Status: In theaters (opened 7/18/08)
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Written By: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Cinematographer: Wally Pfister
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman
Not altogether unlike Spider-Man 3, Christopher Nolan’s superhero sequel aims to up the ante in terms of villains, storylines, and life-or-death scenarios. While it does get bogged down in some ways, it manages to balance things more capably than Sam Raimi’s effort did. As the film opens we find that the Scarecrow is still on the loose, but he is quickly captured and pushed aside so Batman’s attention can be focused on the Joker, an up-and-coming criminal mastermind portrayed—despite my protestations to the contrary— quite admirably by Heath Ledger. He brings an impressive instinct for where the best balance between the Joker’s insanity and humanity lies, and really does deliver a performance that is simultaneously his own and an homage to those who have portrayed the character before him. I think that the talk of a posthumous Oscar is going a little too far (not to mention an example of sentimentality-skewed judgment), but it’s a very good performance nonetheless.
The story of The Dark Knight is primarily, though, the story of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham City’s District Attorney. He and Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) are the only trustworthy members of the Gotham government and police force, and they set out to combat the Joker’s reign of terror. Dent also happens to be the new boyfriend of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Bruce Wayne’s old friend and former lover (portrayed by Katie Holmes in the previous film). This makes for a tenuous relationship between him and Wayne, who feels a natural competition with Dent due to their common love interest, but also recognizes his ability to galvanize the city and make a real difference by taking extreme actions to sweep up and incarcerate its criminal element.
On this last point the film prefers to focus its attention, to a fault. It goes beyond portraying an interesting dynamic involving the lone good-natured man in politics in a city that is on the verge of collapsing under its own corrupt weight, and repeats itself a few too many times in an effort to make sure its messages get across. Said messages are made a bit too much of a priority and are a bit too explicitly spelled out, to the point where they feel more preachy than natural.
We’re often reminded of the cliche that movie audiences are dumb, and require everything to not only be presented in an obvious visual manner but spelled out for them audibly in dialogue as well, but it always disappoints me when a director or screenwriter takes this adage too seriously. Crash, as CK so aptly pointed out, was one of the worst such examples, and while The Dark Knight never gets anywhere near that bad, it does dip into “hitting you across the teeth with its message” territory more than once. With a tip of the hat to The Editing Room, a particularly climactic scene goes something like this:
INT. ABANDONED BUILDING - NIGHT THE JOKER confronts BATMAN to tell him all about his diabolical scheme. THE JOKER I have come up with a very contrived situation to prove to you that people are, by nature, BAD. Just so we're clear, I'll state it again: I believe people to be BAD and SELFISH! BATMAN (growling) Personally, I believe that people are by nature good. Their forthcoming actions will prove this. PEOPLE take actions that not only thwart THE JOKER's scheme, but also prove BATMAN correct while reassuring THE AUDIENCE of the inherent goodness of humanity. BATMAN (growling) In case you forgot, the action just taken by those people was designed to demonstrate their INHERENT GOODNESS. THE JOKER I still think people are bad! And despite the fact that I'm way too good of an actor to be delivering dialogue like this, I will continue to state this belief for the remainder of my screen time in this movie!
Christian Bale apparently believes strongly in the “show them, tell them, then exaggerate it some more” style, as well: he seems to have decided that the wardrobe changes aren’t enough to clue us in to when he’s Batman and when he’s Bruce Wayne, and Christopher Nolan obvious agrees with him. What we get is a lot of overenunciated speech from Wayne—not unlike the condescending tone Bale used frequently and more effectively as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho—juxtaposed with gravelly growling from Batman. In Batman Begins I found this to be a bit much, but here it is much more exaggerated and at times taken to embarrassing levels; as the film progresses, Batman’s growls get more intense, to the point where in the above-parodied scene he has a few lines that are actually difficult to understand.
These issues, fortunately, do not get too much in the way of what is a very unique story among the mainstream superhero tales. The Joker, as characterized in this go-round, is not merely a “bad guy” as we’re used to seeing them; he is a completely insane lunatic who terrorizes a city by capitalizing on the fact that they continually underestimate his complete lack of respect for any system of rules or values. I attribute the fullness of his depicted insanity at least as much to the screenwriting of the Nolans as I do the acting of Ledger. And yet, Ledger takes the Joker and adds insightful little edges to what is essentially a one-dimensional character: he’ll lick his lips or smirk in just such a way and at just the right time to make the Joker’s insanity downright disturbing.
Harvey Dent, on the other hand, is at once a more complete and a more straightforward character. His transformation throughout the film feels natural and real, and I fear that Aaron Eckhart will unfortunately be overlooked for his characterization of Harvey Two-Face in deference to the flashier but less dynamic Joker. Again in contrast to Spider-man 3, which felt like it crammed the story of Venom into a single film that already had another villain in it just to get him out of the way, here Two-Face feels like his tale is completely told and would wear thin were it stretched out any further.
This all leaves Batman as the growling antihero stuck in the middle. This movie is called The Dark Knight because it is the story of how he takes on that role rather than the story of how he functions in it. When the story of the Joker vs. Two-Face is finally resolved—emphasis on the “finally,” because it does take longer than it should need to—Batman is left as the odd man out. (I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying this, and I don’t feel that it’s much of a spoiler to do so; rather I am simply trying to convey the strange feeling the film leaves the audience with after watching its hero take a back seat to his two costars for two and a half hours.)
The Dark Knight, really, both works and fails in much the same ways as its predecessor, Batman Begins. The pace is uneven and the choices of which storylines to focus on versus which to gloss over feel awkward; at the same time, even with the audience finding itself wishing the plot would delve deeper than it does at times, the film seems to drag as well. This movie, more than the first one, shifts the focus away from down-and-dirty fight scenes—although there are plenty of those here, too—and more towards the old-school type of stereotypical bad guy behavior that Hollywood seems to have gotten away from in recent years: one villain holds himself to a self-imposed ruleset (an extremely simplified version of Anton Chigurh, in a way), while the other switches back and forth between blindly insane murder of his peers and overly-complicated possible-death scenarios to which he subjects the innocent citizens of Gotham. Batman continually indulges him in the tradition of classic easily-set-up heroes, and we are happy to go along for the ride, not easily forgetting that we’re being toyed with and manipulated as much as he is.