Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is a fantastic film that has raised the bar on what superhero movies can be, much the same way Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen did for comic books over twenty years ago. While the film has the familiar elements of a superhero movie (costumed characters, action-packed scenes, futuristic gadgets), it rises above that usual box-office fare into a serious work of art by dealing with substantial themes without sacrificing the summer-movie fun.
Some time has passed since Batman Begins. Crime and corruption is still a problem in Gotham, but more citizens have now joined the fight, including some Batman impersonators who attempt to stop a deal between the Scarecrow and some gangsters. Since Batman does most his work at night amongst the shadows, new District Attorney Harvey Dent leads the charge in the daytime and within the system.
Naturally, the gang leaders don’t like where the direction the city is heading so they resort to the Joker, a man many consider a freak, but desperate times call for desperate measures. So even though he has stolen money from them, they choose the devil they don’t fully know over Batman. The Joker comes into the film fully formed, presented with no origin, even though he offers a few, because it doesn’t matter who the man is. He’s a force of nature, an agent of chaos, a symbol of inhumanity that can only be dealt with by either stooping to his level or rising high above it.
This struggle is played out multiple times, most specifically through Dent. He willingly risks his life in fighting against crime, including confessing to being Batman in order to flush the Joker out. However, the cost is much greater as he loses a loved one, the emotional pain of that combined with the physical from the burns to half his face drive him insane. Now calling himself “Two-Face,” a name people called him behind his back, Dent seeks revenge on all who he thinks responsible for his loss: Batman and The Joker, the police and the criminals. But if Dent stoops to the Joker’s level, the Joker ultimately wins, which could very well doom Gotham.
The Dark Knight grabs the viewer right from the get-go and never lets go. Nolan and his team really excel in their fields. The stunt work is impressive, the cinematography is sumptuous, but the element that makes the whole project such a success is the screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan. It is well structured as pacing of the action and the drama both build throughout the film. They have a great sense of who these characters are and they remain consistent. Also, rarely a word is wasted. Alfred tells a story about his military service where he and his men had to deal with a jewel thief, who stole just for the sport of it. The only way they could catch the man was by burning the whole village down, which foreshadows the events to come: Batman has to decide if he is willing to stop being a hero to beat the Joker, to lose a battle to win a war.
Heath Ledger has already received well-deserved kudos for his brilliant work as the Joker, but there are plenty of other great performances in the film as well. Christian Bale has to play three different roles: the private Bruce Wayne few see, Wayne’s public persona of the carefree millionaire playboy, and Batman. There are noticeable differences in his performance as he switches roles throughout the film. Another standout is Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon. Normally, Oldman plays characters that are larger than life and sometimes over the top, but here, as he did in the first film, creates the most authentic, regular person of his career.
Not only is The Dark Knight well worth revisiting on the screen (I plan on going back), it also provides seeds of thought and discussion away from the theater as the story deals with issues such as justice vs. vengeance and the costs and steps taken in the struggle between good vs. evil. There’s even allusions to the War on Terror, but the film doesn’t preach so much as raises questions and shows how it plays out in one circumstance.
No matter what the viewer wants, from excited senses to provoked thoughts, there is something in The Dark Knight to please everyone. It is certain to be at the top of many, if not all, “Best of 2008” and “Best of the Decade” lists.