After watching "The Dark Knight", my permanent frown is now a smile as wide as possible. My faith has been restored. But will my smile slowly disappear as one filmmaker after another submits a series of bad films for our perusal, wreaking havoc with my mind?
"The Dark Knight" is a great film. A film better than any fans had any right to expect or hope for. It is the rare summer sequel that will cause people to eagerly anticipate more summer fare. Maybe this isn't a good thing because the majority of summer films we are subjected to aren't worth the trouble and will inevitably let us down.
All of the best superhero movies feature both strong heroes and strong villains. And Christopher Nolan understands this. He also ups the ante considerably. But in doing so, he has created a massive film that breaks a lot of rules and is pretty challenging, for summer fare; you will actually have to pay attention to the labyrinth story and characters. But the film is also better because Nolan tries these things and accomplishes. In fact he has set the bar so high, it is now clear that all future superhero films will be measured against the first two "Spiderman" films or maybe "Iron Man". Nolan's vision of Batman has transcended the genre of superhero film.
"The Dark Knight" is darker, much darker in tone than "Batman Begins" and this is something most summer films stay away from. Summer is a time for lighter fare, so making a film with a dark subject matter is a rule breaker. The fact that it works is all the more rewarding to the viewer.
A void has been created in Gotham City. Batman (Christian Bale) has been so successful in his allegiance with Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman), the underworld has gone in to hiding. All Gordon has to do is turn on the Bat Signal and criminals go into hiding. Recognizing this void, a psychotic named the Joker (Heath Ledger) steps in, ready and willing to create havoc and make things miserable for Batman and the new shining, white knight of Gotham City, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Dent isn't afraid of the underworld and sets about trying to clean up the city with the help of his assistant, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is also Bruce Wayne's former girlfriend. Wayne relies on the sage advice of his butler, Alfred (Michael Caine) and his inventor, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). As the Joker's crimes become more elaborate and deadly, everyone tries to work together to put a stop to his actions. But there will be consequences.
Nolan, who has created an impressive roster of films, adds "The Dark Knight" to this list and it is every bit as impressive as you can hope for. What really struck me about this film is how many different facets of it shouldn't work, but do. And this success stems from the director's skill. And also the screenplay he wrote with the aid of his brother, Jonathan. Both areas are crafted in such a way to make sure everything fits together and works.
"The Dark Knight" is an involving, convoluted, long film. But it is also a film with a crystal clear message. And this message is both subtle and extremely in our face. All of the moments we watch are meant to illustrate this message and to provide further depth to the story. This in turn makes the story deeper, more interesting and the idea really hits home. When the Joker steps into the void that is Gotham City and begins to create havoc, he recognizes that he and Batman are two sides of the same coin. This is why he becomes so intent on exposing "the Batman", because he is convinced that no one is that good, someone who rides around in a cape and mask helping people, must have something to hide. And he wants this 'hero' exposed. He frequently provides a death toll of what he perceives are Batman's actions when they meet. This is the more subtle presentation of this theme. When Bruce Wayne meets Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), he is mildly jealous because Dent and Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal taking over the same role from Katie Holmes) are now a couple. But he also recognizes a kindred spirit and someone who can help his alter ego clean up the streets of Gotham. So Dent, with the help of Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his friend, Batman, begin to arrest all of the crime lords of Gotham. Dent is everything Wayne wishes he could be, but without a mask and cape. Dent is even referred to as "The White Knight" on more than one occasion, an overt reference to how he and Bruce Wayne/ Batman are also two sides of the same coin. But Nolan isn't content to stop there and takes the theme even further, by introducing us to the villain Two Face. Two Face is a crazy mo-fo (all of which is understandable as you watch the film, we see his 'creation' during the course of the narrative) and he uses a two-headed coin to determine the fate of his victims.
This brings me to my one small complaint about "The Dark Knight". In every great superhero film, we see the birth of both the hero and the villain. Obviously, while watching sequels, we have already seen the birth of the hero, so the film would concentrate on the birth of the villain and how the hero reacts to this. In "Knight", we see the creation of a villain, Two Face, but this happens late in the film. Much earlier, the Joker (Heath Ledger) explodes on the screen and begins his reign of terror. The Joker is a force to be reckoned with and Ledger gives a bravura performance and makes the character his own. Consider how difficult a task this must have been given he is following Jack Nicholson and even Cesar Romero in the same role. But Ledger explodes on the screen behind the Joker's greasy, gray green hair and his wickedly painted face. Scraping his hair back from his face with his knife razor as he licks his lips, you recognize this guy has a seriously twisted frame of mind. During the course of the film, he makes a few mentions of how he became the Joker, but you begin to doubt the validity of these claims and wonder if this isn't part of the psycho's modus operandi. In the end, Ledger's performance is so powerful you don't even mind that we don't have a back-story for the character. Another example of Nolan making something that shouldn't work successful.
The Joker is what a villain should be. Scary, unpredictable and ruthless. And he sets the bar for all others to follow. Even a brief appearance by Cillian Murphy, returning as the Scarecrow, only serves to show how much better Ledger is as the Joker. Murphy was good in "Begins", but he pales in comparison.
Christian Bale returns as Batman and Bruce Wayne and seems more conflicted. He is dealing with his feelings for Rachel, who is now dating Harvey Dent. He has to push this feelings aside because he feels Dent holds real promise for the city, so he resorts to making mild, playful jabs at both of them, trying to win Rachel back. As Batman battles the Joker, he has to deal with a bunch of other forces at the same time; suspected corruption in the police force, protecting the city officials, trying to help round up the underworld leaders. He brings a heightened level of intensity to the character, giving us a deeper feeling for what Wayne is experiencing.
Michael Caine returns as Alfred, Wayne's butler, who is always ready to provide some sage advice. Caine is a great actor and it is nice to see him in a supporting role like this because even though Alfred doesn't have the biggest role in the story, he actually sort of does. He is the man who helps Wayne stay centered, stay calm and make the right decisions.
Morgan Freeman returns as Lucius Fox, the brains behind Wayne Industries. Sort of like Wayne's own personal "Q", Fox prepares all of the tools Batman needs to fight the baddies. He also helps Wayne run the huge corporation he owns and gives him the support he needs.
Maggie Gyllenhaal steps into the role of Rachel Dawes and does a very good job. You see how tough this woman is, how unwilling she is to put up with anything, how determined she is to help Harvey beat the bad guys. Don't forget, she is one of only a handful of people who know the true identity of Batman and she remains true to this knowledge, protecting it even from Harvey. Whenever she appears within feet of Bruce Wayne, you can see the pain in her face, the pain of their breakup. Gyllenhaal is certainly a different type of look than Katie Holmes and I think the fit is a little better. Tall and lanky, much like some of the classic sirens of the 40s (I'm thinking Rita Hayworth or Gene Tierney), she just seems to be a better fit for Wayne and Dent.
Gary Oldman also returns as Lt. Gordon, an honest man who is as intent on cleaning up the city as Dent and Batman. He will do whatever it takes.
Nolan has assembled a great cast, each of whom brings a special quality to their portrayals of these characters. But he has also assembled a top-notch creative crew as well, and the film is as technically beautiful and accomplished as the performances.
One thing that stuck out to me was the sound design of the film. In a handful of moments, a great panoramic view of Gotham pops up accompanied by slight white noise. No music. Then, as the scene begins, you would expect the music to swell and give us cues to how we should feel. But it doesn't and we continue to hear a slight bit of white noise as the characters battle it out. This is a great way of showing us what the characters are experiencing, what is driving the Joker mad, what is making Batman all the more anxious to have a normal life. There is noticeably less music in this film than most big budget action
It has been widely reported that Nolan shot the action scenes for this film with an IMAX camera. Does this add anything to the film? It provides a wider canvas for the action, giving us bigger, crystal clear images, more information and more to look at. Quite honestly, the action scenes are fantastic and watching Bale's Batman speed through Gotham in the Batmobile or on the Batbike are just the beginnings of much more complicated action scenes. Much of the film takes place at night and even these scenes are beautiful to watch because they are slightly moody, yet we never lose sight of the actors or the action.
Watching "The Dark Knight" is an exciting thing. It is the rare film that breaks so many rules, yet you don't feel like you have been cheated. So, we have two villains in an already overcrowded film. But they work together as two distinct parts of the story. We have a convoluted story, requiring the viewer to pay attention, to keep track of everything that is going on. How many other 'summer films' can you think of that did this? Probably less than you can count on one hand. There is a lot of story in "Knight" but it all points to one theme, as discussed before, and all of this story helps to reinforce the main ideas. The cast is filled with superlative actors, giving each of the characters depth we wouldn't normally expect from 'popcorn fare'. And the film is dark, darker than its predecessor.
"The Dark Knight" is the summer film we all want and hope for every time we plunk down our hard earned dollars for a film. Now that we have had the pleasure of experiencing this work, we will be expecting more summer films to be this good. I'm not sure if that is a good thing, because we are inevitably in for more letdowns.
What have you done to us, Christopher Nolan?