When director Christopher Nolan rebooted the long-dormant Batman film franchise with 2005âs Batman Begins, he sidestepped the pop-art goofiness of the cult-fave â60s TV series and the dark-comedy fantasia of Tim Burtonâs 1989 version for an unusually realistic approach to the comic-book material. The reaction was mixed: Some fans thought Batman Begins drained the fun and richness from the material. Others thrilled at the more serious approach.
Nolanâs follow-up, The Dark Knight, will not appease those already put off by the grim realism of his Batman vision. But those who thought Batman Begins was some kind of apex of comic-to-screen adaptation should prepare for a reassessment. Though only about 10 minutes longer than Batman Begins, The Dark Knight is far grander in scope. And yet moves quicker and feels less bloated.
The earlier film was an impressive muddle, bracketed by an overlong origin prologue and a confusing, unsatisfying triangulation of villains at the end. By contrast, The Dark Knight has a much more elegant, satisfying, linear construction, with memorable action sequences (especially a street scene involving an flipped 18-wheeler) that arenât set-piece breaks from the narrative but instead are woven into a story that deftly intertwines three primary characters: Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), anarchic villain the Joker (the late Heath Ledger), and crusading district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).
The opening shot glides along the building tops of a sleeker, brighter Gotham City, swooping down to catch a bank robbery just as a horde of masked perpetrators begin executing their plan. Here, Ledgerâs Joker gets the grand entrance he deserves, his violent assault on what happens to be a mob-connected bank complicating a Gotham police crackdown on organized crime aimed at money-laundering operations.
As the film opens, good cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) is now head of the cityâs major-crimes unit, where he is secretly in cahoots with the mysterious Batman, officially considered a vigilante and wanted for arrest. Crime is on the decline, but the presence of Batman has set off some unintended consequences â criminal copycats and an underworld moved to ever more desperate attempts to hold its ground against encroaching order. City government is still beset by corruption, with danger increasing for those on the good side of the thin blue line. Grandstanding new district attorney Dent suspects Gordon and Batmanâs collaboration, but can he be trusted?
As that set-up might indicate, The Dark Knight is not a typically super-hero/comic-book adaptation. The Batman character is less central to the story this time out, making way not only for two more-compelling points of a triangle in Joker and Dent, but for an entire city apparatus of cops, courts, politicians, and criminals. These characters arenât modern Gods fighting it out across a landscape of civilian onlookers â they are exaggerated figures woven into the landscape and institutions of urban civic life
In this way, The Dark Knight feels much closer to Michael Mannâs 1995 Los Angeles crime epic Heat (or even earlier Fritz Lang crime dramas like M and The Big Heat), than it does with other comic-book/super-hero movies, possibly including its Nolan-directed predecessor. Thereâs a procedural tension and insistent, palpable anxiety to The Dark Knight common to great crime films thatâs unprecedented in comic-hero adaptations â which tend to follow the form of origin stories followed by oscillating bits of comic relief, psychological torment, and fight scenes. Itâs grand, gripping, propulsive filmmaking â with a laudatory lack of obvious computer-generated effects â though not as distinctive shot-by-shot as it might be.
The Dark Knight is also a crime film whose central villain isnât quite a criminal, at least not in the traditional sense. Ledgerâs Joker seems to have sprung, fully formed, from the collective corruption and criminal desperation of the city. Thereâs no origin story (none that can be trusted, anyway), no name, no history, no explanation. His initial bank robbery isnât motivated by money but by a way to gain entrance to the ongoing conflict among Gothamâs criminals, their law enforcement counterparts, and Batman. Heâs an angel of chaos whose only goal seems to be the creation of disorder and mayhem â with echoes of Osama bin Laden, Ted Kaczynski, and Brad Pittâs Tyler Durden from Fight Club.
When Baleâs Bruce Wayne describes this new figure as a criminal like any other, Wayneâs confidant/assistant Alfred (Michael Caine), responds, âSome men arenât looking for anything logical, like money. They canât be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some me just want to watch the world burn.â?
In his last completed film performance, Ledger sidesteps the flamboyant humor of most of the characterâs iterations (be it Cesar Romero on TV or Jack Nicholson for Burton), substituting a grim, bitter sarcasm. In a movie where Baleâs Batman is the title role and the emotional and narrative arc follows Eckhartâs Dent, it is Ledger who owns the screen whenever he appears. It would have been an iconic performance even if the young actor hadnât died tragically earlier this year, leaving behind a string of indelible recent performances â from his mumble-mouthed cowboy in Brokeback Mountain to his avuncular surf bum in Lords of Dogtown to his late-Sixties Dylan in Iâm Not There.
Here, Ledger seems to internalize the nameless mad man, refusing to attempt to charm the audience or ingratiate himself in the manner of such overrated screen-villain performances as Nicholsonâs Joker or Anthony Hopkinsâ Hannibal Lector. Ledger wonât just scare audiences, heâll rattle them.
More than a typical crime-film heavy, Ledgerâs Joker is portrayed as a terrorist, albeit one without clear political motivation. Heâs responsible for vicious individual murders, bombings, political assassinations, outlandish mass-murder threats, and shaky, menacing hostage videos. And this new kind of threat is combated with rule-bending violence, illegal surveillance, rough interrogation, and at least the suggestion of torture. âWhen there was an enemy at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect them,â? Wayne says to assistant D.A. and true love Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing and improving on Katie Holmes), by way of defending rough tactics in response to the Joker.
âLook what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets,â? the Joker says late in the film, as fear feeds into chaos throughout Gotham.
But, with all that provocative material in play, The Dark Knight manages to be resonant without straining too much for topicality. It isnât preachy, and it leaves identifiable real-world politics and issues of patriotism out of the mix. Instead it grapples with elastic but relevant questions about ends and means
âYouâve got rules. The Joker has no rules,â? one character says to Batman. But does he? Ultimately, The Dark Knight is about the difficulty of combating disorder without giving in to it, questioning the ability of a person to self-impose limits on potentially unchecked power, even when well-intentioned, and also whether bending the rules isnât sometimes necessary. As such, it could be taken as an almost sympathetic critique of post-9/ll government overreach.
In The Dark Knight, victories are short-lived and would-be good deeds are often counter-productive. âYou die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain,â? is The Dark Knightâs mantra, one repeated by multiple characters, and itâs one that foreshadows the filmâs print-the-legend denouement.
-- Chris Herrington