When director Christopher Nolan rebooted the long-dormant Batman film franchise with 2005's Batman Begins, he sidestepped the pop-art goofiness of the cult-fave '60s TV series and the dark-comedy fantasia of Tim Burton's 1989 version for an unusually realistic approach to the comic-book material. The reaction was mixed: Some fans thought Batman Begins drained the fun and richness from the material. Others thrilled at the more serious approach.
Nolan's follow-up, The Dark Knight, will not appease those already put off by the grim realism of his Batman vision. But those who thought Batman Begins was some kind of apex of comic-to-screen adaptation should prepare for a reassessment. Though only about 10 minutes longer than Batman Begins, The Dark Knight is far grander in scope and yet moves quicker and feels less bloated.
The earlier film was an impressive muddle, bracketed by an overlong origin prologue and a confusing, unsatisfying triangulation of villains at the end. By contrast, The Dark Knight has a much more elegant, satisfying, linear construction, with memorable action sequences (especially a street scene involving a flipped 18-wheeler) that aren't set-piece breaks from the narrative but instead are woven into a story that deftly intertwines three primary characters: Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), anarchic villain the Joker (the late Heath Ledger), and crusading district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).
The opening shot glides along the building tops of a sleeker, brighter Gotham City, swooping down to catch a bank robbery just as a horde of masked perpetrators begin executing their plan. Here, Ledger's Joker gets the grand entrance he deserves, his violent assault on what happens to be a mob-connected bank complicating a Gotham police crackdown on organized crime aimed at money-laundering operations.
As the film opens, good cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) is now head of the city's major-crimes unit, where he is secretly in cahoots with the mysterious Batman, officially considered a vigilante and wanted for arrest. Crime is on the decline, but the presence of Batman has set off some unintended consequences — criminal copycats and an underworld moved to ever more desperate attempts to hold its ground against encroaching order. City government is still beset by corruption, with danger increasing for those on the good side of the thin blue line. Grandstanding new district attorney Dent suspects Gordon and Batman's collaboration, but can he be trusted?
As that set-up might indicate, The Dark Knight is not a typical super-hero/comic-book adaptation. The Batman character is less central to the story this time out, making way not only for two, more-compelling points of a triangle in Joker and Dent but for an entire city apparatus of cops, courts, politicians, and criminals. These characters aren't modern gods fighting it out across a landscape of civilian onlookers. They are exaggerated figures woven into the landscape and institutions of urban civic life.
In this way, The Dark Knight feels much closer to Michael Mann's 1995 Los Angeles crime epic Heat (or even earlier Fritz Lang crime dramas like M and The Big Heat) than it does with other comic-book/super-hero movies, possibly including its Nolan-directed predecessor. There's a procedural tension and insistent, palpable anxiety to The Dark Knight common to great crime films that's unprecedented in comic-hero adaptations, which tend to follow the form of origin stories followed by oscillating bits of comic relief, psychological torment, and fight scenes. It's grand, gripping, propulsive filmmaking — with a laudatory lack of obvious computer-generated effects — though not as distinctive shot-by-shot as it might be.
The Dark Knight is also a crime film whose central villain isn't quite a criminal, at least not in the traditional sense. Ledger's Joker seems to have sprung, fully formed, from the collective corruption and criminal desperation of the city. There's no origin story (none that can be trusted, anyway), no name, no history, no explanation. His initial bank robbery isn't motivated by money but as a way to gain entrance to the ongoing conflict among Gotham's criminals, their law enforcement counterparts, and Batman. He's an angel of chaos whose only goal is to be the creation of disorder and mayhem — with echoes of Osama bin Laden, Ted Kaczynski, and Brad Pitt's Tyler Durden from Fight Club.
When Bale's Bruce Wayne describes this new figure as a criminal like any other, Wayne's confidant/assistant, Alfred (Michael Caine), responds, "Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn."
In his last completed film performance, Ledger sidesteps the flamboyant humor of most of the character's iterations (be it Cesar Romero on TV or Jack Nicholson for Burton), substituting a grim, bitter sarcasm. In a movie where Bale's Batman is the title role and the emotional and narrative arc follows Eckhart's Dent, it is Ledger who owns the screen whenever he appears. It would have been an iconic performance even if the young actor hadn't died tragically earlier this year, leaving behind a string of indelible recent performances — from his mumble-mouthed cowboy in Brokeback Mountain to his avuncular surf bum in Lords of Dogtown to his late-Sixties Dylan in I'm Not There.
Here, Ledger seems to internalize the nameless madman, refusing to attempt to charm the audience or ingratiate himself in the manner of such overrated screen-villain performances as Nicholson's Joker or Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter. Ledger won't just scare audiences, he'll rattle them.
More than a typical crime-film heavy, Ledger's Joker is portrayed as a terrorist, albeit one without clear political motivation. He's responsible for vicious individual murders, bombings, political assassinations, outlandish mass-murder threats, and shaky, menacing hostage videos. This new kind of threat is combated with rule-bending violence, illegal surveillance, rough interrogation, and at least the suggestion of torture. "When there was an enemy at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect them," Wayne says to assistant district attorney and true love Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing and improving on Katie Holmes), by way of defending rough tactics in response to the Joker.
"Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets," the Joker says late in the film, as fear feeds into chaos throughout Gotham.
But, with all that provocative material in play, The Dark Knight manages to be resonant without straining too much for topicality. It isn't preachy, and it leaves identifiable real-world politics and issues of patriotism out of the mix. Instead it grapples with elastic but relevant questions about ends and means.
"You've got rules. The Joker has no rules," one character says to Batman. But does he? Ultimately, The Dark Knight is about the difficulty of combating disorder without giving in to it, questioning the ability of a person to self-impose limits on potentially unchecked power, even when well-intentioned, and also whether bending the rules isn't sometimes necessary. As such, it could be taken as an almost sympathetic critique of post-9/11 government overreach.
In The Dark Knight, victories are short-lived and would-be good deeds are often counterproductive. "You die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain" is The Dark Knight's mantra, one repeated by multiple characters, and it's one that foreshadows the film's print-the-legend denouement.
The Dark Knight