DARK KNIGHT (2008)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Ask me who my favorite superhero is, and my answer would most likely be Batman. Created in 1939 by Bob Kane and a perpetually uncredited Bill Finger, Batman captured my imagination far more than Superman, Spider-Man, or any other hero when I was a kid. He might not have had any superpowers, but he had the best enemies and the coolest gadgets, and that was enough for him to earn my appreciation. I'm not the only one that thought that way, as Batman's logo and visage has been seen in every place you could possibly think of. But for the last twenty years, perhaps the most high-profile depictions of the character have been the series of live-action motion pictures featuring the Caped Crusader. Beginning with Tim Burton's awesome 1989 movie and continuing with Batman Returns three years afterwards, the movies presented a Batman that the public at large hadn't really seen before. Burton's Batman was a brooding figure who used his nocturnal persona to cope with his traumatic childhood, an image far removed from the ultra-goofy yet thoroughly entertaining version of Batman that Adam West had made famous through the classic 1960s television show in which he starred.
But for all the work that Tim Burton did, Warner Brothers had to go and screw it up by hiring Joel Schumacher. Schumacher has made a few good movies, sure, but Batman Forever and Batman & Robin were not two of them. (But I'll admit that Batman Forever is a guilty pleasure of mine, so maybe I shouldn't be too harsh on it.) Schumacher's movies sent Batman back to the colorful, silly camp from the '60s, something fans and critics didn't really want to see in these new movies. So bad was the reception to Batman Forever and Batman & Robin that it was nearly a decade before Warner Brothers would try their hand at another movie featuring the savior of Gotham City. And with it, they tried to make it up to the disgruntled fanboys by completely restarting the franchise in 2005 with Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. It was a wonderful movie, one which proved to be so popular among both critics and regular moviegoers that Warner Brothers was quick to approve a sequel. (After all, the only thing movie studios like more than making a boatload of money is making an even bigger boatload of money.) The Dark Knight is one of the rare sequels that is not only damn good, but exceeds the quality of its predecessor by leaps and bounds.
The last time we saw Gotham City, it was steadily being eaten alive by crime. Now, however, it has been given a glimmer of sunshine by its guardian of the night, Batman (Christian Bale). Though only a few months have passed since the events of the previous movie, the costumed crimefighter's efforts have had a major impact on the city. The different organized crime syndicates are slowly being forced to loosen their chokehold on Gotham City, and smalltime thieves and drug dealers are afraid to go out at night. Even a small group of concerned citizens copycatting Batman has surfaced, though their methods are more brutal. And though he has the support of police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Batman can't do it all by himself. Through Gordon's efforts, he quickly finds another ally in the city's new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Dent's fearlessly vocal stance against the mobsters that continue to operate within Gotham City impresses Batman, who views Dent as the hero that he himself cannot be.
However, an issue more pressing than simple mobsters soon presents itself. Desperate to reclaim their dwindling positions of power, Gotham's various mob families pool their efforts together and hire a new enforcer, a anarchic psychopath known only as "The Joker" (Heath Ledger). His demands are simple: Batman must turn himself over to the police and reveal his secret identity, or a killing spree like none other will commence. And when Bruce Wayne refuses to reveal it is he under the cowl, Joker starts making good on his threats. Thus begins a full-fledged war, with the Dark Knight on one side, the Clown Prince of Crime on the other, and Gotham City caught in the middle.
It's been said so many times in so many ways that it's beginning to become clichéd, but it bears repeating: The Dark Knight is a fantastic movie. It's mind-boggling that a movie taken from the pages of a superhero comic book could be this astounding. There've been quite a few movies of this type that have been really good in the past, but The Dark Knight exists on such a higher plateau than everything else that it almost completely defies comparison to any of its brethren. It evidences that a movie that could be easily dismissed as another simple "genre movie" can transcend labels and preconceptions to stand as something that benefits motion pictures as a whole. As of this writing, The Dark Knight is ranked in the top ten on the IMDB's list of the greatest movies of all time. Granted, the Internet Movie Database isn't the most reliable website on the Internet, but to be in the company of movies like The Shawshank Redemption, Schindler's List, and the first two Godfather movies shows just how good The Dark Knight really is.
First up to the plate is the direction. Christopher Nolan returns to the superhero franchise that he breathed new life into, and he knocks The Dark Knight absolutely out of the park. Nolan's films have consistently focused more upon characters, what drives them, and how their deeds affect one another. But while The Dark Knight has its share of the fight scenes, action sequences, and car chases that you'd expect from a superhero movie, Nolan's style gives us a character-driven movie atypical of the genre. That doesn't mean Nolan doesn't get a little flashy, however. Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister craft a visually stunning movie, with fantastic camerawork that works to capture the viewer's imagination. The high, swooping camera angles showing characters swinging between buildings are vertigo-inducing, and the use of oversized IMAX cameras in certain sequences makes the movie look bigger and more epic. I must also applaud Nolan and Pfister for their work on the action sequences. All too common do filmmakers create fights and moments where the camera is bouncing around recklessly, edited so quickly that a hummingbird couldn't make heads or tails of it. But the action is filmed in such a way that is beneficial to it, making us feel while we're part of the action while still letting us see what's actually happening. I like that, and I wish more filmmakers would do things that way.
If the direction and cinematography create a visually epic film, then it requires a similar soundtrack in order to seal the deal. And that is exactly what we get from composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. I've said in a number of my reviews that a good movie soundtrack should first and foremost enhance the visual aspect of the movie by helping build tension, create the proper atmosphere, and invoke some kind of emotional response from the viewer. Zimmer and Howard's score is exactly what The Dark Knight needs, fitting right into those three categories I mentioned. Take, for example, scenes involving the Joker feature two notes being played on a cello, played in such a way that creates a prolonged tone that sounds almost like an air raid siren warning of impending danger. It's in the vein of John Williams's classic theme song from Jaws; if you hear it, all friggin' hell is about to break loose. Their music is thrilling, intense, haunting, melancholy, and borderline perfect.
Next up is the screenplay, penned by Nolan and his brother Jonathan (with a story credit going to genre veteran David Goyer). As I said before, The Dark Knight is very much a character-driven movie, and much of that is due to the writing. The script weaves a complex story where things are not always as cut and dry as we would like them to be. It's a very psychological movie, one that renders Batman as more than just an emotionally troubled vigilante wearing the world's coolest Halloween costume, and one that renders his rogues gallery as more than merely violent psychotics with corny gimmicks. Thanks to the Nolans, The Dark Knight becomes more than your typical superhero movie. They have created a bleak, ultimately lonely world in which the actions or inactions of its inhabitants have consequences that ebb and ripple out like a stone thrown into a pond. This world also raises questions of both a moral and philosophical nature. What truly defines a hero? How far does that definition separate heroes from the villains they are sworn to oppose? What sacrifices must be made in order to prevent those villains from accomplishing their grand scheme?
Last, but most certainly not least, are the actors who truly bring the characters of The Dark Knight to life. Let's start with the lead actor, Christian Bale. The four actors who have gained recognition for their live-action portrayals of Batman prior to Bale had very different levels of success in playing the role, but the one thing they had in common were that they each of them were better at one facet of the Batman/Bruce Wayne dichotomy, but couldn't really pull off the other half. Michael Keaton got close, but I think Bale is the first one to truly get it right. He manages to balance the dual personality of Batman and Bruce Wayne with gusto, showing the emotional and psychological troubles that Bruce must deal with as a result of living both as a decadent playboy and as the Caped Crusader. The gruff, growling voice he takes on while donning the Batman costume has also improved over the similar voice he utilized in Batman Begins; it sounds more natural, more realistic than it did in the previous movie. It's nice to see that Bale is the kind of actor that would try to improve upon the flaws of a prior performance when it comes time to do a sequel. But Bale does a great job in the role, making us really believe that despite all of his flaws, Batman is truly a hero.
Next is Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent. The various incarnations of Dent in the multitude of Batman media have often been depicted as a heroic ally of Batman before undergoing a tragic transformation into one of his most famous enemies. With this knowledge in mind, we can do nothing but feel dread for the character as he comes ever so close to being the hero Gotham City needs. We want to see him succeed, but we know that Harvey Dent will be taken away and replaced with the coin-flipping burn victim who answers to the name "Two-Face." Eckhart portrays Dent's pious earnestness excellently, to such a degree that we actually start to believe that things may just work out for him after all. But we know that there will be no happy ending for Dent, and there is none here to be found for him. Eckhart seems to understand that, shaping his performance around it in such a way that it's all the more tragic when he finally becomes Two-Face.
The supporting cast also does a fine job. Though Gary Oldman has built a career on playing villains, weirdos, and other assorted crazies, casting him as Jim Gordon proved to be such a smart move. Oldman brings a certain sense of urgency to the character, as well as a level of strength and intelligence that Gordon needs. His version of Jim Gordon is so completely unlike the complete afterthought that Pat Hingle played in the Burton/Schumacher movies or the utterly useless buffoon played by Neil Hamilton on the old television show. Here, Oldman gets to play a dedicated policeman, a depiction that is really nice to see for a change. I also enjoyed the performances of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. Caine once again shows why Nolan was wise to cast him as Batman's faithful butler Alfred. He brings a sense of wisdom to the role, making Alfred truly feel like a confidante and father figure to Batman. Freeman also does a fun job as Lucius Fox, builder of Batman's wonderful toys. He plays Fox almost as a slyer version of the late Desmond Llewelyn's turns as the gadget-constructing Q in so many James Bond movies. Though now that I think about it, has there ever been a movie where Freeman didn't turn in a good performance?
And let's not forget Maggie Gyllenhaal, who replaces Katie Holmes in the role of Rachel Dawes. The last I heard, the official story is that Holmes dropped out of The Dark Knight to co-star in Mad Money, a decision that in retrospect makes her look like one of the stupidest people on the planet. I'm not one to go spreading any conspiracy theories, but maybe they didn't ask her to come back due to all the negativity she received for her performance in Batman Begins. Every review I read said that her performance was the worst part of the movie, and she even got nominated for a Razzie, for crying out loud. But in any event, Holmes is gone, and Gyllenhaal has taken her place. That change is for the best too, because Gyllenhaal is a far more talented actress than her predecessor. And although the character isn't exactly the best-written one in the movie, Gyllenhaal plays the role with a particular liveliness and an emotional depth that really hooks the viewer. She's spunky, likeable, and really makes you wish that she had been cast in Batman Begins as well.
But perhaps the best performance of the movie comes from the actor who has brought more attention to The Dark Knight than anything else, the late Heath Ledger. His tragic death six months prior to the movie's release created more buzz than any advertising campaign ever could. And as his final completed performance, Ledger couldn't have left with a better goodbye. His turn as Batman's greatest opponent is incredibly unique, so much unlike any other prior depiction of the Joker. Joker describes himself as a dog chasing cars; he has no goal or intended destination, he just enjoys being the lunatic that he comes across as. Joker is the living embodiment of anarchy and disorder, and Ledger plays the role with a frenzied, unsettling enthusiasm that makes the character seem as if he were a psychotic child set loose in a toy store full of chaos. Though the character is most assuredly not the felonious jokester as seen in past depictions, we the audience do find ourselves chuckling somewhat as Ledger's awkward, twitchy mannerisms and delivery. However, it's an uncomfortable laughter, making us uncertain whether or not there was any actual humor there to begin with. But all hyperbole aside, Ledger earned his Oscar for this movie by putting forth the performance of a lifetime, one that would have had people talking even if he were still alive.
Ever since it was released in 1978, Richard Donner's Superman has been considered by many to be the benchmark for the genre. It was the superhero movie that every other superhero movie was eventually held up to, whether it was justified or not. But now, three decades later, I think Superman has finally been surpassed. The Dark Knight is, at the risk of reiterating hyperbole, the top of the mountain. It is a tale of heroes, of villains, and of how their differences are also their similarities. Calling this movie simply "good" would be an incredible disservice. I applaud all of those involved with the production of The Dark Knight, because they have crafted something that has practically redefined an entire genre. As a fan of Batman, I can't help but heap praise unto this movie. I'd let it have my firstborn child if I knew it would get me anywhere. So on my Five-Star Sutton Scale, I'm giving it four and a half stars and a very proud seal of recommendation. If you haven't seen it yet, what are you waiting for?
Final Rating: ****½