Dark Knight, The (United States, 2008)
Consequences. In real life, these ramifications emanate from every action like ripples from a stone thrown into a pond. Often in movies, especially those that feature characters who don't play by the rules, such penalties are suspended. However, in Christopher Nolan's Batman universe, decisions and actions have consequences. The Dark Knight, arguably the moodiest and most adult superhero motion picture ever to reach the screen, illustrates this lesson in ways that are startling and painful. This is a tough, uncompromising motion picture - one that defies the common notions of what is expected from a "superhero" film. While there are plenty of action sequences and instances of derring-do, The Dark Knight's subtext has a tragic underpinning that would intrigue Shakespeare or the Greeks. It's about power and impotence, sanity and madness, image and reality, selfishness and sacrifice, and - yes - consequences.
It has often been said that Tim Burton's vision of Batman was the darkest representation we were ever likely to see of a superhero. Compared to how Nolan sees the character, Burton's version was a pantomime. For many long-running franchises, Burton's included, the second volume stands tallest. Nolan has followed up on his gritty and successful Batman Begins with one of the best all-time sequels, and perhaps the most impressive mainstream entertainment experience since 2003's The Return of the King. The Dark Knight builds upon the themes and premises founded three years ago. With the introductions and origins dispensed with in Batman Begins, Nolan uses this opportunity to expand upon his portrait of Batman as a haunted individual who, driven by forces rooted deep in his psyche, must dispense justice according to his own strict code.
Following his defeat of Ra's Al Ghul at the end of Batman Begins, Batman (Christian Bale) has become a mythical figure in Gotham City. The Caped Crusader, as he is now known, is the city's great hope, although the debate rages as to whether he is more hero or menace. There are copycat "Batmen," as well - vigilantes who wear similar costumes but whose methods are crude. Batman's nocturnal activities are taking a heavy toll on Gotham's organized crime syndicates, and things take a turn for the worse when the new D.A., Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), decides to take them on rather than turn a blind eye or take a payment. Abetted by incorruptible police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Dent meets with Batman and the two come to an understanding about how to proceed in this war against crime. But a new threat is rising in the form of a sadistic lunatic called The Joker (Heath Ledger), who offers to become the mob's enforcer in the pursuit of a single goal: chaos. And this brings him squarely into conflict with the city's black-costumed guardian. To Batman, he makes one demand: remove the mask and turn himself in or the streets will run red with blood. When Bruce Wayne's identity remains secret, The Joker makes good on his word.
Often in superhero movies, there's a sense that, no matter what challenges the protagonist must face, all will be right in the end. That certainty is missing here, and its absence may represent Nolan's most impressive accomplishment. Batman is fallible and his world is dangerous. No character, no matter how well-established in Batman lore, is safe. This director's Gotham City may be less garish and gothic than Burton's, but it is in many ways a bleaker and more oppressive place. It's a joyless venue and the hero takes his demeanor from his city. Batman is a grim, brooding superhero. He rarely speaks while in costume and, when he does, his voice quivers with menace and his words are devoid of the quips and one-liners audiences have come to associate with action heroes.
The survivors of Batman Begins are all back. Christian Bale has become the first Batman where it matters which actor is under the cowl. Keaton, Kilmer, and Clooney were all interchangeable when wearing the Bat-suit. Not so with Bale, who owns the role. His presence in the costume is forceful in a way that none of his predecessors achieved. Michael Caine's Alfred acts not only as Bruce Wayne's butler but as his conscience. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) is Batman's version of "Q." Indeed, there's a scene in The Dark Knight that could have been lifted from one of many James Bond films. Gary Oldman's Jim Gordon, who wasn't too sure about Batman for much of the first film, is now fully on board as his unofficial liaison to the police force. Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes remains the girl who got away, the woman whose promise of a normal, happy life provides Wayne with hope for the future. For The Dark Knight, Maggie Gyllenhaal has replaced Katie Holmes, but the change in actress isn't a detriment. Gyllenhaal is a better actress and makes the character her own from her first scene.
Of the newcomers, the Joker is the biggest addition. One could argue that it's impossible to make a Batman series without facing the main character against the Joker at some point. No superhero and villain are more inextricably linked. Yet this Joker is unlike any we have previously encountered. Cesar Romero's interpretation of the character (in the '60s TV series) was that of a deadly prankster. Jack Nicholson's over-the-top performance made 1989's Batman all about the bad guy. The late Heath Ledger, however, gives us something darker and more twisted - a role that would have been no less memorable had it not been his last and most grueling. There's nothing humorous about this freak. No flowery lines like "You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?" This is no caricature - The Joker is a frighteningly vicious and intelligent monster who represents a legitimate match for the title character.
The other major character to join the ensemble is Aaron Eckhart as Gotham's charismatic, photogenic D.A. Harvey Dent is Gotham's Knight in Shining Armor, and that's how Eckhart plays him - an individual with a pure heart who makes his own luck. Those even passingly familiar with Batman lore know Dent's fate, and it plays out here as one might suspect, although Nolan puts a different spin on things than did Joel Schumacher.
For all of the heavy lifting done by the movie's screenplay, dealing as it does with substantive issues and existential questions, there's still plenty of the meat-and-potatoes content of any superhero movie: action sequences. There are numerous fights, chases, and races. The Batmobile gets its share of screen time as does a new Bat-cycle. Batman takes on bad guys singly and in bunches. And there's a heart-pounding sequence in which the Caped Crusader must race against time to save a life, where the price is almost as terrible if he succeeds as if he fails. Nolan's inherent sense of how to transform a relatively mundane fight scene into something involving is in evidence here, much as was the case in Batman Begins. He avoids flash editing and allows the action to evolve in a coherent manner, drawing the viewer in rather than keeping him guessing what's going on.
2008 may be the year that the superhero movie comes of age. Iron Man represents the best screen adventure of a Marvel hero. Now, D.C. has answered with The Dark Knight, a film so impressive in every significant facet that it makes one wonder why it took so long for the genre to reach this high level. Christopher Nolan has provided movie-goers with the best superhero movie to-date, outclassing previous titles both mediocre and excellent, and giving this franchise its The Empire Strikes Back.
Dark Knight, The (United States, 2008)
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Michael Caine, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Eric Roberts
Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan, based on characters created by Bob Kane
Cinematography: Wally Pfister
Music: Hans Zimmer, James Newton-Howard
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers