A blockbuster masterpiece that lives up to – and surpasses – almost impossible expectations, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is, perhaps, the first film to truly transcend the genre trappings of a comic-book movie and give us a legitimate piece of visionary cinema.
This is, yes, a movie that features a man in a rubber bat suit chasing after a man wearing clown makeup, but this isn’t at all a movie about those characters; they’re mere metaphors in Nolan’s structural descendent of Heat (a connection that the director acknowledges) that serve to create a view of humanity as pitch-black and stark as Blade Runner or Taxi Driver.
The 1966 Adam West-starring Batman: The Movie (and to a lesser extent, the TV series that aired at the same time) was a brilliant satire that viciously lampooned the very idea of grown men running around like this, and has influenced almost every superhero movie since then (even the best, Superman or Spider-Man 2 or this year’s Iron Man, have always had that wink-wink, don’t-take-us-too-seriously mentality.)
The Dark Knight is the very first antithesis of this; Nolan’s rigid adherence to realism has produced a superhero movie as serious and scary as any other non-genre film.
We pick up right where Nolan’s Batman Begins left off, quite literally for those who recall the foreshadowing at the end of the previous film. There’s a maniac robbing banks (The Joker, played brilliantly by Heath Ledger), and there are a variety of ineffective Batman-inspired vigilantes running around town, but of more concern to the real Batman (Christian Bale) is the continuing stronghold the mafia has been able to maintain over Gotham.
Despite putting Carmine Falcone away in the previous film, several others have popped up in his place, including the arrogant Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts). A new district attorney, however, inspires hope in Bruce Wayne and other citizens: ‘White Knight’ Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) promises to clean up the city and rid Gotham of the mafia influence.
After a mafia accountant transports all of Gotham’s mob money overseas, Batman vows to bring him back to have Dent and police chief Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) make him sing. But when the pressure exerted on the mafia becomes too great, they turn to The Joker, a man who they do not understand, and there’s no going back.
A lot has been and will be said about Ledger’s performance as the Joker; the actor is nothing short of phenomenal, completely disappearing into what should be a showy, scenery-chewing role and re-creating the character in a way that Jack Nicholson was incapable of in Tim Burton’s 1989 film (as good as Nicholson is, his Joker was still all Nicholson).
Aided by writing that wisely chooses to ignore any origin or backstory, the Joker is simply evil incarnate, an agent of chaos, and Ledger has created the most memorable and terrifying screen villain since Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector. He’s so good that, for the duration of the film, the thought the actor was no longer with us had never entered my mind. Of course, that fact is devastating in retrospect.
Towards the end of the film, Ledger’s Joker says something to Batman along the lines of “you and I are fated to do this forever”, a line that perfectly summarizes the relationship between the two (as well as any superhero and arch-villain); it’s all too sad that the line cannot live beyond the boundaries of cinema, and within those boundaries – I’m not sure how long it will be before we see another screen Joker, but no actor will be able to sufficiently replace Ledger in the role.
While Ledger’s performance overshadows the rest of the cast – and this is, really, The Joker’s film – other performances are equally good. Eckhart is outstanding as Dent, the embodiment of Gotham’s ‘White Knight’, all-good and something that goes tragically beyond.
While Bale won’t receive much acclaim, he’s excellent as Bruce Wayne and Batman, a more grizzled and world-weary hero than we saw in Batman Begins. Returning characters all seem to carry more weight here than they did in the previous film: Oldman’s Gordon, Michael Caine’s Alfred, Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox, and Maggie Gyllenhaal (replacing Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes) all get their moments to shine here, and shine they do.
This is a real achievement for Nolan; not only has he done something special in the comic book universe, but it’s one hell of a ride. Compelling all the way through, this a riveting crime tale told with all the urgency of Michael Mann or William Friedkin at their best.
Cinematography perfectly creates a real-world Gotham; most of the exteriors were shot in Chicago, but you’ll never doubt that this Gotham isn’t a living, breathing city that exists somewhere out there. Nolan’s Batman Begins was a good-enough origin tale but The Dark Knight is something else entirely.
Music by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer is outstanding; gone is any kind of recognizable Danny Elfman-like theme, instead we’re propelled through the film by an electrifying, pulsating score that demands that we pay attention to the screen (the electronic, Kraftwerk-inspired Joker theme that opens the film and reappears throughout is best of all).
While this isn’t a perfect film, it is a near-perfect one. The only real flaw that I can harp on is dialogue that’s repeated and sometimes overstated in an effort to hammer home every point.
I also cannot say I was completely satisfied by the ending, but the film is so good up to that point I’m willing to grant the director the benefit of the doubt (and unlike something like There Will Be Blood, there’s no audience-splitting 180-degree shift in style here).
Dark, grim, and unrelenting, this isn’t a film that everyone can enjoy, but I do think that most will appreciate. It’s a masterpiece, and does for the comic-book film what something like Blade Runner did for sci-fi.