We’ve come a long way from Zok!, Pow! and Splat! The Batman has always been a bit of an outsider in the comic-book realm. He has no special magical powers, relying instead on his wits, instincts and physical strength to fight crime, alongside some impressive gadgetry.
The Dark Knight moves on from Batman Begins (2005) and explores not what drives The Batman (Christian Bale), but what happens when he has achieved his mission and the streets are safe from gangs and organized crime. The answer is that society, like nature, abhors a vacuum and, sooner or later, someone or something must fill the gap. Enter The Joker.
Why does The Joker (Heath Ledger) do what he does? Nobody knows. That Christopher Nolan deliberately chose to introduce him ‘as is’ with no back story to explain his existence or motives was certainly the right move. He works well as an enigma, someone driven not by a lust for money or power, but maybe just because he enjoys it. In his own words: “Do I look like a guy with a plan?” The Joker’s character is an obvious anology for terrorism. How do you fight against someone who’s hell-bent on his purpose, even if it costs him his life?
The Joker is a million miles away from the earlier portrayals, with a much more anarchic and subversive edge. Looking back on Jack Nicholson’s portrayal in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), he gave a reasonable performance, if a little too camp. Compared with Ledger’s performance, however, he looks positively tame. Take the scene where Nicholson asks: ‘You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?’ and compare it with the first time Ledger’s Joker tells the story of how he came to get the scars on his mouth (‘Why so serious?’) and you just know it’s a different class. His study of madness is quite delicious – quirky, twitching and full of odd foibles, suggesting not merely insanity but a pent-up desire to unleash something awful.
Aside from male leads, there is a very strong supporting cast, pretty much all of whom do as well as you’d expect. Aaron Eckhart stood out for me as Harvey Dent, the ‘White Knight’ politician and lawyer determined to stamp out the remaining criminal element in Gotham. Throw in Michael Caine (Alfred) Gary Oldman (Lt. Gordon) and Maggie Gyllenhaal as love interest Rachel Dawes, for whose affections Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne are both vying, and it’s good, solid performances all the way. The only disappointment was the usually excellent Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. He’s competent enough, for sure, but it looked as though he wasn’t really giving it his best shot.
Nolan’s use of the IMAX format for several scenes brings a sense of depth to the action sequences and a couple of the more intimate moments. Overall, the cinematography is very tight and much less dark and moody than expected. Indeed, some of the action is shot in such lurid daylight, it comes as quite a shock to the eyes. Nolan’s direction and the excellent camera work of Wally Pfister work extremely well to produce a practically seamless piece of cinema. The score is distinctly unmemorable, but that isn’t a criticism. It ties in very well with the cinematography and enhances rather than drowns out the narrative.
While The Dark Knight is hardly a major philosophical piece, it does have a very strong story. Threaded nicely alongside the main ‘good versus evil’ thrust of the narrative, there are a number of sub-plots in which all those close to Batman must make difficult and sometimes impossible choices, including Batman himself. The dialogue is tight and well scripted. Jokes, such as they are, are few and far between. The only genuinely funny parts are the interplay between Bruce Wayne and Alfred. The Joker has his moments, but they are mainly schadenfreude.
All the usual embellishments are there – the suit, the gadgets appearing like deus ex machinae (wait until you see the Bat Pod!) and the obligatory action sequences – all of which are well done. The Batman doesn’t kill, but I can’t help wondering how he manages to pull that off given the trail of devastation he leaves in his wake.
The question on everyone’s lips – will Heath Ledger pick up a posthumous Oscar for his role as The Joker? I don’t see why not. His performance was solid, quirky, odd and very well constructed. Even if he doesn’t win, this will be the film for which he is best remembered, easily beating Brokeback Mountain (2005). One thing’s for sure – The Joker is now Heath Ledger and nobody will ever be able to play him again.
With hardly a drop in pace in the two-and-a-half hour running time, you might want to get the bigger popcorn and drink, but do see it – it’s worth it.