Sophisticated, gripping and unrepentantly dark, The Dark Knight isn’t just the movie we deserve; it’s the movie we need (9.5/10)
The Dark Knight is daring where Batman Begins was cautious, inventive where the latter was formulaic. The introduction of the Joker brings a new, malicious energy to the second instalment of Nolan’s trilogy, forcing Gotham to the brink of madness and despair, reinforcing Nolan’s vision of a darker and edgier Batman. Any questions regarding Ledger’s ability to portray the Joker’s manic energy have been answered a thousand times over; this movie owes as much to Ledger’s performance as it does to Nolan’s vision. The Dark Knight has all the prerequisite bells and whistles expected of an action movie but places them upon the rock-hard foundation of a riveting plot. With this movie, Nolan has proven more than his ability to create highly entertaining blockbusters for the thinking man – The Dark Knight has put paid to the notion that comic-book movies are simply popcorn entertainment for the easily amused but should instead be considered as capable of depth and sophistication as a movie from any other genre.
The Dark Knight has two storylines that Nolan takes turns in placing emphasis on, allowing him to slowly escalate the dramatic tension right till the very end. The primary storyline revolves around the Batman and his allies as they do everything in their power to keep the Joker from crushing Gotham’s hopes while the secondary storyline revolves around the emotional turmoil Bruce Wayne faces as he loves and loses. Nolan doesn’t let the movie ease up for long; even as one threat ends, another is developing though these threats are not always physical in nature. Nolan has a deeper understanding of the Batman’s character than any director before him and he deploys this knowledge to great effect. The dynamic between Batman and the Joker in the comics has always been fascinating but no other media, excepting perhaps the DCAU’s excellent Batman animated series, has been able to satisfactorily capture it, until now. The Joker that Nolan and Ledger have created is easily believable as Batman’s greatest, most dangerous foe. The Joker’s insanity is his greatest weapon against Batman; it nullifies his intelligence and makes the Joker utterly immune to the terror that Batman inspires in ordinary criminals. Crucially, however, is that despite being polar opposites, each complements the other. As the Joker confesses, “What would I do without you?…You complete me”.
If Batman and the Joker represent good and evil respectively, then Harvey Dent falls somewhere in the middle. His dogmatic dedication to justice and fairness is admirable at first but begins to crumble when waters get muddier, eventually becoming easy prey for the Joker’s manipulations. Nolan uses these three characters to explore the nature of chaos and order and their bearing on right and wrong. Order is not portrayed as altogether positive – the mob, for example, is organized and surprisingly civilized. Neither is chaos portrayed as fully negative – the Batman’s vigilante status and chaotic nature (he has just One Rule), make him a perfect ally for the police who are both good and ordered and give him a chance at combating the Joker, who is the archetype of the chaotic villain. Two-Face moves between various combinations of the good/bad, ordered/chaotic spectrum while his fall from grace reveals the difference between perception of good and the reality behind it.
Nolan could never have accomplished all that thematic exploration with a less gifted cast. Ledger’s turn as the Joker is taken straight from Alan Moore’s seminal work The Killing Joke, deliciously, disturbingly twisted and utterly without compassion and mercy. Ledger’s Joker commands the audience’s attention effortlessly and his chemistry with Bale and Eckhart is spellbinding. Throughout the movie Ledger is able to radiate an aura of genuine menace from his character, born partially from the character’s nature but also from the intensity of Ledger’s performance. Christian Bale is again more than competent as the titular Dark Knight, portraying a resolute Batman who is trying to overcome his personal demons in order to deliver the city he loves from the hands of a madman. While I’m still not a huge fan of the Bat-Voice that Bale employs here, it is a relatively minor flaw that does little to mar an otherwise excellent performance.
While excellence is par for the course for Bale, newcomer Aaron Eckhart really surprised me here – he was in his element as the smooth, confident Harvey Dent but was able to up the ante when he needed to be slightly unhinged and bitter as the seriously unbalanced Two-Face. His portrayal of Two-Face wasn’t flawless, but given how little screen time the character had, it didn’t need to be. Nolan also had the sense to replace the vapid Katie Holmes with the more expressive Maggie Gyllenhaal. Unfortunately, Gyllenhaal came across as too cheery and soft for the role of assistant DA – there needed to be more steel underneath the pretty, velvet cover. Cairne’s return as Alfred felt shorter than before but was no less entertaining for it. He was able to balance Alfred’s humor with his deep concern for Bruce’s well-being perfectly.
Nolan’s biggest weakness as a director remains his action scenes. They remain confused and often unintelligible until the fighting/explosions end. For instance, the scene with the Batman copycats was incredibly disorienting as a dozen things were happening all at once; all I could extract was a.) the Scarecrow was there, b.) there were Batman copycats and c.) someone let the dogs out. I guess the specifics don’t really matter, but Nolan would do well to note that as his reputation as a big-budget action director grows, there is an expectation that his action scenes look coherent.
He lacks other directors’ love for the flashy and ostentatious – there were no huge Michael Bay style explosions, no larger than life fight scenes – even Batman being sky-lifted out of Hong Kong was done in a rather understated manner. What the fight scenes lacked, the soundtrack more than made up for – Hans Zimmer, legendary Hollywood soundtrack creator, delivered again, with a soundtrack that intensified the tension throughout the movie, especially during the Joker’s torture scenes and Batman’s heroic interventions.
This movie isn’t perfect; aside from the lacklustre action scenes there were still some issues with the narrative. The Joker’s motif of chaos and anarchy begins to ring false when we see how elaborate his machinations are. The Bat-Voice, while not quite a deal-breaker, nevertheless becomes grating and often adds an uncomfortable element of camp in a movie that has no room for it. However, none of those factors should detract from the fact that this movie is perhaps the greatest super-hero movie ever made and might even sound the death knell for the genre, for all future comic-book movies will be held to this standard and few, if any will be able to match it. What makes The Dark Knight special isn’t its plot, the acting and certainly not the action – it’s the perfect combination of all these things, a classic case of the end product being greater than the sum of its individual components. Nolan has created a monster even he may not be able to overcome though the entire world will expect him to when it’s time for Gotham’s Dark Knight to rise.
Christian Bale – Batman/Bruce Wayne
Michael Caine – Alfred Pennyworth
Aaron Eckhart – Harvey Dent/Two-Face
Maggie Gyllenhaal – Rachel Dawes
Morgan Freeman – Lucius Fox
Gary Oldman – Jim Gordon
Heath Ledger – The Joker