[Yeah, I know the title of this post has almost nothing to do with the movie, but I couldn't resist.]
The Dark Knight is the best Batman film ever made.
That’s not really saying much, mind you — each of the others, including Batman Begins and the animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, has its own set of flaws. However, The Dark Knight is also among the best superhero films ever made. The only others in its class are Superman* and Spider-Man 2 – and Peter Parker, if not Steve Ditko himself, would recognize the choices made by the principals at movie’s end. Next to the sprawling urban crime drama skillfully executed by director/co-writer Christopher Nolan and a fine ensemble cast, Iron Man (no slouch itself) looks like a toy commercial.
Much of The Dark Knight seems to expand upon, and indeed to improve upon, Batman Begins. Excited to see Bruce’s training in the Far East? Get a load of Batman’s side trip to Hong Kong. Like the Batmobile crushing police cars and jumping onto rooftops? This time, the urban vehicular carnage includes an 18-wheeler. Even the mechanics of prosecuting the mob are more exciting (hot RICO action!).
The main difference, though, is the Joker. Batman Begins had decent villains, and sure, it was fun to see Batman go to town on crooked cops and gangsters. With the Joker, however, The Dark Knight gives Batman a capital-A Adversary – and at times, the movie suggests, a reason to exist. This isn’t the tacked-on “I made you, but you made me first” relationship of Tim Burton’s Batman, or the relatively simplistic “Batman attracts other maniacs” which the comics have explored. This Joker comes out of nowhere spoiling for a fight, and as Alfred explains, eager to “watch the world burn.”
And man, the Joker is one scary dude. Heath Ledger is unrecognizable in the role, not because he’s hidden under makeup, but because the Joker seems to have crawled into his brain and taken up residence there. This is not a Joker who relies upon gimmicks or nerve gas. He’s a homemade chaos engine, scarred and painted garishly — a living abstraction who plans elaborately to destroy others’ elaborate plans. The Joker behaves like you’d expect him to behave (at least judging by the giddy, demonstrative fan sitting next to me), but he’s not the re-creation of any Joker you’ve seen before.
This Joker makes The Dark Knight more than just a sequel. Without him, the movie might still have played like a pretty good crime drama (Heat with a cape, let’s say), and a logical progression from Batman Begins. Eric Roberts certainly brings the right amount of oil and sleaze to new “boss” Sal Maroni, and Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal are quite good as lawyers-in-love Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes. Regardless, into these proceedings the Joker injects a substantial bit of Zodiac-style dread.
Moreover, instead of focusing solely on how the Joker wrecks our cast, The Dark Knight has the good sense to incorporate the mood of the general populace. The Joker works the media like a pro, making the unmasking of Batman a matter of public debate and using a funny little secret-identity scene as the later foundation of a desperate manhunt. One of the movie’s best sequences involves two sets of anonymous hostages caught in a nerve-wracking game of chicken. I didn’t recognize any of those actors, but the movie put me in their shoes.
Of course, the scenes of Gotham being evacuated are dramatized by sweeping shots of the city. The Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher movies were bound to their distinctive sets, and Batman Begins broke free of those confines with more location shooting. However, even that movie looks claustrophobic next to the wide-open vistas of Gotham and Hong Kong on display here (courtesy of cinematographer Wally Pfister). This movie has a great sense of scope, and lots of room to breathe.
Oh, and since I hadn’t mentioned them yet, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman are all as good as last time. Bale and Oldman seem more comfortable in their roles, and their Batman and Gordon byplay will be reassuringly familiar to fans of the comics. While Alfred is the source of much of the film’s philosophy, Lucius figures more heavily in the plot.
In what is perhaps the film’s most crucial trio, Bale also performs well with Eckhart and Gyllenhaal. Batman works with Harvey Dent, but Bruce Wayne invests in Harvey both financially and emotionally. Because Harvey represents Gotham’s rescue from the degradations of the mob, he also signifies the end of Batman’s usefulness … and, therefore, the beginning of Bruce’s life together with Rachel. Harvey therefore becomes a better symbol of hope for Gotham than Batman could ever be. I even heard a hint of the current comics’ Batman/Superman relationship when Bruce talked about Harvey. Naturally, all the buildup surrounding Harvey will be taken quite ironically by anyone familiar with the character’s traditional fate; but the movie stands by its characters’ statements, no matter where they lead. It never stops believing in Harvey Dent.
That brings us to the film’s final moments. Although at times The Dark Knight seems to be more about the Joker, or Harvey, the ending brings everything back to Batman. His ultimate decision leaves the character at a crossroads, and that’s clearly the kind of thing which cries out for a sequel. I can’t imagine Warner Bros. not wanting a sequel at this point — it probably greenlit one Friday morning, once the grosses from the midnight showings were totaled up.
Still, The Dark Knight has raised the bar pretty high. It’ll be hard to follow this movie with one which both responds to its lingering concerns and improves upon its achievements.
* [TDK and Superman are apples and oranges, reflecting different eras and different approaches to filmmaking, so I can't compare them directly.]
* * *
– Did not get a Watchmen trailer with my particular showing. Did see trailers for Disney’s animated Bolt, featuring an over-eager hamster; and the Robert De Niro/Al Pacino rogue-cop thriller Righteous Kill, featuring lots of suggestive shots of Carla Gugino. Weird juxtaposition there.
– The Gordons have two children in this movie. One is indeed a red-haired girl, although she’s not named.
– Despite the objections, I’d be very surprised if no one brought up the “Robin question” during the development of the next movie. It might be tricky to pull off, but it could be done; and I think it’s the kind of challenge these folks welcome.
– For a second I thought the story would lead to the creation of a Batplane. That might have worked out better, but I understand there was a time crunch.
– Given how Bruce/Batman gets around in this movie, there might also be a redesigned Batmobile in the next one.
– This movie had a very Gotham Central atmosphere. It puts the mob-to-rogue transition of The Long Halloween to shame.
– Quite a few kids at the noontime showing I attended. I’ll be curious to see whether any parents’ groups protest the levels of violence.
– I’m also curious to see how TDK’s grim tone affects its box office. Batman Returns suffered financially because it was “too dark.” Well, I watched Returns a few days ago; and compared to The Dark Knight it’s pale and tame.