Film review: The Dark Knight

From its opening shot, an aerial view of Chicago – a.k.a., Gotham – which sets in motion a daring bank heist, The Dark Knight sets itself emphatically in the real world instead of a fantastical universe accustomed to superheroes and hokey comic book mysticism.

Stripped of the camp which previously adorned and defined the franchise like the nipples on Clooney’s bat-suit, Nolan’s sophomore entry in the Batman story is as serious as Michael Mann’s Heat, and even more deadly.

Batman: The Dark Knight

Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman.

To get it out of the way up front, Heath Ledger more than lives up to the impossible hype generated for the film partly as a result of his untimely death. Jack Nicholson’s Joker was the most iconic series villain to date – up to and including Batman Begins – but he was rooted in that self-same camp, a caricature of evil, a mere parody. In Ledger’s hands, licking ever-dry lips with lizard-like flicks of his tongue, walking with a peculiar, waddling gait, defined and unbound by his massive psychoses, the self-described agent of chaos is a force of nature, an avatar of all that is wrong and dirty and criminal in the minds of Gotham’s citizens. Simply put, this Joker is the best antagonist put to film since Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. It is a performance for the history books.

There are plot points enough for two films, but the long and short of it is that the Joker arrives on the scene just as Gotham’s white knight, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is on the verge of cleaning up the mob, rendering Batman (Christian Bale) obsolete. Like the serpent in Eden, the Joker is a harbinger of evil, and brings the Fall to everyone he can, which is essentially the entire populace except for Batman/Bruce Wayne, Police Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman), and attorney Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over the role from the listless Katie Holmes), Wayne’s former love interest, who is now attached to Dent.

Unlike previous villains, the Joker has no grand desires, no ideological affiliations, merely an unquenchable thirst for destruction and anarchy. He is a terrorist in the truest possible sense, at one point telling Gotham he will blow up a hospital if one specific man is not killed – by anyone willing – in the next hour. What ensues is a terrifying episode in which citizens at random, fearing for their loved ones and themselves, seriously consider (and in more than one case, attempt) killing the man. This is why The Dark Knight is so deadly serious: rooted in the horror of September 11, in the chaos and terror of senseless death, it is a film about the most difficult choices, and the consequences of choosing at all.

Batman’s moral compass is still Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), his confidante and his butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), and it is talking to them that brings him to realize his beneficial influence in Gotham created the Joker, the equal and opposite reaction. Two sides of the same coin (an appropriate metaphor for the second film to feature Two-Face), they see their final battle play out simultaneously on a grand scale across the city as they fight, literally, for the collective soul of Gotham City.

This is the rebirth Batman needed and deserved. Cillian Murphy’s brief reappearance as the Scarecrow in the opening scene underscores how much better Batman Begins could have been (one bad guy was a tired cliché and the other escaped without death or imprisonment). If Nolan, who also co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, had the audacity to simply pick up in medias res and begin with The Dark Knight, the rebooted series could have been that much more epic. But as things stand, this is still far and away the best comic book movie ever made, a film without weak points, much less serious flaws. If Iron Man was the pinnacle of the conventional, flippantly campy comic universe, The Dark Knight reaches new heights on its lethal earnestness. The only regret is that Joker won’t be back for number three.