By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman
“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” – Harvey Dent
With these words, director Christopher Nolan returns once again to the Batman film franchise with a heart-thumping action film that can all at once also pass as a character study. In the process, he also ushers in characters from the Batman universe, introducing them to a whole new generation. Harvey Dent, a character that was portrayed the first time as such a caricature in the very loud but not viable Batman Forever by Tommy Lee Jones, is richly introduced in The Dark Knight. Here, as played by Eckhart, Dent is a sort of white knight for the city of Gotham, as he is legally putting criminals away, while at the same time Batman roams the streets for them. At one point, Dent busts a whole legion of criminals at the same time. But, the question is, who is this film really about? The Dark Knight? The White Knight? Or, the one that wears purple?
Everyone knows the whole story by now. And, every single person seems to tell it the exact same way: “When I heard that Heath Ledger was cast as The Joker, I thought there was no way he could pull it off. I mean, the guy from A Knight’s Tale? Man did he surprise me!” I will be the first to say that’s true in my case as well. However, I will also be the first to say that I do not think it is a necessary improvement over the way Nicholson played the same exact character twenty years before. What I will say, is that the different approach Ledger takes works so much better for Nolan’s world. Just as Nicholson’s portrayal worked for Burton’s. It is all a matter of taste, because truthfully, the only things that the character has in common within the two movies is that they both wear purple & make-up, and laugh really loud & long. Nonetheless, Ledger, by all accounts and purposes, did a remarkable job. No one is going to deny that the way he throws his hair back when holding a knife and slurps after every third word and laughs his maniacal laugh is nothing short of phenomenal. His frightening and at the same time threatening telling of the way he got the scars sends chills down my spine every single time I hear it. All of this adds up to a great job by Ledger. But, what people are kind of failing to realize is that he was, originally, a comic book villain. And, it is through the magic of Nolan, his brother Jonathan, and, yes, I will even include David Goyer, that Ledger was able to pull off what he did in 2008 what Nicholson would not have even thought of pulling off in 1989. Why? Because Nicholson and Sam Hamm (main writer of 1989’s Batman) took the campy way. Just as the Nolans and Goyer took the more serious chaotic approach to the character when writing their version. Nothing wrong with either portrayal.
A big problem I had with The Dark Knight was the onslaught of new supporting characters. We had Michael Jai White, who was famous for about 2 seconds while playing Spawn in 1997, playing the leader of gangsters in a scene with the Joker that I always thought was a slight bit overblown. We have Anthony Michael Hall playing a reporter (didn’t Batman 89 have reporters too?) who was constantly telling the audience how the news media is handling The Joker’s acts of terrorism. Eric Roberts, for crying out loud, gets a role here. The not so viable to the story character of Maroni. Again, why? Roberts is fine in the role, but it was just one more character within the chaos. All of these roles are thankless enough, but the big one for me that comes off as an an utter waste was the return by Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow. A part of the master plan in the last film, Scarecrow here just comes off as a non scary guy who carries a mask and has a few cronies. The whole scene near the beginning of the film involving him was a waste and to me, one of this movie’s only big flaws is that I would have liked to of seen Joker and Scarecrow work together. Or, don’t have Scarecrow in here at all.
As for the rest of the cast, they’re back and still seem to be having a great time amongst all the seriousness. Caine & Freeman both supply some hearty laughs, while Oldman proves to be the most well rounded Commissioner Gordon yet. I love him in this role, and I feel, as a big fan of his since the early 90s, that it just feels right he is in this franchise. Another character returns, even if it’s by a different actress. Rachel Dawes is back, this time portrayed by one Maggie Gyllenhaal. Again though, while this is no knock on Gyllenhaal, I feel Dawes is a thankless & useless role. Nolan does find a way to get her involved in a big character change later in the film, but it was in these early dinner scenes with Dent and Wayne that had me, once again, wincing every single time Dawes was onscreen.
Speaking of Wayne, I feel it would be a bad thing to do if I went much further in this review without talking about Bale’s performance of Batman/Bruce Wayne. I think his portrayal of Wayne is fine. But, while I could let the infamous ‘Bale Batman voice’ go for the entire length of Begins, here, I thought it was a distraction. It was, quite frankly, hard to take him serious each and every time he growls as he does here, and in a film that occasionally documents through real footage tape (hmmm..almost ‘found footage’) just how Joker plans on taking over the city of Gotham, Bale’s voice within the costume became almost too much for me to handle. However, where Bale’s voice failed, I think Nolan succeeded. I think, that along side Inception, this may be the best directed film of Nolan’s career. One of my major gripes with Batman Begins was that Nolan had a hard time grasping the scenes where Batman gets in melees with thugs. His way of shooting the action was a real rough and tumble way of cutting, making the action itself very hard to see and process. Here, Nolan negates any of that particular flaw by surprising us with things such as an utterly beautifully shot spy/action scene in Tokyo (Nolan is a renown Bond fan and hopes to do a film in the series one day. This scene illustrates that he would be great at it). The car chase was excellent, and included some flawless sound design. Also, the way Nolan shoots Joker’s, shall we say, invasion of a dinner party using an uncomfortable, revolving 360 degree camera shot (again, normally a technique I hate, but is very well pulled off here) was amazing. Another great job was how he shot Dent’s face against the gas that is about to blow up vertically instead of horizontally. A wonderful foreshadow that Nolan does not make blatant. In case it doesn’t come off as obvious enough, I am one of those that believes Nolan was robbed of at least a Best Director nomination for this film.
Yes, The Dark Knight is an amazing film. But, it is by no means perfect. For every great character arc involving Dent, there was a poorly handled finale. And, the film seems to stretch a tad more than it should, as its running time of 152 minutes is greatly felt (which kind of scares me about Rises). But, make no mistake: Ledger’s performance, a wonderfully acted interrogation scene in Arkham between Joker & Batman that had to be the best and most telling face off between comic book rivals I have ever seen portrayed onscreen, and some truly remarkable direction makes this a fantastic can’t miss entry in the Batman franchise. It’s a shame Ledger wasn’t around to see its success. But, I swear, if you listen closely towards the end of its Blu Ray, you can hear him laugh his maniacal Joker laugh one last time. And, you know what they say about the one who laughs last.
4 out of 5