“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
“The Dark Knight” has an opening scene, one of the greatest you’ll ever see, that is unusual for a superhero/comic book adaptation. The camera zooms in like a hawk on a glittering skyscraper in Gotham City. Two thugs shoot a zipline across the street to the roof of a local bank, with the intention of robbing it. The thieves, with their faces hidden by cheap clown masks, talk to each other about the mysterious leader of this robbery, calling himself The Joker; all they know is that he wears paint on his face and doesn’t take part in his own heists. The thieves start shooting each other as tasks in the robbery are completed. It’s a chilling, breathlessly staged plan that leaves a mob bank without its capital, a school bus in the lobby and a bank manager waxing nostalgically about the loss of honor and respect within the criminal underworld of Gotham, and he asks the last remaining thief what he believes in; he removes his mask, revealing the rotting teeth and slapdash clown-from-Hell veneer that defines one of the most iconic characters in modern movies.
“What doesn’t kill you simply makes you…stranger,” The Joker (the immortal Heath Ledger) says with that menacing, vaguely Midwestern whine of a voice.
In these opening moments of “The Dark Knight,” we realize we are miles away from Jack Nicholson’s theatrics in 1989’s “Batman,” and every other superhero movie, for that matter. “Batman Begins” revitalized Batman and was part of the wave of serious comic book movies that treated their subject matter more seriously. Instead of continuing down the traditional path that “Begins” still tread, Christopher Nolan, coming into the full flower of his filmmaking gifts, takes a blowtorch to genre conventions. Nobody who saw “Batman & Robin” thought a Batman story could be told as an electrifying crime drama with Shakespearean overtones. But that’s exactly what “Dark Knight” is. The film burrows deep into the mythos of the character of Batman, and Gotham City itself, to find the darkness and human frailty that has defined the legend for decades.
Gotham is beginning to dig itself out of the wreckage of corruption that ate away at its soul for so long. Criminals quake in fear at the mere thought of Batman (Christian Bale), who along with Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) are moving in on crushing the criminal underworld, specifically the mob, once and for all. But there is trouble in this tentative paradise. Batman is still a wanted man; still considered a deranged vigilante, who has inspired a wave of pathetic imitators that are getting on Bruce Wayne’s nerves. He knows Batman can never be the true hero of Gotham, .
That job is left to the newly-elected DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), all confident swagger and square-jawed tenacity, who is just as committed to stopping crime as Batman and Gordon are. He bristles at Gordon’s naivete over the questionable qualifications of certain members of the Gotham PD Major Crimes Unit, and he is dating Bruce’s longtime friend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, a major upgrade over Katie Holmes) but the three men form an uneasy alliance to bring about the death knell of organized crime in Gotham. Bruce hopes that Harvey, the “white knight” of Gotham, will bring about the change that Batman hoped to inspire in the first place.
But The Joker, who has the mob’s funds under his control following the robbery, coerces them into teaming up with him and a Chinese businessman for half their share. His plan of action is simple: kill Batman.
This is the point where the Joker would unveil some convoluted, arbitrary plan to hold Gotham for ransom, repaint Bruce Wayne’s house, etc. But that’s one key strength in this movie’s depiction of the Joker: he doesn’t care about money, respect, or anything like that. He is devoid of any sort of subtext; he mocks the very notion of origin stories by telling two different ones regarding his scars. All he wants is to destroy society by shoving its limitations and twisted morals back into their faces.
Specifically the ones belonging to Harvey Dent, Jim Gordon and Batman. The Joker manages to stick a figurative knife into all of them by figuring out their weaknesses, and he spends the rest of the movie twisting them with anarchic glee. Gordon’s trusting nature turns into punishing naivete concerning his own police force. The Joker’s effect on Dent is the engine of the entire story; his pursuit of justice turns to madness and his transformation into Two-Face, whose actions could undo all the progress Gotham has made as a city.
Finally there is Batman. What the Joker exploits in Batman is his adherence to rules and order. Bruce tells Alfred (Michael Caine) that “Batman has no limits,” but this is a grave misjudgment of his own personal view of Batman. The fact that Batman doesn’t kill is an honorable trait; but Ra’s Al Ghul told him that his compassion would not save him from the true evils of the world; he was exactly right. The Joker is anarchy, so anything representing rules and order crumbles in his wake. He thinks Joker is just another criminal but he isn’t. This underestimation, and lack of self-awareness regarding Batman, sets him along with Dent and Gordon into their own separate versions of Hell.
“Batman Begins” already established Nolan’s goal of taking Batman back to his roots as a detective first, superhero second, if not at all. “The Dark Knight” builds even more on this concept. It’s prequel was still a traditional superhero movie, but this couldn’t be further removed; this is a psychological crime drama. Nolan said Michael Mann’s cops-and-robbers masterpiece “Heat” was a huge influence, and this movie is worthy of that comparison. This is the movie where Nolan put all of his considerable skills together. He has Steven Spielberg’s sense of crowd-pleasing spectacle, Stanley Kubricks’ cerebral detachment, a fascination with moral inquiry and guilt akin to Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet, Ridley Scott’s sense of scale and visual majesty and Michael Mann’s sleek portrayal of the machinations of criminality. All of these influences come together as Nolan fully hits his visionary stride. Wally Phister’s cinematography makes Gotham City gleam with decadence and a creeping darkness; this movie has a lot of dark blue, black and orange, setting its visual scheme apart from “Begins.” Nolan previously struggled with big action scenes, but he is more confident in his staging here; the fight scenes are much more coherent, and the big chase scene in the middle, with the Joker blasting RPG’s at the SWAT truck carrying Harvey Dent and having half of Downtown Gotham leveled in the process, is phenomenal.
But the true strength of this film is the complex, thematically rich storytelling in the script by Nolan and his brother Jonathan. There is darkness infecting every facet of this movie. With the Joker’s anarchy wreaking havoc on everyone and everything, along with that character’s exploitation of the moral shortcomings of everyone involved, adds some troubling shades of gray to the comic book ethos. Nobody wins, no matter what happens. Not since Frances Ford Coppola found the sadness and human frailty of the mafia in “The Godfather” has a movie so elevated a genre to the levels of popular art. Not only does this work as a crime drama, this is a terrific ensemble piece. Every character gets to add something substantial to the story. Gyllenhaal gives Rachel an added dimension, showing her conflict over embracing the safety of Dent and the erratic danger of her best friend Bruce. It helps that she actually looks like a lawyer in this movie. Caine and Morgan Freeman as Lucius are also given conflicts to play off of. Alfred is worried that Bruce doesn’t fully understand what he is dealing with in the Joker, that criminals like him shouldn’t be misjudged or cast aside. The weight of supporting Bruce’s mission as Batman registers on Caine’s face, especially when he must decide what to do with a crucial letter given to him by Rachel. Freeman gives wisdom and grit to Lucius, especially when Bruce compromises the technology Lucius makes for him by using it to take away the privacy of Gotham’s citizens. Oldman’s portrayal of Gordon also deepens since we see the flaws that define the last good cop in Gotham. His trusting nature, his belief that good will always come out on top; but Oldman’s soulful performance cuts through the weaknesses to find a man that is just as tenacious as Batman can be.
But there are three key performances that drive this whole ship. Bale doesn’t get as much to do in this movie, but his work is subtle and powerful. He is like Michael Corleone in Godfather II in the way he is a man of power who must look down on wreckage that is his own making. One of the two men responsible for his partial undoing is Harvey Dent. A never-better Aaron Eckhart slowly breaks down the righteous armor underneath Dent, making his transformation from crusader to monster all the more devastating.
But the nexus of the storm that hits Gotham is Heath Ledger’s Joker. Much has been said about the final complete performance of Ledger, who died the January before the release. That’s because it it so staggering in its impact, so charismatic in its walking personification of darkness and anarchy, and so terrifying in its spontaneity. Even though he is on screen for very little of the 152-minute run time, his impact, on the tone of the movie and the tragedy that strikes every character is always present, and electrifies the movie. His Method-gone-haywire portrayal sets a standard for on-screen villainy that few may ever match. A new facet of Ledger’s abilities was unleashed, and it is so sad that we never got to find out how high Ledger could soar onscreen.
There is no fanboy service that drives all of the success of “The Dark Knight.” It is a great film because it realizes that human tragedy comes naturally to this universe, that a Batman movie could be action-packed and a piercing human drama at the same time. All it takes is a visionary filmmaker and a cast for the ages to bring that to fruition; to once again quote the Joker, “all it takes is a little push.”