The crazed, almost hypnotic dance of wits that is shared between Batman and the Joker is the most memorable of the public rivalries exhibited in the comic books about the caped crusader, a savagely perceptive conflict in which good and evil forces meet and clash with dizzying arrays of results ranging from the exciting to the profound. They also share a chemistry that is often imitated but never fully replicated, and despite a broad arsenal of enemies that have been thrown into the midst of the dark knight’s presence, none of them come close to matching. That’s because the Joker is, for better or worse, the only antagonist in the original stories that seems to understand enough about the Batman identity to dissect it; much like the hero, here is a villain whose own “trauma” in life has essentially made him the spiritual opposite of Gotham’s biggest crime fighter, and the two engage in elaborate plots against one another as if they are brothers of war destined to counter-balance one another’s existence in the scheme of life. Theirs is a tumultuous love affair that is almost endearing as it is wicked.
The early movies never fully seized such opportunity. Tim Burton’s first “Batman” feature was a stylized endeavor that put to great use the assets of Jack Nicholson in the role of said villain, but it also side-skirted the essence of his being, abolishing him of his true menace in favor of a more sardonic and wisecracking approach. So, too, did the movie ignore the fundamental social and political impact that the Joker-induced anarchy had on Gotham City as a whole, opting instead to portray city residents as nothing more than observers who would run screaming in fear or would stare around long enough to catch sight of a clown-faced mobster and a bat-like man in tights engaging in fisticuffs. That is not to say that Burton’s movie is without its merits, but with the revamping of the idea of comic book heroism in the cinema in recent years, the approach feels pedestrian. His is a Batman that could never endure in these modern times.
The Dark Knight of today is a more thoughtful one. Director Christopher Nolan sees his heroes and villains through a distinctly audacious vision – not that of a director interested in a comic book, but that of a man more inclined to dwell in the trenches of crime thriller territory. His “Batman Begins,” and now “The Dark Knight,” both seem to exist on a plane of thought and craft that transcend the very nature of their source material, and the screenplays by he and his brother Jonathan take great liberty to give us stories that eliminate any sense of gloss. Consider, for example, the portrayal of the Scarecrow in “Begins” – whereas Tim Burton or even Joel Schumacher might have dressed him up in elaborate costume garb of similar vein from the comic, Nolan takes a grittier approach, maintaining his character in traditional attire and supplying him with a strategically-cut burlap sack as a mask for when the narrative calls for the alter-ego. It is a simple, minimalist and yet strangely hypnotic approach, an attitude that somehow makes the arch-nemesis more alive than the source material allows him to be.
Similar attitudes are on display in “The Dark Knight,” a film that goes beyond what is fundamental and creates a devilishly thought-provoking canvas for all its characters to play in. It is a skillful movie, but even more than that it is a film that seems to abandon the notion that it is even about superheroes; rather, it devises a setup that enacts great homage to some of the most thoughtful and engrossing crime dramas of our time, solely isolated by the detail that there just so happens to be a couple guys wandering around either in suit or in make-up in order to disguise their identities. Moreover, here is a movie that isn’t just probing in its story, but also spot-on with social commentary, brilliant in the way it allows dialogue to develop a sense of dramatic urgency, and flawless in its ability to visualize the narrative conflicts through bright and enthusiastic direction. It is the “Batman” film you never thought possible, and yet exists to defy all expectations.
The movie opens not long after its predecessor closes. Now on the defensive after the arrival of a masked vigilante has seemingly thwarted their iron rule on Gotham City, organized crime has become a dying art in the streets of the metropolis, reduced to back alley dealings and quiet meetings in secretive basements. Enter The Joker, a mysterious figure who wanders meticulously into the midst of the city’s remaining crime lords and has much to say – and suggest – if they are ever to maintain their status as Gotham’s primary power-holders. The remedy? “Kill the Batman,” he urges.
Those that come into contact with this Joker are both startled and yet awed by his presence; though mutilated and disturbing in appearance (a facial cut is hastily scribbled over with lipstick), his parley is quick-witted and precise, and the manner in which he conveys messages to both those he keeps company of and those he is essentially sworn to fight against is a talent given to only the most persuasive – and diabolical – of public speakers. Ultimately, his message is a simple one: unless organized crime can crush the might of the Caped Crusader and expose his identity – either in life or death – then Gotham’s notorious mob lords will surely face the fate of the law. And needless to say, none of them are really that willing to go down without putting up an ambitious fight.
The Joker is played by Heath Ledger, whose sheer commitment to the nature of his malevolent on-screen persona may or may have not planted the seeds of mental anxiety that ultimately led to his accidental death in January. Great actors come in two flavors – those that choose to abandon all sense of reality when the occasion calls for it, and those who disappear into roles and yet manage to reveal an inner quality that goes beyond the essential requirement of a character. Ledger’s performance in “The Dark Knight” is of the latter kind; it is both meticulous and shrewd in conviction, and jarring in the way it abandons all pre-conceived notions viewers have over just how insightful, how incredibly disturbing, this persona can be. Though deliciously perceptive and cunning, Jack Nicholson’s Joker was also a more traditional villain, cast in the visage of a mob boss whose mishap with chemicals and surgery transformed him into, quite literally, a living clown. On the flip-side, Ledger’s is a self-proclaimed “Agent of Chaos,” a man with an almost undaunted snarl who gets more done by simply pulling the necessary strings and manipulating essential situations in order to allow others to enact his own malicious deeds. His knowledge and understanding of the human condition make him toxic to anything impressionable, and the way he manages to worm his way into predicaments and alter the course of establishment is an unnerving sight. This is not merely a great performance in a comic book movie; it is an achievement in the field that rivals the great movie villains of our time, including Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter and Bardem’s recent Anton Chiguar in “No Country For Old Men.” To call it an accomplished undertaking would not remotely do it justice.
The film’s central points work primarily because of the performances. Christian Bale is a convincing Batman, but more importantly also makes a convincing Bruce Wayne – that is, a conflicted, mysterious and almost enigmatic businessman who is smart, skilled and yet flawed enough to know that the fight towards victory will undoubtedly yield casualties. Aaron Eckhart’s turn as District Attorney Harvey Dent is also noteworthy; though the screenplay demands that his persona must undergo a significant personality change in the latter half of the story, Eckhart never backs down, and there are moments when he is so transfixed with the material that we get the sense he has blurred the lines between acting and embodying. Supporting players are significant too, including Michael Caine’s wise and useful Alfred, and Morgan Freeman as gadget-maker Lucious Fox, who concocts new and innovative alterations to the Batman appearance in order to better service the crime fighter in all his new ventures (personal favorite: a series of forearm blades that can penetrate concrete when released and prevent its wearer from plummeting to a certain death).
Nolan has, like Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, now directed two “Batman” films, and in both instances has penetrated a sphere of possibility that no contemporary might have ever imagined possible. Names, faces, motives and twists are liberated of obvious source material clout, existing on a platform that has serviced some of the greatest directors of the police/crime genre, including Michael Mann and Brian DePalma. The movie also embodies a certain skill in the way it allows its actors to study the material, absorb and then follow through with it as if they are caught up in something much more serious and grounded than your average superhero flick. It is true that our movie supermen are growing up rapidly – the success of “Iron Man” goes to show that filmmakers have reached a point in which they are ready to take the concept to a new and unprecedented level – but “The Dark Knight” is truly unlike anything of its kind. It genuinely seems to believe in the ideas it presents.
What is perhaps most surprising, and therefore rewarding, about the picture is that it delivers on many cylinders without slighting other areas of virtue. It engages audiences, excites them, unnerves them and then still finds time to leave them with countless thought-provoking questions. When heroes are left to their own devices, who can they truly count on in a world where the actions of a single lunatic can drive the public into mass hysteria? How can hope shine when the scales of justice so often lose their balance? And does the act of being a protector ultimately come with a price that is too great for any single man to pay? Here is a hero that has dealt with such moral questions at great lengths in the past, but seldom have they been this deep, this important and this inspiring. Chaos and order are forces that collide with spectacular results in “The Dark Knight,” and those results are ultimately mind-altering in their delivery. This is without a doubt the best – and most important – picture of the year.
Written by DAVID KEYES
July 29, 2008
Christian Bale: Bruce Wayne / Batman
Heath Ledger: The Joker
Aaron Eckhart: Harvey Dent / Two-Face
Michael Caine: Alfred Pennyworth
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Rachel Dawes
Gary Oldman: Lt. James Gordon
Morgan Freeman: Lucius Fox
Produced by Kevin De La Noy, Jordan Goldberg, Karl McMillan, Benjamin Melniker, Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven, Emma Thomas, Thomas Tull, Michael E. Uslan; Directed by Christopher Nolan; Written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan; based on the comic book “Batman” by Bob Kane