By the time I saw The Dark Knight (which was after about 40 million of you out there had already seen it) the hype had overflowed and I was half expecting to be disappointed, certain that it would not live up to the praise that people were giving it. At first I was a bit unimpressed: sure there was the well-staged bank robbery scene at the opening that introduced the new Joker (Heath Ledger) and his new breed of criminal insanity, but it just seemed like so many other crime movies with an over-the-top villain. Compared to the previous Batman Begins, this movie had even less of the comic-book trappings: Batman still wore a costume and had his fancy gadgets, but the focus fell more on the police (including returning Gary Oldman as Lt. Gordon), and the D.A. (featuring Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent). Batman was no longer at the centre (so what was the point?). Fortunately, the movie did not end when I thought it was going to end (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it). In the second half of the movie everything ramped up: the story became more complex; the themes became more obvious; and the Joker (and Heath Ledger’s performance) came into full view. Though still more of a crime drama than a super-hero adventure, this movie distinguished itself from the rest of the pack and as a continuation of the new Batman mythology I could see how it warranted repeated fan boy viewings.
The Dark Knight is one of the most complex and layered of super-hero movies (easily beats recent hit Iron Man for cinematic sophistication). Since the first movie had covered Batman’s origin story, this sequel could move on to a specific new episode. What carried over is the focus on the city of Gotham being full of corruption. In the first movie, the city was suffocating with crime and fear until Batman came along to turn things around. Now, some more time has passed and a new champion has appeared in Harvey Dent, a crusading D.A. bent on cleaning out the organized crime from Gotham. Not only is he a new hero to the city, but also the new love in the life of Bruce Wayne’s childhood love Rachel Dawes (played now by Maggie Gyllenhaal who replaced Katie Holmes). While Dent begins to ruffle the feathers of the criminal underground, it’s still the Batman who they want to eliminate. Along comes the Joker, who starts out answering that call to destroy Batman, but pretty soon exposes his own anarchistic agenda.
What makes this Joker an excellent villain is not only his insanity — which too often gets turned into silly, giggling psychosis (I’m so glad that this Joker did not use laughing gas in any of his crimes!)– but his unpredictability and ruthlessness. His moral code is absent (which is de rigeur for all good psychopaths), but though there seems to be reason behind what he’s doing only it’s too random to figure out. He’s a poster-villain for this post-terrorist age. At first, Ledger seemed to be playing Joker as a crazy brat, but near the midway point there’s a scene where Joker gets to explain what’s going on and that’s when you can see that what makes Ledger’s performance good is more than just the funny voice that he’s taken on. You can feel the slippery mind of the Joker behind how he delivers each line, making you want to laugh and shiver at the same time. I was surprisingly impressed (and usually I don’t pay much attention to actors’ performances).
The story stands out too. Even though there’s a pretty exciting plot involving the Batman trying to stop the Joker’s acts of terrorism, there are additional layers which really build up around that main arc. Lt. Gordon had a major role in this as well as did Harvey Dent. Their stories were neatly inter-twined with the Batman-Joker conflict — in fact it could be easily argued that while the struggle between those two was the obvious conflict, there was actually more interaction between Joker and Dent. I should take off my analytical hat now because I can’t get much more into things without revealing movie details. Because of the depth of this story, I’ve had several conversations with friends about this movie since I’ve seen it (and not many summer movies have elicited nearly so much discussion).
Anyone concerned that it’s more of a character study than an action/adventure need not fear. Seeing it on the IMAX screen, as I did, only confirmed how spectacular those stunt scenes were. They definitely captured the idea that Batman likes to hang out (and jump from) rooftops. Only those big-screen scenes were actually shot in IMAX, so whenever we saw the outside of a city block or tall building, the image changed to the full IMAX aspect ratio and I knew it was going to be a visual treat. Whether it was a leap off of a skyscraper, or a high-speed car chase through an underpass (with Batman’s new cool Bat-Pod motorbike), it’s these kinds of scenes that do for a Batman movie what simply cannot be done in a comic book. (4.5 out of 5)
What if I had made The Dark Knight?
The biggest thing I would change is to move the good stuff up earlier. As I’ve suggested, it took a while for this movie to show its true colours. I’m not sure that was necessary. The aforementioned bank robbery scene was cool, but did not serve much purpose overall. Other early scenes meant to introduce the Joker as killer-crazy-ruthless just didn’t make that point in an extreme enough way to be special. Since the movie was about 2.5 hours anyway, I think the first half could have used a bit of a trim. Maggie Gyllenhaal was OK as Rachel Dawes, but she still didn’t have enough strength or substance to be the anchor for Bruce Wayne’s humanity. Maybe Natalie Portman would have been a better fit. Finally, I would have convinced Christian Bale not to use that weird raspy voice as the Batman. Rather than having the evil-doers fear him, it might have prompted them to pass him a lozenge (I was amazed at how he never reverted to his normal voice even when getting roughed up — that’s some super-hero commitment!)