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Review: The Dark Knight

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If Batman Begins represented a step or several forward from the superhero movies that came before, so does The Dark Knight represent another leap. The Dark Knight retains all that I loved about its predecessor – note-perfect acting[1], solid writing, gorgeous cinematography and art direction – and adds several new flavors to its casserole of excellence, most notably a deepening complexity and thoughtfulness. The Dark Knight isn’t a superhero action movie. It’s an ethical treatise with punching.

(Perhaps very mild spoilers to follow, but likely spoilers only to those who’ve never paid any attention whatsoever to Batman and his rogues gallery.)

Heath Ledger as The Joker

Heath Ledger as The Joker

What does it mean to say someone is a “hero?” How far would you go to save the ones you love from danger? How about people you don’t even know? How far can you be pushed without losing yourself to madness? The Dark Knight asks these questions and turns them over and over, examining them from numerous points of view, presenting several ideas but never providing answers – The Dark Knight is an action movie that wants to engage your brain as much as, if not more than, your adrenal glands. Most of the major characters faces down at least one of these ethical quandaries (except for the force-of-nature Joker, who clearly gave himself over to madness long before this story starts) and each makes choices true to character. That a movie about a man dressed as a flying rodent and a psychotic clown dares ask these questions at all is astonishing; that The Dark Knight does so with such force, daring and reflection is almost beyond belief.

Director Christoper Nolan and his co-screenwriter/brother Jonathan Nolan get what makes these characters so fascinating and so iconic. They understand what those of us who read comics have understood for decades: that there are depths to be plumbed there, that the easy identification of Batman as silly spandex hero[2] isn’t the true measure of the character. The Nolans understand the deep-seated near-schizophrenic split between Bruce Wayne and Batman, and they understand that while the Joker will always be Batman’s most notable enemy, his truest mirror is Two-Face.

While I still have trouble imagining any superhero movie ever receiving a Best Picture nomination, I’ve never seen one that deserves it more than The Dark Knight – this movie’s not so different thematically from 2006 Best Picture winner The Departed, which considered similar ethical questions. And those predictions that Heath Ledger will receive a posthumous Best Supporting Actor nomination could well likely prove to be spot on: Ledger really was that creepy, that riveting, that good as the Joker. Ledger’s Joker should wipe all memories of Jack Nicholson’s wacky clown from the cultural consciousness – his Joker now surely must be considered definitive. Ledger even manages to find the humor in this most decidedly unfunny clown. His gait, his voice, his manner all contribute to create one of the most engrossing and engaging movie villains in a long, long time. I never before considered myself a fan of Heath Ledger; I am now, and I wish I had more of his work to look forward to.

Most of the other actors have much more grounded, less showy parts to play (of course), but they do so with as much skill and grace as Ledger. Christian Bale one again proves to be an excellent Bruce Wayne; while these movies don’t play up Batman’s supposed role as “World’s Greatest Detective,” we certainly do get a sense that Bale’s Wayne/Batman (much like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in Iron Man) thinks about what he’s doing and the weight he’s chosen to carry on his shoulders. Gary Oldman’s James Gordon, one of the only honest cops in Gotham, gets far more screen time than he did in Batman Begins, and Oldman nails Gordon’s solid nobility in the face of chaos and madness. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are, well, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman; neither’s role is large, and more screen time for either would have been welcome. Maggie Gyllenhaal brings sass, charm and intelligence (three qualities which Katie Holmes entirely failed to bring to the same character in Batman Begins) to her Rachel Dawes, the only significant female character in the movie; more screen time for her also would have been a good thing. But The Dark Knight runs two-and-a-half-hours as is, and the movie devotes so much of its energies to dissecting the characters of its three leads that some of the minor characters had to stay pretty minor.

Strangely, Batman himself is almost a supporting character in The Dark Knight – perhaps one reason why the word “Batman” isn’t in the title. There’s even some ambiguity as to whom, exactly, the title of “dark knight” could be referring – Batman or the film’s true protagonist, Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent. (Yes, Batman is the “dark knight” as countered by Dent’s “white knight,” but Dent ultimately goes to some pretty dark places.) The Dark Knight is Dent’s story, the telling of his evolution from moral crusader in pursuit of justice to agent of chaos in pursuit of fairness, most certainly not the same thing. Eckhart’s Harvey Dent exudes a fire and passion for his crusade, and the distorted reflection in the mirror he holds up to Batman provides the most gripping character exploration ever seen in a summer blockbuster superhero movie[3].

The Dark Knight is dark and disturbing and one of the tensest movies I’ve seen in a long while; it’s also fantastically smart and daring and complex, and it ultimately suggests a fundamental belief in human nature’s capacity for goodness. That dichotomy, as much as anything else in Christoper Nolan’s masterpiece, represents the core appeal of Batman himself, and that appeal is why these characters endure. Nolan has just assured that his vision of them will endure a lot longer. Grade: A.

[1] The major exception to that “note-perfect” acting was from the mannequin-like Katie Holmes; her replacement by actual actress Maggie Gyllenhaal was a significant upgrade.

[2] Please note that I have plenty of love for silly spandex heroes, too, but that interpretation has long since proven not to work out so well in movie form (ref. Batman and Robin, 1997).

[3] I don’t mean to damn with faint praise; I do realize that “gripping character exploration” isn’t normally a hallmark of big-budget summer action flicks.

Written by Allen

July 19th, 2008 at 9:57 am

Posted in Movies,Reviews

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