The Batman comics I read were never just comic books; they were always something more...something intangibly mythical…almost illusory.
The first comic I ever recall picking up that involved Gotham City’s Caped Crusader was Detective Comics #476. It was 35 cents, peanuts now, but a small fortune to a child of five. The one thing that was immediate to me was that this Batman was never funny. With Marshall Rogers sweeping and penetrating artwork, Batman was less a colorful, spandex-clad do-gooder and was more a tortured, inwardly obsessed, and borderline fanatical vigilante. He worked at night in the ominous shadows and dark alleys of the city he swore to protect as a traumatized child. Criminals feared him, the public fiercely misunderstood him, and his methods frequently blurred the gap between right and wrong. Superman – draped in the vibrant hues of the American flag – was the ultimate Boy Scout hero. Batman, by comparison, was more of a nocturnal avenging angel than a joyous crusader of truth and justice.
Christopher Nolan‘s BATMAN BEGINS understood that the best way to appropriate the essence of these great Batman comics was to tap into the near 70-year-old character's deeply textured psychology. That 2005 effort did justice to the Batman canon and was arguably one of the finest super hero films of its kind in a long while. What it did was to effectively wash away the sting of too many failed and abortive efforts to capture Batman’s universe on screen (not to mention utterly erasing the painful memories of 1997’s hopelessly wrongheaded BATMAN AND ROBIN). Nolan does that – to an even larger and more triumphant extent – in the film’s sequel. Much like its predecessor, THE DARK KNIGHT is a radical and daring de-mythologizing of Batman, so much to the point where these films go well beyond being just silly comic book films. Instead, Nolan’s film rethinks and transcends the genre by engaging in something emotionally complex, thematically dense and challenging, and intensely emotional; because of that, THE DARK KNIGHT works diligently for – and rightfully achieves – the platitude of being the greatest of all the comic book films; it's the CITIZEN KANE of the recently exploding genre.
There has certainly never been a super hero film that has challenged viewers’ preconceived notions of the comic book movie like this one. Yes, comic books have good guys and bad guys and typically the line that separates them is simply defined. Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT is the complete opposite: the line between good and evil here is less of a large gulf and more chillingly close. Nolan’s Batman is not a squared jawed hero with a resoundingly sunny disposition that operates on the right side of the law. His crime fighter is much more layered as a damaged personality, and he certainly is not necessarily the good guy in the classic sense.
Batman is a wounded orphan, forever haunted by the brutal murder of his parents. He fights less of a good and noble fight and embraces his calling as a figure of vengeance. This is a terribly scarred man who, unlike most other comic heroes, does not enjoy or take pride in being a hero. Instead of liking the fight against evil, he feels more obligated to fight, to the point of feverous obsession. Because of his wounded psyche, Batman is also a fringe character: He fights to protect innocent people that hate and/or fear him, he often uses methods that are clearly infringements of the law, he frequently leaves paths of destruction in his wake, and – even more fascinating – Nolan’s Batman even is forced to come to grips with his near fascist underpinnings.
At one key moment in THE DARK KNIGHT Batman uses technology in ways The Patriot Act never thought possible to spy on innocent people, without their knowledge, to get the results he needs. “Batman has no limits,” Bruce Wayne intensely boasts at one point. His colleague, realizing the severity and immorality of Batman’s actions, tells him with a sense of deep resentment, “What you’re doing…is wrong.” It’s so refreshing – and empowering as a filmgoer – to see Nolan lay in the groundwork for raising some problematic questions as to the what makes a hero heroic and how their methods defy the very notion of what being a hero means. The fact that THE DARK KNIGHT does such an incredibly focused job of examining right versus wrong within the context of its hero is to its credit: This super hero film does not neatly cater to our appetites for slavishly banal and monotonous summer, comic book fare, ripe with over-the-top characters and even brighter, visual effects eye candy. Instead, the film becomes an involving and taxing morality tale. Batman himself struggles with notions of his own legitimacy – there are points where the character becomes so lost in his mission to fight crime that his masked alter ego becomes more of a hurtful affliction than a euphoric rallying call to help those in needs.
In these ways, Nolan’s film becomes more fatalistic...a Greek tragedy. What’s interesting is the film's focus: Batman shares equal screentime with two other important figures in the film. First, we have the tormented “hero” that descends deeper and deeper into darkness and despair, then we have the “villain” who is essentially a sadistic, anarchist terrorist who simply “wants to watch the world burn,” and finally we have the idealistic everyman hero, the “white” knight whose hopes of cleaning up Gotham City using legal channels is all but devastated by personal catastrophes. Perhaps what’s most frightening to see is how both the “white” idealist and the “dark” hero constantly deal with issues of their own respective place in the world. The villain, on the other hand, seems to be the most grounded and self-actualized of the bunch. He is a self-anointed agent of chaos and misery, a purposeless criminal that is not out for a buck or for glory. Even more intriguing is the notion that the bad guy here understands with stunning accuracy how the world operates, even more so than the heroes. Yes, the man is sick, but everything he predicts or comments on about society becomes true, and his warped worldview has truth to it: “Introduce a little anarchy,” he states, “and upset the established order…then everyone loses their minds.”
The villain in question is, of course, The Joker, arguably the most memorable and iconic of all the comic book villains, and here he occupies the main story of THE DARK KNIGHT to the point where he becomes more than just a criminal adversary to Batman. He’s not only an agent of evil to Batman, but he is also a ruthlessly fiendish madman and psychopath that, in turn, takes good people and turns them into murderous fiends. He is introduced early on in THE DARK KNIGHT, and the film’s story opens soon after the events of BATMAN BEGINS. Batman - after successfully saving Gorham from the wrath of his former mentor, Ra’s Al Ghul - has now become a controversial and mythical figure in the city. To many, he is a savior and last hope, and to others he seems to be a paradoxical conduit to an even nasty breed of criminal offenders. When not moonlighting as a hero, Batman (played once again by Christian Bale, the best screen Batman by a country mile) is Bruce Wayne, a drunken, billionaire playboy who uses his gossip-attracting status as one big alibi. He still remains befriended by his loyal butler and surrogate Father, Alfred (Michael Caine, rock steady again) and the CEO of his corporation, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, equally refined), who also knows Bruce’s secret and empowers him with all of those “wonderful toys” to fight crime with.
All is not well in Gotham, despite Batman’s best efforts. He has helped stop organized crime from taking more bites out of the innocent (an early scene shows him battling and quickly defeating Jonathon "The Scarecrow Crane", played again by Cillian Murphy, whose character escaped at the end of the first film). However, Batman’s status has lead to escalation of more weirdoes wreaking havoc in the city. This leads to the new DA, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to take on organized crime head on, with the help of a cop that will never be bought out, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes from the first film) who loves Bruce, but can’t come to grips with his lifestyle choices and develops a loving relationship with Harvey. Things go south fast with the appearance of the sadistic Joker (Heath Ledger), whose terrorist’s activities are turned Gotham into a war zone. The Joker’s tactics become so ruthless that it inevitably challenges both the DA and Batman to decide just how far they will go to bring this madman to justice.
The Joker has always been a crafty foil to Batman, but both seem oddly similar. At face value, they are both driven by obsession, which could be labeled as mentally unstable. Both are lawbreakers, per se, albeit one much more in a larger and harsher sense. Both wear masks of sorts to disguise deep childhood traumas. However, they differ in terms of ideology: Batman yearns to create hope in the citizens with his presence. The Joker, by contrast, only lives for chaos and wanton violence. Even more so than Batman himself, the Joker understands how society is deeply tainted, perhaps beyond the redemption that he seeks. The Joker sees good, sane people that can be driven insane with the most modest of pushes (one dastardly plan he concocts late in the film involving two ferries full of people reinforces this). Beyond the path of destruction the Joker leaves, his biggest challenge to Batman is the way he all but destroys hope in Gotham by targeting and changing Harvey Dent for the worse. Batman sees Dent as a better breed of tangible hero that can lead Gotham by example, but if he becomes tainted by the Joker, then what hope does Gotham truly have?
The Joker is played in what will be considered a legendary performance by the late Heath Ledger, whom was taken from the world far too early in January of this year. The inerrant sadness of witnessing this searing and absolutely riveting-from-start-to-finish performance is that it’s his last. What’s compelling is Ledger’s choices here: Harnessing the slick and scary demeanor of a Hannibal Lector with the grungy punk aesthetic of Sid Vicious with the lunacy and desire for mayhem like Alex from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, The Joker is the ultimate, sadistic, improvisational terrorist. There is no stopping his madness or his willingness to spread pandemonium and disorder. Whether it be shooting a man in cold blood or blowing up a hospital, Ledger’s Joker is cold, vindictive, unscrupulous, and, even more terrifying, unconflicted. He knows what he is and has no pretensions about it. Ledger’s Joker is not the enjoyable prankster that Jack Nicholson’s villain was in the very first modern BATMAN film (a great performance in its own way); his Joker is an unmitigated monster. For the Academy not to award Ledger a posthumous Oscar nomination next year would be the biggest of shames. This is one of the most memorable villainous performances of the movies.
The rest of the cast is also reservedly fantastic. Bale does such an intensely strong and thankless job of playing all of his hero’s strengths and emotionally paralyzing foibles. Freeman and Caine give loads of class to the proceedings as well (as evident in one sly scene involving Freeman calmly talk down a snooping Wayne Enterprises' employee and a moment where Caine gives a rational to Bruce as to the irrationality of his arch nemesis). Gyllenhaal herself manages to infuse a headstrong toughness and vulnerability that Katie Holmes may not have been able to pull off. Gary Oldman, a chameleon actor if I’ve ever seen one, crafts a quietly strong performance as the police officer that needs to rise above the call of duty and make some hard sacrifices (it's so nice to see the usually hyperactive and tense Oldman, often playing sickos, portray a noble and decent-mined hero here). Perhaps the most challenging performance is provided by Aaron Eckhart’s crusading DA, who has a difficult task of playing Dent first as a determined, honest, and law-abiding attorney and then has to morph into a hideous creature (emotionally and physically) during the film’s final act.
The script of THE DARK KNIGHT helps as well, which was written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan (the two most famously teamed up for MEMENTO). This is the most staunchly democratic of all the Batman films in terms of how it manages to hone in on all of its characters and develop them. I love how the film even gives supporting characters a chance to interplay with one another, which only assists the film’s overall themes. A small, but significant, subplot involving Alfred, Rachel, and a letter would have never seen the light of day in other Batman films, but the Nolans see how this subtle little plot point bares a larger significance to overall tragic arc of the film. The film’s pacing is also superb: at over two and a half hours, THE DARK KNIGHT never feels long.
Much will be made of the film’s key performances by Ledger and company, but Nolan can now join the pantheon of great contemporary directors with the film. He cradles himself with bravura filmmaking talents behind the camera. Wally Pfister’s photography gives THE DARK KNIGHT an ominous sense of dread at every corner, and the production design by Nathan Crowley is so much more agreeably subtle and inspired than the visual overkill of some of the previous, effects laden Batman films. Nolan is also a filmmaker of vision and considerable tact, especially when it comes to the film’s action sequences, which - as astonishingly realized as they are - rely very little on CGI trickery. One sequence is a masterpiece of editing, stunt work, and live action effects work that shows a long chase that includes a semi-trailer, a swat truck, a platoon of police cars, and Batman racing to the rescue in his Batmobile and later in his Batpod, which just as to be the single coolest motorcycle in film history. The sheer delight of THE DARK KNIGHT is how Nolan understands how an abundance of CGI would be counterproductive to the real world sheen he aspires for in THE DARK KNIGHT. Instead, Nolan uses his keen instincts for film craftsmanship and forges moments involving good old-fashioned stunts and action without much computer trickery. THE DARK KNIGHT is one of the most lavish and immersing looking comic films because of the reality-based intensity in brings to the screen.
The film’s title is highly appropriate: THE DARK KNIGHT is not a pleasure, per se, to sit through, and most audience members accustomed to the brighter and more pleasurable film universes of SPIDER-MAN and IRON MAN may be disappointed here (this is also a very harsh PG-13, so young kids are definitely not welcome). THE DARK KNIGHT is bathed in nihilism and there is rarely a moment of reassurance that all will culminate in a squeaky clean ending where everything that was once wrong has been corrected. The ending of the film reminded me considerably of another landmark sequel, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, which daringly took its heroes down dark paths and concluded its story with a decidedly downbeat ending where all was uncertain.
The genius of THE DARK KNIGHT is Nolan never neatly wraps up his story to appease audience sensibilities. Like the STAR WARS sequel, there is an emotional cliffhanger by the time THE DARK KNIGHT cuts to its end credits. There is an alarming sense that The Joker has both been defeated and as won the day, not to mention that Batman himself makes one incredibly selfless decision that makes him both a true hero to one person, but ultimately a demonized societal outcast to everyone else. One of THE DARK KNIGHT’s final shots echoed the western SHANE, which has its main character symbolically riding off to the horizon, represented the metaphorical death of the iconography of the western hero. THE DARK KNIGHT shares the same evocative ambiguity to it final moments: There is a set up for a much larger story arc and, much like the ending of BATMAN BEGINS, a “bad guy” that the “good guys” are after is clearly set up here for the third film…but it actually may shock you as to who the villain actually will be.
THE DARK KNIGHT is a thought-provoking, imaginative, transcending, and unforgettable crime epic and action picture that both lovingly presents the essence of Bob Kane’s legendary comic hero while radically redefining him into an absorbing and powerful creation. Most importantly, this is a thoughtful masterpiece when typical super hero films are all about eye-popping visuals and kinetic action. Director and co-writer Nolan takes the basic, rudimentary trimmings of Batman’s comic universe and weaves a complicated film noir that dives into other risky thematic ground. The story’s examination of right and wrong with its morally questionable characters throughout carry a post-911 significance and weight, which most super hero films would never dare touch. Technically masterful, impeccably performed, and with a screenplay that gives an unprecedented complexity to the proceedings, THE DARK KNIGHT emerges as the anti-super hero film about a categorically humanistic and beleaguered super hero.
If anything, Nolan’s film reaffirms that the Batman character is not just a comic book persona…he's something more.
I just recently had the pleasure to view film for a second time, dubbed THE DARK KNIGHT: THE IMAX EXPERIENCE. There have been recent films to be released in the large screen format, but Nolan’s efforts here represent the first time a filmmaker has shot key scenes for the film exclusively in the format. He shot six scenes in particular, most notably action sequences (the virtuoso one involving the incredible chase between Batman’s Bat-pod, the police, the Joker, and an armed SWAT truck, is simply mesmerizing on a screen six stories high) and the opening scene that introduces The Joker. Seeing THE DARK KNIGHT: THE IMAX experience was a revelation: it should be required viewing for anyone that wishes to see this film at its most immersing.