Comic book movies were nothing new by the time that The Dark Knight came around in 2008. The subgenre had already established its place with the great successes of X-Men and Spider-Man, and the sequels to each found the full potential of their respective franchises. They refined the weaknesses of the originals and expanded their scopes to dig into the deeper themes inherent to the characters. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, for the most part, accomplished in a first movie what those franchises did in their second one. His fascination with the psychology of Bruce Wayne and Batman was the key to that films success, as well as the revival of Batman in cinema. With the heavy lifting already out of the way for The Dark Knight, Nolan merely adjusted what didn’t work so well before and could have rested on his laurels. Evan he couldn’t have predicted that this follow-up would bring an unprecedented new level of appreciation and cultural saturation that comic book adaptations had rarely experienced before.
Following the tantalizing tease at the end of Begins, the crazed criminal only known as The Joker has gained a hold on the mob in Gotham. He does this by striking a deal with them: they give him half their money if he gets rid of Batman, who has been hounding them and hurting their business for a while. In addition to Batman, new district attorney Harvey Dent has been putting the hammer down on the mob in collaboration with Lieutenant James Gordon. When The Joker extends his grip to the whole of Gotham by stating he will murder somebody for each day that Batman does not reveal his identity, Bruce Wayne must decide how important his alter ego is to the city he protects.
The difference between The Dark Knight and Batman Begins, and even The Dark Knight Rises as well, is that while the latter are more decidedly Bruce Wayne movies, The Dark Knight is a Batman movie. It’s focused on how Batman figures into this society and what he means to the citizens of Gotham. It’s a tricky tightrope because they aren’t sure how to deal with him. Many of them dress up like him to fight crime on their own, but they lack the tactical and physical training Bruce has and forget the code that the real Batman follows, namely his no gun stance. Those not trying to be wannabe vigilantes are more than willing to have Batman turn himself in, not trusting that he can stop The Joker. This villain has them so scared that they will resort to desperate measures if it means stopping him. At the heart of all this is the dramatic tug of war between Batman and The Joker, with Gotham and District Attorney Harvey Dent hanging on the rope. It’s a classic battle of good and evil fighting to pull everyone else to their side, or as the Joker describes it, “An unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.”
But like in The Empire Strikes Back, this is a case where evil is too powerful to contain and frequently wins the battles. One of the reasons why The Joker is Batman’s greatest adversary in both film and comics is that he cannot be beaten; he will never compromise and will not be put down. The interrogation scene, which is arguably the best in the film, puts this to the test. The basis for Batman’s vigilante ways has been his use of fear against criminals, but Joker is not phased by that at all, so Batman gets desperate by turning to all-out rage. Despite being repeatedly beaten, the “unstoppable force” Joker never breaks down. In one of the creepiest recent non-horror movie moments, he simply laughs it all off after being socked in the face one last time.
Heath Ledger’s performance is iconic. He stays true to the madcap spirit of the character while adding a threatening edge that rarely comes through in the movie versions of comic villains. Ledger laces his high-pitched laughs and voice with a taste of fury as a counterpoint to Christian Bale’s Batman growl. At the same time, he’s incredibly funny while committing such horrible acts. The pencil trick has become a classic over the years, but the subtle ways Ledger slicks his hair back with a knife when approaching Rachel Dawes and when he plays around with a faulty bomb detonator are the little bits of flair that further define the kind of man he is.
Aaron Eckhart arguably has the more difficult material to work with. Harvey Dent is squarely at the center of the story here, representing both the hope for a better city and eventually the moral decay as the chaos escalates. Having his full transformation from savant to vengeful criminal occur in one film is certainly a lot to portray, especially when included with the vast array of plot threads also going on, but Eckhart sells the shift in character. One scene where he deals with one of the Joker’s henchmen foreshadows this with the little bursts of rage he displays, and then of course there is his memorable line about “dying a hero or living long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Everyone has their limits, and Dent’s was passed.
As we see too, even Batman has his limits. He can’t always save the day and not everyone lives to tell their friends that he could. There’s an impending aura of melancholy that hangs over the film, dealing with the toll that comes over the characters as they realize their failures. In a particularly affecting scene, Christian Bale breaks his hardened persona to pour out all the bottled-up emotions in Bruce Wayne, a welcome moment that shows that the humanity in the caped crusader. It is Gary Oldman who gives the most sensitive and sympathetic performance amidst the growling heroes and crazed crooks. As Lt. Gordon, Oldman is the moral center of everything, the most wholly good person who has to juggle policing the Joker, Batman, the mob, politics, and eventually Dent. When Gordon must beg for his family to be spared by the end, aided by Hans Zimmer’s stirring score, the poignancy of Oldman’s acting shines through.
Zimmer’s assured work here is, in many ways, a big factor in how The Dark Knight drives itself forward with such conviction. This is a very propulsive film that moves from scene to scene with grace and very little fat to trim from its tight assembly. The plotline rarely stalls for too long to drown in exposition (an issue often tied to Nolan’s films), and the only moment of back-story is Alfred’s jewel thief story that is told to define The Joker, whose real history is cloudy even to him. When the action scenes arrive, they are constructed with finesse and energy, an improvement over the occasionally clunky editing and camerawork found in Begins. A bank heist that opens the film would make Michael Mann proud with its precision and fluid staging, and even features a neat cameo from Heat alumni William Fichtner. Another chase through the Gotham tunnels bests the previous one and is a great showcase for the new Batpod that Batman deploys to take down the Joker’s truck in spectacular fashion. Nolan’s choice to shoot these action and spectacle moments with IMAX cameras creates a grander sense of scale to the entanglements by opening up the visual canvas (on Blu-Ray at least).
While it’s certainly full of the bouts and pursuits that audiences want from a superhero action movie, The Dark Knight is not content to be all empty flash and bang. It may not take up significant portion of the plot, but to finally see Batman actually act like the detective he is rather than be defined as a simple brawler was a treat. The film questions whether Batman is inadvertently doing more harm than good for Gotham, and has Batman and Gordon make some morally shady decisions in order to bring the villains to justice.
There are allusions to “Big Brother” type wire-tapping when Batman spies on everyone’s phones to locate The Joker, something that has resonance in our real world paranoia of evolving technology and governing control. The film isn’t out to make political statements, there are certainly aspects of it that feel influenced by our current climate. Batman realizes that preserving justice is more important than himself, and takes the blame for the actions that occur. This is because, as Gordon tells his son, he is not the hero Gotham needs, but the one it deserves. The Dark Knight may not supply a happy ending, but there is a feeling of exhilaration as Batman rides off from the pursuing cops, and the realization that this is another big step forward for comic book movies.