With The Dark Knight, director co-writer Christopher Nolan doesn’t get on his knees to grovel for audience acceptance. Instead, he grabs the superhero genre by its cape, slaps it across the face and says it’s time to get serious. Regular comic book readers won’t be surprised by the dark depths Nolan plumbs with the latest Bat-sequel, but those only familiar with movie and TV incarnations of the genre have another thing coming. Finally, here is a superhero movie that challenges its audience instead of pandering to it.
Christian Bale returns as Bruce Wayne, billionaire by day and costumed, crime-fighting vigilante by night. With his origin story already established in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight hits the ground running. After an opening bank heist that introduces a greasy, make-up smeared Heath Ledger as the Joker (also arriving fully formed and sans clumsy back story), the saga moves quickly to Batman’s attempt to clean up the Gotham City underworld.
With the help of Gary Oldman’s Lieutenant Gordon (seemingly the one good cop in a bad city) and good-guy/DA Harvey Dent, played with cleft-chinned charm by Aaron Eckhart, Batman squeezes the mob’s financial underpinnings and begins rounding up the scum by the truckload as it comes oozing out.
Like a cornered animal, the mob (led by a nicely sleazy Eric Roberts) strikes back hard. Meanwhile, bored with knocking off banks, the Joker offers up his services. Knowing that Batman’s strength lies in his secret identity, he threatens to start killing people off for every day Batman refuses to reveal himself.
“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
While the mob is guided by greed and the law follows a sense of justice, the Joker is rudderless and unpredictable, interested only in the love of a challenge. He revels in forcing people to turn to their dark side and he’s happy to kill to get what he wants. Both the mob and the law have pressure points and weak spots, but there is no chink in the Joker’s armor. He’s an agent of chaos with nothing to lose; a literal wild card and, unleashed upon Gotham City, he simply wants to see it burn.
How do you fight a villain bent on destruction with nothing to lose? Those are the rules of the Joker’s game and the Dark Knight finds it increasingly difficult to continue to do good without also doing very bad. In a moment of doubt he says, “I see now what I’d have to become to stop men like him.” Ultimately however, Batman accepts that in a cruel irrational world sometimes a hero has to get his hands dirty so that the rest of us can keep ours clean.
It sounds like heavy stuff and it is. The Dark Knight has something on its mind and it’s not content to dish out simple uplift. Full to bursting with dark themes of heroes and hero worship; of villains and revenge; of institutionalized corruption and senseless violence; the film is a puzzle of dualities and dichotomies. There is good versus evil; greed versus good will; order versus chaos; and chance versus choice. In this film, there are two sides to every action, two sides to every character, and for every character a counterpoint.
In such a confusing world, one character decides that the only morality is 50/50 chance; heads or tails; live or die. It’s a convenient ethic, but time and again in The Dark Knight, for one to live another must die and in the end it’s no ethic at all. It’s a cop out.
There is always an uneasy fascist whiff to acts of vigilantism and The Dark Knight pushes the boundaries to the extreme, offering some queasy parallels to our own current political climate in the process. From a villain who can’t be reasoned with or threatened, to the literal rendition and interrogation of a citizen from another country, to the wiretapping of an entire city, it’s a disturbing story of our times. At a certain point, Batman seems willing to commit any wrong short of murder to achieve a right and the public is willing to turn the other way as long as it can keep its hands clean. Indeed the real audience cheers him on at every turn.
Is Nolan supporting this notion of “anything in the name of justice” or has he pulled off a Watchmen-like subversion of the very notion of a superhero just to see how an audience will respond? Like the Joker playing his game with the explosives rigged ferries, is he waiting to see if the audience will push the button to satisfy itself no matter the price?
Nolan seems at first to take a dim view of the public, yet in the film when the decision between right and wrong is literally placed in public hands (where it can’t hide behind a cape and a cowl), the public ultimately does the right thing. On the other hand, Batman is allowed to exist, letting the public project its misdeeds onto him, like some kind of shaman, absorbing evil spirits while living as an outcast so the tribe can live in peace. Perhaps that’s why we need the fictional character of Batman as much as the people in the movie need the real thing.
Befitting the dark edge of the film, Nolan and his production designers have striven for a sense of realism. This is not a primary colored, gravity defying wish-fulfillment fantasy, it’s a gritty slice of heightened reality. Batman’s outfit is meant for protection as much as disguise and intimidation. His toys and gadgets are combat vehicles. When he’s hit, he bruises.
Here however is where the film finally stumbles: unlike Batman, we don’t live in a PG-13 world. It’s a refrain I seem to sing more and more often, but The Dark Knight really could have and should have been rated R. In the film, the Joker says “I use a knife because guns are too quick. Otherwise, you can’t savor all the emotions. You know who people are in their last moments.” Yet at every turn, the film flinches just before things get genuinely brutal.
It’s not just that bloodless, consequence-free violence is more offensive than the gratuitousness of showing the violence in the first place (it is), it’s that here we have a realistic film brimming with adult themes that would’ve been strengthened by the real impact of the chaos portrayed on the screen. The Dark Knight is sitting at the big boy table now, but in its emasculated form, it’s not as powerful or resonant as it could have been.
Of course, none of this is Nolan’s fault. He did the best he could within the boundaries he was given by the studio, but it’s a shame Warner Bros. was more interested in the profit potential of a 4-quadrant audience than they were in creating art.
In the end, this need for cleanliness permeates the entire film and not for the better. For a movie that seems to promise such grit, The Dark Knight’s hands are oddly spotless. The Bruce Wayne character himself could’ve used some more flaws; a little more John Wayne in The Searchers and a little less square-jawed hero would’ve given the film another layer of interest.
Christian Bale does his best giving nuance to a thankless role, though the raspy growl he affects here as Batman is a little too much at times. In a reversal of many of the previous Batman characterizations, Bale is actually more interesting when he’s out of costume.
More fun all around is Heath Ledger as the Joker. This is why you buy a ticket and you will not be disappointed. In what will be his second to last role, Ledger reached down and dredged up the most disturbing screen incarnation of Batman’s arch-nemesis to date. On the other hand, it’s not a particularly deep characterization. This is not the late actor’s fault, but the character simply doesn’t have a soul. Under the circumstances, the best Ledger can do is a surface treatment. It’s a great one and it’s Ledger’s energy that drives much of the film, but this just isn’t a deeply human character. He is chaos personified, a kind of upside down agent provocateur, but not a feeling human being. Underneath the makeup, he’s mainly tics and mannerisms, grabbing all of the film’s attention while delivering none of its heart.
Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine meanwhile are both fine playing variations on the same characters they’ve been playing for years. As the head of Wayne Enterprises and Bruce Wayne’s tireless butler respectively, they lend the proceedings a dignity and some humor. As dual father figures, they also provide a sort of moral compass and act as one of the film’s many counterpoints.
Aaron Eckhart is good also as Harvey Dent. Full of ambition and eager, nervous energy, his character arc is the film’s most interesting. Less successful is Batman’s ex and Harvey Dent’s current squeeze Rachel Dawes. Maggie Gyllenhaal does her best and is a major improvement in the role over Katie Holmes, but again she isn’t given much to do. She’s an embodiment of purity (to Joker’s embodiment of chaos) rather than a flesh and blood character.
One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer. In creating the music for The Dark Knight, they threw out the manual on how to compose a superhero theme. This is not John Williams or Danny Elfman. This is a stripped down, eerie, percussive score that punches you in the gut instead of leaving you humming a catchy tune. Particularly excellent is the theme used for the Joker. Most of his appearances are preceded by a disturbing electronic howl bringing to mind Daniel Plainview flailing away in a mineshaft. It’s ominous, effective work and it greases the layers of darkness and dread shot through the entire film.
Equally unconventional is Nolan’s treatment of the film’s action sequences. He was criticized in Batman Begins for their choppy, chaotic handling and he delivers more of the same here. Some aren’t going to like the lack of clarity and geography, but if Nolan had been interested in such a thing, there are dozens of second unit guys he could’ve brought in just to handle the chases and fights.
I don’t think he was aiming for fluid, exciting action sequences. I think he was more interested in the chaotic feeling of being inside the danger rather than observing from a safe vantage point. The Wachowskis took a similar approach to Speed Racer earlier this summer with much weaker critical and box office results.
Overall, it’s clear The Dark Knight is not content with ordinary superhero thrills and some may be left wondering where the fun is. However, I suspect it has hit a sweet spot where it is serious enough to be elevated above child’s play, but not so serious as to have all the fun taken out of it.
Those who complain it’s just a comic book movie will be shown its darkness and serious of purpose while those who complain it isn’t hard-edged enough will be reminded it’s just a comic book movie. Batman has it both ways. Yet, for a film that went so far in transforming our expectations of the genre, it’s a shame it couldn’t go all the way. Call The Dark Knight a terrific movie, but a near miss when it comes to greatness.
The Dark Knight. USA 2008. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Co-written by Christopher Nolan and Jonah Nolan from a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer. Cinematography by Wally Pfister. Production design by Nathan Crowley. Costume design by Lindy Hemming. Edited by Lee Smith. Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman. 2 hours 32 minutes. MPAA Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace. 4 stars (out of 5)
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