In a year full of superhero movies, I find it ironic that the best of them is the one least styled after a typical comic book movie. The Dark Knight is not a movie comparable to Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk. If you want a barometer to level this latest Batman offering against, I would offer up crime flicks such as Heat or L.A. Confidential. The opening of the film, with a bank robbery that introduces us to The Joker, made me feel like I was watching a Michael Mann crime flick. When the underworld and crooked police were brought into the limelight, I felt I was watching something straight out of a James Elroy novel. The Dark Knight is not a great comic book movie, but a masterful crime epic.
Where Batman Begins was handcuffed to the idea of creating the origin story of Bruce Wayne, The Dark Knight is able to throw Batman right at us from the beginning. He has settled into his role as the dark savior of Gotham City, and works the streets as both a vigilante crime fighter and a wanted man. He has scared much of the criminal element into hiding with their tails tucked between their legs. He is the man behind the mask and a person that all men fear. He is also the least interesting character in the film.
In much the same way as the previous incarnations of Batman, the Caped Crusader is once again a reactive character type, not a proactive one. He travels through this story, reacting to the deaths, the crime and the tragedy that unfolds around him. There are a couple of points in the movie where he has a chance to react to something in a positive manner, asserting himself as the dominating hero in the film. On only one of these occasions does he do so. However, even in planting his foot and doing the right thing, it is in reaction to something he has no control over. Batman is not a character that can control his own destiny.
The most interesting character in the movie is not Heath Ledger’s Joker either. Don’t get me wrong, Ledger is brilliant as the madman, all twitchy and spastic, his tongue flicking and gums smacking. Ledger delivers the performance of his life, which is sad considering the actor’s demise. The Joker is a brilliantly drawn character that the script never once tries to explain. There are three occasions where Joker explains his background, all three times with a different story. He is a liar, a manipulator, and a self proclaimed angry dog. He doesn’t care about money or any other material possession. The Joker, in this incarnation, is simply an anarchist, only interested in chaos. He is also Batman’s biggest fan, with dreams of one day sharing a padded cell with the Dark Knight. He is a man completely without a past, an enigma, and a perfect villain in this environment.
The Joker mentions that he just wants to see the world burn. It is this attitude that brings memories of Fight Club, and the similarities the characters of Tyler Durden and The Joker share. They both refuse to accept the norms of society, enjoy seeing themselves on the outside looking in, and have latched onto someone, or something, they can connect to. In Durden’s case it is his own inner being, but in Joker’s case it is his other half, Batman. Joker can connect with Batman, another freak, always forced to the outside, always noticed but never embraced. They are two sides to the same coin.
Which brings me to the character that makes this movie really work.
Harvey Dent is this film’s greatest creation. Portrayed masterfully by Aaron Eckhart, Dent is the man that Bruce Wayne knows he never can be. Dent is a white knight, compared to Batman’s dark knight, riding into Gotham on his stallion, with the noblest intentions of cleaning up the streets and making the city a safe place to live. While Batman works in the mud as he tries to clean up the streets, Dent stands tall above them all, the noblest man in the world. It could have turned into a stereotypical caricature, but never stoops to that level. It is thanks to the acting of Eckhart, the character remains true throughout the movie.
Guy Pierce portrays a similar character in L.A. Confidential, but where he turns into a stereotype and a hated man in the eyes of the audience, Eckhart is able to keep our sympathies throughout this modern day tragedy. At the base of the story, The Dark Knight is most unlike its superhero counterparts in that it does not strive to allow the good guy to save the day. This movie is very much a Shakespearian epic about a good man systematically destroyed. It might possibly be the darkest story you will ever see, as everyone from Batman to Jim Gordon to Harvey Dent, are broken down and destroyed. Don’t be fooled, this is an atypical comic book story in that a hero will not win this war at the end.
The main problem with Batman Begins was the climactic battle that concludes the movie, a convoluted mess that betrays the structure of the story to that point. This movie does not suffer those same problems. The crazed, anarchic Joker’s final battle with Batman is not an over-blown smackdown like we have come to expect in other comic book adaptations. The two have a small battle, filled with words, with Joker finally breaking Batman down as the hero realizes what he has become. Batman, as the self appointed protector, has brought all the tragedy to both himself and everyone who loves him. It is his vigilante attitude that causes the deaths of numerous people and it is his reluctance to see what he has wrought that begins to change the outlook of those closest to him.
Harvey Dent has the best line of the movie, and everyone who has seen the trailer probably knows it by heart. “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” This movie is about the downfall of man, and what happens to even the best of them when they hit rock bottom.
The movie is almost perfect, only suffering minor problems. Christopher Nolan still is a little shaky with his camera work during fight sequences and I could do with more than just a circling camera travelling around the combatants during battle. Nolan is a great director but needs help in this area of direction if he continues to make action movies. Another problem I have is with Christian Bale as Batman. He is one of the best actors working today, and people who claim he only portrays two emotions (serious and sulking) are not appreciating what he brings to his roles. But, Holy Chloraseptic Batman, stop with that deep, raspy voice. It is one of the most irritating and annoying things in the film and really grates on my nerves every time he opens his mouth while wearing the mask.
Those are nitpicks. The Batman voice is horrible, but Bale does a great job otherwise throughout the movie. The fight choreography is amateurish, but the vehicle chase scene is simply awesome. Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart bring the goods and deliver the best acting performances seen in either Nolan Batman film. When the great Gary Oldman is overshadowed in scenes with these guys, it should say something about their skills. Maggie Gyllenhaal is also a thousand times an improvement over Katie Holmes.
While the first Nolan Batman movie addresses the Caped Crusader’s quest for justice, this one comes at the action from all sides. You see Batman’s angst continuing over from the first film, but also inside the police department through the eyes of Gordon, into the halls of justice through the eyes of Dent, and finally into the underworld through the eyes of Salvatore Maroni and the words of The Joker. All the various factions get their screen time to argue their cases and then we are allowed to see everything implode.
That brings me to the true hero of this latest incarnation of Batman – Jonathan Nolan. The brother of the director sat down and penned the script for The Dark Knight, using the template David Goyer laid with the first film. While Goyer is famous for developing heroic actions performed by heroic characters, Jonathan Nolan is more about putting normal men into intense situations and watching them squirm. He wrote Nolan’s two greatest non-Batman films in Memento and The Prestige and once again knocks one out of the park with this story that supersedes anything you could have expected. If Christopher Nolan only directed films written by his brother for the rest of his life, he would have a fabulous career.