The Dark Knight (2008)

I have to give credit to Christopher Nolan.  He was given the task of reviving a movie series that had all but been destroyed by studio meddling and poor directing and story choices.  While not perfect Batman Begins did just that and did it while using some elements that were left over from the unmade fifth film from the original series.  On top of that he managed to make an entire movie that was an origin story without it feeling like it was treading old ground. 

At the end of Batman Begins it is hinted that the next film will include the one villain everyone wants from a Batman series: the Joker.  The role was not cast at the time, and neither was it set in stone that there would even be another Batman film.  When it was announced that Heath Ledger would take the role there was some doubt about if he was right for the part, but that was soon overshadowed by news of his death shortly before The Dark Knight premiered.  It wouldn't be the first, or worst, of tragedies surrounding the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, but Ledger was a rising start at the time and anyone taking on the role of the Joker was doing so in the shadow of Jack Nicholson's portrayal in Tim Burton's original Batman.  

The only things Ledger and Nicholson's Joker had in common was a creepy smile and being given the job of carrying much of the movie.  It really doesn't matter how good a Batman film is - and Batman Begins was the best version since Burton's first - at some point the question is going to come up about including the Joker.  As Suicide Squad showed, putting the wrong person in the role can make or break the rest of the movie, even if he's not in it much.  In The Dark Knight Ledger has almost equal screen time as Christian Bale, and no one does that unless there is complete confidence in the person they hired.  It's a role that challenges and defines an actor, whether it be a seasoned veteran like Nicholson or an indie darling like Ledger, and there is no doubt at all that, if he hadn't just thrown together random cocktails of pills to deal with his insomnia, he would be taking the kinds of roles Leonardo DiCaprio has been for the last couple decades. 

With Batman (Bale) patrolling the streets at night and new city attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) keeping Gotham's crime lords on their toes, things are looking up for the crime-ridden city.  That is until a new element shows up: a man calling himself the Joker, with the remains of a Glasgow smile and clown makeup, assisted by an army of anonymous thugs and former inmates of Arkham Asylum.  He informs the different bosses that he will kill Batman for half of all their assets and makes it quite clear that they should take his offer.  

Bruce Wayne, though noticeably upset about his former flame Rachel's (Maggie Gyllenhaal) relation ship with Dent, is quite happy to put his support behind the new attorney as he is doing truly good work.  Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Batman's ally in the Gotham Police Department, is also happy to support him as well.  Unfortunately, that also makes Dent, Gordon and others targets for the Joker.  As people continue to die because of the Joker's rampage, Wayne decides to give the man what he wants, but Dent has other plans, and unfortunately these may have consequences for all of Gotham. 

One of the problems with Batman Begins is that it continued a trend of having too many victims.  The audience was introduced to one man portraying R'as al Ghul, when it was later revealed that it was truly Henri Ducard, the man that recruited Wayne into the League of Shadows.  Meanwhile we got a main villain in Gotham with the Scarecrow, and Wayne had to deal with an executive trying to steer Wayne Enterprises in the wrong direction.  The Dark Knight, in contrast, focuses on the Joker.  The Scarecrow shows up briefly and of course Harvey Dent eventually becomes Two-Face, but the former is a cameo and the latter is a completely different story arc meant for the character of Dent and as a turning point for Batman and Gotham rather than another nemesis for Batman. 

This was an expensive movie to make with Nolan's usual insistence on meticulous sound design and using practical effects whenever possible.  The digit effects that are used, particularly Dent's face after his disfigurement, are integrated well.  There is nothing here, even in the major fights, that pulls one's attention from the story.  On that end Wayne, and Batman, are not just left to rest on their laurels, but the whole idea of what it means to be who and what he is gets further exploration, including some moral and ethical boundaries that he may be forced to cross, leading to conflict at times with both his mentor Alfred (Michael Caine) and his other biggest ally, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman).  

Bale once again works well as both Wayne and Batman, although the gruff voice used while in the Batman suit - enhanced post-production by Nolan - is unintentionally funny at times.  These are the wrong times, as they are major transition points in the story or dramatic standoffs, and to have Bale sounding like the parodies that are made of him dulls the impact.  It's probably the reason why I got distracted watching it the first time and originally thought the film overrated after hearing about it being one of the best superhero movies ever made.  When it comes down to plot and action it is, but there had to have been a better way for Batman to disguise his voice. 

The other major factor is Heath Ledger.  I am not going to say he does a better job that Jack Nicholson, as the character portrayed by Nicholson was not this character.  Nicholson portrayed the Joker, both before and after his translation, in a manner one would expect from him after all those years, and it was written in that fashion.  Ledger took inspiration from the comic books as well as punk rockers like Sid Vicious, worked with a voice coach to get things right and pretty much invented a version of the character that one would recognize from the comics, and the '90s cartoons, but was still unique to The Dark Knight.  If he had lived I'm sure he would not have shown up in The Dark Knight Rises, but I could definitely see Nolan having kept an option for a fourth movie open for Ledger to return if he wanted.  

This is by no means a perfect film, but it carries on logically from Batman Begins and improves on it in about every way possible.  Still, even at this point another sequel was up in the air, although the fact this movie exceeded the billion dollar mark worldwide eventually made that a foregone conclusion.  The problem is that much of this movie is as good as its reputation is made out to be, meaning that anything that followed was likely to disappoint even if it did maintain the same high quality of writing and filmmaking.  

The Dark Knight (2008)
Time: 152 minutes
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman
Director: Christopher Nolan 



Popular posts from this blog

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023)