I have to admit I was worried about this film’s chances this summer. This is a summer like no other for comic book based or flavored movies. “Iron Man”, “Indiana Jones”, “Hancock”, “The Incredible Hulk”, “Hellboy 2″ and now, “The Dark Knight”. Batman has been done so often on the big screen that I was afraid it would be either the same old same old or that director Christopher Nolan would take it in such a dark direction (“dark”… I am so sick of that adjective being used and overused with regards to Batman) that the film would be overshadowed or blown away by the other, brighter superherofests of the blockbuster season.
However being the giant bat-geek that I am I was still at a midnight showing Thursday night (Friday morning) with my critical eye ready to wince as it has done so often in a movie theater when Batman is on the big screen. I did like “Batman Begins” overall despite some problems with aspects of it, and so I was hoping Nolan would deliver a sophomore effort that would surprise me.
I was surprised, figuratively and literally. This film not only lived up to the hype but blew it away in almost every possible way. It is easily the best Batman film of them all and possibly the best superhero movie I’ve ever seen… and I said the same thing two months ago of “Iron Man”. This was no formulamatic comic book movie… this was something different. This was a great film that happens to be about comic book characters.
The familiar bat-movie elements are all there… great action, bat gadgets and vehicles, evil villain, damsel in distress… but Nolan turns it all on it’s ear and makes it all work for him instead of being the centerpiece as it too often is in these or any other comic book movie. How does he do that? How does he take all the elements of a comic book movie and yet make it not a comic book movie?
It’s called STORY. Oh, and a little amazing acting thrown in. The comic book elements in this film in no way overwhelmed the story, which was smart, sharp, well paced, exciting and surprising.
Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first: Heath Ledger. A lot has been made of his performance as the Joker. His untimely and tragic death has cast a bit of a pall over “The Dark Knight”, and there has been a lot of press and hype over this role… including whispers of a posthumous Oscar. The Joker is one of those villains that works really well in the comics but just doesn’t want to translate into real life. Jack Nicholson‘s Joker was a caricature… played for camp and just a little creep. He was never really threatening or scary in 1989’s “Batman”. I had my doubts that there was any way that the Joker could be portrayed by an actor on film in any way that was not just a cartoon wearing real shoes.
Ledger proved those doubts unfounded. He is threatening. He is terrifying. He makes you believe that he is real. The makeup, the hair, the purple suit… it’s all there but it works because he makes it work, and the character is written that well. I’ve always thought that making the Joker simultaneously an insane, psychopathic clown and a criminal mastermind was a conflict of persona. How can you be both. This Joker is. He is mad, complex, unpredictable. He does things like infiltrate mob meetings and arrange assassinations he has warned police about ahead of time in ingenious ways that demonstrate his master planning but also his hunger for chaos. He kills when you think he has no reason and does not when you are sure he must. His motivations remain dense and unknown. Ledger fills this character with a terrifying disregard for the order of life that is not mere psychosis or megalomania, but something else. I kept thinking of Frank Miller‘s line in “The Dark Knight Returns” when the Joker dies and Batman observes “…whatever is in him rustles as it leaves.” Ledger portrays the Joker as if something is in him that makes him different than human. Something we can’t understand. It’s fitting and perfect that the Joker’s origins are never explained in this film. He simply is. A force of nature. It is a remarkable performance. Posthumous Oscar? I don’t know about the statue but he’ll get the nomination for certain. An Oscar nomination for portraying a COMIC BOOK VILLAIN. Unheard of.
Here’s the best thing about the movie: Ledger is not a one man show. Christian Bale‘s Bruce Wayne/Batman has a little less angst than in “Batman Begins”, but he finds other outlets for emotion and rides the razor’s edge of obsession without beating us over the head with it. This might be the first Batman film where I didn’t either have to wince at the corniness of the treatment or roll my eyes at the overblown “darkness” of him. He’s portrayed as a real hero who has accepted who he is and isn’t wringing his hands over the death of his parents anymore. In fact at no time are we subjected to the obligatory parent’s murder scene and the young Wayne crouching over their lifeless bodies. That moment set him on the path and motivated him to become the Batman… now he is the Batman, and that’s all the motivation he needs. It was refreshing to see the character unshackled and waging his war for reasons that are more than revenge. That was part of the lesson that “Batman Begins” imparted, and Nolan follows it through wonderfully. Batman’s character is played like he would exist in the real world.
Gary Oldman once again portrays Lieutenant Jim Gordon, and does a great job as he did in the last film. He and Nolan treat Gordan as the extension of the Batman persona that he is… without the insider help of Gordan there can be no Batman. His role is fairly substantial and even his home life is addressed in a very “Year One” sort of way. Oldman’s Gordan is not a burly tough guy nor a grizzled old veteran. He’s a relatively young family man trying to be an honest cop in a corrupted city, and who has embraced Batman’s vigilantism as a way to fight fire with fire in a police department ripe with mob informants and without anyone who he can trust. Oldman plays Gordan low key and realistic… a real cop in a surreal situation.
Aaron Ekhart‘s Harvey Dent is the weakest link in the movie’s triumvirate. I thought he played the hard charging district attorney pretty convincingly, and as long as he was Dent the DA he was believable. However I had a hard time buying his transformation into Two-Face… maybe he needed a little more unbalance as DA Dent, or a longer look in the mirror once his face was disfigured (which was awesome). I think it just happened a bit too fast. Anyway that’s a small complaint in an otherwise well paced and taunt plot. Ekhart’s role was also not just thrown in for color.. it was plenty meaty with lots of screen time. This isn’t Tommy Lee Jones.
Morgan Freeman‘s Lucius Fox and Michael Caine‘s Alfred Pennyworth were both well turned performances for the roles they had to play. Alfred of course had all the funniest lines, but he had some of the more emotional moments as well. Fox’s role was not as involved as it might have been, but the moments he had were pivotal to the film… especially at the end. Alfred and Lucius, like Gordon, are also extensions of Batman. Nolan understands that Batman is more than the guy who wears the cape. He is the sum of the parts. Alfred and Lucius are the conscience and the guidance.
Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over the role of Rachel Dawes from an underwhelming Katie Holmes. She doesn’t add much to the role as she isn’t given a great deal to expand upon, but she’s a far better actress than Holmes and it shows in most of her scenes with Bruce and with Dent. Unfortunately the supposed love triangle is a little clumsy as there isn’t much chemistry there. She fulfills her purpose in the film, however, and in a way I found quite a surprise.
Nolan does not play this film or this story by the book. He takes risks and isn’t afraid to do things that manage to elevate the movie to a higher standard than your ordinary popcorn action film. He does not rely on the tortured hero storyline nor drowns us in pathos, but he builds genuine tension and excitement with excellent pacing and a riveting, unpredictable storyline. this film is so good because it refuses to be a comic book movie, neither giving in to the camp and tongue-in-cheek of the earlier Batman films or stooping to the dark-for-darkness’-sake, Freudian overload of other treatments. Batman can be a hero and still exist in a believable world without being a totally unbalanced nutcase. He has obviously done his research, and he even throws in some references for the real bat-geeks in the audience, like the obvious tip of the cap to Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” with the copycat Batmen gang.
So, is the movie perfect? Nope. Nothing is perfect. First thing is it went a little too long. I’d have liked to see it wrapped up maybe 10-15 minutes sooner. My time sense kicked in during the finale… that’s a sign it went too long for me. I also am not crazy about using Chicago as a double for Gotham. Chicago is too shiny and clean… too much glass and not enough gargoyles. I don’t want the noir silliness of the Burton Gotham either. Just a little more brick, mortar and dirt. I was totally distracted by Bale’s stupid, growling “bat voice” as well as his ill-fitting cowl. I like the idea of the helmet cowl and a more flexible suit, but the design still sucks. The tiny mouth opening makes it look like it’s crooked on his head all the time, and the eye openings are weirdly placed. The cowl isn’t threatening or scary either. That needs work.
Hard to find much more to fault, though. It was that good. Great stories makes for great films, and this movie has that in spades.
The most disappointing thing for me? The theater was packed and full of teenage/twentysomthing kids. During the previews they showed the trailer for the new Watchmen movie, which was stunning (will the run of kick-ass comic book films ever stop?) After it ws done… dead silence. No applause, no wows, no nothing. Indifference. Confusion. NONE OF THESE KIDS NEW A DAMN THING ABOUT THE WATCHMEN!! Now that was depressing and sad.