Directed by: Christopher Nolan || Produced by: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Charles Roven
Screenplay by: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan || Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman, Eric Roberts, Chin Han
Music by: Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard || Cinematography: Wally Pfister || Editing by: Lee Smith || Country: United States, United Kingdom || Language: English
Running Time: 152 minutes
The Dark Knight remains “the King Daddy of superhero movies,” and also serves as both a complex crime drama and haunting post-9/11 morality tale. Its story is more than the late Heath Ledger’s performance as Batman’s arch nemesis, the Joker, although he is indeed excellent. What makes The Dark Knight (TDK) run like a prize stallion is its mixture of character relationships, beautiful noir-cinematography, an enthralling narrative, and unwavering tone. From the start, TDK hooks you with an exciting bank-heist that pays homage to the great moments of films like Heat (1995), and then never lets up as the story thunders from one great plot-point to the next. It tackles many philosophical, sociological, and psychological themes, in keeping with the Batman universe, and solidifies Christopher Nolan’s franchise as the definitive Batman series.
Once the shock wore off from the surprise hit that was Batman Begins in 2005, the stakes were raised for Christopher Nolan and Co. to deliver a follow-up now that (1) everyone knew how good Batman could be on film, (2) the Joker, the Caped Crusader’s most famous arch-nemesis, had been revealed as the main antagonist, and (3) Heath Ledger’s shocking death brought an explosion of news coverage during the film’s production. Although Ledger’s death was indeed tragic and assured that his marvelous rendition of the Clown Prince of Crime could only ever be in one film, all of the hype and press surrounding The Dark Knight’s premiere was pointless — because The Dark Knight was fucking awesome.
Ledger’s Joker is without a doubt the most iconic and recognizable feature of this film, yet he is still one building block, albeit an important one, in the overall picture. The Joker, like all great villains, from Darth Vader to Hannibal Lecter to Staff Sergeant Bob Barnes to Alonzo Harris to the Wicked Witch of the West to Nurse Ratched to Anton Chigurh to Norman Bates, is part of a bigger story, here. Admittedly, I don’t see how anyone in their right mind could think of a better movie-villain to have come out in the last decade, but Ledger is by no means the entire recipe for TDK’s success. His character is more of an important catalyst, if I had to shove a metaphor on it, than the soul reason for why the movie works so damned well.
The themes of crime and punishment explored in Begins are further examined in TDK, although the moral conflicts now center around the clashing philosophies of Batman (order) and the Joker (anarchy). The theory of escalation previewed in the ending scene of Begins, where Batman’s activity attracts lunacy and criminal masterminds to Gotham, is explored. Bruce Wayne is forced to decide whether he is saving his city with his alter ego or indirectly accelerating its degeneration and destruction. Many critics have identified TDK as the first significant “post-9/11” film, in that the eccentric but believable Joker bares much greater resemblance to international terrorists than organized crime mobsters or small-time thugs.
The city itself is represented in a meaningful way, much like the city of Los Angeles in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), a film which Nolan wanted to emulate. Much more so than either Begins or The Dark Knight Rises (2012), TDK communicates the voice and emotions of Gotham City as whole. This makes Batman, Gordon (Gary Oldman), and Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) actions feel meaningful when the city responds to the chaos taking place on screen. Showing the effects of the Joker’s terror on the ordinary, everyday citizens of Gotham is a crucial ingredient of TDK’s potent story that gives weight to the heroes’ actions.
We are never told where the Joker came from, what his original name was, or what he was like before he descended into insanity — or if, in fact, he was always crazy from the beginning. That mystery is a big part of what makes the character so fascinating. How the Joker contradicts himself with retelling his various “origin-stories” indicates it is possible even he no longer recalls his earlier life. When he is apprehended by the police midway through the film, the mayor asks what information they have on him, to which Gordon replies, “Nothing. No matches on prints, DNA, dental. Clothing is custom, no labels. Nothing in his pockets but knives and lint. No name, no other alias.”
The camerawork as a whole in TDK outclasses Begins, especially with regards to action. While Nolan will never be an expert choreographer of action sequences, he pulls the camera back and shoots close-quarters-combat on wide-angle lenses, unlike the rapid-fire editing and shaky cam he used in Begins. Chase sequences are a highlight of the film, particularly the semi-truck centerpiece, which ends in the Joker’s capture. Cinematographer Wally Pfister’s use of spinning cameras in combination with great ambient scoring from composer Hans Zimmer magnifies tension, the Joker’s crashing of Harvey Dent’s fundraiser being a perfect example. Needless to say, most any dramatic sequence starring Heath Ledger is paced and edited to near perfection, featuring some of the best blocking since Robin Williams. I mean, did you see that pencil disappear?
The famous interrogation-scene epitomizes Nolan’s masterful use of lighting throughout the film. While Begins most always felt like it took place at night, sporting a classic noir-lighting setup, TDK almost willfully does the opposite; most of the film takes place in broad daylight (further emphasizing its homage to Heat), save for a few critical sequences, such as the ending hostage-crises, the Two-Face epilogue, and the Joker-interrogation. Low-key setups emphasize a sense of foreboding, while TDK’s sun-soaked drama emphasizes intensity and suspense (e.g. the opening heist, the hanging of the Batman-copycat, the hospital bombing) because you can see everything that’s happening.
The Dark Knight also boasts some of the best montage-sequences I’ve seen in a Hollywood blockbuster. My personal favorite is the assassination-montage during Dent’s fundraiser, but other impressive ones include Batman’s final monologue after Dent’s death and the re-introduction of Batman’s alliance with the police. For a film that’s 2.5 hours long, TDK is a well-oiled machine of tightly edited scenes and streamlined storytelling. In stark contrast to the blockbuster imitators that would follow — including those by the same director — TDK never feels bloated.
One final thing to discuss is Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent/Two Face, where the film’s biggest problems are revealed. Eckhart, to his credit, does a good job with the material given to him. The problem with a character like Two-Face is that he is one these “good-guy-gone-bad” archetypes that are notoriously hard to execute; this is due to the fact that “fallen angels” require a believable transition from a “white knight” persona to something that is very much the opposite. Harvey’s evil transformation feels out of character and remains unconvincing unto his death.
As a whole, though, The Dark Knight is a powerful story and does almost everything right regarding characterizations, Batman mythology, pacing, dialogue, and action set-pieces. The stumbles the story makes with Two-Face are disappointing considering how important the villain is to Batman’s legacy, but it remains, here, a memorable performance and a far better rendition of the character than Tommy Lee Jones’s babbling in Batman Forever (1995). Who would have thought back in 1997, after Batman and Robin finished searing our eyeballs with its Bat Nipples, Bat Credit Card, and all of Uma Thurman and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s horrible puns, that we would have come this far? I know that much of the time, franchise reboots, remakes, and re-imaginings are tiresome, if not completely unnecessary, but sometimes they are just what the doctor ordered.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Dark Knight towers above its prequel, as well as most graphic novel adaptations ever made; it is the definitive live-action version of its iconic comic book-character. The movie’s secret sauce is Nolan’s great dramatic direction, well paced action scenes, and Jonathan Nolan’s superb script. Heath Ledger loses himself in the role he literally gave his life for. This is the first great post-9/11 crime drama.
— However… Harvey Dent’s character-metamorphosis into the secondary villain, Two-Face, is unbelievable.
—> The Dark Knight comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
? I like how you can sort of notice Oldman’s English accent if he yells really loudly.