(Note: As I giddily anticipate seeing “The Dark Knight Rises” at the Air and Space Museum tomorrow, I suddenly realized that (rather criminally) this corner of the interwebs had said nothing about the first two films of this series. As we lead to the third film, a look back)
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight takes the foundations of the superb first film, and totally obliterates the gameboard. Instead of an advancement of the superhero genre, we get a film that descends into tragedy, about wounded people and a wounded city – and asking big questions about the roles of heroes themselves. It stands as the most realistic superhero movie of all time, taking very seriously the questions raised when some dude decides to put on a bat costume and exacts justice by his own extralegal forms of justice. While Batman Begins endures as one of my very favorite movies and the favorite of the genre, The Dark Knight is playing with bigger stakes, and is a subtle meditation on the “national security state” and exactly how far will we go in order to keep things under wraps. Never has a superhero movie ended without anybody being able to claim victory. It’s answers are bleak and fairly hopeless – I’m not sure the word “enjoy” really applies. I was totally drained after experiencing this film – it is quite an experience.
Of course, as we open – you’d want to think that saving Gotham City might be enough to have earned Batman some brownie points. Alas, he is largely blamed for the death of cops and civilians (and indeed this is not precisely wrong), and of course a silly costume can only inspire copycats who are making it hard for the grownups to keep order around the city. It is into this morass that we get the Joker. Of course we have seen the Joker in several incarnations previous, but Heath Ledger imbues him with real wounds. The makeup is not as clean as we’ve seen before. This is not a slick costume, but a broken soul hiding the wounds of a child. His schemes are truly genius – as he forces Batman, Harvey Dent and Lieutenant Gordon to make Sophie’s Choice decisions, such as when he gets Dent and Rachel Dawes in separate buildings. In the film’s climax, he forces citizens in two boats to make the most impossible of decisions.
Superimposed on this is the development of Christian Bale’s Batman/Wayne. It has been a hallmark of this series, almost alone in the genre, of giving the hero full treatment, showing his pain and loneliness. He is in this to save the city, not so much out of altruism so much as that this is all that he has left to live for. We are once again returned with the rich supporting cast with Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman that give texture to the story and Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, in both Dent’s beginning and demise – is always convincing. (and nothing needs to be said of the change from Katie Holmes to Maggie Gylenhaal)
I think looking at the above paragraphs that I have described a great film. It deserved the myriad of Oscar nominations that it received for sure. It elevates the genre and really becomes less a superhero movie than a superior crime drama exploring the nature of violence and whether surveillance and vigilante justice can really get us where we need to be as a people. There are no heroes, even as the Joker meets his demise. This is a considerable achievement, and tremendously affecting. At the same time, the film lacks the rewatchability of the first movie. It almost has to – the intensity and bleak vision of this movie is very hard to experience. It is not my favorite of the three, but that it is the best film of the series is definitely arguable and probably accurate.