It was really hard to take Batman seriously back in the days when he was on television and all his punches were accompanied by cartoon balloons spelling out "kapow" and knowing it was Adam West under the cowl. The 1960s show was only saved by the presence of people like Eartha Kitt playing Cat Woman — even in those days the villains were a lot more interesting than the heroes. When Michael Keaton donned the cowl for the 1980s version of Batman/Bruce Wayne, the movie was at least visually more interesting as under Tim Burton's direction Gotham City looked like somewhere Dante may have visited on his package tour of Hell. Yet, even though Jack Nicholson was obviously born to play The Joker, the movie ended up being just another super-hero verses super-villain piece where everything was decided in the final frames.
The subsequent movies that rotated various face behind the cowl, and villains to be on the receiving end of the "kapows", were as lame as the original television show and you couldn't even laugh at them because they lacked the high camp quality that made Adam West and company bearable. So the news that a new attempt at filming the guy in the pointy-eared cowl didn't exactly bowl me over, but when I eventually did see Batman Begins, I was impressed. Not only did it give a plausible explanation for how Batman received his training, it never made him out to be anything more than a human being, as vulnerable and fallible as the rest of us.
When the promotional material started appearing for The Dark Knight, the sequel to Batman Begins, showing the first images of the late Heath Ledger as The Joker, it looked like the folks behind the movie, writer/director Christopher Nolan and writer Jonathan Nolan, were going to take the story in a direction that promised to go places that not only previous Batman movies hadn't gone, but none of the other super-hero movies had dared either. Working outside the law, Batman is able to do things that the cops aren't able to, but does that make him a hero because he's willing to torture somebody to find out information? We get upset because our government has been authorizing torture of possible terrorists — how is Batman beating up on The Joker any different?
On the surface The Dark Knight doesn't sound much different from any other movie of its kind. A new crook, The Joker, has appeared on the streets of Gotham. He is so deranged and crazy that he scares even the already established criminals. Lined up against him, and the other forces of evil, are the usual types: the lone honest cop in a nest of thieves, Lieutenant then Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), the new gung-ho District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), his beautiful and plucky assistant Rachel Dawes, who also happens to be his main squeeze and the love of Batman's life (Maggie Gyllenhall), and billionaire Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale). After robbing one of the banks organized crime uses to launder its money, The Joker gives the crime bosses an offer they can't refuse — give me half your money and I'll kill the Batman for you. It's once they take him up on the offer that the game begins, a game which is fixed so no matter how the Batman plays it he loses.
The Joker promises to kill at least one person a day until Batman surrenders to him, and he gives the good guys just enough clues to let them know who his targets are, but still manages to take out two of his first four targets, plus three others, without anybody getting close to him. In fact he's so far ahead of them that he anticipates the trap they set for him and counts on them arresting him so he can carry out the next stage in his plan, kidnapping Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes. He sets it up so that by the time he tells the forces of good where they are being kept there is only time to save one of them.
The problem facing Batman and his allies is that they think The Joker is just another criminal who wants something — money, power, or any of the other things they are used to dealing with when it comes to the underworld. But as Batman's faithful retainer Alfred (Michael Caine) puts it, some men just like to watch the world burn, and don't really care about anything else. The Joker is pushing them all to their limits, seeing what it takes to make them step over the edge into his world, into the world of chaos where there are no boundaries or rules.
The Batman has been teetering on the edge of that world since his parents were killed when he was a kid. In the first movie he refused to take the step that would make him an outlaw when he refused to be judge, jury, and executioner and set himself against those who acted like that. However The Joker forces him to do things differently. By the end of the movie he realizes that in order to combat people like The Joker, he can't be a hero. In order to defeat darkness you don't have the option of being a white knight, pure of heart and free of evil influence, you have to think and act like the people you are fighting; you have to be a dark knight.
To be honest, that's not a message I'm comfortable with as it's the handy excuse used by our governments in order to justify the various measures they've taken in the "War On Terror". However, there's a big difference between dealing with a known criminal as Batman is doing with the Joker and the other crime bosses in The Dark Knight and imprisoning people without proof, sending innocent people off to foreign countries to be tortured, or putting people on trial without telling them the charges against them.
In the lead-up to the movie, and especially with his death a little less then a year ago on January 22, 2008, a lot was made of Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker. Unlike when Jack Nicholson played the part, where it was obviously Jack under the make-up and purple suit, Ledger is nowhere to be seen in this performance. From the sort of scuttling walk, the gleam in his eye, the voice teetering on the edge of madness, and down to the least mannerism, Ledger created a character where nothing of himself showed through. It was a brilliant performance, but what was most impressive about the character was that it didn't overshadow the movie.
Ledger's creation is the axis the movie turns on, as all the other characters' actions have to be seen as either a result of his behaviour, or in light of his actions. That means The Joker has to be powerful, but not so powerful a figure that the other characters are overshadowed by him. Both Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart, as Batman and District Attorney Harvey Dent respectively, respond wonderfully. Both men do masterful jobs of showing how The Joker affects their characters and the changes they undergo as the movie progresses. In fact it's the interrelationship between these three characters that gives the movie the depth that all of the previous forays into depicting a super-hero on screen have lacked.
The other thing that makes this movie work so well is how little it relies on special effects. Sure the Batman does a few things that defy gravity, but the movie is still carried on the backs of the actors and is much better for it. As I was watching a downloaded DivX version of it, I can't comment on the quality of the sound or things like that, but what I did appreciate was the way the director was willing to use silence, or just the ambient sounds of the world at times, instead of relying on background music or chatter to create atmosphere. The opening sequences of the movie are riveting for that very reason, and it brings us into the world the Nolans have created more effectively than any other movie I've seen.
The Dark Knight is not your typical super-hero movie and because of that its not only far superior to any other Batman movie made, it's one of the better movies I've seen in a long time. I may not agree with the message that in order to combat evil you have to be willing to do the things they do, but the context which they have placed it in does give it more credence than the justifications offered by politicians in our world for their behaviour. At least Batman is honest about what he is doing. Brilliantly acted, superbly directed and scripted, and with minimal special effects, The Dark Knight not only lives up to its hype, it exceeds the expectations generated by it.