Can this humble site’s review, three weeks after release, possibly enhance the cultural conversation about the year’s biggest film, and the most pop-culturally significant since The Lord of the Rings and perhaps even Titanic?
Damn straight it can, as you’ll see.
Let it be said right off the bat that The Dark Knight is a deeply impressive blockbuster, a sombre crime film about order and anarchy and the cost of both, which happens to star a man in a batsuit. Director Christopher Nolan has surpassed Batman Begins in texture and subtlety, an accumulation of unsettling details that result in probably the most intense superhero film yet made. The choice of the Joker and Harvey Dent as villain and tragic other-hero prove more effective in getting to the root of what makes the Batman mythos appealing than the posturing Ra’s Al Ghul of the first film. This root – the nature and cost of justice in a world seemingly designed to mock its pursuit – has been the subject of the more thoughtful and most successful Batman stories, and the character’s relentless determination is what has made him so appealing. Although Batman is sidelined somewhat in this more ensemble-oriented film and undermined by Christian Bale’s over-the-top disguising of Bruce Wayne’s voice, the fundamental ideas that the character provokes writers to engage with are evident in The Dark Knight more than any Batman film before it. At risk of sounding snobbish, it’s surprising that such a heady film has been such a runaway success.
That’s largely because Nolan’s made a film that’s gripping, sharp, and sometimes blackly funny. Heath Ledger’s performance is as revelatory as the hype bombardment has pronounced, making his passing on the verge of such versatile greatness all the more sad. It’s a funny performance in an arch sense, but only intermittently; this is a far more sinister Joker than any presented before, representing anarchy rather than mischief. His philosophy is that people need to feel their worlds crumbling, although stops short of wanting people to appreciate their existence. He’s insane and so that purposeful conclusion is missing, but his awareness of that gap makes him a fascinating paradox. In one of the film’s most potent scenes, the character likens himself to a dog chasing cars: “I don’t know what I’d do with it when I caught it”.
He certainly casts a shadow over the film as far too many have said, but to note it so enthusiastically is unfair to the other actors. He’s written to be charismatic in his sheer, horrific liberation, and Ledger’s performance takes full advantage of this. It’s a gift of a role, but doesn’t deter the other players. Bale is solid as ever as Batman, although the voice has sadly gone too far. The first two scenes with the character in Begins had the voice pitched perfectly. It still didn’t sound like Bale, but was plausible as a man’s voice. By the end of that film, it had crept into absurdity, and that voice persists throughout The Dark Knight, jarring us from otherwise effective scenes. The Joker laughing at Batman should be seen as part of his gleeful rebellion; we shouldn’t be able to join in on his mockery, as it sabotages our investment in our hero.
But this is made up for by Aaron Eckhart as crusading district attorney Harvey Dent, a key character from the comics here finally given his due in his own right before devolving into Two-Face. His fall from grace is such the spine of the film that he never becomes a true villain. For one thing he would be too similar to the Joker. How those two characters are interlinked is far more effective than merely teaming-up, Batman Forever– style. It’s this rejection of overused superhero tropes that makes Nolan’s approach so welcome. The intertwining of the proponent of reform with the agent of chaos – one deliberately steering the other into the abyss to demonstrate the futility of having a cause – is the lynchpin of the central theme of escalation. What hope does a pioneer have against forces beyond self-interest, who exist only to destroy on a bigger scale than they can create?
But for all this welcome richness, there is a flip side. In striving so much for realism and thematic subtext, Nolan loses something of the Gothic grandeur of Batman. Tim Burton’s films were certainly flawed takes on Batman with an over-inflated sense of style, but they still captured that macabre element that has made the character so irresistible to readers less interested in the purity and bombast of Superman and the oft-precious but deliberate everydayness of Spider-Man. In Nolan’s films Batman is more of a demented Jason Bourne than Gothic superhero. Finding plausible origins for Batman’s costume, technology, and theatricality was smart and necessary in Begins, especially to further differentiate from the previous films, but in The Dark Knight the fulfillment of that goal leaves the hero of the piece a little mundane rather than otherworldly. The dual focus on Batman and Dent certainly suborns Batman further, but that’s not the only reason; rather, Nolan’s grounded aesthetic – taken even further with the removal of the baroque Wayne Manor, the lack of location shooting, and the greater emphasis on technology and organised crime – diminishes the character’s genuine ability to transcend the silly costume, as proven by the best comics that feature him. It’s not just the transposition to live-action cinema. Batman fights incredibly, is utterly driven, but that’s about it. In his presence, force of will, and intelligence – the promised focus, at last, on his detective work is sadly absent – Batman should seem superhuman in the most eerie sense, even if he isn’t surrounded by Gothic extravagance. Bruce Wayne should be our relatable hero, but Batman needs to be a force of nature – that’s the point. Instead, the gap between Wayne’s true, non-playboy face and Batman has shrunk even more since Begins, until just the voice separates them.
The superhuman attribute is what makes him the natural opposite of the transcendently abhorrent Joker, and elevates their conflict to a more elemental battle of wills. Without it, the fight is between extreme man and more entertaining nutcase – a significantly less interesting proposition. The Dark Knight is clearly invested in the Batman/Joker dynamic, but Nolan trips himself up. As hard as it will be to top this film in a third installment, the world it fashions also begs the question of how any of Batman’s other villains can be transposed into it. The Joker works in this reenvisioning as an anarchist force of nature without a past, but can the Penguin? Catwoman? Even Two-Face, in his usual, less sympathetic guise? Naturally, consideration of future instalments should absolutely not be held against the present one, but this dilemma highlights the sole major problem of The Dark Knight. The loss of that operatic quality, that archetypal canvass, robs the central conflicts of some of their power and the hero of his primal strength. If one film dead-ends the exploration of that world on-screen, is it the best on-screen encapsulation of it?
Thankfully though, the heart of the mythos is here, just in a different milieu, and never has been so strongly as in The Dark Knight. The thematic underpinnings are deceptively complex in their politics and moral relativism, and address our current cultural and political climate with more dexterity than every other blockbuster that has attempted to. Nolan was very canny to see the timeliness in the Joker’s goals; the terrorism parallels are disturbingly effective because you can actually imagine someone painting on ghoulish makeup and committing these acts, if not the taking-over-the-mob part. In place of religious extremism is a belief in chaos as a cleansing fire, and that plausibility makes the Joker scary on a level separate from yet engrained in Ledger’s unnerving individual monster.
There are many more kind things to be said about this film, from Gary Oldman’s noble cop, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s relief of a convincing performance in taking over from Katie Holmes, the gorgeous steely cinematography, the lack of supervillain posturing, to the title that perhaps disproves once and for all that people can’t grasp a sequel title without simply a ‘2’ being attached. But they have been said many times over since The Dark Knight’s release. It may not change filmmaking practice forever, but it absolutely raises the bar for summer entertainment. I just read a refreshingly candid and self-aware interview with Terminator Salvation director McG, a man apparently determined to reject his fluffy Charlie’s Angels past, move beyond opportunistic franchise garbage, and help blaze a new trail. He says that now “there is a chance for the biggest movies to be the best movies… Let’s return to that [time] where you don’t have to apologise for a summer movie.” The Dark Knight was clearly in mind in stating that, and he’s absolutely right. Its overwhelming success by striving for greatness while still being massively entertaining may set a new standard and challenge for blockbuster cinema. Let’s hope that others accept the challenge rather than being cowed by it.