The Dark Knight
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of five)
Yes, Heath Ledger really is amazing as the Joker. And good lord, does Christopher Nolan deliver a film worthy of the performance. From the start, The Dark Knight is as intense as a war zone, and while it has more noticeable imperfections than Iron Man and less charm and vision than Hellboy 2, The Dark Knight has brains and ambition and yes indeed, a hell of an effects budget. The action is spectacular, if sometimes confusing, and the film looks magnificent, especially in IMAX.
The previous Nolan/Bale outing, Batman Begins, was the first film to live up to the promise of the Batman character and mythos. Nolan and star Christian Bale took the character to his roots and showed how fundamentally strong those roots are. With that out of the way, their sequel simultaneously kicks ass and psychoanalyzes the dynamic that makes Batman and his key nemeses work so goddamn well, for sixty years, often not in the best of hands.
The popularity of the Batman, a hard character to get “inside” of, is due in great part to the quality of his weird villains, as this film demonstrates. Ledger doesn’t so much steal every scene as set it on fire and dance around while it burns. The film runs a densely packed two and a half hours, and you’ll still hope there’s a director’s cut DVD someday that’ll give you another hour of his work. Every second the camera is on him, you can’t look at anything else. Seriously, you’re looking at that picture of him right now, aren’t you? See?
The other two main players combine to balance Ledger’s power. His Joker is black, unbridled insanity. Aaron Eckhart plays Harvey Dent’s pure, sunny integrity to the hilt without becoming a cloying boy scout, and Bale’s Batman is still all surface intensity, but now with a little more depth of character.
The extremes these characters represent begin to outline Nolan’s themes. Yeah, that’s right, a summer blockbuster can have themes (tell it to Wanted, which couldn’t even be bothered with a sensible plot). Here, it’s the nature of heroism, the value and meaning of the masks or faces we show the world, and how we respond to the injustice and madness of that world. Serious stuff for a superhero flick.
A brilliant supportive cast makes it work. It’s a fine line, when you have the likes of Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman in bit parts. Better than last time, Nolan makes them seem comfortable in their roles, better integrated into the story and the world, rather than feeling like Very Special Guest Stars. This time Rachel Dawes, the love interest Katie Holmes played in Batman Begins as a schoolgirl almost grown up, is assayed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, a better actress by far who’s able to do more with the role here.
The genius in the story is that it careens wildly through enough material for three or four films, which gives you a sense of high stakes and crisis, without making you feel like you’re watching the hastily edited evisceration of an unfocused screenplay (Hello, Daredevil!). This movie has so much happening, it’s harder to see what’s going to come next. Contrast it to the vastly entertaining Iron Man or first Spider-Man, which telegraph their formulas pretty well, then make you love the execution. Nolan’s movie is much more surprising, and feels more dangerous as a result.
The film’s length begins to show in a puzzling SWAT sequence at the end. When it finally gets us to the various resolutions we need (the climax has about four major things going on), we close with a key supporting character delivering atrocious philosophizing about the value of Batman as a hero and symbol. It’s cringe-inducing, but by that time the movie has so won you over and worn you out, you shouldn’t be able to put up much of a fight. And the scene’s idiot logic manages to completely upset the Batman/Gotham City status quo, in a way that promises new excitement in a sequel that cannot possibly come soon enough.