Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Cane, Morgan Freeman Director: Christopher Nolan
Release Date: July 18, 2008
Running Time: 152 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributor: Warner Bros.
I have done my absolute best to keep my expectations in check for The Dark Knight. Considering the fact that the viral marketing for this film started 2 years ago, the very notion of the film succeeding on any level under the weight of its own designed expectation isn’t simply preposterous – it is unimaginable. The truth is, for as overdone as the marketing seemed to be, the greatest prank the campaign pulled was fooling us all into thinking we were prepared for what we were about to experience.
For those who haven’t seen it I will keep it spoiler free but for anyone reading this, you already know enough of the plot to get started – Batman and the Joker battle for supremacy in Gotham. The first thing I noticed about the film that it has a completely different feel to it than any other movie based on a super hero or comic book character. You almost immediately forget you are watching a superhero, or even a Batman movie, as it hits the ground running with a bank heist. Instantly it has the feel of Michael Mann’s Heat. As the movie tears on, you realize that you aren’t watching a comic book movie at all but rather a sophisticated crime drama that happens to be housed in the walls of the superhero genre. That is just one of the many surprises Christopher Nolan has in store.
As a general rule of thumb, comic book/superhero movies stick to a couple basic ground rules: good versus evil where the hero is matched against a villain attempting to inflict peril on an unsuspecting city or group of people. To simply say The Dark Knight is different may be the understatement of the year. Nolan digs so much deeper and gives us a movie that is far more complex than that simple premise. In Batman Begins, we saw the the transformation of Bruce Wayne into Batman. The Dark Knight asks, “What now?” That ‘what now’ is that Wayne has grown weary of his role as Gotham’s savoir after being unjustly labeled a vigilante killer by the very city he has been trying to protect. The timing of the Joker’s introduction only further compounds this dilemma. He is at first, hell-bent on destroying Batman by way of humiliation by repeatedly asking him to reveal his true identity. He continues his murderous rampages while laying the blame at Batman’s feet. And everyone buys into the Joker’s plan. In the meantime, Batman/Bruce Wayne and Gotham have put all their faith in the city’s new District Attorney, Harvey Dent to rid the town of crime once and for all. It’s quite a little love triangle as each man realizes they need one another to fulfill their own agenda. Wayne realizes he needs Dent to help leave the life of Batman behind, the Joker realizes he needs Batman to feed his own anarchistic tendencies, and at one point or another Dent needs them both. The line of morality gets further blurred as we go. What is right and wrong in the name of right and wrong becomes the greater question as we further decent into the darkness of the human soul. It is that exploration that gives this film its bite and sets it apart from anything else before it.
The creation and application of Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego, is contingent on spending his time developing new weapons and armor in an effort to make himself as indestructible as he can because as a superhero without super powers. Batman is merely human and he knows his limitations. Where the Joker succeeds as an adversary is not attacking him physically but in his awareness of what makes Batman the way he is, or has become. Any of his attempted physical attacks are manifested from his understanding of the darkness where Batman exists. His weapon is knowledge and it is with this that he inflicts the most damage to Batman.
For all of this movie’s haunting moral complexities, it would be nothing without the excellent performances from its cast, of which there are many. Where do you start? Heath Ledger gives the performance of a lifetime – his or anyone else’s – as the Joker. His performance will go down as one of the greatest movie villains of all time, right next to Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs, Darth Vader in Star Wars, and Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange. It should come as no surprise that he seemingly pulled inspiration from all three. His Joker is sadistic, nihilistic, shows no empathy and is completely devoid of any character arc. What’s more, Ledger disappears into the role not just in his over the top approach to the character, but in the subtleties; the way he carries himself, the way he licks his lips like a rabid dog in between lines of dialogue, even the Joker’s trademark maniacal laugh has a psychotic tinge to it. As sad as it is that Ledger is not around to see and promote the film, it only fuels the performance that much further. The same way we are not given any explanation as to the Joker’s origin in the movie, we are all left to wonder just how Ledger brought that character to life as he did. It is perfect in every sense of the word and the lack of clarification as to how it happened makes it that much more haunting. It is hard to overlook the impact his death has on the movie but if he wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, like he deserves, it will be because he gave us a brilliant performance, not because he can’t do it again.
As great as Ledger is, you can’t overlook the performances from the rest of the cast. Aaron Eckhart as the no-nonsense DA Harvey Dent and his eventual transformation into Two-Face is beautifully tragic and he plays both sides to the hilt. Dent balances out the film as he provides the character arc that the Joker could not. Maggie Gyllenhaal makes us all (happily) forget Katie Holmes ever had anything to do with these movies. Michael Caine as Alfred and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox provide balance and wisdom in their respective roles. And Gary Oldman gives another understated performance as James Gordon. With a cast as strong as this, you start to gravitate away from the silly notion that seasoned and accomplished actors don’t belong in a genre movie like this.
At the end of it all, you have a swiftly paced 2 ½ hour movie that realizes every bit of ambition and scope that it set out to, and with respect, actually makes all previous Batman films worse by comparison. Nolan has created a masterpiece that will stay with you long after you finish watching it. Superman may have laid the foundation and Spider-Man may have made it a profitable business, but The Dark Knight transcends the genre by raising the bar and turning it into an art form.
And there’s the rub.
* * * * out of * * * *