Sunday, July 20, 2008

Good KNIGHT

Zaki's Review: THE DARK KNIGHT

Belief.

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.

Believe it.

A+

24 comments:

Trevor Smith said...

Loved it as well, Zaki, and only two very minor complaints - the physical appearance of the Joker (yeah, I'm old school - would have preferred he looked something like the Adams or Aparo versions), and one little story element, which I won't mention for spoiler-ish reasons. Suffice to say, it's not a very large quibble, and one that doesn't diminish my enjoyment of the other 99.9% of the movie one whit.

Andrew Wood said...

Like you'd been waiting for the movie, I'd been waiting for your review! Given your longstanding interest in the superhero film genre, I knew you'd dive deep into this flick. And I agree with you, it was worth the wait (and worth the effort to write well). Dark Knight is a hellava ride, with particular props to Ledger's Joker. Wow - what a performance. What a movie!

IrfanR said...

Just like the 1989 Batman movie re-defined the Batman series (but unfortunately led to a pathetic cartoonish outcome with Schumacher at the wheel), this sequel to Batman Begins just took comic book movies to a whole another level! It brings excitement and interest to an old character(s), which the "Superman Returns" movie was unable to do. And Heath Ledger was unbelievable - I couldnt even recognize him, as one could with Jack Nicholson. It's sad that he will not be able to continue in the role, due to his untimely death. But at least he will live forever in the hearts of Batman fans, as well as movie fans everywhere!

Parvez said...

I too have been waiting for your review. It was an amazing film, whose greatness, simply cannot be summed up in a review. Even in a review as great as yours. The writing was superb and the philosophical undertones transcended the film beyond its comic book origins. I would also add that the film's score was flawless. Looking forward to seeing it again, this time around on IMAX. Hopefully you and I can catch it again in Gotham City...err...Chicago.

Zaki said...

Sign me up!

Bruce Buchanan said...

Great review, Zaki. And a great movie. I'm not sure I liked it quite as much as Batman Begins or Iron Man, but it easily lives up to its substantial hype.

Every important character is fully developed. The action is breathtaking, yet largely believable. The numerous action sequences truly felt like a life-or-death struggles. Perhaps most refreshing, the film never talked down to the audience.

I do have one fairly significant beef with The Dark Knight, though (anyone who hasn't seen it, please stop reading.....)


The Two-Face storyline. Two-Face is a complex, dangerous villain who should be the focus of his own movie. With the Joker front and center in this movie, any other villain becomes secondary, so using Two-Face in this film seems wasteful. What's more, Aaron Eckhart's tremendous performance will undoubtedly get overshadowed.

The filmmakers should've ended Harvey Dent's participation right at the moment of his horrific injury, then picked up that story in the third film. Now, with Ra's Al Ghul, the Joker and Two-Face already used, what villain can be an appropriate threat in the third movie?

Karen Wolski said...

Zaki, fantastic review! (As always :))

I thought the movie was great...I can't wait until the next one comes out! Don't you think two face will be back?

Aamer said...

Great review bro, seriously speaking, you summed it up really well! Will wait for you to come out here to catch it at the iMAX!

Zaki said...

Don't you think two face will be back?

****

My sense is that they left it deliberately vague as to whether Two-Face is alive or dead so as to keep their options open.

As a fan of the character, I'd love to see him come back, but as a fan of the film, I wonder if it would be better off leaving him "dead."

IrfanR said...

they still got a few other options for villians, like the Penguin.
They also got this Justice League movie coming out (anyone who watched the small clip after the credits of Iron Man knows what Im talking about), so who knows, maybe there will be some teaming up with all the major heroes in the DC world!

Trevor Smith said...

You're mixing up your comic book universes there...the post credits scene after Iron Man points us toward Marvel's "Avengers" movie, not DC's "Justice League".

IrfanR said...

oops...sorry, you are right! I wasn't into comic books that much, as you can probably tell:)!

Trevor Smith said...

No sweat, that's why comic geeks like me exist, to impart years of wisdom and experience to the slightly less geeky! ;)

Zaki said...

Based on the world that Nolan has constructed in the first two films, I'm not sure how much I want to see standard-issue villains like Penguin and Riddler being trotted out. In that sense, I wonder if they might be better off going for the lesser-known, secondary villains like Black Mask or Wrath or Deadshot...characters that haven't been seen on-screen up to now, and thus don't have to worry about being "new" and "different."

The danger here, really, is that DARK KNIGHT has set such a high bar that it'll be difficult for any follow-up not to disappoint, even if it's a perfectly adequate movie.

Parvez said...

I agree with you Zaki. I've been wondering how Nolan can top The Dark Knight. But I remember thinking the same thing after Batman Begins (which I concede was a lesser movie compared only to its sequel...Empire Strikes Back anyone?!). In any case I think if anyone can, Nolan could take a standard issue villain from the Batman universe like a Catwoman or Penguin and "reinvent" the character. Personally, I think the Riddler could be cool given his narcissism which is at the core of the character. Or like you said he could take a lesser known villain like he did with Ras al Ghul in the first film. In any case we have a lot to look forward to if Nolan helms the next film.

Omar A. said...

Ok, we FINALLY saw the movie (thank God for grandparents who babysit!). It was amazing. I read nothing but great reviews all week, but it lived up to expectations. I probably enjoyed this more than any movie I've seen in a long time. The acting, action, story, themes and everything in between was so well thought out. Heath Ledger deserves an Oscar, but perhaps Nolan and the producers do as well for Best film/direction. My favorites scenes were probably: Anything with Joker, the HK scene, the new motorcycle cruising in the city, and all the "top of building" panaramas. I can't believe they got away with a PG-13 rating - this one was definitely "R" - some kids were bawling in the theatre (not babies but kids, mind you.). This may have ruined all mediocre comic book movies for me. It may have also kind of ruined the 1989 version (which was great at the time). Regarding a sequel, I of course hope for it, and look forward to more re-imagining of classic characters by Nolan and Co. Selina Kyle as a love interest would be good. Perhaps the riddler with a "Seven-esque" trail of clues. Of course, they have to weave in themes such as the 9/11 themes they had here...I look forward to chatting more in person...and another viewing - perhaps in IMAX...Lookout Titanic box office records...

Zaki said...

Heath Ledger deserves an Oscar, but perhaps Nolan and the producers do as well for Best film/direction.

*****

Totally agree.

I also agree that there's an opportunity to introduce a new love interest. Selina Kyle is the obvious choice, but also Talia Al Ghul, Ras' daughter.

I really hope they go with the lesser-known, lower profile villains for the next installment (which, given the rapid pace with which this one is shattering box office records, is all but inevitable...).

CJ said...

Wow, I am so gonna get beaten by the masses. First off let me say that I thought this movie was VERY GOOD. I found it enjoyable, and they definitely weren't playing around. Now, having said that, I have to say the movie did fall short of perfect. Normally a movie like this I would just say it was fun and leave it at that, but this is a "real" movie, not just a pop corn flick. So...

Not that I was huge on Katie Holmes, but I felt Maggie Gyllenhall's acting was no where near her co-workers. It was a constant detraction so, consequently (SPOILER ALERT***************) I didn't really feel to bad after she bit it.

On the other hand Harvey Dent's character was developed well and I did feel bad for that character. I also felt he deserved to be the main villain in a different movie.

I also agree that the Heath Ledger hype was justified. Great job for him.

They could have shaved a good 45 minutes off the film, as I found a lot of it to drag on and become repetative. The action scenes were great, but eventually caused me to become desensitized.

The moral issues that preoccupied our main players I felt was so talked about it became fake and thus detracted from the impact.

I never read the comics, but Batman never killed bad guys? I know in 89 he did.

So yes, I enjoyed it, thought it was very good. Thought it was a fun thrill ride, and thought some of the actors did great. But for me, it's another movie that's for entertainment purposes only.

Please, people, don't do anything to my car.

Zaki said...

I think you and I are gonna have to have a little chat when I come to Chicago in two weeks...

CJ said...

You had better let me know when you get in! By the way, Gary Oldman's acting, as usual, did a fantastic job, along with Micheal Caine (when you can understand the bloke).

Zaki said...

We're definitely in agreement there.

And I'll give you a call for sure when we get in.

Ahmed Abdul-Jaleel said...

Great review Zak - couldn't agree more. I actually saw the last joker scene being filmed in Chicago (in the high-rise building). Here is the youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5VZ0IBBxOA&feature=related

Hope all is well.

media kingdom said...

i still wish Katie Holmes had stayed on board as Rachel Dawes for the Dark Knight; it was like the time spent getting familiar with her character in Batman Begins was wasted...

Zaki said...

Not sure I agree with that, as the character was still there even if the actress is different.