The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Warner Bros. 2008
By Doug Nayler
And here it is. After three years of sweaty, mouth-breathing anticipation, it’s here. The Dark Knight arrived in theaters this Friday weighed down with enough baggage to nearly crush it to death on site.
It’s hard to be a highly anticipated movie; to be a highly anticipated comic book movie must be almost insufferable. Each and every nerd the world over is turning his/her dewy eyes towards the screen this weekend expecting nothing less than the Batman film; the film that finally gets it right.
And imagine how crushed, how disappointed the entire Internet is going to be come Monday morning if The Dark Knight isn’t absolutely everything they’ve ever wanted to see from Batman ever? An unimaginable tide of people with too much free time (like myself) would start writing their precocious little reviews (like myself) explaining how hurt, misled, and sexually assaulted they feel at having been so disappointed. Christopher Nolan would become a Joel Schumacher pariah times ten, because unlike Schumacher, people actually believed that Nolan could make it happen.
Luckily for Chris Nolan, Warner Brothers, DC Comics, and Heath Ledger’s restless ghost’s publicist, The Dark Knight is very good. And while it may not be the Batman movie to end all movies, it is no slouch. There is lots here for the casual fan, the diehard virgin-for-life fan, and even the pretentious holier-than-thou art-film nerd. In fact, the only group I feel that won’t be satisfied with this film would be children, because they would just be traumatized.
But making The Dark Knight too disturbing for children to handle is just one of a large list of good decisions made here. The most obvious one is to continue doing what made Batman Begins so much more interesting than the standard superhero fare. So, Gotham continues to be a city with a plausable, familiar problem with corruption and organized crime in which a completely insane man in a bat suit follows his compulsion to clean up the streets. The Dark Knight really just builds upon the last film by creating the Joker as a distorted mirror image of Nolan’s Batman. What sort of man would have the same compulsion towards chaos that Batman has towards order? How would a man have to be to actually get up every morning and be the Joker? It is these questions that effectively drive The Dark Knight. And, as everyone already knows, Ledger’s performance does quite a lot to make this fascinating.
Heath Ledger’s absurdist vaudeville take on the Joker is menacing, at turns darkly hilarious, but never too campy. This is because every time the Joker is in the room, he brings with him an impending sense that things are going to turn very bad very quickly. If I had somehow avoided the massive media clusterfuck memorial Ledger love-in that preceded this film’s release (By the way, did you know he was dead?), and gone into this film not knowing he played the Joker, I never would’ve guessed. Nothing in how the character spoke, looked, or carried himself resembled the Ledger I’ve seen in any other of his films. There is only the Joker, laughing and dancing as he hopes to see the city tear itself apart at his feet.
Ledger’s performance is not the only one of note, however. Aaron Eckhart’s transition takes him from beloved Great White Hope D.A. Harvey Dent to Two-Face, a damaged shell of a man with nothing left but hate in his heart. Gary Oldman also shines as Lt. Gordon, beginning to realize what he stands to lose in Gotham’s escalating war. Unlike the psychopathic, nothing-else-matters drive of Batman and the Joker, these two men want to be normal people with families and homes. In a film filled with duality, Dent and Gordon keep their relationship just as involving as one hopes it would be.
And this brings me to my greatest criticism of the film, and one that will be equally difficult to overcome in any sequels that follow: the problem lies right with the character of Batman. Once Bruce Wayne becomes Batman (a journey given all its due attention in Batman Begins), then it’s really only a question of sticking it out, and finding nifty gadgets that help him do the job better.
While we watch Dent and Gordon torn to shreds in front of our eyes, Batman has almost no personal journey outside of the mechanics of the plot. And even when something (withheld for spoiler purposes) large happens that you think would greatly effect Batman, the emotional fallout is given very short shrift. With a villain so energetic and fascinating that he lights up the screen whenever he appears upon it, and two excellent supporting characters tackling such huge emotional weight, Batman’s daring-do and sleuthery strangely starts to pale in comparison. At no time does Batman (and though I do love Bale, his ‘Batman’ voice sounds even more like Disney’s The Beast here than in Begins) seem to truly have to reconsider who he is as a person. Batman’s existence is only ever threatened by outside forces, not his own internal conflict. And because of this, the audience often finds itself in the strange situation where the man in the giant batsuit with the grappling gun and matchless martial arts skill is the least interesting person in the scene. A problem I’m sure Tim Burton would understand.
So, though I was extremely impressed with The Dark Knight, it is for this reason primarily that I can’t go so far as to call it the Batman movie we’ve all been waiting for. It is, however, the Joker movie. Which is good enough for me.