The Dark Knight (movie) Review
The Dark Knight lives up to the hype, and that’s a lot of hype for a show that had cordoned lines at 2:30 in the afternoon on a Friday.
Continuing where the previous film in the current series, Batman Begins, left off, Dark Knight finds the Batman continuing to put the squeeze on the Falcone crime family (headed up by Eric Roberts at his smarmy/sleazy best) when an x-factor enters the fray in the form of a mysterious interloper calling himself the Joker.
The story itself has a bit more subtext than you might have expected going in, with meditations on responsibility, sacrifice (or perhaps, taking the hit when you’re the only one who can survive it), having ethical limits and knowing when to walk away. All things that are well within the range of the standard superhero line, Spider-Man his big on responsibility and sacrifice, but this one addresses them in a much darker tone. Dark Knight, dark film.
A lot of the hype you’ve probably heard has been centered around Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. Gary Oldman was praising Ledger’s work on the film before Ledger’s untimely death, and Oldman not being one to hand out praise like candy on Halloween, that was the first indication something was up. Well, rest assured, Ledger’s performance is one for the books. This isn’t false praise for an actor who died young, it’s a tour de force.
There have been three main Jokers in popular culture: Caesar Romero’s very clownish, but ultimately not all that threatening rendition in the 60s television version. Jack Nicholson’s charming, if deranged, killer from the first Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman film. And, though not as celebrated, Mark Hamill’s vocal performance as the villain who plans his robberies and murders in the form of jokes in Batman: The Animated Series that ran for most of the 90s in one form or another.
Ledger opts for a full-on psychotic take. There is a little humor, here and there, mostly in the form of planned ironies, but his intent has little to do with jokes. Easily the most physical of the Joker’s portrayals, here he likes to use a knife and likes even more to threaten people with a knife and creepy story about his scarred face even more. You’re never quite sure when he’s planning something and when he’s just completely nuts.
Contrasting Ledger with the source material, this is a very different take. While interpretations of the Joker have varied over the years, from fop to assassin, he’s never been a particularly physical villain. More of a one-punch and out bad guy, not one who relishes a knife fight. The Joker, traditionally, has had his appearance altered by a chemical bath while escaping the Batman. Here, he’s just wearing make-up and has a scarred face (although we definitely don’t know where he came from). In both versions, he likes messing with people’s heads and upsetting their world, particularly the Batman’s. That part is consistent, though the punch lines inherent in his crimes have more or less gone out the window here.
Of interest is the film’s framing of the Batman-Joker relationship. There are a couple of takes in the source material: mainly the “opposite number” take and the “obsessed stalker” take. Dark Knight takes the latter. The Joker is just a whack-job that won’t leave Batman alone. We’ve all met one of those. The sad thing here is, the set-up is perfect to revisit the characters and their relationship, but trying to step into the Joker role after Ledger is not something too many actors are going to feel comfortable doing.
The current Batman franchises continues to be a model for what you can do if you put a quality creative staff on a film and keep the studio at arm’s length. Again, we end up with an independent film with an obscenely large production budget. The biggest flaw in Batman Begins was Katie Holmes being overpowered on screen by the rest of the cast. Katie’s busy with other things, so Maggie Gyllenhaal steps in as serious upgrade as the love interest who’s now seeing another DA Harvey Dent, played by another actor with serious indie cred and ability, Aaron Eckhart. Add in the well cast Christian Bale and two supporting actors who seldom do wrong in Michael Caine & Morgan Freeman and you can see where it would be hard to mess up the movie. They didn’t.
If you spend a fair amount of time in Chicago, they aren’t making any secret about where the movie version of Gotham is. Most of the outside scenes are in identifiable locations, there’s a chase scene on Lower Wacker (although the bums are cleaner in the film), and the view from Bruce Wayne’s penthouse is very recognizable, even if the angle’s from too low a floor. If you want to make a joke about Chicago’s recent run of police corruption scandals and being so visibly cast as Gotham, now’s the time.
There are enough schemes within schemes to make me not discuss too much by way of plot details, other than to say the franchise is set to continue in a similarly dark direction for another film or two. In the comic, Robin was introduced partially to lighten the feature up a bit, and my guess is they’ll want to go another film before introducing a young sidekick.
What makes the current incarnation of Batman different from the others is it shies away from the light science fiction touches around the character more than the other franchises. The technology toys are dealt with in a Bond-link manner, complete with Morgan Freeman as a Q-proxy. If you look at the Batman rogues gallery, Ra’s Al Ghul was introduced without his Lazarus Pit, which brings him back to life in the comic. The Joker hasn’t had his body (and possibly mind) changed in a chemical reaction. The Scarecrow is just chemical warefare, that’s close enough to Bond. There’s another villain who’s just been in an accident. All kind of grounded in the realm of possibilities.
Catwoman is just a burglar with style, so she fits into the universe. The Riddler could be played with a more serious bent and fit. The Penguin has a strange appearance, but the trick umbrellas might be too much schtick for the mise en scene of the series. Poison Ivy is increasingly a science fiction-based character, depending on what kind of control over plants she has. Mr. Freeze is science fiction. The Man-Bat is science fiction. The Mad Hatter is both science fiction and schtick. Killer Croc is science fiction. The Bane and his super-steroids teeters on the fence. Clayface is science fiction. Dr. Hugo Strange, crazy psychologist is in the realm of possibilities, but the brainwashed Batman is too done to death for a film. KGBeast doesn’t work as well, post-cold war.
It be interesting to see if the series can continue being so grounded for the long haul. In the meantime, go see this one. It’s very good and creepier than you’re expecting.