The Dark Knight (2008)
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Eric Roberts
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
I saw this over opening weekend but have been putting off the review until now. It’s tough, because this is the sort of movie I imagine readers might actually look forward to reading my opinion on, as much as anyone cares what my opinion on movies are (I have no delusions that you all have desperately checking your RSS feeds awaiting this or anything). And I have plenty to say about the film, but still I hesitate.
And the reason is simple: I have nothing at all critical to say about this movie. My response to it is so visceral, so emotional, that I fear that putting it into words will leave me sounding like little more than a simpering fanboy. So I’ll just have to go forward with that and trust that I’ve established enough film critique cred that you’ll understand that the unbridled enthusiasm that is to follow is the result of superior filmmaking, and not my inability to be critical.
And you know what? I think I’m okay with this. Because more than any other type of movie, the big budget summer blockbuster should appeal on a visceral, emotional level. When we walk out of these $200 million dollar extravaganzas, we should be awestruck to the point of speechlessness. This is the experience we’re looking for, and I’m thrilled to say that The Dark Knight achieved this with me, especially since few summer blockbusters ever do.
My expectations for this film were about as high as they’ve ever been, and I’m pleased to say that they were surpassed. This is not only the best Batman movie ever (surpassing director Christopher Nolan‘s earlier film Batman Begins), it is also the best movie based on a comic ever, and a stunning example of the best blockbuster entertainment has to offer.
Art and commerce have always been at odds in Hollywood, but of late, the two sides had seemed further apart than usual. The movies that made the most money had no ambitions toward art or intelligence, while the most critically acclaimed films have no traction at the box office. I’ve long argued that it needn’t be this way, that we should be able to expect intelligence and excitement from our films, and with its record box office and near-universal praise, The Dark Knight has proved me right. To be sure, the film is more blockbuster than arthouse, but its epic drama and level of excellence make it as easy to compare to films like The Godfather and The Departed as it is with superhero fare like Spider-Man or Iron Man.
The Dark Knight‘s commitment to quality extends to all aspects of the production, from Nolan’s assured direction and densely-plotted screenplay that he co-wrote with his brother Jonathan, the breathtaking cinematography by Wally Pfister, the haunting and epic score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer, the exciting stunts, the big explosions, and the uniformly excellent cast. With a budget of nearly $200 million, you’d like to expect that a production could could excel on so many levels, but most often they don’t, possibly spending all that dough on effects or star power instead of spreading the wealth and attention to all levels of production. The Dark Knight certainly didn’t skimp on effects, star power, or set design, but Nolan’s obsessive attention to detail spread throughout the production to the degree that there are no weak links.
Any discussion of the excellence of the cast must start with the performance by the late Heath Ledger as The Joker. I’m pleased to say that as with everything Dark Knight, the hype matches the reality. Ledger is phenomenal in the role, completely disappearing into the psychotic clown with each line delivery, twitch, and sloping shuffle. The best thing I can say about Ledger’s Joker is that it’s the first adaptation of the character outside of the comics that was legitimately terrifying. Jack Nicholson‘s Joker was dynamic, Mark Hamill‘s is fun, but Ledger’s was as horrifying as it is captivating, with Ledger being able to capture The Joker’s dynamism without chewing on every piece of scenery, bringing nuance to the mysterious villain missing from previous incarnations.
As strong as Ledger’s work is, so too is the rest of the cast in what is essentially an ensemble action-drama. Christian Bale is again strong as both Bruce Wayne and Batman, holding his own with Ledger in their scenes together. Aaron Eckhart‘s turn as Harvey Dent probably deserves more praise than it’s been getting, bringing the most pathos to the film. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman all contribute their usual high standards to fill out the supporting cast, with Oldman’s Jim Gordon once again a highlight.
There’s a lot of characters in the movie, with Bale, Ledger, and Eckhart basically serving as co-leads in terms of screen time (with Oldman not far behind). Traditionally, this has been a problem with superhero sequels, which strain under the weight of so many storylines and characters. Nolan succeeds in integrating all the characters with a densely plotted story that not only finds roles for each character, but also makes each essential for the thematic and narrative structure of the film. Some might say that he should’ve saved Dent’s arc for another film, but I personally loved how he used the character as the consequence of Batman’s battle with The Joker. Both The Joker and Dent are made better and more interesting with the other’s presence, so I applaud Nolan’s decision to go for broke rather than hold out for the sequel.
Because The Dark Knight isn’t just a story about Batman vs The Joker, or the rise of Harvey Dent. Instead, it’s the continuing story about Batman’s attempt to rescue Gotham City from crime, and the dire consequences of his campaign. More than any film before it, The Dark Knight grounds us into the reality of the city. This isn’t a gothic nightmare like Tim Burton‘s incarnations, or the day-glo world of Joel Schumacher, or even the dark deco stylings of The Animated Series. Instead, this is a recognizable, 21st century American city (a redressed Chicago), which makes it easier to relate to the citizens of Gotham and what it would be like to live in a city under siege by a terrorist like The Joker. This is one of the few superhero movies I can think of to put us into the world of the civilians that deal with the costumed battles in their mist, and the effect was jarring. Gotham’s citizens aren’t just victims to be rescued, but instead stake-holders in the action, which helps put the audience in the same position.
Which is why I think it’s the best comic book movie I’ve ever seen. It raises the stakes not by making the effects bigger and louder, or by making the characters flashier, but rather by grounding the series. It’s an exciting way to stage a superhero film, albeit one that is almost relentlessly bleak. There are certainly exciting sequences to get the viewer’s blood pumping throughout the film, but the more common reaction to Nolan’s brand of fantastical realism is stunned silence. In between the terror of The Joker, the heroism of Batman, and the pathos of Dent lies some sophisticated mediations on the nature of good and evil and the acceptable lengths one can take in the pursuit of justice.
When Batman Begins was released three years ago, I was similarly enthusiastic about its success, but was even more excited about the heights its sequel could reach with the origins out of the way. With The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan and company surpassed those expectations and possibly redefined the upper limits of the genre. The difference this time out is while I’m definitely excited for a sequel, I have no idea how they’ll possibly manage to top themselves again.