The Dark Knight Review

Christopher Nolan has a tradition for his Bat-cast and Bat-crew. Before shooting, he would screen a movie to serve as an inspiration for the one they’re about to make. For Batman Begins, it was Blade Runner. For The Dark Knight, it was Michael Mann’s Heat. Two completely different films, which explains why The Dark Knight seems more like a distant brother than a sequel to Batman Begins.

In the first film, Gotham is a creation—literally and figuratively. It’s a fictional, dark, excessively corrupt city, and it had to be built in a sound stage, not unlike the kind of city you’d find in a dystopian sci-fi movie. Here, Nolan scrapped that design and simply shot Chicago as Gotham, making it a real and virtually functional city. For the first time in a Batman movie, we see the bureaucracy and structure that make Gotham tick, including the stranglehold the mob has on it. The Heat influence isn’t just in the cold look of the film. Nolan took Chicago’s prohibition-era history of Gangsters and G-men and extrapolated it into the Batman mythos, only this time the crimebusting is a tad more theatrical than tax evasion charges. If Batman Begins was about how Gotham created a Batman in Bruce Wayne, The Dark Knight is about how that Batman affects Gotham. How would a real city—the cops, the government, the citizens and the criminals—react to the arrival of a relentless vigilante of the night?

There’s a reason why the movie is called The Dark Knight, sans Batman prefix. This isn’t a movie about Batman’s heroics or adventure. This is a movie about how crime festers and justice weakens in Gotham, and the kind of people it takes to defend a city like it. Is that person Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the vigorous new District Attorney who has the chutzpah to go toe-to-toe with the mob? At first, Dent’s crusade gives hope to Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) that his life as Batman can finally come to an end and he can be a normal person alongside his childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes, for the better). By the end of this tragic and somewhat depressing movie, however, we are going to see what a city like Gotham does to a White Knight like Dent, and why Bruce Wayne is forever trapped as Batman. As Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) put it, “He’s the hero Gotham deserves. A Dark Knight.”

The actors in the movie are universally excellent—pleasantly surprising is Gary Oldman giving his best performance in years with Gordon’s beefier role in this film—but the one that will be remembered is of course Heath Ledger’s Joker. The highest compliment I can give it is that I completely forgot about the media circus surrounding his death during the film. His voice, his looks, his expressions and even his movements are so unlike any of his previous performances that you barely recognize it was him. It’s only by the merit of Chris and Jonathan Nolan’s superbly tight screenplay that he didn’t steal the show completely. Ledger’s Joker is anarchy personified, both morbidly disturbing and darkly hilarious (one“magic trick” he performs involving a pencil and a man’s eyeball will make you cringe and bust a gut at the same time). His villainy provides the film with its most interesting moral questions as he terrorizes Gotham with one social experiment after another, trying to prove that deep down inside we are all savages, waiting for a chance to kick law and order to the curb. Is he wrong? Harvey Dent’s fall from grace suggests that Joker’s right, but Batman and Gordon have to prove that goodness can overcome, no matter how impossible it seems in a story as bleak as this.

After the movie ended and I was shuffling out of the IMAX theater in complete awe of what Nolan and co. had accomplished, I huddled with other press people, all of us nodding at each other that this is the movie we had all hoped it would be. It was surprising to us how Warner Bros. allowed Nolan to make a movie so darkand uncharacteristically sobering as what is supposed to be their number one summer tentpole movie. Given the hype and fanfare The Dark Knight has received over the past few months—surpassing other blockbusters like Iron Man and even Indiana Jones—you’d expect it to be the kind of movie that inspire a boyish cheerfest like Star Wars, not a straight-faced Best Picture contender. “Fun” is not a word that describes the film. It was then that I realized what excites me most about it. With luck, this might set a new gold standard for superhero movies.

In the 30s, we had gangster movies like Scarface and The Public Enemy that are entertaining for their wild pulpiness, but often followed the same path and the same moral code. Then Francis Ford Coppola came out with The Godfather in 1972 and changed the landscape forever, paving the way for more complex crime movies like Goodfellas and Miller’s Crossing. Similarly, for the past decade we’ve seen many superhero movies that are great for what they are, Iron Man for one, but it’s become pretty apparent that they tend to follow similar arcs, especially when it’s the origin story. Even Batman Begins fell into this same sand trap. Enter The Dark Knight, arriving not like a breath of fresh air, but more like a punch to the gut to remind us that a superhero movie doesn’t have to be a good versus evil action movie.

If this is The Godfather of superhero movies, I can’t wait for what’s to come. These films might escalate for the better, or they might stay the same. One thing’s for sure, though: the next generation will have a hard time topping The Dark Knight.

"The Dark Knight" opens July 18, 2008 and is rated PG13. Action, Comic Book, Drama, Thriller. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan. Starring Aaron Eckhart, Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Heath Ledger, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Jul
15
2008
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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