If Frank Miller reinvigorated the seriousness of the comic book character with 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns, then Christopher Nolan gave him new life on screen by erasing the memory of Joel Schumacher’s abysmal films and rebooting the entire storyline from scratch three years ago with the bleak, daring, and completely engaging Batman Begins. Tim Burton’s Batman and follow-up Batman Returns were themselves overrated, overheated, and almost suffocatingly stylized, but their biggest sin was that they played up the absurdity of the character without making him believable. Burton once said, “Anyone who knows me knows I would never read a comic book,” and that air of mild condescension came across on screen. But Nolan clearly respects not only the possibilities in the source material but also the very real pain that would drive a man like Bruce Wayne to the edge. Yes, it’s patently absurd that a young man attempting to deal with the death of his parents would channel that rage into karate classes and building a rubber suit shaped like a bat, but Nolan grounds that action in a world that’s palpably real. As a director, Nolan takes the story seriously, and that makes all the difference, transforming his films from good to great. They’re the best superhero movies ever made because they embrace the character on a gut level and not as some pop artifact. The Dark Knight is a harrowing, frightening, uncompromising, flat-out great superhero movie, wonderful in sad ways, hitting the perfect mix of characterization and humor, bouncing between phenomenal action set pieces and the brutally human moments that place the film in a recognizable world even as it soars into comic book fantasy. Put simply, Nolan just gets it. He’s a believer, and he’ll make one out of you, too.
The film opens with a spectacular heist sequence in which Nolan lays the groundwork for what will turn out to be a sprawling, stronger tale than the first film. A group of men in clown masks descend on one of Gotham City’s mob-controlled banks, each criminal discussing with the others the rumors about their unseen employer, the Joker, before turning on each other once their given task is done. It’s swiftly executed, none of the shots lasting more than a few seconds; cinematographer Wally Pfister, working with Nolan for the fifth time, never keeps his camera still for long, preferring slow pushes in or around instead of a static shot. The result is a subtle but constant tension, waiting for something (probably something bad) to happen, or waiting for the hero to show. When the heist team is down to its last man, the villain strips off his mask to reveal stringy, greenish hair, a face smeared with pancake make-up, and streaks of garish black around the eyes and red across a mouth that features scars extending outward to hellishly extend the smile. The Joker (Heath Ledger) is a thing of beautiful terror, a psycho willing to slaughter civilians and bomb banks and stuff grenades into the mouths of those who cross him. He does this not because he’s paid to, or even because he can; he just does it, and Ledger imbues the Joker with such casual menace and believable strength that he instantly owns the character forever. This isn’t a cartoonish fop or a giddy prankster; this is someone truly beyond repair. In six short minutes, Nolan has upped the stakes from his earlier installment by introducing a villain whose existence questions the very nature of what it means to fight, and why.
Things aren’t going much better for Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), either. Enough time has passed since the events of the first film for Batman to have become a menace to criminals, a target for police, and a dangerous icon for the brain-dead amateur vigilantes rushing to follow him into battle. Batman’s first appearance involves not just putting down a few hoods but also saving the lives of wannabe Caped Crusaders, wearing catcher’s padding and hockey pants and homemade cowls, running around and trying to fight evil. One of the faux Batmen protests that he’s just trying to help, and demands to know what gives Batman the right to be the one and only hero on the streets of Gotham. Batman gives a pithy answer before entering the Batmobile and driving off, even though a real response — money, training, the whole bulletproof-suit thing — would have sufficed. But he’s ultimately not willing to engage the issue, and it’s a question Nolan uses as a basis for the entire film: What gives this guy the right? What makes him different? More important, what happens when a hero appears; does it send villains packing, or does it just draw forth a greater evil? Batman is the city’s great protector, its dark knight, but the love he feels for the city comes at a high price.
For now, Batman is running his operation out of a makeshift hideout underneath an empty lot owned by Wayne Enterprises, since Wayne Manor was destroyed in a fire. The first part of the lengthy, complex script deals with Bruce’s attempts to investigate a Chinese businessman that Batman is pursuing from the other side, eventually tying the man to most of the organized crime in Gotham. The only trustworthy cop is still Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), who wants to do good but is willing to work with dirty police to do it. “I don’t get political points for being an idealist,” Gordon says. “I have to make do with what I have.” Everyone in Nolan’s Gotham is compromised, even if they’re upright. But Gordon and Batman begin to see light at the end of the tunnel with the arrival of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the new district attorney and the first man in the office to really stand up to the criminal kingpins ruling Gotham. Harvey, meanwhile, is dating Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the object of Bruce’s affection who told him they could never be together until he gave up being a superhero. Nolan does a great job showing Bruce work through the conflict of how to handle Harvey, juggling his feelings for Rachel and his desire to finally give Gotham back to the few good people left in town. But all along, Nolan keeps planting the seeds of destruction in the lives of the central characters, showing them not as blameless do-gooders but as people who daily deal with the choice of whether to do right or wrong, and where the line between the two even lies, and whether human weakness can ever be countered. As Harvey says, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.”
But the bulk of the film deals with the ascendance of the Joker as he lays siege to Gotham’s criminal and civil underpinnings, offering his services to the mob and then slowly accruing power while stacking the bodies ever higher. The Joker quickly sees that Batman is more than his nemesis; each man is the other’s bitter reason for living. “This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object,” the Joker says to him. “We’re destined to do this forever.” He doesn’t want to kill Batman, he wants to push him so hard he breaks his one unbreakable rule — thou shalt not kill. These outcasts are fighting a battle of ideologies, and Batman goes down some dark roads in his attempts to live up to the better angels of his already bruised nature. The script from Nolan and brother Jonathan (The Prestige, and the short story that inspired Memento), with a story credit from Batman Begins’ David S. Goyer, never flinches from asking the tough questions of its heroes; hell, it practically lives there. But it doesn’t suffer under the weight of that darkness, either, often turning to Alfred the butler (Michael Caine) for comic relief to distract from the ongoing chaos in the streets.
Batman and the Joker wage war across the city, and Nolan engineers some breathtaking action sequences that never feel less than real. A whole slew of artists worked on the CG effects, as well as legions of stuntmen to aide in everything from an 18-wheeler flipping through the air to a ridiculous amount of explosions, fires, and collateral damage. But Nolan’s skill is such that these scenes never call undue attention to their artifice, and in fact are so energetic and jaw-dropping that they become a seamless part of an already broad and all-encompassing story. I guess what I’m trying so poorly to say is that the action in the film is consistently amazing but always serves the bigger picture. Everything’s dazzling, but nothing is extraneous.
And that includes the performances. Gyllenhaal is, predictably, a vast improvement over Katie Holmes, who played Rachel in the first film. While Holmes could do little more than alternate between pouting, squinting, and smiling that crooked little smile, Gyllenhaal is at once stronger and more relatable. Her Rachel is willing to stand up and fight even if it means losing people she cares for, and that kind of nuance is vital to an action film this questioning and reflective. Eckhart, too, executes a spot-on slow burn as Harvey Dent, driven to the edge by the Joker. And of course Bale is still the ideal Bruce Wayne, able to put on airs as the suave but ignorant playboy, take charge as the international businessman, and transform into a physical manifestation of his own unchangeable rage as Batman, a hero so dark and terrible that he’s often no less than a moral villain. He’s likable, empathetic, and still believable under a rubber cowl, which is no small feat. But it’s Ledger who steals the film, and deserves every minute of it. His performance is riddled with tics, these little grace notes that subconsciously communicate the Joker’s personality without ever making it obvious: He walks with a forced shuffle, and whenever he talks his tongue occasionally darts out to lick the lips he keeps smacking every few seconds. He loses himself in the make-up and mayhem to become an animal, a scorching villain that transforms everything about the world Nolan has created and makes the defeats that much darker and the moments of spiritual triumph that much sweeter. As Ledger’s last performance on film, it’s destined to be remembered as his James Dean song, a howling tornado of energy that tears across the screen, reshaping everything in its path. He’s perfect.
“The approach we have is to take the tropes and iconography of the action-hero genre and ground it in a reality,” Nolan said. “Real life is more tactile, more threatening, more emotional.” He’s not wrong. By crafting another superb movie that’s as believable as it is entertaining, he elevates the entire film and achieves that most unattainable of goals: A believable superhero movie. Even the nameless citizens aren’t caricatures but actual characters, and that makes their pain that much sharper and their decisions to do right that much truer. The Dark Knight is all about what it means to fight a losing battle knowing the outcome in advance, and why. For Bruce Wayne and Christopher Nolan, the answer’s simple: Because you believe in it.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.My Love Is Vengeance
Film | August 28, 2008 | Comments ()