, and the forces of good are a pair of district attorneys, a mayor, and what seems like the only straight cop in town (“there’s no one to rat to,” he laments). Oh, there’s Batman, too, but the movie makes clear that he can’t save the people of Gotham. Maybe he can help them save themselves, but they will almost certainly hate him for it.
The Dark Knight – The Scary Moments
The Dark Knight has a scary momentum that’s unparalleled in the genre. Nolan, directing from a screenplay he co-wrote with his brother Jonathan, combines a heavy, brooding sensibility with an absolutely hurtling pace, and the result is draining, exhausting, disturbing. The film feels like a barreling locomotive, a sensation enhanced by the chilling, percussive musical score from Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. The action scenes have a real sense of danger, and are more likely to make you shrink back than lean toward the edge of your seat. Some early reviews have complained that the movie isn’t very much fun, and they’re right. The Nolans have the courage to insist that their story is serious business.
Before seeing the film, I opposed the burgeoning campaign to get Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar nomination — it seemed to me that he wouldn’t have had a chance to get into the Oscar race for this role had he not passed away, and to force him into it because he’s dead would be almost demeaning. I’ve spent the past few days eating those words. His performance is genuinely frightening, the sort of scary that burrows into your soul rather than making you jump from your seat. The Joker could kill flowers, maim puppies and obscure the sun with his mere presence. He is death, destruction, anarchy — senseless and random.
God, there’s so much here I haven’t talked about — Christian Bale’s almost calming presence as Bruce Wayne, the brilliance of hiring Maggie Gyllenhaal to replace Katie Holmes without missing a beat, the fragile, all-important character of Harvey Dent, embodied so skillfully by Aaron Eckhart. But the more I talk the more I ruin. Let me wrap up by addressing, in the vaguest possible terms, The Dark Knight‘s conclusion. After refusing to slow down for two and a half hours, the film ends on a grace note that’s simultaneously sad and hopeful, inspiring and deeply troubling. In a pair of quick scenes and one montage, the Nolans push the title character in a heartbreaking direction, affirm everything he has fought for, and suggest how profoundly our real-life leaders have failed us.
The Dark Knight Isn’t The Superhero Movie Awaited!
Is The Dark Knight the best superhero movie ever? A better question is whether it’s a superhero movie at all. It refuses to be pigeonholed. It’s a movie about America, terrorism and the rule of law; about heroism and human nature. The dude in the bat suit is just window-dressing.