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Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rules Gotham

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The Dark Knight is the audacious sequel to 2005's Batman Begins. Where many writers and directors might have been tempted to follow a relatively safe formula for this second film, Christopher Nolan has created a film that is almost as wild and daring as The Joker. Profoundly written, beautifully choreographed, and brilliantly executed, The Dark Knight is a masterful creation that should keep you on the edge of your seat, and leave you filled with both hope and despair.

Most of the cast and crew returns for The Dark Knight. The Rachel Dawes character is now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal rather than Katie Holmes, and there are a few new characters, but Christian Bale returns as Bruce Wayne, Gary Oldman returns as Lieutenant Gordon, Michael Caine still plays Alfred, and Morgan Freeman again portrays Lucius Fox. There is even a surprising cameo to help re-introduce Batman!

One of those new characters is getting most of the attention. People may be overpraising Heath Ledger's contribution to The Dark Knight, but just barely. Performances from Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart, and the rest of the returning cast are all also very strong. Ledger's performance might be just the work of one fantastic actor among many if not for his untimely death. The wide premiere of this film is likely to reignite the question of how much Ledger was affected by his role as The Joker; it is easy to see how playing the role could leave anybody in a very odd frame of mind.

The Joker's introduction to Gotham's crime bosses is horrifying, and the shock of that scene — and that pencil — remain throughout the entire film. You truly never know what The Joker might do next, and you tend to expect the worst. More often than not, the worst expectations are satisfied. No real backstory is ever given for The Joker. In character, he explains how his mouth came to be cut and scarred in his permanent smile, but he explains it two different ways, so neither is likely true. He is simply a destructive force of nature. "I think you and I are destined to do this forever," The Joker tells Batman. Also, "You complete me!" spoofing Jerry Maguire. The Joker character has long been a favorite villain, and here he is everything and more. He really just wants to create chaos and panic, and has spent enough time thinking about it to know what panics a city and what doesn't. The Joker isn't perfect — there wouldn't be much of a film if he were — but his plans work so well that it is hard to see how he will be stopped before Gotham burns to the ground.

Aaron Eckhart's character, Harvey Dent, is one of the more enigmatic and tragic characters in Batman's world, and his transformation into Two-Face is terrible to watch. That the white knight of Gotham City could so quickly become an ardent disciple of chaos is heartbreaking, and only makes Batman's work harder. Previews for the film included the Gotham City district attorney stating, "You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain," and while Dent wasn't speaking of himself, the foreshadowing is ominous. Director Nolan twists everything we've ever known about these characters from their previous incarnations, and when we finally see Two-Face, (Nolan is briefly coy) it's startling to realize that he has managed to create an image more horrifying than any Two-Face seen before.

Alfred isn't quite the backbone of this film as he was in Batman Begins, but he still provides support for Batman, and some of the best lines, as when he is offering a possible explanation for The Joker's motivation: "Some men just want to watch the world burn." More importantly, a decision about whether or not to deliver a certain letter is left in Alfred's hands, and the decision he makes is likely to have repercussions in future films. Lucius Fox also spends only a little time onscreen, and some of that in what seems like a political statement, but whether the script is for or against warrantless wiretapping is unclear. The brief debate doesn't seem to be written to make an easy political statement, but to demonstrate the moral dilemmas that The Joker manages to create.

There are a few surprises in The Dark Knight, but behind those shocking moments that lose their power on repeated viewings, there is a story that stands up, with contrasting characters. Bruce Wayne is struggling with his choice to become Batman and wishing for a simpler life, while Rachel Dawes isn't sure that Bruce will ever be able to leave the costume behind. Harvey Dent passionately believes that Gotham City is on the verge of a change for the better, trusting that people will do the right thing, while The Joker trusts that people will always do the wrong thing. Both Dent and The Joker are disappointed, but Dent's disappointment is profound.

Batman gets a new, more flexible, suit, and rather than bury it between films, Lucius Fox presents it onscreen. This seems to be in keeping with Nolan's approach to the franchise, which eliminates many of the easy explanations in favor of gritty reality. Chemicals don't burn Harvey Dent and make Two-Face crazy; fire burns him, and grief makes him crazy. Chemicals aren't responsible for The Joker's garishness; the makeup is applied, the hair is badly dyed, and even the permanent "smile" is scar tissue covered in greasepaint. The purple suit does make an appearance, but only once. In Nolan's Gotham, people die. Batman doesn't always make it in time. Family mansions aren't rebuilt in a few months, and even the Batmobile isn't guaranteed to survive every crash. The introduction of the motorcycle-like Batpod, and a scene in which Batman briefly drives that Batpod up a wall, mark the only two points in the film that seemed comic-book unrealistic.

At one point in the film, Batman states that he has only one rule, and The Joker challenges him, saying, "tonight you will break your one rule." The film ends with Batman in a new role, and with much less to lose. Does Batman have even that one rule any more?

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  • http://blogcritics.org/ Phillip Winn

    One note I dropped from the review: My kids won’t be seeing this film for a few years. I let them watch Batman Begins, which has some scary stuff in it, but the scene with The Joker’s pencil “magic trick” is not something I want my kids (10, 9, and 7) to see. Just don’t.

  • http://filteringcraig.com Craig Lyndall

    It amazes me what passes for even PG-13 sometimes. This was a very good movie, but I fear that it is going to end up being overblown. I thought this was a very very good movie, but I didn’t find it nearly as enjoyable as X2, for example, or some other blockbusters of the past. That being said, it is the best movie I saw this summer by far.

  • http://blogcritics.org/ Phillip Winn

    Not as enjoyable as X2? Wow, I guess we have different taste in movies, then!

    What I find myself enjoying most about The Dark Knight is that it continues to provoke thoughtfulness several days later. Not in everyone, I’m sure, since there must be someone for whom that maneuver with the Batpod was the best part of the movie. I’m more drawn to the scene following, in which The Joker taunts Batman, part of the lead up to “tonight you will break your one rule.”

    Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, films I enjoyed, were shallow and simplistic compared to the layers I find in The Dark Knight. In my review, I feared that people might focus too much on Heath Ledger and miss some of the other excellent performances in the film. Now I fear that people are over-focusing on many things, but missing the real star of the movie: the Nolan writing team.

    It’s the script that sets The Dark Knight apart from all other films based on comic books (so far).

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    X2?! You mean that movie with the ending where one hero magically changes her powers because the writers painted themselves into a corner and couldn’t figure a legitimate way out? X2 is fun, and I was glad to see the inclusion of Nightcrawler, but it isn’t in the same league.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    “Does Batman have even that one rule any more?”

    The audience knows he does, the citizens of Gotham think he broke it.

  • http://blogcritics.org/ Phillip Winn

    El B, Batman lasts out the night with his one rule intact, but that may be a key point in the next film.

    Unless Nolan continues and treats it as a trilogy, in which case one might expect it to be less dark and more conclusive, less eager to deal with driving Batman to a very, very dark place.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    “Batman lasts out the night with his one rule intact,”

    Yes, but without giving anything away, the citizens of Gotham were told he broke that rule. Only he and Gordon know he didn’t. A third film would have to be some kind of redemption in the eyes of the public because there’s no way they would make Batman’s story a tragedy, although it would be cool if they did.