A few weeks back, I marveled (pun intended) at the critical and commercial success of the truly mediocre The Incredible Hulk, even going as far as to suggest a settling in our expectations of the superhero genre. Had utter crap like The Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and Ghost Rider dulled us into thinking that Iron Man was anything spectacular (when it’s not) or that Louis Leterrier’s take on the big green guy was acceptable (when it’s not even better than Ang Lee’s)? I feared the endless stream of by-the-numbers movies about men in tights that were sure to follow. And then, much like he did when I was a youngster - voraciously reading Year One and Arkham Asylum, cover to cover, while listening to “Batdance” like it was actually good - Batman blew my mind. My critical colleagues have been somewhat joking since the beginning of the summer that this movie season was going to be “all about Wall-E and The Dark Knight.” Little did we know that we might be saying that about the entire year. The Dark Knight is second only to the adorable Pixar robot for the year to date, which isn’t too much of a surprise given the sad state of 2008, but what’s remarkable is that Christopher Nolan’s incredibly daring vision is, with no exaggeration, the best superhero movie ever made.
I know it sounds like hyperbole, but The Dark Knight deserves comparison to The Godfather, Part II and The Empire Strikes Back in the way that it takes the themes set up by the first film and doesn’t just make them bigger, but significantly richer and deeper. In the same way that Empire makes A New Hope a different and better experience, The Dark Knight vastly improves Batman Begins. Joel Schumacher and Brett Ratner proved that more isn’t the answer when it comes to superhero sequels and, while there is incredible emotional depth to The Dark Knight, Nolan’s Oscar-nomination-worthy screenplay doesn’t clutter the film’s themes with unnecessary characters or action. It’s all for a cause – telling a story of the repercussions of both heroism and evil and what life is like for a society caught in the middle.
Of course, the heroism is represented by Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale), but to many in the crime-ridden city of Gotham, he’s just another vigilante. The more traditional face of heroism in Gotham is the man often caught in the middle, “The White Knight” (a title he’s given more than once in the film), District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). With help from soon-to-be Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and the support of his lady-love, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Dent takes on the crime syndicate in his city of darkness. While Dent is legally challenging the men who want him dead, The Joker (Heath Ledger) rears his fascinatingly deformed head. Employing a band of Arkham Asylum misfits and corrupt cops whenever he can, The Joker steals the mob’s money, mostly just to get their attention. He knows they can help lead him to Gordon, Dent, and, ultimately, Batman. But what he wants with them no one could ever predict.
Much has been written about Heath Ledger’s turn as The Joker, with some suggesting that he might posthumously win a best supporting actor Oscar for the role. I’ll admit that I originally thought that was a little silly, assuming it was a consideration that was largely due to the tragic real-life circumstances of his death and that any nod for Ledger would be purely sympathetic. I was wrong. This is easily one of the most riveting performances of the year. Every choice that Ledger made with this character was the right one, from the way he awkwardly licks his lips to how he occasionally drops a guttural octave and sounds like he’s projecting from his twisted soul. Many people were worried about Heath mimicking Jack Nicholson’s legendary take on the character from Tim Burton’s Batman, but they’ll have completely forgotten that entire film mere minutes into this one. It’s a performance that sears itself onto your brain and becomes hard to shake. Forget about the talk about him getting nominated. Let’s start talking about who’s going to accept on his behalf.
Ironically, the great work by Ledger will probably overshadow the dozen or so other reasons that The Dark Knight works so well. (The Joker always did have to hog the spotlight, didn’t he?) For starters, Aaron Eckhart gives the performance of his career in a role that, it could be argued, is actually the central focus of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent is caught between Batman and The Joker in more ways than one and, for his role as the man in the middle, he pays the ultimate price. Fans of Batman will know what happens to Dent, which is the set-up for the entire final act of the film. Everyone else will have to marvel at the way Nolan has reworked this legendary comic book character into one of the most tragic figures in superhero movie history. Dent is every man who has tried to do good, paying a tragic price in his attempt to do so, but somehow still falling short.
Deep stuff, right? Certain demographics will be inclined to ignore The Dark Knight because of the mediocrity of the aforementioned superhero movies. The fact is that this material is more complex, epic, and dramatic than most of the “serious films” released so far this year. It’s dark, violent, and heartbreakingly bleak (the only possible criticism of TDK might be that it’s maybe TOO dark). Like The Empire Strikes Back, it doesn’t end on a happy note with the good guy winning and the bad guy getting what’s coming to him. The Dark Knight dares to say that in our chaotic world, no one gets “what they deserve.” You’re just lucky if you survive. It’s an epic story that’s not interested in simple black & white, white & dark, but rather how they mix, thrive off each other, and need each other to survive. Not only will The Dark Knight be a wake-up call to superhero movie fans that have come to accept mediocrity, it will also remind moviegoers of all kinds what can be done with epic tales of heroism and villainy. Nolan has delivered an instant classic, not just of the genre, but of moviemaking in general.
Rating: FOUR BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: July 18th, 2008
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Eric Roberts
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Jonathan & Christopher Nolan