The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Eric Roberts, Anthony Michael Hall
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Running Time: 2 hours and 32 minutes4 stars (out of 4)
Recently there has been a rash of so-called "serious" comic book films. Some have been good, if not great ("Iron Man"). Some have been decent ("The Incredible Hulk", "Hellboy II: The Golden Army"). I personally wanted to hold off on any decision about "The Dark Knight" until I saw it. In fact, I wanted to hold off any criticism until I saw it a few times. For almost a year, and especially since the untimely death of Heath Ledger, there has been an immense amount of hype around this production - and rightfully so. Christopher Nolan reinvented the "Batman" franchise three years ago after it was run into the ground. "Batman Forever" and "Batman and Robin" soiled a once great comic book hero. It was thought giving Batman prosthetic nipples, day-glo batmobiles and prancing villains who spew cringe inducing puns was a good idea. Enter "Batman Begins", a brooding and dark reboot of the franchise. This was not your father's Batman. He was trained in martial arts. The story, characters and motivations were grounded in reality. During his fights, he bled and was bruised. It was a brilliant back story, launching Batman back into society's collective mind. The inevitable question - how does one follow up a great superhero movie like "Batman Begins"? "The Dark Knight" is the answer.
Following the events of "Batman Begins", "The Dark Knight" jumps right into the action. The Joker (Heath Ledger) is at the helm of an elaborate bank robbery in which millions of the mob's money is being looted. It turns out this is the start of an elaborate plan that the Joker has masterminded - more on this later. Batman a.k.a. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has his hands full with copycat "Batmen" who supposedly are trying to help him fight crime. Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) is meeting with District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to discuss ways of bringing down the mob by hitting them where it really hurts - their wallets.
The Joker shows up during a middle-of-the-day meeting of the mob bosses. The figureheads are discussing with their Chinese money man a way to secure their money is not seized. The Joker states that, sooner or later, Batman will find a way to find the money while, at the same time, getting the Chinese broker to "squeal". True to the Joker's word, Batman does bring the banker to justice. At the same time, the mob unleashes the Joker onto Gotham City.
Dent, in conjunction with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Jim Gordon and Batman, start to bring the criminals to justice. The Joker, always omnipresent in the film, starts to weave his web of chaos and destruction. Taking out key figures in the fight against the mob, he is able to terrorize the city from the inside out. So deep and intricate is the Joker's plan that no one, and I mean absolutely no one, could predict the unabashedly cruel genius of what he has in store for Gotham.
Pushed to his absolute limits, Batman is having a serious problem keeping control of his problems and emotions. Luckily he has not one, but two voices of reason. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and the Wayne's loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine). But even with them providing balance to an otherwise chaotic world, the Joker's sadistic antics provide an almost impossible hill to climb. People that Bruce Wayne cares about are put into peril. Not all make it out alive. How much can one man take before he breaks his own rules and snaps? How much can one city take before they start to turn to chaos and anarchy? The Joker intends to find out the answer to those questions. His masterminding ends in an amazing two sided showdown - one involves the Batman vs. The Joker - the other involves citizen vs. citizen. It doesn't end with roses and rainbows, but there is a ray of light at the end of this dark tunnel.
The brilliance of this film - what is boosting it to the number two film all time in terms of grosses - is multi-faceted. First is the acting. What is there to say about Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker that hasn't already been said? It is an absolutely mesmerizing turn that captures the audience in its sheer emotional and visceral power. Ledger embodies the Joker from the start, erupting onto the screen fully formed and ready for action. Gone are the days of the "Batman" serial where the Joker's plans are not fully formed. Gone are the days of Tim Burton's Joker that threatens the city with poisonous body care products. Ledger not only creates a dark Joker - one that truly scares you and doesn't care about anything, a truly anarchist - but he also succeeds at bringing one of the most memorable villains to the screen, ever. A little bit of Alex from "A Clockwork Orange", a little bit of Sid Vicious and a whole lot of Heath Ledger - all of these ingredients create a truly evil force that only "wants to watch the world burn". Pouring his heart and soul into this character, Ledger all but disappears leaving us with a madman. It is an utter tragedy that we will no longer get to witness Ledger gracing the silver screen. To have this as one of his last performances is only fitting for a great talent like his.
Aaron Eckhart holds his own as Harvey Dent. His story arc is the true backbone of "The Dark Knight". Going from Gotham's White Knight to potentially bringing the city to its knees is a huge emotional roller coaster - Eckhart is able to sell the emotionality of Dent. One minute you are fighting crime, the next minute you are holding a man's life hostage with a flip of a coin. Eckhart has always been more a small scale, indie film type of guy. This film will definitely put him on a lot of people's radar.
Christian Bale is dependable as Bruce Wayne. I would never want to see another actor in the Batsuit - ever. Throughout the film, Wayne/Batman is presented with moral dilemmas. How far is too far? What rules must/can you break in order to stop a madman like the Joker? What limits can be pushed before you become the villain and are no longer the hero? These questions and the answers to those questions are portrayed diligently by Bale. The sorrow, the longing, the exhaustion - these emotions are worn on Bale's sleeve, easily readable and heart-breaking.
As for the supporting characters - Michael Caine once again shows why he was the perfect choice for Alfred. Morgan Freeman was a stroke of genius to cast in the role of Lucius Fox. Gary Oldman portrays a good cop at his wits end with crime. All three are Batman's conscience. Brilliant actors that only add to the movie, not steal from it.
Christopher Nolan and his brother, Jonathan Nolan, have written a masterpiece - comic book movie or not. As I said before, the real story here is Harvey Dent's character. He starts out a hero in plain sight. He has ideals that will clean up Gotham City, ridding the streets of mobsters and crime. But through the constant and relentless "influence" of the Joker, he turns into an extension of anarchy. Dent lets fate take over - if it frowns upon you, there are serious consequences to be had. The Joker's plan is very complex (maybe a little too complex) but it is believable. His aim is to turn the citizens of Gotham on each other and make the city his own personal anarchic playground. All of these elements are perfectly interwoven into a complex screenplay that should be celebrated.
While the screenplay is brilliant, Nolan direction is equally as impressive. He deftly handles the story material. Lending a hand is the cinematography of Wally Pfister. The gritty realism of Chicago is transplanted to Gotham City. What ends up on screen is beautifully dark - even in full daylight. Nolan's first American production was "Memento" (a great, if not brilliant, film) - he has gotten better with each successive film. Right now he has the Midas touch because everything he touches turns to gold.
The moral themes and ambiguity are heavy here. Who are the villains? Who are the heroes? How long will you remain on one side of the fence before going to the other side? The true constant of the film is the Joker - he is the catalyst that sparks all the changes. The diabolical plan that he hatches, and then enacts, is true genius. Batman blurs the line of morality. Dent becomes what he once fought. The Joker's downfall is his undying belief that all people are essentially corruptible. The people of Gotham feed into his belief until they are presented with the situation in which the lives of several hundred other citizens are at their mercy. The Joker is sorely disappointed to learn that not everyone is capable of his evil.
To call "The Dark Knight" a great film is an understatement. To call it a masterpiece may be premature - only time will tell. I could definitely go on and on about the sheer genius of the plot, acting, direction, costume design, etc., etc. - but it would begin to get repetitive. Just know that this film is destined for greatness. After experiencing it four times, the film got better with each successive viewing. Robert Downey Jr. has said that "The Dark Knight" is a complex film that requires a college degree to watch. Even though the comment was made in jest, it is partly true. It is one of the rare blockbuster pictures that is smart along with being exciting and brilliant. I hope, if there is a third film in this series, that it is half as brilliant as this. Not only is this one of the best sequels ever made, not only is it possibly the best superhero film ever made, "The Dark Knight" - in my humble opinion - is quite possibly one of the best films in the last twenty years.