May be the best comic book movie ever.
By John T. Stanhope
Here it is, straight up. Mark Hamill has always been the best Joker there ever was, ever. Until now. This means it’s pretty safe to say that just about all you’ve heard regarding the late Heath Ledger (the upcoming THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS) and his performance in THE DARK KNIGHT is true. The young man was driven in his role in a manner that Jack Nicholson could only dream of. But then, 1989’s BATMAN didn’t allow for such a sick, twisted, dark, maniacal take on the character. Let’s face it, the ‘80’s/’90’s versions of the beloved caped crusader were…well, a joke.
No one was more excited than I when BATMAN finally hit theaters back then. However, in watching the film my jaw steadily crept closer to the floor of the theater in stunned disappointment. Then I wound up hearing how Tim Burton (SWEENEY TODD) and company had finally gotten the Batman universe right, and how marvelous Nicholson was as the Joker. Huh? What? The film’s story was silly and paper-thin, and Nicholson was doing little more than clowning around. Oh, there were moments to be impressed by, but the whole of it still amounted to a dark cartoon.
Now, finally, after all these years, perhaps people will no longer look at me so cockeyed when I mention what a missed opportunity that film was. Because people will look at THE DARK KNIGHT and agree: this is what the Batman universe was meant to be. BATMAN BEGINS did a nice job of setting everything up, but with THE DARK KNIGHT our immersion into the dark, complex world that Gotham City inhabits is full and intense. With just a few caveats, this film may well be the best comic book movie ever made. (SPIDER-MAN I & II and IRON MAN are right up there, too.) I wish Bob Kane was alive to see this incarnation of his creation.
Christopher Nolan’s (MEMENTO) direction is smooth and well-controlled. I thank him for letting us see most of what occurred during the action sequences. He had a firm concept of what he wanted, and every creative element was set to a very high level. Production design, editing, costuming, make-up, and the music score all work in wondrous synchronicity to offer the viewer a very rich experience. I applaud every creative member of that team.
As for the acting, first there is that head-turning stint from Heath Ledger. There’s a man who put some heavy thought into his role. But let’s set his performance aside for a moment. He’s been getting most of the attention, and his character certainly allows for some strong scene stealing, yet all those involved in the picture give nicely flavored performances. Christian Bale (AMERICAN PSYCHO) was powerful—and I do mean powerful—as the Dark Knight and equally affective as a cocky, almost unlikable Bruce Wayne. Yet, in one-on-one interactions and intimate moments we see just how honorable this billionaire truly is. Gary Oldman (the last three HARRY POTTER films) was also most appealing as the stalwart Jim Gordon—he even elicited applause at one point—and Aaron Eckhart (THE BLACK DAHLIA) in the “dual” role of the even more stalwart Harvey Dent and the disturbed Two-Face was also intoxicating. Our old friends Morgan Freeman (WANTED) and Michael Caine (SLEUTH) were as grand as ever, and I felt Maggie Gyllenhaal (STRANGER THAN FICTION) was just fine as Rachel Dawes. I did not find her to be the weak link in the cast as others have stated. She was certainly more believable as a serious attorney than Katie Holmes (BATMAN BEGINS) was. I do not mean to unduly criticize Ms. Holmes; however, it was difficult to accept someone in that role who looked to be about 20 years of age. If there was a weaker characterization, it should rather be Anthony Michael Hall (TV’s THE DEAD ZONE): as a recognized name he added nothing to the overall project; in his defense though, he wasn’t really given much to play with. Eric Roberts (WESTBRICK MURDERS, THE COOKIE THIEF), on the other hand, was having fun with his part as a mob boss, and it was fun watching him have fun.
Do not misunderstand me, however. THE DARK KNIGHT is not meant to be particularly fun. It is, in fact – just as its title suggests – dark. Undeniably so. It weaves an extremely rich tapestry – the type one might find in a very solid dramatic piece. This is not your father’s Batman; at least not in the medium that is film. It is, however, what your father always wanted Batman to be.
That said, I need to point out the caveats to which I previously alluded. One is common in so many action-dramas, and that is the rather unrealistic killing off of one’s followers, either for various infractions or simply because one wishes to keep everything for one’s self. I’ve always wondered how a loyal following could plausibly be maintained under such circumstances.
Another is that if one uses mainly mentally unstable individuals to do one’s bidding, how is the needed level of competency sustained? This is a device more suited to Burton’s BATMAN. If we wish to explore weak links in a chain, perhaps we should examine this line of thinking a bit further.
Third, it almost seems as if the film is telling us that most terrorists are mad for one reason or another. And by mad I do not mean angry. But a twisted mind is not a prerequisite for an individual committing acts of terrorism. I’m not attempting to claim that this was a message the film was trying to instill, but I couldn’t help wondering about it.
Fourth, in the third act, there is a transformation of a main character that I had trouble accepting. To change from his great strength of righteousness to an angry soul who is out for revenge upon almost everyone but the one man who truly caused his loss and pain was, for me, beyond the ability to suspend disbelief. It seemed more logical to spread this situation out through two films and have the causalities of change build. Too, the direction they chose slowed a film that was extremely well paced up to that point. It felt as if the story was becoming a bit too heavy-handed and was starting to drag a little because of it. Then there was the difficulty I had in accepting the severity of his wounds and being able to live through them, period. A normal person would have most likely died from severe infection. And you can forget about almost instant mobility.
I know many will claim that I’m nitpicking; after all, it’s a comic book movie. However, it is a comic book movie like no other; one with strength, depth in ideas, and a very serious nature at its heart. And any “comic book” film with that much to it deserves to be examined on a deeper level.
Now, the intricacies of the plot–and there are quite a few–I will save for you to explore. You need know only this: that the Joker is bad, very bad. And twisted, very twisted. He believes similar traits are inherent in all individuals, that mankind is a dichotomy. His sole purpose seems to be to prove this to the rest of society. To do so he takes three main avenues. One involves two ferries and the souls aboard them. The other two involve stripping The Batman and Harvey Dent of their strong sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice. In his view, if you push a man far enough you will drive him into chaos. You will break down the structured civility within him. Such structure is, after all, contrary to his base nature. Or so the Joker firmly holds. Life is not about acquisition, not about money. “It’s about sending a message.”
This is an interesting philosophical pondering. It is ultimately the messages we send to one another that shape our thoughts, actions and reactions. A particular treatment of an individual is most certainly a type of message. And when we ask ourselves why certain incidents occur in the world we need to consider the treatment which transpires between people and the messages that are sent via those forms of treatment. It’s pretty clear that that the Joker must have had some awfully serious messages given to him in his younger years. He hints at this with the line, “Whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger.” Then again, some men simply have wicked hearts and “just want to see the world burn.”
It is the exploration of several ideas such as this that aid in giving THE DARK KNIGHT its gravitas. There is power within this comic book film, and it does not come from the mighty blows of its hero. Those mighty blows are there and they’re a site to behold, but the underlying strength of the film lies within the questions it asks, the thoughts it thinks.
Because no one is perfect and even the best of us can be corrupted to a certain extent, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” With observances like this and others at its core, THE DARK KNIGHT seems to be searching for truth within the darkness. Aren’t all of us?
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). Written by Jonathon Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer. Produced by Emma Thomas, Charles Roven and Christopher Nolan. Cinematography by Wally Pfister. Production design by Nathan Crowley. Edited by Lee Smith. Music by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer. Visual effects supervision by Nick Davis. Special effects supervision by Chris Corbould. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Cast: Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Heath Ledger, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Ron Dean, Cillian Murphy, Chin Han, Nestor Carbonell, Eric Roberts, Ritchie Coster, Anthony Michael Hall, Keith Szarabajka, Colin McFarlane, Joshua Harto, Melinda McGraw, Nathan Gamble, Michael Vieau, Michael Stoyanov, William Smillie, Danny Goldring, Michael Jai White, Matthew O’Neill, William Fichtner, Beatrice Rosen, Edison Chen. Running Time: 120 Minutes. MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace. Studio: Warner Bros Pictures.