“The Dark Knight” is an emotionally and physically draining roller coaster and morality play. In most circles, expectations are nothing short of all-time greatness, but writer/director Chris Nolan makes a few tactical blunders that prevent the picture from achieving the mythical status that it craves.
Rare is the movie where declaring that it isn’t a masterpiece almost qualifies as a pan. It’s aspirations are so high that its flaws and concessions to commercialism are that much more apparent. This obscenely entertaining Batman film is not perfect, but it’s still a towering achievement.
Taking inspiration from “Heat” and “The Untouchables,” writer/director Chris Nolan has attempted a crime opera rather than a comic book adventure. For all intents and purposes, Gotham City is now downtown Chicago without a trace of the gothic art deco designs of previous Batman films. There are several large scale action sequences, and for the most part they are less choppy and better edited than “Batman Begins.” But the real meat is in the complicated narrative and character interaction, especially between Batman and The Joker.
A token amount of plot: This sequel picks up a year after Batman Begins. Batman and Lt. Jim Gordon are putting the final squeeze on the Gotham mob scene, with the help of the new squeaky-clean and inspiring DA, Harvey Dent. Alas, complications involving a Hong Kong businessman and the seemingly motiveless bloodshed and chaos of a pasty-faced madman known as The Joker (Heath Ledger) will soon jeopardize everything.
The emotional arc of “The Dark Knight” involves three good men as they attempt to cope with unstoppable and inexplicable evil without corrupting their own morality. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) sees the idealistic Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) as a man who can inspire people without a mask and with complete devotion to law and order, to the point where there may not be a need for Batman. Gary Oldman anchors the movie with one of his best performances. His James Gordon is a sobering portrait of a man who makes integrity and decency exciting in a city where both are in short supply.
To answer the next question, Heath Ledger is terrifically fun with a definitive and spellbinding take on The Joker that is every bit the equal of Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill (his laugh, his mouth work, and his inflection in quieter moments are actually similar to Nicholson). Played to the hilt as pure Id and sociopathic glee, he is simply walking death. Presented as a remorseless, murderous force of nature, The Joker has no back story and little character development, and his ultimate motive is a civics lesson in mass pandemonium. The Joker only shows up enough to cast a dark shadow over the rest of the film and Ledger’s work is a stellar supporting turn in the best sense of the word.
Bale again makes a compelling Bruce Wayne. His philosophical interplay with Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) are again highlights. All three debate what moral lines they will or will not cross to stop a completely immoral monster (one subplot will be bittersweet to those who have been following the recent FISA debate in Washington). However, the voice that Christian Bale uses for Batman sounds even more cartoonish than in Batman Begins. The vocal choice comically sounds like what it is – a soft-spoken man trying to sound gruff and angrily macho (at times, he sounds like McGruff: The Crime Dog).
Maggie Gyllenhaal makes an acceptable replacement for Dawes, more convincing than Katie Holmes as an ADA but less compelling as Bruce Wayne’s moral compass. One of the refreshing things about Batman Begins was that Rachel Dawes was not primarily the love interest, but rather a source of compassion and caution to a young and reckless Bruce Wayne (she was almost the Leslie Thompkins of this particular Batman mythology). Here, alas, her primary purpose now is her role in the love triangle between Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne.
Chris Nolan has achieved something bold and daring, trading in the optimistic and introspective “Batman Begins” for a dark and pessimistic meditation on moral compromise and blowback. The story itself eventually comes to involve not just the battle between heroes and villains, but the choices that innocent civilians make in times of terror and mania.
While lower in body count than Tim Burton’s “Batman,” the violence is potent and the film is incredibly intense throughout (do not bring the kids). There are several worthwhile plot twists, and there is a constant sense of dread and looming doom that permeates the picture (there are more than a few intense montages of mounting doom as several threads threaten to culminate in violence). However, the need to combine R-rated content with a PG-13 format leads to an obtuseness to the carnage. The violence is presented with lots of quick cutting and obscure angles, to the point where it’s occasionally difficult to discern what happened.
Amid the fine acting, rich characters, and crackerjack scenes of epic action and tragic violence, there is just too much, and yet not enough. More so than in “Batman Begins,” Nolan again feels the need to over-explain story points and character themes through lengthy monologues. And there is just too much story for this one film. “The Dark Knight” is seemingly the film that Nolan wanted to make as the second and third film of the series. But since he doesn’t know if he will return, he tried to stuff everything into one sequel.
Thus, this 152-minute epic feels too short by at least thirty-minutes. Batman himself ends up getting the short shrift, and it’s a bitter irony that we’ve now returned to a Batman film series where Batman must fight for screen time against his supporting cast. Even Harvey Dent’s arc gets shortchanged, with a finale that will remind people, not in a good way, of “Spider-Man 3.” In fact, Eckhart’s Harvey Dent comes off as less psychologically realistic and complicated than Richard Moll’s performance in “Batman: The Animated Series.” Either Nolan should have made this a two-hour film concentrating on Batman and The Joker, or he should have made a three-hour Batman epic. We’re left with a film that’s both too long and too short.
Despite several genuine flaws, the film works splendidly as a Batman story, an action drama, and an intelligent and thoughtful adult entertainment. That it’s merely one of the best films of the year and not the greatest movie ever made is no shame. By any rational standard, “The Dark Knight” is a triumph.