Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman
Screenplay written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, based off a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Back in 2005, Christopher Nolan accomplished something that few thought possible. He rebooted the Batman movie franchise after the stunning debacle that was Batman & Robin. Hell, I didn't even see Batman Begins in a theatre because the last time I saw a Batman movie on the big screen, I was horrified for all the wrong reasons. It was simply unfathomable to me that the damage done by Joel Schumacher was reparable by the director that gave us Memento. Sure the tone and look of Memento was exactly what the Batman franchise needed, but the track record of Warner Brothers when it came to their comic book properties wasn't exactly stunning, so I didn't really expect Batman Begins to be the stunning achievement that it ended up being. The question then became: how will Christopher Nolan follow that up?
Thankfully, Nolan didn't go right back to the well right away, instead reteaming with his Batman, Christian Bale, for The Prestige, which gave them both a bit of distance from the franchise. It only made us fanboys all the more eager for the inevitable follow-up, all thanks to one of the final scenes in Batman Begins, with Lt. James Gordon (Oldman) holding the calling card of Batman's greatest villain, The Joker. The sequel was announced in July 2006 which probably led most of us into saying to ourselves, "Heath Ledger as The Joker? ReallY?! The guy from 10 Things I Hate About You? Really?!?" Or maybe there were some Brokeback Mountain jokes about The Joker being gay now, I don't know, the point is that it seemed like a strange casting decision, one that some viewed akin to putting nipples on the Batsuit. Word began to trickle out, and Warner's viral marketing campaign was intriguing and I was starting to get stoked for The Dark Knight.
Then, on January 22, 2008, Heath Ledger died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. His final completed acting performance would be as someone that Ledger himself described as a "psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy". The expectations for the movie went sky-high, and if you thought this Joker would be anything like Jack Nicholson's Joker in 1989's Batman, you'd be in for a horrific surprise.
Why so serious indeed.
The Dark Knight begins around eight months after the events in Batman Begins, with Batman (Bale) finally taking care of most of the criminal trash from Begins. There's a new District Attorney in town by the name of Harvey Dent (Eckhart), and he's being proclaimed as Gotham City's white knight, bound and determined to clean up the police force and the streets. The newest terror enveloping the city comes in the form of a killer clown, a rampaging murderous criminal that pisses off the established mafia as much as he terrifies the citizenry. The Joker (Ledger) has been waging a humanistic war on the morality of Batman's vigilantism, while further plunging the city into a desperate state of decay. Or I could just describe it as "Batman. The Joker. Two-Face. It's not Batman Forever." and that should be enough to give even the most jaded fanboy a shiver of anticipation.
What Christopher Nolan crafts in two and a half hours is, in a word, breathtaking. He gives us amazing action sequences and thoughtful meditations on what makes a hero a hero. Some of those meditations might actually be too thoughtful for the megaplex crowd, since most comic book blockbusters aren't really known for being too cerebral. As well, it's not the most colourful of movies, and while I appreciate the dark look and tones of the film, it makes for some confusing and occasionally muddled fight scenes.
Christian Bale continues to be able to deliver two separate and believable performances as both Batman and his secret identity, millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over the part of Rachel Dawes that Katie Holmes previously portrayed, and well, it's essentially a damsel-in-distress role, what with Rachel becoming the girlfriend of Harvey Dent and the transformation of Dent into Two-Face looming over the whole relationship. I really hope no one is spoiled by the fact that Harvey Dent actually turns into Two-Face, and oh by the way, Aaron Eckhart deserves some high praise as well for the grey areas he put into his portrayal of Dent / Two-Face. He's transformed but he doesn't suddenly become insane, just righteously pissed off.
Michael Caine as Alfred and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox are two supporting players you never have to worry about and they performed admirably well, hitting all the right notes for their father figure character types. Speaking of father figures, Gary Oldman is even more perfect as Jim Gordon than he was in Begins, and I don't think enough things are being said about his performance since most of the audience only wants to see the freak show.
If you're wondering whether or not the advance billing for Heath Ledger's performance lives up to the product on the screen, well no matter how amazing you thought it may be, it will most likely surpass those levels. Ledger's fearless portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime is one of the most nerve-twitching, eye-catching, depraved and darkly hilarious acting displays in recent memory. Last year had Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, and even Chigurh would be a little off-put by Ledger's Joker. There is little doubt in my mind that come next March, Heath Ledger will be awarded a posthumous Oscar for his part in The Dark Knight.
I've tried not to get myself all excited for movies these days, as too many disappointments have dampened many of my old fanboy tendencies. The Dark Knight was the one exception, and I have to say that it lived up to the hype. As an old school comic book fan and as a movie czar, I can appreciate it on both levels. Christopher Nolan could spend the rest of his career making Batman movies and I doubt that I'd ever be disappointed by them. Dark Knight ranks slightly lower than Batman Begins at this point, but it's a solid, enjoyable and disturbing follow-up.
And I'll be seeing it again in less than a day.
4 / 5