The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight (2008). 152 minutes, Warner Brothers. Directed by Christopher Nolan.

I didn’t catch this one in the theater this summer. I was sure it was fairly good, since it was well reviewed and I heard good things about it from friends. But Batman has never really thrilled me. In general, I prefer my superheroes to be more science fictional or supernatural in basis – you know, bitten by radioactive spiders, born with mutant abilities, tossed from a dying alien planet, living embodiment of an elemental force, demon sworn to do good, amazon princess walking among mortals, etc. Larger than life, out of this world.

To me, Batman was just a guy in a costume who never seemed to get shot. If you’re going that route, I prefer the Indiana Jones / James Bond / Jason Bourne type approach: cool dudes who posses knowledge and gadgets that allow them to save the day. After all, these guys are basically superheroes without the costumes. Iron Man, who’s sort of a cross of the two genres, works for me in the same way because his costume is the gadget.

In the comic books Batman worked a lot better – mainly because he was depicted as somewhat insane, and existed in a world chock-full of superheroes of the type I describe above. What sane man without any superpowers would place himself in the same league with Superman, Wonder Woman, Swamp Thing, the Flash, and so many others? That takes some balls, man. And they, in return, took him seriously as well. Batman works in the comics, because in a universe that encompasses both Superman and the Swamp Thing, there is certainly room for a normal man who dresses up like a bat and punches people in the face. Oh, and he’s also considered the World’s Greatest Detective. Even by Superman.

There was one Batman comic book I liked, Loved, in fact. It’s the comic from which this movie takes its name: The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller. Published in 4 parts in 1986, and republished a year later in book form as a single continuous graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns is a future tale set when Bruce Wayne is a grey-haired 55 years old, and has long since given up his guise as Batman. But in this dystopic future tale, where a never-aging Superman acts as the government’s enforcer, Batman appears again to fight for the common people. Only this time, he’s armored and vicious – hell, he even tries to kill Superman (and almost succeeds).

The Dark Knight Returns showed what reserves the character of Batman possessed if treated correctly. However, in the movies, they never went far enough in showing how bizarre Batman really is. Until finally, sort of, kind of, in Batman Begins in 2005. Batman Begins is apparently based on another Frank Miller graphic novel, Batman: Year One, which I have not read. Batman Begins did do a pretty good job of revising and retelling the Batman origin to make him a lot more believable as a superhero: he is one of the world’s greatest martial artists, he has a entire high-tech defense department at his beck and call, and his costume is armored and contains all manner of defensive and protective devices. They even came up with a rational (well, “comic book rational”, not “real world rational”) explanation for the Batmobile.

Batman Begins was decent, but unlike the first two Spider-man movies, it just didn’t have a very good villain. The whole explanation for just what exactly the bad guys were trying to do didn’t really work, and while Cillian Murphy tried hard, he just didn’t really come across as much of a bad guy to me. So, while entertaining enough, Batman Begins doesn’t go down in my book as a first-rate superhero movie.

And all that brings us up to… The Dark Knight. The short version: This is an awesome movie. I’ve been pretty hard on comic book based films in the last few years; I hated X-Men 3 with a passion (as witnessed by this post), I thought Spider-man 3 was extremely lame, and the less said about Ghost Rider the better.

For the first time in a comic book movie, The Dark Knight has a good plot, great dialogue, and the acting is top-notch. Yes, Heath Ledger is the standout as the Joker, but everyone is excellent. Christian Bale is great as Batman, and Aaron Eckhart is very surprisingly good as Two-Face (uh… I mean, as Harvey Dent. Or have I said too much?)

What’s really good about this film is that finally, it pits an absolute villain against an absolute hero. Batman flat-out won’t kill anyone. No matter what. And the Joker doesn’t care who he kills. That dichotomy, in essence, is the film. The Joker is a terrorist criminal; he’s not after money, he’s not after power, he just wants to cause chaos, death, and destruction. In the words of Michael Caine as Alfred, “Some men just like to watch the world burn”.

As has been written many times in many other places, Heath Ledger’s Joker is so good it’s scary. For the first time ever (except maybe in a few comic book interpretations) the Joker is frightening. Really frightening. This is a man who is psychotic, the ultimate sociopath. He has no name, no identity, no past – he is simply The Joker. His goal is to destroy schemes, to add chaos wherever possible. A key plot point involves the Joker turning an absolutely good man into an absolutely evil man. He loves doing this, but as he says to the victim, “It’s nothing personal. I mean, do I look like a guy with a plan?”

I’ll have to add myself to the list of people saying that Heath Ledger deserves a Best Actor nomination for this role. It is, hands down, the best portrayal of a villain I’ve ever seen in a motion picture. There is one scene in the movie where Batman is trying to beat the Joker into submission, to get him to reveal the location of a kidnapped victim. But with each punch, the Joker just laughs. He enjoys the pain. After a cackle, as he is slumped against a wall, he says to Batman, “You have nothing to threaten me with. Nothing. Because there is one rule you won’t break, and we both know it.” And Batman realizes… the Joker is right. This is a criminal he simply cannot defeat with his fists or gadgets.

Cinematically, The Dark Knight is gorgeous. A number of sequences were shot using IMAX film and cameras, and on the Blu-Ray disc, these sequences are presented in full HD framing for maximum resolution. Yes, it sounds weird, but it is not at all distracting, and it works very well. Now, to be fair, I watched the movie in my home theater, where we sit 11 feet away from a 110″ diagonal projected screen, so the effect is extremely impressive. It probably wouldn’t work as well on a normal plasma or LCD television.

Since this film was such a huge hit, and since it is so damn good (I’ve watched it twice since I got it earlier this week, and we’ll probably watch it again in the next few days), a sequel is assured. I actually wish they wouldn’t. To date, no third entry in any comic book based franchise has ever been any good. I really wish director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale would let this film be the last, if for nothing else than as a testament to the late Heath Ledger. Honestly, I just don’t think you can do better with Batman than this film. This is it, folks. Call it a day.

It feels a bit odd writing a rave review for a movie about psychotic, scarred killers just a few days before Christmas. But you know what? Maybe after dealing with kids running around opening presents, stuffing yourself with food, and stringing Christmas lights all around your yard, a little scary escapism might be just what the doctor ordered.

As the Joker says, “Why so serious? Let’s put a smile on that face!”

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