Film Review of The Dark Knight
Darker than Batman Begins
Nolan's Batman movies are darker than usual superhero movie fair, not just in psychological tone, but in how the film looks onscreen. With many scenes happening in a dressed-down Chicago standing in as the comic book world's Gotham City, aside from the strong lighting from explosions, Nolan's Gotham is shadow upon shadow, as if the place just can't generate enough light to get a good look at what's really happening.
Heath Ledger as The Joker
Epic Mental Environment
A lot happens in this 152 minute film. Director/co-writer Chris Nolan veers off the superhero template almost immediately from the start with a brief scene in which a group of Batman "wannabes" get themselves into trouble trying to deal with Scarecrow and his criminal gang, only to be interrupted by the the actual Batman who is a bit piffed that the pretenders are using real firearms in their superhero efforts. This isn't a new theme within the Batman comic books, but I think this is one of the few instances the idea has appeared on screen. It also helps establish the bonefides of Batman's quasi-pacifist attitude towards doing the obvious: kill crazy murderers before they kill again.
Setting the stage that Gotham has its share of minds that are drawn into Batman's wake, trying to imitate his larger-than-life heroics, it follows that there is no surprise when others are likewise pulled into the Joker's orbit. As Joker says later "madness has its own gravity, all it needs is a little push*."
What is also off the standard hero template is that Chris Nolan keeps dealing with the consequences of all the super-action from these extra-normal personalities. Soon Gotham's citizenry start to question whether fighting crime is worth it. With each escalation in the conflict , the Joker happily counts up the dead bodies accumulated via Batman derailing one of his crime schemes. And Joker tries hard to rub it in everyone's faces as the police grow more desperate and paranoid, and Batman finds himself pinning all his hopes on Harvey Dent, the crusading "white knight" Gotham district attorney (actor Aaron Eckhart) who is spearheading Gotham's dwindling resolve to conquer the city's crime plague. But is Dent mentally up to the role everyone has pinned on him?
Why called the "Dark Knight"?
But why is Batman, the "dark knight" leaning so heavily toward Dent? Because the Joker, at least in terms of body count, has been painting Batman into a corner where even Bruce Wayne (actor Christian Bale) starts buying into the argument that maybe the city really would be better off without him. Alfred, again played by actor Michael Caine as in the first Nolan Batman film, keeps a cooler head during this existential crisis.
The question Dent asks early in the movie "you either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain" takes on a bizarre twist by the time the credits roll. Gotham City wants a hero like Harvey Dent, a DA with a strong right punch and good looks. But as it gets pointed out, Batman is the hero Gotham City deserves.
A problem Nolan presents is that though Batman beats the bad guys, the reverberations get out of control. Joker is obviously a maniac, played in such a way by the late Heath Ledger that he has basically stolen the movie - - when he is onscreen that's all you watch. As Joker prepares to disfigure a victim, he details a sympathetic origin story to his own facial scars, but later in the film he gives a different origin for his carved face, leaving the viewer to realize the sob-stories are just one more tool of manipulation in the Joker's utility belt.
Whatever the Joker's interior psychodrama (maybe it isn't even clear to him: "Do I look like a guy with a plan? I'm like a dog chasing a car, I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it"* a spiel he uses to sucker the damaged Harvey Dent in a hospital bed).
Calculating, unpredictable (certainly unpredictable when compared to the campy versions of the Joker from the older Batman movies); this Joker wants to spread mayhem, pain and anarchy, but he does have an actual goal (its not money: he happily burns a huge pile of greenbacks much to the horror of his criminal accomplices).
As Joker pontificates from time to time in the story, he "knows" that civilized people are only putting forward a pretense, that "if put in the right circumstances they'll eat each other.*" And he arranges for those circumstances several times. If the Joker is up to anything specific, its that he wants to win a philosophical argument that only Batman seems to comprehend.
Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent
Solutions have consequences
In the comics, the solution to a mad dog criminal is to lock them up (or kill them, which happens from time to time). In Nolan's Batman world, solutions aren't that simple, and all the muscle in the world can't solve some things, the heroes have to think their beyond the problems put forward by the rampaging criminal. In Nolan's Batman pics, not everything ends neatly, but provokes another mess to be dealt with.
Solving the crime (like Sherlock Homes) is only half the task in Nolan's Dark Knight, and though this version of Batman is the closest I have seen to one doing actual detective work (a core value in the comic book version) the solution stays elusive, and it doesn't help when the good guys are ready to airbrush reality in order to have an ending straight out of the old John Ford "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."
During the first half of the film, the movie moves forward with some of the sprightly adventure-movie lightness of an old James Bond film, with locales in Hong Kong and aboard Bruce Wayne's yacht with a bevy of ballerinas from a Russian dance company. The adult Bruce Wayne has more to do here than in the previous movie, and Christian Bale has again defined the character in such a way it will be hard for anyone else to pick up this franchise for a long, long time without having to face some tough comparisons: this is especially true of Ledger's Joker. The next person to put on the clown makeup will be in a rough spot.
Batman's surrogate fathers
Gary Oldman is on hand again as Lt. Gordon, and he has more to do than before, too, and eventually gets promoted to police commissioner in all of the resulting chaos as Joker decimates the Gotham police department. Oldman deserves more screen time, he is so good that its nice the Nolan's were able to build up his part. Morgan Freeman is back as Lucious Fox and running Wayne Enterprises and compiling interesting gadgets that help conquer the Joker; he also gives Bruce Wayne a little bit of training in ethics that also has real world ramifications. Alfred may be Wayne's surrogate father, but Lucious Fox is the voice of a conscious that isn't tangled up with protecting Batman from himself.
[Below] The local Chesterfield Virginia megaplex dolled up with Dark Knight related writing all over the entrance doors. Employees dressed as the Joker were on hand, and many competing movie posters on the walls had been defaced with "Joker Style" writing and doodling on them.
Maggie Gyllenhaal steps into the vacated Katie Holmes' role of Rachel Dawes. There's not a lot for her to do here except run back in forth in all of the fighting (Gotham becomes an enormous battleground) and to be the love interest caught between Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent, though its never clear to Dent who he is actually competing against. With Dawes saying "Don't make me your only hope for a normal life" to Wayne, the line takes on a different meaning when amplified through later events.
The Dark Knight, for a superhero movie, is being called a masterpiece. It is a little over-stuffed: so much happens it will take repeated viewings to sort everything out, though the first 90 minutes is relatively straight forward. There are at least five main characters, seven if you count all the names above the titles, and enough secondary characters that a lot of detail is evident that is lost amid the explosions and fighting. Some events don't make sense (at least on my first viewing): why do they send refugees out on ferries, but they block the bridges in and out of the city?
The film is an improvement over Batman Begins, which had a smaller agenda. This film is trying to wrestle to earth real human conflict, and to yet keep it all wrapped up in a comic book mythos. That Nolan can get both into the same room together is quite an accomplishment, and a real testimony to the ability of good writing to streamline a genre.
With all the money rolling in from its record-breaking opening weekend sales, it looks like Nolan has given the other superhero movie-makers a real challenge to live up to.
*Paraphrased. I didn't write down the quotes in the theatre and I don't have a copy of the script to be sure of the actual wording.
There's been some negatives written against this film. A backlash is sure to follow in the wake of so much money being made and all the generally positive press. The best take-down I've read of the film is by John McElwee over at Greenbriar Picture Shows: he will barely cede anything nice about the film, but just hammers it relentlessly. For example:
"Just being Batman nowadays raises a host of moral, if not political, issues. Everyone prattles about Gotham City needing heroes in a movie seemingly dedicated to withholding them. The whole cast is weighed down in guilt. All save the Joker go around apologizing for wrongs that escaped me. Stealing this picture would have been a cinch for actors not half so good as Heath Ledger. What you’ve heard about his performance is true. It’s old style bravura amidst hand-wringing cardboard. He’s fun even when loaded down with monologues explaining what writers assume we’re too dense to see for ourselves. "
Well worth reading (as is the rest of the site: it's a treasure trove of well written analysis of classic films from a point of view you can rarely see in books, particularly the money-earnings angle.)
Batman the Marketing machine
You can wear it, eat it or play with it. Click images to enlarge.
Chris Nolan's Dark Knight Movies
Dark Knight Rises Promo Images
Click to enlarge images
Top Earning World Wide Superhero Films
List Updated July 17, 2017
*Currently in release in movie theatres
- The Avengers (2012 Marvel Studios) $1,511,757,910 Billion
- Avengers Age of Ultron (2015 Marvel Studios) $1.402 Billion
- Iron Man 3 (2013 Marvel Studios) $1,212,795,474 Billion
- Captain America Civil War: $1,153,294,011
- Dark Knight Rises (2012 Warners) 1,081,036,828 Billion
- The Dark Knight (2008 Warners Bros) $1,004,558,444 Billion
- Spiderman 3 (2007 Sony) $890.9 Million
- Batman V Superman Dawn of Justice (Warners 2016) $872,662,631
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (2017 Marvel-Disney) $859,305,145 Million
- Spiderman (2002 Sony) $821.7 Million
15. Wonder Woman (2017 Warners) $764,886,078 Million
33. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017 Sony) $469,370,314 Million
Original page Thursday, Dec 11, 2008 | Updated Aug 11, 2012