CAPSULE: In a year in which one film after another is based on comic books this is a super-hero film whose depth is like no other. It plays with the whole philosophy of the superhero and the whole nature of superhero battles. It manages to bring together an action film and a thought piece. This is a lot more than we have come to expect from a comic book film. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Spoiler warning: This review discusses more abstract concepts and issues than plot points, but they still might be considered spoilers.
In Gotham City (here apparently a visual amalgam of Manhattan and Chicago) five criminal gangs have pooled their resources only to have them stolen by a brilliant but psychotic sociopath, the Joker (played by the late Heath Ledger). The presence of the Joker brings out Gotham's other strange resident, the Batman (Christian Bale) and thus begins a giant battle between two very twisted men in costumes.
THE DARK KNIGHT is possibly the most hyped film of the summer. Surprisingly, for once, the hyped film is also one of the most serious and complex films of the year. Within the lines of this comic book story are some ambiguous moral decisions, and between the lines of the script some deep philosophical questions. This is the second Batman film directed and written by Christopher Nolan, whose films are best described as astonishing. FOLLOWING, his first, was an unconventional thriller seen by relatively few people. But his MEMENTO was an amazing introduction to Nolan for most film fans. THE PRESTIGE, his latest film before this, was an intricate puzzle box that is fascinating on first viewing and is even more so on the second. Even considering THE DARK KNIGHT, it is still THE PRESTIGE that is his best work.
As for his Batman films, BATMAN BEGINS (which preceded THE PRESTIGE by two years) has a much deeper psychological pitch than any other superhero film in memory. Nolan painted Batman as twisted from childhood and not so much a hero as a victim of his own demons. It was one of the best super-hero films, but BATMAN BEGINS still rested comfortably within the conventions of the comic superhero genre.
Nolan's second Batman film surpasses his first with a dark psychological drama that nearly reinvents the superhero film. It brings us to a land where in spite of the possible good intentions of the superhero, the innocent can become victims of the fight itself. THE DARK KNIGHT is a comment on all other superhero films and the implicit safety net with which they operate. It reminds us that with great power comes not just great responsibility but also some great psychological burdens.
The concept of Batman, as with most superheroes, has usually been that he can do anything that needs to be done to stop evil. The end of a Batman story or nearly any superhero story has traditionally been that order is restored and things have returned to the state they were at the beginning. All dangers have been averted and evil has failed. Somewhat more sophisticated superhero stories might allow one or two innocent people killed to reinforce how bad the evil is. But in general the butcher's bill in a superhero film has been small. That is just part of the formula. And we are supposed to feel fortunate we had the superhero around to keep down the killing. That was just how a superhero story works. But in THE DARK KNIGHT Batman is faced with the proposition that innocent people are killed and others will die until he reveals his identity. He must decide how valuable to him is the secret of his identity. People are dying and that rips away the traditional safety net that his protection is infallible.
With the invisible safety net of superhero story convention gone, there are collateral deaths that Batman cannot avert. They are killed because the Joker wants to show the limits of Batman's power and also for the simple abstract cause of chaos. The Batman supposedly defends order without seeing that he himself, a bat- masked, self-appointed vigilante, is a breach of that order.
THE DARK KNIGHT takes us to a new world in which there can be serious casualties in a battle between super-hero and super- villain. The Joker is attracted to fighting the Batman specifically because he is the Batman. He is not trying to get rich from the proceeds of his crimes; he is simply playing a game with the Batman. And the Batman cannot back away from the fight because he is the Batman.
For the Joker the game is mostly about Batman, but just for kicks he also adds an object lesson for the rest of us. He shows us with a psychological experiment that fear can turn many of us into mass murderers also. One of his crimes is an exercise to do just that. It is it a potent message in the post 9/11 world. But clearly this is a deeper Joker than Jack Nicholson's or Caesar Romero's Joker clown who laugh gleefully as they defaces paintings or do other mischief. It is like comparing an abyss to a little furrow. Heath Ledger gives a good performance as the Joker. He does make one the great silver screen creeps, nearly a polar opposite of his Ennis Del Mar in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.
Where Nolan falls down is the background world for his story. At times the background has a very realistic feel, like that of a MYSTIC RIVER. Other times it seems to fall back on the less credible logic of a comic book. One case is when a character has figured out Batman's identity and is scheduled to reveal it on television. We are led to believe the station was ready to put him on television for the revelation, but they do not know whom he is going to name.
THE DARK KNIGHT has an enviable cast of usually lead actors playing supporting roles. In addition to Bale and Ledger, Aaron Eckhart plays District Attorney Harvey Dent on a strange journey from crusading public servant to the featured villain in the next Batman film. Both Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are reduced to playing squires to the Dark Knight. Gary Oldman plays the future Commissioner Gordon who wields the Bat-searchlight. Finally, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Rachel Dawes (the Batman's love interest) and Eric Roberts plays a mob boss. The screenplay is co-authored by brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan who collaborated on the scripts for MEMENTO and THE PRESTIGE.
By July of 2008 the filmgoer might not be blamed if he were a little tired of comic book action films hitting the theaters one after another. IRON MAN, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, WANTED, ... the list goes on. THE DARK KNIGHT leads the pack and is the most intelligent of the lot. I rate it a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0468569/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper