Monday, August 4, 2008

The Dark Knight

With The Dark Knight, comic book movies have officially evolved beyond their source material. Such adaptations have typically been in the surreal spirit of the originals, but not this one. Even more hard-edged than its predecessor, Batman Begins, this story is but a few adjustments away from unfolding in our world, with no suspension of disbelief necessary. While I don’t see this style as the future of all comic book movies, because it wouldn’t work for many comic characters, it’s perfectly suited to the gothic lore of Batman. The Dark Knight is a masterpiece from start to finish.

As Batman (Christian Bale) continues to fight crime in Gotham City, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is quickly becoming a public hero for his swift prosecution of criminals. Batman/Bruce Wayne’s prior love interest, Rachel Dawes (now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), is head-over-heels for Harvey Dent. All seems well in Gotham, until a brilliant, psychotic criminal known only as “Joker” (Heath Ledger) unites the Mob under a common goal: restoring chaos to Gotham by killing Batman.

Most of this movie’s hype has rightfully surrounded Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. His make-up looks like it was applied in the dark and then splashed with putrid water. His would-be-blond hair isn’t dyed bright green, but is just green enough to seem wrong. Perhaps most unexpected is that Ledger’s Joker rarely smiles. Instead, his mouth is scarred from having been slit upwards at both corners. If he does find humor in his work, he’s mostly laughing on the inside.

Ledger gives a perfect performance, but the Nolans (Director Christopher and his brother Jonathan) wrote a wonderful character to begin with. This Joker fits perfectly within the recent reinvention of Batman, but he is certainly not the Joker from the comics. He rarely smiles, he doesn’t tell jokes, and even his laugh rings hollow. Traditionally, the Joker always used jokes to commit murder, but this time, murder itself is the joke. He doesn’t kill in amusing ways; he kills and finds it amusing. There has been a lot of talk over whether Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson should be remembered as the definitive Joker, but having seen both performances, the comparison seems utterly irrelevant. The two characters are both named Joker, but that’s about where their similarities end. Both performances work well and are completely right within their respective Batman universes.

Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman reprise their supporting roles, and both are given key moments in the story. Several relevant political issues are explored, including phone-tapping and the right to privacy. The fine lines between hero and villain become increasingly blurred as the story unfolds, and no one seems sure what to think of Batman. At times, not even Batman is completely sure what to think of himself. He remains haunted by the Joker’s blunt observation: “See, to them, you’re just a freak … like me.”

Nolan has made realism the hallmark of his Batman films, and that’s a masterful choice on his part. I can’t think of any other comic character better suited to operate realistically, for Batman has no fanciful powers. There is even an ongoing debate in the comic book community over whether Batman should be considered a superhero at all (some prefer “Costumed Crimefighter”), but it is exactly this sense of reality that makes Batman so interesting. Christopher Nolan and crew play the material entirely straight, yet it never becomes too dark; it retains the proper feel of Batman. The filmmakers show equal measures of daring and restraint.

Moral dilemmas are at the heart of The Dark Knight, and characters are often pushed to make impossible decisions. Mourning also plays a large role, for the characters lose much, and it seems strange that even as we watch a film about mourning, we ourselves mourn the loss of Heath Ledger. He was on the verge of a great career, and he will be sorely missed. The Academy has a chance to get this year’s Oscars right; Heath Ledger should be posthumously nominated for Best Supporting Actor (and would probably win), and both The Dark Knight and WALL•E should be among the Best Picture nominees. We’ll see if the Academy is feeling brave enough to step outside itself and truly honor this year’s best.

I hope Christopher Nolan decides to make one more Batman movie. His vision has breathed new life into one of the greatest of all comic book characters, and The Dark Knight feels very much like the middle installment of a trilogy. Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) ignited the comic-to-film revolution, and the character of Batman has helped advance the genre once again with The Dark Knight. Everyone who worked on this great film has helped to achieve a new level in comic book storytelling.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace.

The Dark Knight was never intended for children. It pushes the PG-13 limit, but avoided an R rating by steering clear of profanity and blood. The violence is still pretty rough, and the Joker is one creepy dude. There’s nothing fanciful about this story that would remove it from reality and make it less frightening, and there’s even a scene where a hero turns bad and holds a gun to a child’s head. I wouldn’t take anyone under 13.

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