I pray that Christopher Nolan never makes another Batman movie.
At the end of BATMAN BEGINS I couldn’t wait for the next installment. At the end of THE DARK KNIGHT I hoped that that was it. This is the definitive BATMAN film. For 19 years people have been trying to get this story right and now it has finally been done. Nolan should hang it up. I don’t believe he can top this and it’s time for him to move on to other projects because he has dominated this genre. You know that feeling after watching the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK that there would never be a better STAR WARS film? That’s the feeling I got after watching THE DARK KNIGHT. I don’t know what the next Batman film will be like or if it will contain Ewoks dancing in a jungle but it’s unlikely going to be this powerful, this jarring, this intense or this flawlessly executed.
How silly that WATCHMEN trailer looks attached to this film. “Visionary” Director Zack Snyder? Please. The disaster that is that trailer shows what happens when you put a great work in the hands of the wrong person. Batman had to go through several hands before getting to the right set but it shows how fulfilling a film going experience can be when a cherished and classic story is told the right way.
THE DARK KNIGHT makes every earlier Batman interpretation childish. No wonder Jack Nicholson was pissed off that they were re-inventing the Joker. His performance looks horrible now. The Joker is Heath Ledger. There is no camp, no winking, no puns, no cuteness. This is a rich, dense film with so much to digest and dissect. I left the theatre shaken and light headed from this experience. See it on IMAX. It’s a fully immersive experience that knocks you flat.
I have to discuss the meat and potatoes of this film so if you want to go into it fully fresh and haven’t seen it yet stop reading and come back when you do.
Where to begin?
The City of Gotham is one of the most important characters in this film. It’s a jagged, grim sea of skyscrapers. Nolan’s camera circles from above, zooming and diving. It’s enough to make you nauseous. The people of Gotham are often seen in bird’s eye view, the City circling it’s prey, ready to pounce. A perfect playground for the sadistic madman that is the Joker. Gotham is no easy problem to solve. It’s a real place with real problems that requires the cops, the district attorney’s office and a crazy ass vigilante in order to save it and even that isn’t enough. Things aren’t wrapped up nicely.
THE DARK KNIGHT is really a Harvey Dent film. This is the story of an earnest, tough, good person who truly wants to improve the world around him in a legal and honest way. This is the story of his spirit dying. A bright light who fizzles and fades away. Harvey is what Batman can never be. He’s more important than Batman. Batman can catch a thug and turn him in to the police. Dent can use his position as DA to freeze the assets of all the criminals in town. Dent is the guy who really will change things. Batman is just the garbage man. Bruce Wayne knows how important Dent is and Batman makes a decision in the film that costs a valuable life because he couldn’t lose Dent.
Seeing Dent’s transformation into Two Face got me thinking about STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH and how George Lucas handled the transformation from Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. Both Dent and Vader get their faces burned off and it is startling how much more resonance and emotional weight Dent’s burning has than Vader’s. And Lucas had the impact of the most successful franchise of all time and years of development and anticipation for that moment. And still it doesn’t really even feel sad. You just sort of go “Well…we knew that was coming”. Dent being burned is heartbreaking not only because it means the death of someone else but because it happens to such a noble and good hearted figure. I was stoked going into this movie to see Harvey’s transformation. Then when it was apparant it was about to happen, I hoped he somehow survived. Dent becomes a casualty of the terror state the Joker creates. The look of Two Face is so hideous and gruesome you can’t help but chuckle when thinking of Tommy Lee Jones’ animal print suit.
Two Face is just one highlight that underscores how much more advanced and powerful these films are than the earlier incarnations. In BATMAN FOREVER, Joel Schumacher tells the backstory of Two Face with one 30 second clip. A brief cut to an old news story about someone throwing acid in Harvey’s face. Harvey clutches his face and screams and that’s it. That’s all the emtional heft Shumacher wanted to give the story of Harvey Two Face. That was sufficient to tell the story of this increidbly tragic character, this White Knight of Gotham whose soul, heart and dreams were ripped away from him. Nolan makes this hurt. In Nolan’s Gotham, there are actual consequences. While Burton and especially Schumacher thought this was funny, Nolan realizes it’s not.
The city is crumbling and collapsing in on itself. How does Batman handle all this? Sure he’s a crazy lunatic running around in a rubber batsuit but he has limitations. He won’t kill anyone. The Joker will test this limitation and push Batman to the brink and along the way he will score some small victories in chipping away at Batman’s armor. More on that in a second.
The performance of the Joker by Heath Ledger started out with a handicap. For one, his performance has been hyped up and hyperbolized for months now and two, we know that shortly after completing the film Ledger died of a drug overdose. Yet when Ledger strolls on screen all of that is forgotten and his performance is simply mesmerizing. With this and his previous performance in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, Ledger was becoming a powerful artist who would have almost certainly shot to the top of the A-List after this. Ledger has created an iconic character who will stand the test of time. That, not a posthumous Oscar which he would most certainly deserve, will be his real legacy.
Heath Ledger’s Joker is not a human being. He’s the seed in ROSEMARY’S BABY. He’s the Overlook Hotel in THE SHINING. He’s the spirit that makes Linda Blair spin her head around in THE EXORCIST. Evil personified. He doesn’t want money, fame, notoriety and he doesn’t want to destroy Batman. He wants to create chaos and anarchy wherever he goes. This is a layered, hypnotic performance. The Joker is funny and affable. Sadistic and maniacal. Aloof and a genius. Sick, twisted, masochistic and without anything resembling a conscience. There is no saving grace for the Joker. No lesson to be learned and no epiphany to be had. He’s not someone who can be rehabilitated. The way the Joker pulls the strings in this film and the way he puts people in situations of such moral complexity is brilliant. The mannerisms are all spot on. The smacking and tounge flapping and that cackle. Look for the wonderful shot of Joker leaning out the window of a stolen cop car to feel the night air in his disgusting face. Everything slows down, becomes quiet as he breathes in the chaos all around him. That is his bliss. A comic book villain has never been this fully realized. He’s essentially a terrorist in smeared clown makeup.
The terrorism aspect is what drives the film. The idea of limitations. This is a very relevant film for the times we live in now. We see images of Abu Grahib and hear Senate hearings on water boarding. What are OUR limitations? To what length will we go to stop terrorism? How do you stop somebody that wants to kill you AND themselves? Who just wants to watch the world burn? We have seen our government spy on us and take our rights away. The debate on whether or not this is right goes on in our culture today and it’s integral to this film. The allegory is clear with Bruce wiretapping everyone in Gotham, much to the chagrin of Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman). Is Bruce right to spy on everyone if it helps him catch the Joker? Lucious takes his stand and in a film with so much spectacle I found a scene in which he walks away from his desk, and his high powered comfortable job, to be one of the most moving.
And then there’s Batman. Batman obviously wants to clean up Gotham but he knows his limitations. Batman after all is just a symbol. He’s not a person who can be wavered or gotten to. That’s the whole idea. Bruce Wayne is a person, not Batman. It’s interesting that even when Bruce Wayne is Bruce Wayne it’s still a facade. Stepping out of helicopters with supermodels and acting like an ass is just another mask. A public persona to keep people from being suspicious. Take away both the Bat and the Playboy mask and you’ve got a tortured soul with nobody but his butler.
There are other great moments including Tiny Lister’s decision with the detonator, Jim Gordon’s surprise, the discovery of what the BatPod is made of and the Joker’s pencil trick. There is too much going on here to list everything. This is a rich, dense film experience with so much going on you’ll feel dizzy when the dust finally settles. It’s a film of moral complexity that goes to a darker place than any super hero film has dared to go. The bar has been raised on the super hero genre and I’m skeptical it can be cleared.