The sequel to 2005's Batman Begins is the ideal summer blockbuster. It's got the hype, the explosions, and the mass pop-culture allure.
At the same time, The Dark Knight isn't a summer popcorn blockbuster. At least not entirely. Yes, it's loud, explosive, exciting, and fun. And yes, it possesses the kind of action set pieces that cause us to exclaim with that half-exhale, half-laugh that marks shock and awe. Under all that, though, lives an unnerving, serious, and ambitious crime drama about three good men with the courage to stand against evil—and how evil responds.
Once again, director Christopher Nolan takes the typical summer blockbuster and infuses it with complex storytelling, artful moviemaking, and thought-provoking depth.
The movie opens about a year after Batman's arrival in Gotham. It's a different city: crime is no longer dominant and fearless. Petty criminals rethink crimes when they spot the Bat-signal. Copycat (or copybat?) vigilantes fight crime with homemade costumes and guns. And law enforcement has grown bolder, especially the newly elected District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a daring do-gooder whom the city calls the "white knight," and whom Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) thinks is the face of hope he's been waiting for to take over his war on crime. Together, with Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman), Batman and Dent create a triumvirate of justice to crush the criminal underworld.
And then the Joker (Heath Ledger) shows up. A terrorist of chaos, this loose cannon is bent on proving that everyone—especially Batman—is as deranged, primal, and ugly as he is. They just need a push. So, he starts pushing.
There is hefty story material here. Can decent people walk in a land of indecency without being crushed, tainted, or turned? At what cost should good men fight evil? How do you stop a terrorist with no limits, no real motive, and no rules? If Batman Begins shows why a grown man would dress up like a bat, its sequel shows why that figure can't really be a white-hat hero—but something far darker.
This plotline makes for moodier, grittier fare than Batman Begins. It's as if Batman swooped into The Departed to clean up the riff-raff. The Dark Knight could also be compared to The Empire Strikes Back, a finely crafted sequel in which established characters are placed in ever-worsening circumstances to test their mettle—and not always with happy results. The film feels dangerous, risky, terrifying. Anything can happen. One marvelous scene of the Joker holding a knife inside a man's mouth is so nerve-wracking that some viewers may cringe or look away (I did). Nothing gory is shown, but the tension that this man could do anything creates more raw emotion than perhaps graphic violence ever could.
The success of that scene is evidence of the power of Ledger's performance. Since seeing the movie, I've been asked if it was strange seeing the deceased Ledger. But I didn't see Ledger here. He looks different. He moves different. He sounds different. The actor completely disappears into this bizarre, maniacal, and brilliant mastermind. He brings a devastating calm, a perverse self-delight, and an unhinged disconnect to this iconic character. Many of the Joker's scenes, especially one with Bale, have "new classic film moment" written all over them. And future lists of great movie villains will now have Ledger's name on them.
Two other franchise newcomers also do well. First, I was impressed by the urgency, strength, and do-gooder poise displayed by the underrated Aaron Eckhart (Thank You For Smoking) as District Attorney Dent. Also, while I didn't mind Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes in the first film, Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over and makes the role her own—with a more mature and dynamic performance.
The returning cast is also terrific. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman aren't given much to do this time, but are perfect. Bale spends most of his time in the suit and is again the commanding center for the film. Thankfully, Gary Oldman, who subtly and quietly creates a character we'd all follow into battle, is given more to do this time as Lt. Gordon. In fact, Oldman and Bale create in this sequel the best portrait of Gordon and Batman's unique but powerful bond that I've seen.
I think that's what I most love about The Dark Knight and Batman Begins: Nolan stays true to the established history of the Batman universe, but uses the characters and relationships to tell wholly original stories with real thematic weight. Nothing is trotted out just because its in the source material; everything serves the story. Case in point: Harvey Dent. He could have been just a gimmick or a reference point (like in Batman Forever). After all, many of us know Dent's story and fate. Nolan, however, interweaves that mythos in—almost without us noticing at first—to bring greater consequence to his story about the seductive power of unrestrained evil.
Some viewers may find The Dark Knight all together too heavy handed or too dark. On the other hand, many will call it the best superhero film yet. It's definitely in the discussion. At least after one viewing, I prefer Batman Begins only because I feel like it's a tighter, less flawed movie. But I can't be sure yet. There are several things I've been mulling over regarding The Dark Knight. I can't tell if they are minor flaws and plot holes—or just things I need subsequent viewings to pick up. (I saw the film on IMAX—which makes the film look majestic and gorgeous—but some theater sound issues caused me to miss some dialogue.)
It's a movie that has taken me a while to digest and process. There is an awful lot going on. In fact, the movie's chief problem may be that it's too ambitious. Nothing is overtly unneeded, but at some point Nolan could have trimmed the vision. The Joker sets up several demonstrations of humanity's inherent depravity; all are intriguing, but not all were needed. Likewise, Batman's newest weapon effectively shows that he's gone too far in this war, but bogs down the pace. Also, a section regarding Batman's first global adventure takes too much time for too little purpose. Because so much is crammed in, the film feels like it takes a few story shortcuts and conveniences that leave you scratching your head: "Um, what happened there?"
But story complexity is often exactly what is lacking in action films. Therefore, this crime epic should be applauded. It's a treat to see action filmmakers caring as much about the human element as the size of the explosions. It's refreshing for a fun genre film to have: (1) as many memorable conversations as action scenes, (2) a balance between big plot and personal depth (revealing more and more about what really makes Wayne tick), and (3) true surprises and innovations. Overall, the film displays utmost cinematic craftsmanship—from the score to the beautiful shots of Gotham City to a script that sticks with you for weeks.
At one point in The Dark Knight, Batman says, "Things were always going to get worse before they got better." In terms of Gotham's crime, that's true. In terms of this riveting franchise, the quality is staying pretty consistent.Discussion starters
- The film sets up Bruce Wayne, the Dark Knight, and Harvey Dent, the White Knight, as foils. If Dent is the face of hope and the hero, what is it that Gotham needs Batman to be? There's much talk about Batman being "something more" than a hero? What does that mean?
- Bruce Wayne creates a new technology that he says is the best way to watch Gotham's criminals. Lucius Fox says, "At what cost? This is too much power for one man." How far is too far when it means protecting lives? What parallels do you see here with post-9/11 security measures in the U.S.? What do you think Nolan was trying to say about the balance between security and privacy?
- Do you believe, as the Joker attests, that all humans will drop their morals and codes when fear rips away the established order? Explain. What's the difference between believing all men are sinful, and believing they are truly depraved if only pushed? Is there a difference?
- What specific decision/act does the ending narration imply makes Batman into the dark knight? And what significance/comparison could that specifically hold for believers?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace. The Dark Knight could be treated as an R-rated film for the sheer bleakness of the film. While not much blood is actually shown (other than a scene of a man stitching his own wound), there is a lot of torture and violence where you may not see the gore, but it leads you to connect the dots in your head. A man jams a pencil in an enemy's eye socket. The Joker terrorizes several people by placing knives in their faces. There are scenes of animal violence. Many people are put in grisly situations and are forced to make unthinkable decisions. There is also a bit of bad language in the film, including several instances of using God's name in vain.
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