2008 // USA - UK // Christopher Nolan // July 20, 2008 // Theatrical Print
A - Indulge me for a moment, as I'm going get effusive right off the bat (pun intended). With The Dark Knight, writer-director Christopher Nolan sets upon the "comic book film" with sledgehammer and napalm, and delivers the sort of sorely needed genre reconstruction that occurs once in a generation. Here we have, at long last, a film that winnows away the limitations of comics, distills their strengths, and emerges as a work wholly cinematic in character, leaving its ancestral medium far behind. The Dark Knight is a noir action epic of the grandest, bleakest, most exhilarating sort. It is not a flawless film, nor is it a masterpiece. However, it is a wonder to behold. It is a film so ambitious, so dizzying in its lofty heights and abyssal depths, I suspect that it was only the appealing Batman branding that permitted Nolan to create it at all. This is Hollywood film-making as bloodless revolution. As Heath Ledger's terrifying Joker observes, "You've changed things. There's no going back."
Perhaps The Dark Knight's most startling achievement is the final annihilation of that term, "comic book film". It no longer has any utility, much as "novel film" is an essentially empty descriptor. That The Dark Knight is adapted from a popular comic is incidental to the film's merits, never mind how essential that fact might be for its revenue prospects. Nolan's admirable franchise reboot, Batman Begins, signaled that the director was intent on cutting the cords that tethered the Caped Crusader to his original medium. The Dark Knight finally completes this evolutionary leap. This film is unmistakably and foremost an action film rather than a "comic book film", probably the most powerful and important action film in a decade.
The Dark Knight picks up a year after the events of Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne's alter ego has intimidated the Gotham City underworld into spooking at its own shadow. The city has a new district attorney, the fearless and incorruptible Harvey Dent, who has launched a crusade against Gotham's remaining crime lords. There is a wrinkle, however, in the form of the Joker, a bank-robbing, anarchistic sociopath in smudged clown makeup. Where this madman comes from is never established. What he wants is simple: a world in flames.
I doubt that I could reconstruct the plot of The Dark Knight from memory. Nor should I deprive anyone of the chilling experience of witnessing it unspool. How can I explain it? It must be seen. The Joker unleashes scheme upon scheme upon scheme, each more demented than the last. The overpowering strength of this film is its velocity, its terrifying, perfectly realized tone of imminent destruction and death. I can't recall a time when a film made my pulse race for over two hours straight. No mere vehicle for hollow thrills, The Dark Knight is a triumph of action film-making at its blackest and most resonant. It seamlessly blends the cynical urban rot of the hardboiled detective tradition with the modern fear of sudden, irrational violence. Here we have the first film since September 11, 2001 to successfully syncretize the despair of city life and the anxiety of terrorism: Gotham City as Dashiell Hammett's Nightmare Town and as Ground Zero.
The neat, slightly stale three act structure of Batman Begins has been set aside in The Dark Knight. The new film favors a denser, more unfamiliar, more exhausting marathon style, a moon-shot of bullets and chases and never-ending fire. It's a gamble, certainly, and by the film's final showdown it begins to grow somewhat wearisome. Indeed, the sheer relentless quality of The Dark Knight might have been a fatal flaw. Might, that is, if all parties involved—the performers, Nolan, and invaluable scorers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard—were not so intent on conveying their tale of urban apocalypse with absolute sincerity and gravity. Gone are Batman Begins' occasional gestures towards slapstick and good-natured frippery. Aside from a handful of wry comments from butler Alfred, The Dark Knight in unabashedly grim.
In keeping with its intentions as the mother of all origin stories, Begins took as its foundation the most tantalizing (and embarrassingly optimistic) essence of the Batman legend. We were asked to believe that principled vigilantism could offer hope; that urban fear could be turned against the lawless; and that disgust with a corrupt way of life could be transformed into civic pride and peace if one man dared to show people the path. The Dark Knight takes these noble notions and subverts them, exposes them, and stomps all over them. This act of thematic violence might be seen as a betrayal by who thought Begins a perfect superhero film. For braver film-goers, it is a necessary Molotov cocktail lobbed at the comfortable edifice that Begins constructed.
Where, I wonder, was Batman supposed to go after the events in the previous film? To merely follow along for two hours as he foiled yet another villain's scheme for power, money, or infamy would have been a lowering of the stakes. To be sure, both Begins' superheroic realism and its determination to explore Batman's psychology more completely than its forebears made for an exciting step in the right direction. However, the unintended consequence of The Dark Knight may be to render its predecessor a weaker film: one safer, more conventional, and even duller in hindsight.
The Dark Knight aims higher. It thrusts Batman's personal struggle into the wider world, suggesting that the savior himself is a symptom of the sickness that afflicts society. Plundering its tone and events partly from the anxious, revelatory comic series, Batman: The Long Halloween, the film provides a glimpse of Gotham on the cusp. The problem, as Gary Oldman's Lieutenant Gordon astutely observed at the end of Begins, is one of escalation. The old guard, represented by the traditional ethnic criminal organizations, is crumbling, but the "freaks"—that would be the supervillains—are rising to take their place. Gone are the men who merely craved wealth and power. Now Gotham is home to psychos who delight in chaos for its own sake.
The Joker embodies this new breed of criminal. Rest assured, Heath Ledger is every inch as good as the hype suggests. Granted, it's a twitchy, over-the-top performance, but if any iconic villain deserves such treatment, surely it must be Batman's nemesis. Ledger chews the scenery with gusto, but it never comes across as senseless or indulgent. With his mannerisms, his eyes, and especially his voice—a scrunched, muttering, nasal mook voice—Ledger hypnotically conveys a man who has no desires beyond amusement and Armageddon. Not to put too fine a point on it, he is frightening as fuck.
Christian Bale is as strong as ever in the title role, but he also has a gracious quality as an actor that is essential to this expansive, intricate film. It allows him to step into the suit, to fill it and dominate it, and yet not demand that the story be his and his alone. Oldman's Jim Gordon is now neck-deep in the saga of Gotham City, and the mutable veteran actor is never more compelling than here, lending energy and parched righteousness to the proverbial Last Honest Cop. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman return, providing needed history and texture to Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox, without overpowering the film with their presence. And it goes without saying that the luscious Maggie Gyllenhaal—she of the odd beauty, boundless resolve, and those wounded glass eyes—is a superior Rachel Dawes to her predecessor. Aaron Eckhart, as Harvey Dent, is the film's only uncertain choice. Eckhart certainly seems the right fit for a cocky counselor who fears no one and takes unnecessary gambles, a Golden Boy short-changed on self-awareness. It's challenging to say how Eckhart's portrayal fails, except to say that it just isn't as good or believable as those that surround him. Unfortunately, Eckhart's presence in the final confrontation—easily the film's flimsiest scene, narratively speaking—only highlights the relative flimsiness of Dent's character.
The Dark Knight is so fierce a film, such a potent re-branding of what a superhero movie can be, that its flaws—its arguably overly complex plot, its occasional bit of distracting science fiction implausibility, the flat notes in its characterization—fade into the shadows. Nolan shows us, as the film's promotion glibly but accurately asserts, a world without rules. It's a world where simple choices have horrifying consequences. It's world where anyone can die at any time. It's a world where heroes can become villains, by fate, by design, or by choice. It's the Joker's world. It's a world remarkably like our own, and all the more terrifying for that.