Sunday, July 20, 2008
That’s the thematic through-line that director Christopher Nolan weaves through his epic sequel The Dark Knight. Just as he used its predecessor, 2005’s superlative Batman Begins as a 140-minute meditation on the nature of fear, Nolan (along with co-writers Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer) uses this follow-up to examine the limits of belief. Belief in others, belief in fate, belief in love, and, via Heath Ledger’s Joker, belief in nothing.
At its core, while ostensibly continuing the story of Bruce Wayne and his masked alter ego (the returning Christian Bale, now tied with Michael Keaton for “Most Times Playing Batman in a Movie”), The Dark Knight is really the story of Gotham’s “White Knight,” new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).
Dent’s unswerving belief in the power of justice is so galvanizing a force that it prompts not only an entire city to believe it can overcome the plague of criminality infesting it, but it also prompts Wayne to believe that he might, one day soon, finally hang up the cape and cowl.
Of course, those with any degree of familiarity with the DC Comics or with various other incarnations of the Bat-mythos know that the ending of Dent’s story is not a happy one, and it’s that inexorable march toward inevitability that gives The Dark Knight its emotional heartbeat.
Since the last entry, the Batman has become an accepted part of the Gotham landscape, with the ghostly vision of the Bat-signal a fixture in the night skies that gives hope to the people and a warning to criminals. Bruce Wayne, along with faithful manservant Alfred (Michael Caine), has relocated from the castle-like Wayne Manor (which met an unfortunate fate last time around) to a sprawling penthouse in the heart of the city.
Working with last-good-cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) to wipe out the remnants of the city’s mob , Wayne, alongside company CEO and erstwhile quartermaster Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), devises increasingly elaborate tools to aid in his ever-expanding battle against the criminal underworld (which even takes him – albeit briefly – to Hong Kong).
Along the way he also tries to rekindle the flame with ADA and one-time ladylove Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, thankfully replacing Katie Holmes, the last film’s only weak link), who is now attached to Dent. That’s quite a few balls, and quite a few high-profile stars, that Nolan and Co. must somehow juggle, and it’s to their credit that the movie never feels overstuffed or unwieldy -- no easy feat given its two-and-a-half hour running time.
And then there’s the Joker.
Less a character and more a primal force, his presence hangs over every frame of the film like a dark cloud, and informs every other character's actions and reactions. His vision of unleashed chaos serves as the “unstoppable force,” as he says, to Batman’s “immovable object” (or is that the other way around?).
Nolan and Ledger’s take on the Joker, the archetypal trickster and the definitive Bat-rogue, is as unique a vision of movie villainy as we’ve ever seen, and the character is a stunning final triumph for the late Ledger. Somehow the days of Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the first Tim Burton film seem as far away today as those of Cesar Romero in the ‘60s TV show did in 1989.
Of course, in addition to Ledger, some plaudits must also be reserved for Eckhart, whose contributions as Harvey Dent may end up unfairly (if understandably) overshadowed. Unlike Billy Dee Williams’ barely-there Dent in the ’89 Batman, and the cartoonish zebra-striped, neon-lit version played by Tommy Lee Jones in 1995’s Batman Forever, The Dark Knight’s Dent is a fully-realized character in whose fate we all share a stake, and whose eventual transformation into the villainous Two-Face is as heartbreaking a loss for those of us in the audience as it is for the characters in the film.
There are several surprises to be had while watching The Dark Knight, none of which I’d deign to spoil here, but what surprised me perhaps more than anything was the assuredness that informed every frame. In steering clear of the overwrought grotesqueries and fantastical production designs of the previous Tim Burton-Joel Schumacher entries, Nolan has created a Gotham City that feels as real as the Chicago streets it was shot on. Like Iron Man from earlier this summer but to an even greater degree, The Dark Knight has de-ghettoized the superhero movie, fundamentally reinventing the rules of what we can expect from the genre.
I’ve said in the past how the one good thing that came out of 1997’s franchise-killer Batman & Robin is that it allowed the opportunity for the studio-heads at Warner Brothers to give the franchise a much-needed mulligan with Batman Begins. This allowed Nolan to lay the framework for his singular take on the series, which in turn has brought us to this point.
If what we got with Begins was revelatory, then what we get with The Dark Knight is unprecedented. With this new big screen go-round, we have a multi-layered epic rich in character, rich in complexity, and rich in drama. This is the real deal. Not just a perfect comic book movie, not just a perfect Batman movie, but darn-near a perfect movie, full stop.