It’s hard for me to understand the feverish anticipation fans have for The Dark Knight. The previous entry, Batman Begins was an inert, plodding recitation of the holy story of Batman’s origins, only with ninjas. It was loaded with the kind of adolescent power fantasies that fuel not only the current crop of superhero movies, but also the dreams of school shooters and serial killers: Romanticized alienation coupled with a desire for unlimited power and control over the lives of others.
The Dark Knight gets right all the things that Batman Begins got wrong. Its touch is lighter, its design is sharper and with the origin story out of the way, it can actually tell a story that’s capable of surprising the viewer. Even better, it ditches the adolescent power fantasies that drove the previous installment, replacing them with more adult ideas about self-sacrifice and responsibility. Put simply, it’s two-and-a-half hours long and I didn’t check my watch once.
Shot in Chicago, anyone watching Dark Knight could be
forgiven for thinking that the opening heist was ghost-directed by
hometown boy, Michael Mann. From the ominous, near-subliminal music, to
a series of shots stolen/homaged from Mann’s Heat and Thief ,
right down to the casting of William Fichtner as a white collar
criminal (he played the same role, albeit without a shotgun, in Heat )
the influence here is Mann’s specific urban landscapes rather than Tim
Burton’s gothic dream cities that informed the design of Batman Begins.
Doing away with the jet set international locales (except for a
blink-and-you-miss-it trip to Hong Kong) and the looming neo-gothic
architecture of Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan settles for anonymous,
empty corporate interiors and an entire movie set in a single downtown
district (even the Batcave is missing this time out). Surprisingly, the
result is a movie that actually feels bigger and more epic because the
focus is entirely on the story, not the visuals.
Taking a cue from the Batman comic books of the last 20 years (specifically Batman: Year One, Hush and The Dark Night Returns)
Nolan keeps the scenes of people standing around talking to a minimum
and instead spends most of the movie goosing his plot along at
breakneck speed. In one corner, you’ve got Aaron Eckhart as District
Attorney Harvey Dent, a lone crusader out to bring down the mob, and a
man no one’s quite sure is as noble as his PR proclaims. In the other
corner, you’ve got Heath Ledger playing the Joker, a freelance psycho
who’s not only stealing money from the mob, but who also wants them to
pay him to kill Batman so they can continue to pursue their activities
without interference. Then you’ve got Christian Bale as Batman, who
gets the least screen time of the three, sick and tired of fighting
crime especially now that his girlfriend, Rachel Dawes, has morphed
from Katie Holmes into the more capable Maggie Gyllenhaal and started
dating Harvey Dent.
Batman realizes that his mission is inherently idiotic and that
punching criminals in the face is perhaps a more symbolic approach to
crimefighting rather than a legitimate solution to the issue of urban
criminality. To Batman, Harvey Dent’s anti-mob crusade is real heroism
and he sees it as his chance to retire and leave the crime fighting to
someone who can actually testify in a court of law and put people away.
Too bad this movie is more focused on the rise, followed by the fall,
of Dent, otherwise it could have been a happy ending for Bruce Wayne.
Instead, Batman is left worse off at the end of this movie than at the
beginning. Nolan flat out rejects the idea that a real hero can wear a
mask and his skepticism about Batman’s sacred mission gives this flick
a jarring moral frisson that was missing from the previous film.
No review of this all-plot, no-fat movie would be complete without
some hyperventilating over Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker.
There’s no denying that his Joker feels more like a medium channeling
an icon than an actor performing a role. He’s got Mark Hamill’s menace,
Jack Nicholson’s timing, Cesar Romero’s posture and he’s taken a page
from Grant Morrison, the comic book writer who’s currently handling
Batman, and created a Joker who constantly changes his origin story
depending on his mood.
All this talk about Ledger losing himself in his role and the Joker
taking over his life reminds me of the story about Dustin Hoffman
preparing for his big torture scene in Marathon Man .
The scene in question involved Hoffman being tortured by Laurence
Olivier and the young actor stayed up for three days straight so that
he’d be nearly delirious and emotionally volatile when the time came to
shoot it. Olivier could not for the life of him understand what his
co-star was doing, “You could try acting,” Olivier said. “It’s much
easier.” It’s that kind of detachment, a sense of professional cool
with nothing to prove, that Nolan and his crew bring to The Dark Knight.
They’re not trying to be important here, they’re not trying to please
the fans or reboot a franchise. Instead, they’re just telling a story.
It’s much easier. And this time out, it works.