The Dark Knight
“Escalation.” That’s what Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) worried about at the conclusion of Batman Begins, throwing down The Joker’s calling card. And escalation is precisely what sequels demand: not just the same, but more of it.
For my money, Batman Begins remains the best of the multiple superhero movies of the last decade, the blockbuster most interested in probing our times and not just skimming off the cash. The Dark Knight is a worthy successor to that opening chapter, a slam-bang action juggernaut that is also a brooding rumination on the cost of security in an era of chaos and terrorism. And then of course, director Christopher Nolan has The Joker up his sleeve.
If you’ve seen anything of this movie you don’t need me to tell you that Heath Ledger’s transformation is eye-grabbing. But it’s not just the way he looks – a disheveled carny geek in a purple suit, his smile a freaky razorblade gash, night sweats breaking through his grease paint – or the way he holds himself (which is oddly lopsided, his face thrust forward, his walk a sort of shuffle) or even the voice, which can be soft and solicitous one minute, rasping and ferocious the next… It’s all these things together and the weird free-jazz groove Ledger seems to hit. As Gary Oldman put it the other day, “It’s like he’s tuned into a frequency. He’s found a radio station that none of us can hear.”
The Joker invites camp, but Nolan steers the other way, putting this arch villain and his nemesis in a world that is recognizably our own. Unlike Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, Nolan emphasizes real locations (Chicago standing in for Gotham City, and Hong Kong playing itself), not studio artifice. Batman still has his toys, but he’s only a step or two ahead of the high tech curve. Unlike Iron Man, he doesn’t really fly – it’s more (in the words of Buzz Lightyear) “falling with style”.
“Why so serious?” chides The Joker, but his brand of knife-point anarchy isn’t to be taken lightly. Granted, Nolan leaves it to us to imagine the blood, but this is a relentlessly grim picture, full of death and destruction, kidnappings, beatings, bomb threats – and Batman’s inner circle is not immune, at least one major character won’t be around for B3.
This Joker is unmistakably a terrorist – he blows up hospitals, even torches his own ill-gotten gains. That would make Batman a kind of one-man Department of Homeland Security. And if he has to ride roughshod over civil liberties to get the job done – spying on the entire city, for example – then so be it.
To their credit, neither Nolan nor Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is comfortable with the role of glorified vigilante that Batman assumes, but the only legitimate alternative they can conceive of turns out to be civic crusader, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) – whose talisman is a double-headed coin, but whose true worth is the movie’s ultimate symbolic battleground.
Dent gives the movie a classic character arc, but Eckhart’s disappointingly bland performance fails to nail the narcissism that must be the flip side to his zeal, making his ultimate about-face ring hollow. And if Rachel Dawes (now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, a distinct improvement on Katie Holmes) genuinely prefers Harvey to Bruce, she’s duller than she looks.
Whenever The Joker and Batman are in the vicinity, The Dark Knight hums with finely tuned dread and anticipation, but the longer it goes on (and yes, I’m afraid it does go on too long) Dent triangulates the equation, ultimately pulling it out of whack.
Nolan (who also wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan) has crafted an impressive, exhausting picture, about as complex and conflicted as a blockbuster can get without alienating all the punters. It also features one of the best stunts I’ve ever seen, not forgetting complimentary, self-effacing contributions of the highest caliber from Gary Oldman and Michael Caine. But you’ll see it for Heath Ledger and rightly so – what a performance!
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