by Mel Valentin
There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the eagerly anticipated sequel to "Batman Begins," "The Dark Knight" directed and co-written by Christopher Nolan ("The Prestige," "Insomnia," "Memento," "Following"). "The Dark Knight" isn’t just a sequel that rises to the same level or even surpasses the original (it's definitely the latter), but the rare superhero/comic book adaptation and summer blockbuster/tentpole that transcends its genre and commercial limitations to become art. "The Dark Knight" is no “art film,” though, at least not in the way that phrase is commonly understood. It’s grand, epic-scaled filmmaking, crime-noir/tragedy that would have rivals anything Fyodor Dostoevsky ("The Brothers Karamazov," "The Devils," "Crime and Punishment") wrote.The Dark Knight opens with a thrilling, suspenseful prologue that introduces The Joker (Heath Ledger), a scarred, sociopath in clown makeup, robbing a bank in Gotham City (Chicago standing in for Batman’s fictional hometown). It’s filmed, edited, and scored (by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard) with impressive skill (think Michael Mann’s Heat shot in the 70mm IMAX format, as are five other action scenes). The Joker isn’t just robbing a bank; it's a mob bank used to launder "dirty" money. Once the Joker has the undivided attention of the crime families, he makes them an offer they can’t refuse: half of everything they own, including future proceeds, in exchange for eliminating Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale).
"Epic, masterpiece-level filmmaking (In a summer blockbuster no less)."
The newly elected District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), an idealist “white knight,” dedicates himself to ridding Gotham of organized crime, focusing primarily on two mob bosses, Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts) and the Chechen (Ritchie Coster). Dent’s assistant DA and Wayne’s former girlfriend, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, stepping in for Katie Holmes), and Batman’s confidante in the Major Crimes Unit, Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman), round out the key players. The Joker, however, isn’t interested in money or power as ends, but in creating chaos and anarchy through violence and destruction.
Nolan and co-screenwriter (and brother) brother, Jonathan (David S. Goyer, Nolan's Batman Begins screenwriting partner, receives a story credit here), researched the Batman mythos before writing the screenplay. Nolan looked to Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s “Batman: Year Two” storyline, The Long Halloween, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke’s retelling Batman's first encounter with the Joker, The Man Who Laughs, for inspiration. Nolan also leaned heavily on ideas and themes found in Alan Moore’s canon-re-defining one-shot, The Killing Joke (e.g., the Joker telling multiple, contradictory origin stories, his plan to drive one or more characters insane with grief and loss).
Gordon, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), Bruce’s longtime butler and surrogate father, and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Wayne’s "Q"-like (as in James Bond’s “Q”) weapons inventor, represent different sides of a moral argument: how far Bruce Wayne/Batman, a masked vigilante already acting outside the law, should go in apprehending a sociopath? As both Gordon and Dent work with Batman, circumventing the law to stop organized crime and the Joker, the same question applies to them.
In Nolan’s take, the Joker is equal pars trickster (as in the trickster character or god from world mythology), “agent of chaos,” conscience-free serial killer, and anarchist/terrorist. Unsympathetic and irredeemable, the Joker is defined by his actions and what Nolan doesn't give him: a backstory or origin story. He also doesn’t have a character arc. He remains unchanged throughout The Dark Knight. The Joker is sui generis (self-made), a monster who looks and sounds recognizably human, but isn't; interested only in destroying the social order to reveal the monsters and madmen (and madwomen) hiding inside his victims.
Bruce Wayne/Batman, however, is too iconic a superhero to change significantly beyond the elements that have defined him for close to seventy years, regardless of medium (e.g., comics, animation, and film). Either Wayne integrates the grief and anger from losing his parents years earlier, and gives up the cape or cowl or continues on as the Caped Crusader, making a difference through action and inspiration. Batman’s rule against killing can’t change as well (broken bones and bloodied faces are fine, though). Crossing that line makes him no better, in his eyes and in the eyes of the law, than the criminals he's trying to stop and bring to justice (and justice does mean the criminal justice system). That rule becomes the crux of the moral dilemma that faces Batman as the Joker engineers one dilemma after another. Even then, it’s Harvey Dent and the slow erosion of his ideals, his evolution (or rather devolution) from Dent to Two-Face that gives The Dark Knight its multi-layered, tragic arc.
The Dark Knight always circles back to the Joker. With Heath Ledger, giving, sadly, the performance of an all-too-brief career, under the greasepaint and silicon scars, the Joker is easily the most memorable villain put on film. He’s not just an anarchic, knife wielding terrorist, but a malevolent trickster character, upending, subverting, and overturning the social order out of a compulsive, twisted morality. In fact, the Joker is a close (fictional) relative to the villain in the Coen Brother’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men, Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem). He represents death, destruction, and decay. He’s nihilism personified. Centering a film, let alone a blockbuster/tentpole film like The Dark Knight on an irredeemable, murderous psychopath involved considerable risk. Warner Bros. certainly deserves a tip of the cowl for giving Nolan latitude to put his vision of the Batman universe on screen.
Storytelling flaws begin to show up later in the film, specifically a scene involving the Joker and police officers that requires them to behave like idiots for his plan to work, implausible character turns, several plot holes, including one involving a mole inside the Major Crimes Unit, and the rush through Harvey’s post-injury scenes. The scene set in Hong Kong is more James Bond than Bruce Wayne/Batman (it’s still masterfully shot and edited, of course), plus it violates one of the cornerstones of Aristotle’s Poetics (e.g., time, place, and character). It’s a minor point, but then again any of The Dark Knight’s flaws are minor and, in the context of what Nolan has accomplished here, forgivable.When film critics and movie bloggers compile their year-end top-10 lists, expect "The Dark Knight" to be at the top or near the top. More importantly, expect the "The Dark Knight" to become the first superhero/comic book adaptation to receive a nomination for Best Picture. Assuming "The Dark Knight" wins, it’ll be well deserved. Heath Ledger (only one other actor, Peter Finch for "Network," has won a posthumous Oscar for Best Actor), the visual effects group, Wally Pfister’s cinematography, Nathan Crowley’s production design, and the percussive, Kraftwerk by way of Steve and Akira Ifukube (the "Godzilla" theme) score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer, and Lee Smith’s restrained editing, should be nominated in their respective categories as well.
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originally posted: 07/18/08 10:42:38