Overview: Batman makes the biggest mistake of his career when he decides to take down the mob instead of The Joker. 2008; Warner Bros Pictures; PG-13; 152 minutes.
Where Do We Begin? Batman Begins ends with Lieutenant Gordon anticipating the escalation of Gotham’s war on crime as Batman prepares for the ultimate thankless job. After that film ended, I wondered what sort of adventures Batman would have as he took on his most iconic villain (The card at the end of the previous film was the right type of fan service). But The Dark Knight is so much more than a Batman film. It does what any great superhero film should do by analyzing what it means to be a hero, before taking it one step further and asking how the world reacts to this caped crusader. Christopher Nolan is just as interested in honoring a superhero icon as he is with exploring the ramifications of people running around with costumes would have on a city falling into anarchy.
A year after the events of Batman Begins, Batman/Bruce Wayne has successfully been cleaning up the streets of Gotham with police officer, James Gordon. Along the way, the new District Attorney and Gotham’s White Knight, Harvey Dent, joins their crusade against Gotham’s criminal element. Gone are the dingy streets of the Narrows, covered in a perpetual rain. The Windy City doubles for Gotham here to present a cleaner representation of a city lifting itself out of decades of unlawful behavior. Gotham is a train stuck in a long, dark tunnel. Batman is the head car. An unstoppable force, breaking through any criminal activity threatening the sanctity of the city he loves. Gotham isn’t out of the tunnel yet. Lodging himself on to the tracks is an immovable object in the form of Heath Ledger’s Joker.
Darkest Before the Dawn: What more can I say about Heath Ledger’s Joker? Ledger completely lost himself in a performance that made kids no longer want to play with their Batman dolls. The Joker is as charismatic as he is terrifying with a confident swagger that can’t be ignored. He’d almost be charming if he didn’t constantly hold people at knife/gunpoint while explaining the origin of his Glasgow smile. He’s a manifestation of society’s worst nightmares. An amalgam of the home-grown terrorist who extends his constant grin whenever another part of Gotham’s infrastructure burns to the ground. But that’s not even the scariest thing about him. The Joker exists because Batman exists. Every character choice The Joker makes is in response to Batman’s moral code and/or his relationship to Gotham.
The Joker is a machination of his own design working to break down the moral codes of all those in Gotham. A single attack in Gotham means nothing. Confronting society head on with moral tests and quandaries is more powerful than any single explosion. Exploiting the darkness in citizens to turn them against each other, and Batman leaves more of an impact than multiple bank robberies.
We’ve all had a nightmare where something is chasing us. Maybe it’s a monster we never see but it usually scares the living shit out of us because it just won’t stop. It’s a byproduct of our own creation in our mind. Now imagine waking up from that nightmare and realizing that monster is now chasing you outside the dream, destroying everything you’ve worked hard for your entire life, and killed someone you deeply care about. That’s what the Joker does.
Gotham’s Finest: Batman Begins set up the characters and world of Gotham well enough but it was wholly Bruce Wayne’s story. TDK is a full ensemble cast. Christian Bale plays Bruce Wayne as he should be played: with a steadfast conviction and the belief that his crusade is for the greater good – no matter the cost. Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes in the role of Rachel Dawes and more than holds her own against the other acting heavy weights. Michael Caine gets his moment to shine with a now iconic speech involving a man who just wants to watch the world burn.
I think someone who is sincerely unappreciated in this picture is Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent. In the first 2/3 of the film, he needs to portray an idealistic white knight and savior to the people of Gotham. The last third is his descent into madness and super villainy. Eckhart strikes a balance between the two, making the tragic transition feel seamless and unfortunately inevitable. Next time you watch The Dark Knight please give more of your attention to Mr. Eckhart. If Ledger’s Joker wasn’t so methodically concocted, Eckhart might be the great villain performer we constantly mention in our pop-culture crazed society. Both are graced with lines of dialogue that will live on forever (It’s this and this in case you were wondering).
A Watchful Protector: Like all Nolan films, The Dark Knight is a film about larger ideas- in this case, what’s best for society (Gotham). And when all these giant ideals come to clash, we get some of the best staged practical effects action of the young century. The standout sequence being a chase through the streets of Gotham playing keep away with Harvey Dent as The Joker unleashes holy hell to capture him. A game of chicken between Batman on his Batpod (Bat motorcycle because of reasons) and The Joker driving an 18-wheeler is the definition of “edge of your seat” filmmaking. It’s intense with every passing second, you’re just waiting for the collision to happen. But it also symbolizes their symbiotic relationship. Joker won’t kill Batman because he loves him. Batman won’t kill Joker because it’s what he wants.
The film only takes place over the course of a few days (Three by my count) culminating in Joker’s ultimate tests for Batman and Gotham. A boat full of prisoners and a boat full of innocent civilians are given the choice to blow up one so the other may live. The citizens of Gotham show their inherent good by accepting their fate so Joker may lose. They’re saved by Batman, but Joker’s ace-in-the-hole threatens to destroy everything. Harvey Dent, the White Knight of Gotham, goes on a killing spree after being beaten and broken down by the clown prince of crime. At the end of the three days, the trio of Batman, Gordon, and Dent all stand in a different looking circle from the beginning of the movie. How far they’ve fallen and how much has been sacrificed in the name of security. The climax is just a trio of men speaking to each other, with only a single bullet fired, and it’s the most effective confrontation in superhero film history.
Final Thought: The Dark Knight is a sprawling crime epic with Batman in the lead role, a staple of the superhero genre, and the poster child for being snubbed for Best Picture.