The Dark Knight

I first saw The Dark Knight at a midnight release, and I came away kind of disappointed. Having watched it again, I have come to the conclusion that I was a crazy person then. Not only is this film a great follow-up to Batman Begins, it also stands better than well enough on its own.

At first, things are a little touch and go. There’s a great scene where we are introduced to the Joker (Heath Ledger), but then we’re supposed to expect that when he drives a bus through a bank wall nobody notices because there are other buses around. Similarly, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart)’s introduction is marred by his jokey courtroom theatrics and cheezy one-liners. We’re meant to take this as Dent being self-reliant and clever, but it’s done in a really obvious way.

The last thing I didn’t love about the movie was similar to these other issues. Nolan seems worried that his audience will be asking “why so serious?” and undercuts action (particularly the car chase) with tension-breaking humour. In theory, it’s a way to relax for a second, but in practice, it seems tacked on.

Really, these are three, relatively inconsequential irritants, more than faults. Otherwise, the film is entertaining, challenging, and engaging.

Bruce (Christian Bale) is a little older, a little more experienced and is starting to consider the moral implications of his night life. He knows what he’s doing (being Batman) is good, but he nonetheless has to take responsibility for the consequences.

Gordon (Gary Oldman) gets to be more of a hero. Insteady of relying on the hints and direction of Batman, he forms his own task force, and strives to improve the city he loves. Faced with inevitable corruption within his team, he avoids the temptation to give in. He moves ahead, knowing full well the dangers of his idealism.

Harvey is a new character, one whose glorious morality is meant to make him the “best of us.” Instead, he comes across as a kind of superficial white knight, who is only able to be a champion for good because of his lack of connection. Without anything to lose, it would naturally be easier for Dent to risk it all. Once he does develop a relationship, he hangs everything on it, and, upon its destruction, his descent into madness and villainy is swift and violent.

Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who didn’t really do a whole lot in the first film, does about just as much in this one. She is assertive, and competent in the courtroom, but her real value is because of her desirability, not only to Bruce, but also to Harvey. I don’t want to spoil anything for any of the three people on Earth who haven’t seen it, but Rachel’s most important act is not one that’s within her control. It’s other people’s reactions to it that define who they are.

Alfred (Michael Caine) would have stolen the show again, if it weren’t for Heath Ledger. As Bruce has matured, so has his relationship with Alfred. Developping out of the father-son relationship they had in Batman Begins, Alfred has become something of a moral overseer, insisting that Bruce maintain the standards that he has set for himself. Most powerfully, he also protects Bruce, leading by secret example, and making (although only clear to the audience) the kinds of hard choices that he expects Batman to be able to make.

I’m certainly not the first person to say this, but yes, Heath Ledger is amazing in this movie. He takes a comicbook villain and makes us not only believe that he could exist, he makes us pray that this monster doesn’t exist. Without any backstory or motivations, the Joker is an absolute agent of chaos. Possibly even most troublingly, he is intelligent and eloquent (in a mumbling, hysterical sort of way) to the point that we cannot help but agree with some of his logic. The ticks and nuances of Ledger’s performance have crafted one of the most memorable performances and characters in cinematic history. Nearly every scene he’s in produces an unforgettable and timeless image or moment.

The most regrettable thing about the Joker (except that Ledger’s, y’know, dead) is that in order to unsettle him, Batman has to become kind of wussy. Near the end, when Joker and Batman are fighting on the rooftop, Batman’s speech about the presence of “good” in Gotham feels over-simplified and cheesy. Ledger’s Joker is not a villain that can be undone by telling him that “good” exists. He doesn’t really lose. The lameness of this speech is only matched by Gordon’s poetic-beyond-himself monologue at the end, where he introduces the phrase, and the meaning behind the title: The Dark Knight.

Immediately after this movie was released, the sequel talk started up again. “Who’s the next villain?”, “Who will they cast?”, but I think the big questions are “How could they top that?” and “Should they even try?”

Rating: 4.0 stars

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