There will be a sea of nerds waxing superfluous about the utter success of this film; I’m afraid I am among them. Any movie as hyped as this one will generate backlash, and some will anticipate it and thrive on it. We are so easily jaded by our entertainment. The Dark Knight is beyond mere spectacle and elevates the superhero movie beyond all previous heights, as its material dives into the darkest depths, going into the abyss we never expected “comic book movies” to go. It builds a tragedy worthy of Greek myth and sets it in a complex, living Gotham as real as one of James Ellroy’s crime epics.
The Nolan brothers wisely delve into the rich past of the Batman character and pluck many of the best themes from the classic stories- the rise of fellow vigilantes, the misguided “Sons of the Batman” from The Dark Knight Returns; the Joker as the agent of disorder, pushing those with moral codes to the precipice of breaking them, from The Killing Joke; the concerns about surveillance from Kingdom Come. The script is definitely the best of the superhero crop, surpassing such classics as the original Superman as it weaves the tale of the Batman, District Attorney Harvey Dent– the white knight of Gotham, and the Joker.
There’s a glimmer of hope in Gotham when we return; Detective Gordon is now running an elite squad, D.A.’s Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes are putting high-profile mobsters away, and Bruce Wayne and Alfred are rebuilding the Manor, operating from a concealed bunker. The movie opens with a bravura heist sequence inspired by Michael Mann’s Heat, where the Joker’s minions rip off a mob bank. Batman is hunting down the top dogs in the crime world, one being a money launderer he follows to Hong Kong; while he’s away, the Joker hires himself out to the crime bosses, to eliminate their nemesis.
Heath Ledger’s Joker is more theatrical psychopath than clown; with his grungy make-up, and scarred cheeks recalling the old silent film The Man Who Laughs that inspired the character, he carves a swath through the underworld because he’ll do things even they won’t. His war with Batman is full of surprises, and seems more at home in a thriller like the Bourne Trilogy– lethally cunning ambushes that would be an assassination plot worthy of their own movie. They come one after another, and the films 152 minute running time only drags long enough to for the Joker to pull the rug out from under us- again. No one is safe, and by the end of the movie you’ll realize that like the villain, the Nolan brothers through the rules out the window when they wrote the script.
The emotional turmoil that Bruce Wayne and his allies go through is as terrorizing as the bombs going off left and right. There’s even a dash of Seven in the mix, when the Joker rigs up two ferries with explosives, and gives each group the other’s detonator; if one of them doesn’t blow up the other, he’ll detonate both of them at midnight. The resolution is pretty daring, and recalls The Killing Joke, when Jim Gordon was the target. The brutality is leavened with dark humor- the Joker in a nurse outfit, and of course the steadying hands of those two great actors, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman.
They’re back as the butler who gives Batman his center, and the inventor who gives him his gadgets, and while their roles are reduced this time, they are given memorable, irreplaceable moments. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Aaron Eckhart cover the lawyer roles with aplomb; Gotham’s white knight is no cardboard cut-out. But the movie isn’t all thrilling plot and fine acting- we get our share of action movie excitment as well. The Batmobile returns and is trumped by the faster, more maneuverable Bat-pod, which looks a lot like that 4-wheel motorcycle concept Dodge based off the Viper. He pulls some amazing tricks with it as he duels with the Joker in a ten-wheeler on Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago.
I did not see it in IMAX, but I will be, as soon as the local theaters aren’t all sold out. The movie is a marvel of editing, and if the Nolans ever tire of the franchise they can give Michael Mann a run for his money in the gritty crime movie genre, but he still has them on style. Is the movie perfect? The ending is. Like the comics I mentioned, The Dark Knight shows the Joker and Batman as two sides of the same coin, and this one lands right on the edge- they each own this film, and who truly wins in the end will be discussed on message boards and on the way out of the theater. Go see it, it lives up to the hype.