by David Cornelius
While this summer’s batch of superhero movies will likely be tagged into one lump genre, consider the diversity of styles: “Iron Man” as lighthearted action bonanza, “The Incredible Hulk” as monster movie, “Hellboy II” as inventive fantasy, and now “The Dark Knight” as ice cold thriller.More than just another adventure about Batman punching the Joker, director Christopher Nolan treats the film like one big turn of the screw, slowly tightening and tightening the suspense for 150 minutes, stretching the fear and nervousness to unbearable levels. Nolan’s confidence is unshakable, which leaves the film purely unflinching in handling the unexpected, highly welcome amount of sheer terror provided by the villains. More than just a comic book movie, “The Dark Knight” is a work of mad art, a dance of horror, an opera of battered souls.
"Not just dark. Pitch black."
It is also too long and too unfocused, two issues that keep the film from becoming the masterpiece it so deeply wants to be (the masterpiece the fans are so certain that it is). Written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan (with story input from Davis S. Goyer, co-writer of Nolan’s “Batman Begins”), “The Dark Knight” is two Batman movies crammed rather clumsily into one; where “Batman Begins” was able to delicately juggle all those characters and plot threads to create a single, powerful story, “The Dark Knight” keeps shifting its attention, offering up a string of episodes that work brilliantly by themselves yet clutter up the joint once pasted together.
Most of the problems are in the film’s third act - or, more precisely, its third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh acts. Here’s one of those movies with something like five or six climaxes, and after a while, it just wears us out. The movie leaves you exhausted, not elated.
That the script jumps around so much in its last hour, from big set piece to big set piece in a disjointed, slightly forgetful manner (hey, what happened to - oh, never mind, we’re following this scene now) is, in a way, a good thing, since this movie’s incarnation of the Joker (played, as you may have heard, by the late Heath Ledger) is, in his own words, an agent of chaos, a master of anarchy who changes courses on a devilish whim. The games he sets up for Batman (Christian Bale, one of many actors returning from “Batman Begins”) are precisely the sort of thing that induce frustration and confusion. He’s the sort of madman that would quit his own scheme midway through if something else caught his fancy, and that’s precisely what happens in “The Dark Knight.”
The problem is, in the middle of all this storytelling chaos, we’re also supposed to be following the tale of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham City’s D.A. who, it’s no spoiler to reveal, becomes the coin-flipping villain Two-Face. Rather than lay the groundwork for a fuller version of Two-Face’s story in the inevitable sequel, the Nolans insist on cramming Dent’s complete arc into this already busy entry. It’s a shame - Eckhart is so perfect in the role (both as the shining tower of justice and the mangled freakshow of evil; endless kudos as well to the effects and make-up crews for making this Two-Face a visual marvel) and the character is so smartly written that the character demands more time to breathe and grow. Once Dent becomes Two-Face, the script seems in a rush to get in all the key points before the credits, ultimately diminishing his impact. Worse, Dent’s big finale comes after the Joker’s big finale, which is a smart, brutally compelling piece of nervous thrills, that we’re too worn out to endure any more, especially not something so low-key that it pales in comparison to what just came before.
Yet even as a jumbled parade of epic excess, “The Dark Knight” is a remarkable cinematic experience. The film effortlessly picks up where “Batman Begins” left off in terms of its depiction of Gotham City; these are the movies grown-up Batman fans have longed to see, intelligent, mature interpretations of the superhero’s universe, with an interest in the psychology of costumed vigilantes and deformed supervillains. There is still action, of course - in many ways, the action set pieces are far more satisfying than those in “Begins,” with Nolan offering smoother, sleeker visuals - but there are also long discussions about the importance of a hero as both a symbol and a real crusader.
Kids expecting the typical Bam! Pow! stuff might get turned off (that is, if the intensely frightening Joker sequences don’t give them nightmares first), but those of us who not only grew up with the character but also enjoyed discovering Gotham’s darker side in some of the more serious comics will thrill to what “The Dark Knight” has to offer here. Just as Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neal reinvented Batman as a darker, more serious figure in reaction to the Adam West days of the franchise, and just as Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns” pretty much rewrote the blueprint for Gotham City adventures, Nolan’s two films set a new standard by showing that filmmakers shouldn’t have to be locked into a four-color way of thinking.
The secret, perhaps, is that Nolan treats these two movies like real-world thrillers, albeit a real world that includes masked vigilantes and over-the-top baddies. Batman moves the way physics demands him to move, and car chases barrel through a city that feels like a real city, not just the inside of an art designer’s head. (The movie was shot on location in Chicago, and the imagery tones down some of the more fanciful elements of “Begins,” giving this sequel an admirably gritty look.)
So while the Joker is free to run around the plot planting superbombs and whatnot, his antics never feel like a cartoon. This lends the villain a danger we’ve rarely seen before, not on screen. Jack Nicholson’s Joker had a menace beneath his buffoonery, and Mark Hamill’s voice work on the 1990s Batman animated series was at times sonically chilling, but only here is the Clown Prince allowed to roam free, twirling knives, killing without a thought. Only here is the Joker an all-out holy-crap bad-ass mofo.
Ledger’s performance has long been heralded - since his death, yes, but also before it - as something bold and daring and unsettling in its sinister nature, and those reports all turn out to be true. Ledger plays the villain as someone whose insanity you can’t quite peg. He’s not the boisterous blowhard we’ve seen before. Even without the clown face paint and the smile scars, he’s the sort of guy who, after one quick glance, would make you want to walk to the other side of the street to avoid him. Ledger shuffles and stares and laughs and licks his lips, and we thrill to his lunacy, but we also realize: this Joker is locked in the world between genius and insanity. He’s a criminal mastermind able to command an army, yet also nutzoid enough to kill on a whim.
The character is so pure, both in performance and in script, that the movie seems a little less when he’s not on screen. The screenplay takes countless asides, discussing Dent’s mob arrests, or Bruce Wayne’s hope that Dent can be the “white knight” hero the city needs, or Jim Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) promotion to police commissioner, or the love triangle that finds Bruce and Harvey both wooing Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes; her flat performance isn’t much of an improvement, but the script doesn’t really know how to write convincingly for a woman, so much so that no female star could tackle such clunky dialogue well). These are all interesting moments, but at times they seem like filler, standing by until the Joker can return once more. The Joker’s scenes reveal a lean, mean thriller hidden inside a bloated superhero epic.It’s a testament to Nolan’s vision, however, that even all that bloat can’t quite pull his franchise down. For all its overindulgence, for all the times we get lost in all those half-formed subplots, for all its dependency on too many characters, “The Dark Knight” also shows the capacity to be madly brilliant. Whether it’s being great or merely good, the film takes us places no superhero movie has before, and it does so in a head-first dive, screaming and laughing all the way.
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originally posted: 07/18/08 00:00:00