Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight

(This review contains spoilers.)

Christopher Nolan has done a rare thing - created a sequel that is better than the original; even more rare, he has created a summer blockbuster that stays absolutely pure to previously-established characters and added layers of complexity to a story that we've never seen in a comic book film.

The Dark Knight
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine

Not since Cloverfield has there been this much pre-movie hype for a film. This is thanks to The Dark Knight's massive viral marketing campaign, which included viral websites, online games that revealed pictures from the movie, actual campaign rallies in major cities for the fictional Harvey Dent, sending fans real cell phones with recorded calls from the Joker and Lieutenant Jim Gordon, a made-up newspaper called The Gotham Times, and more. Read a near-complete synopsis of the campaign here. Needless to say, the company behind this campaign should be pleased with their efforts, since the movie has already broken the record for highest opening day sales of all time. And besides all of the online work, the trailer won the prestigious Golden Trailer Award for Trailer of the Year.

Another aspect that added to The Dark Knight's hype was that Nolan decided to shoot about 20 minutes of the movie with IMAX cameras. This has never been done before in a Hollywood film. At first, I didn't really think it would make that much difference, since the IMAX experience is generally overrated and not worth the extra money. However, by actually shooting for the medium, Nolan blew away expectations and the result is something that literally caused a collective gasp from the audience I saw the film with. If you can make it to an IMAX theater, the experience is totally worth whatever extra cost may be involved - in fact, you can't truly experience the movie the way it was intended if you just see it in regular theaters. Trust me, even if you've already seen the movie once, try to get out and check it out in IMAX - it's that cool.

The other obvious element that sent the publicity for the movie skyrocketing was the accidental overdose of Heath Ledger. The dude had talent, ladies and gentlemen. His Joker was (in my opinion) by far the best role he's ever played, and it's fitting that the last full role he ever completed will be his most memorable. Nolan's world of Batman is dark, realistic, and layered - and who better to come tearing through it like a shark than The Joker? Heath has done for the Joker what Hopkins did for Hannibal Lecter - inhabit a persona so intensely that you forget there's an actor there at all. There's been talk of Ledger winning the second-ever posthumous Oscar, but no one really knows if that'll happen. Suffice it to say that his performance is already legendary and it's destined to be talked about for years whenever villains in film are mentioned. Amazingly enough, Ledger never watched his performance in the dailies at the end of each day's shoot - he didn't want there to be any consistency to his character at all. There's a great interview with him over at FHM where he says the role is "the most fun he's ever had." So all of those people who assume that he sunk himself so deep into the role that he killed himself can think again. Plus, the guy would go out of his way to get into full makeup (even for scenes that he wasn't being filmed for!) to help his fellow actors react better to his character.

While we're on the topic of The Joker, Nolan and Ledger agreed that the character should represent anarchy and chaos and therefore be as destructive and random as possible throughout the movie. Traditionally, we think of the Joker as more of a "gag" villain who shoots acid out of a flower and occasionally robs a bank. The Joker in The Dark Knight is a much smarter one; one who indirectly supports theories that the character is actually a super-intellect - one of the smartest people in the world, explaining why everyone else thinks he's crazy. "I'm not crazy," he tells some gangsters in the Gotham underworld, and the tone in his voice indicates he's serious. There have long been theories that The Joker is so smart that he figured out Batman's secret identity years ago, but wouldn't dare give him up because, as he tells Batman in the movie, "You're just too much fun." The idea that Batman and The Joker need each other is one that also has been around for years in the comic books and other media: the notion of escalation from the end of Batman Begins is captured in the relationship between the two ends of the spectrum - one who is trying to shake up the status quo, and one who is trying to restore it. In The Dark Knight, The Joker stands for anarchy, which ties back to nihilism. He thinks that nothing matters, and therefore tries to make situations as wild as possible. Even his own history seems contrived and ambiguous, as if he doesn't even care enough about his own past to keep his story straight. He tells different people different stories about how he got the scars on his face, each story being effective for the moment it was told. That's what The Joker believes in - what serves him best right now until he can escape from this world and those who are in it. The "it's all part of the plan" speech that he gives Harvey in the hospital bed is a perfect summation of these beliefs. But Batman gives him new life - an adversary almost as twisted as he is, with whom he can share all of his distorted perceptions of the world. They understand each other, they need each other, and as The Joker says, Batman "complete[s]" him.

Standing between Batman and The Joker is Harvey Dent, brilliantly played by Aaron Eckhart. Dent's political rise and eventual transformation into Two-Face is The Dark Knight's real story arc. Gotham's White Knight (as opposed to Batman, the Dark one), District Attorney Harvey Dent is Batman's one chance to lead a normal life again. With do-gooder Dent cleaning up the streets in a legitimate, legal way, Bruce Wayne can finally hang up his Batcape and pass the hero mantle on to an elected official in Gotham, restoring a sense of normalcy to a city that's been through hell and back. Dent's character is not to be taken lightly - we all know that he is to become Two-Face, but it's mesmerizing to watch him fall to those depths after hitting such extreme heights. Eckhart brings a nuance to the DA that isn't noticed unless you're really looking for it - flashes of the eyes when situations don't quite go his way, and little hints of things to come highlight one of the best performances of the film. It's especially evident in the scene where Dent has captured the assassination conspirator and is trying to frighten him into giving up Rachel's whereabouts. We see that he wants to cross that line into the world of the vigilante, yearning to be Batman (he even claims the mantle in a press conference) while the Caped Crusader ironically wants the opposite. Batman himself steps in, diffusing the situation and reminding Harvey of all he represents to Gotham, not allowing him to go any further. And after Rachel's shocking death due to The Joker's trap, Dent allows The Clown Prince of Crime to talk him over onto the dark side, completing his transformation into Two-Face and showing exactly what can happen when good people are pushed too far. Harvey has lost everything he loves, and there's no going back.

Katie Holmes declined to reprise her role as Rachel Dawes due to "conflicting schedules" (read: Tom wouldn't let her out of the house), so Maggie Gyllenhaal ably stepped into the characters shoes, doing a much better job than Holmes could have anyway. Maggie brings an air of pride to the character that wasn't present in Batman Begins, and showcases a personality that warrants two of the most eligible bachelors in Gotham vying for her attention. The love triangle between Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent, and Rachel Dawes is a key element in The Dark Knight's equation: without Rachel, as we eventually see, nothing goes as planned. Bruce's love for her keeps him hoping that Dent can replace him as Gotham's hero, but Rachel has already fallen for Dent. There has been some discussion about whether or not Batman went after Rachel or Harvey when The Joker gives him the ultimatum: either can be justified, since they are both of equal importance to him on a personal level. But I think I recall him saying "I'm going after Rachel," choosing potential love over the safety of Gotham in Dent's hands. Because what good is a safe Gotham if he can't be safe in it with the woman he loves? Alas, The Joker switched the locations of the two hostages (or did he?), and Batman arrived in time to save Dent instead of Rachel. If he had truly gone after Dent, that would mean that he abandoned Rachel, implying that his love for Gotham outweighs any love for a woman. Both are valid arguments. What did you guys think?

The third group of three (Wayne, Dent, Dawes - Batman, Dent, Joker) can be found in the triumvirate of Batman, Harvey Dent, and Commissioner Gordon. Gordon is the head of the Major Crimes Unit, and the three of them try to clean up the city. It's interesting to see all of the different sets of three that are presented to us in relationships throughout this film (Wayne, his secret identity of Batman, and Alfred, for another). Everything about The Dark Knight, from its fantastic score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard to the ensemble cast and the story, elevated the movie to a level that rises above any other summer blockbuster I can remember.

Here's the part where I go off about a little thing that I picked up that may or may not be legit. Was it just me, or did anyone else think there was an Obama reference when Wayne handed off the power (spying on citizens) to Lucius Fox (black dude) and left the decision to use it in his hands? Regardless of the possible Barack allusion, the technological invention that allowed Wayne to see the location of every cell phone carrying Gotham citizen was directly referencing our own government and the measures we've taken since 9/11 to keep an eye on our own. The destruction of the machine at the end was slightly hopeful for Nolan's dark vision, but a little wishful thinking never hurt anyone.

The storyline of this movie was basically flawless, possessing everything necessary to top the first film and cement this one as the best comic book movie yet. The little things they captured so well - from the Batpod, to Wayne taking off with the Russian ballet - really served the bigger picture to its best possible effect. The only issues I had with it were small ones: why was The Scarecrow featured for like 4 minutes and never heard from again? Why did they kill off Two-Face so soon (or DID they? Hmm...)? Why were none of the other mobsters remotely competent? And, more importantly, why did Bale's Bat-Voice get deeper and more ridiculous as the movie went on? Again, these are minnow-sized problems in an ocean of ass-kickery, but they need to be mentioned nonetheless.

Speaking of Bale, I thought the script didn't quite allow him the acting range that he obtained in Batman Begins. He was pretty much confined to the Spider-Man 2 formula of "I don't want to do this anymore," but that's not Bale's fault. He's still in the top two Batman's ever (Adam West won't be knocked down so easily), but I wish he was allowed to do some more things that we haven't seen in other comic book sequels. I guess there can only be so much originality in one script, and The Joker pretty much held that end down.

As for future sequels, there hasn't been an official announcement made yet as to whether the main players are returning for a third outing. However, with the movie breaking the record for the biggest box office opening in history, I'm sure Warner Brothers will pay whatever they need to in order to secure them for the next film in another three or so years. I haven't felt THAT satisfied coming out of a movie theater in a long time. I felt about half of it after Speed Racer, because that was such an unexpected surprise for me. But with The Dark Knight, the hype was SO huge that I really didn't want to be let down, so I set my expectations a little low. The movie was unbelievable, as you all know by now if you're reading this, and it's a testament to everyone who was involved in the production as to the great product they put out for us. I feel like there's still more to say about this film to do it justice, but I can't think of anything else off the top of my head. If anyone wants to continue discussion, please feel free to do so in the comments and I'll respond there. Until next time...


Ashley said...

"minnow-sized problems in an ocean of ass-kickery..." Awesome.

and yeah I think you're right- as much as I despise the scarecrow (because he terrifies me), I was way surprised that he wasn't featured more in the movie... why even show him if he's not gonna do anything? his lines weren't even significant enough to remember...

but anyway, great review! loved the stuff about Heath loving his role... only because I didn't wanna believe that this role was what pushed him over the edge... or whatever that nonsense was...

breezy said...

"Greatest comic book movie ever"? Really Ben? Have you ever SEEN The Epic Quest for Schneider??

good review, and Dent is only dead in spirit, but two-face still lives on in Arkhum.

Ben Pearson said...

The Epic Quest for Schneider transcends movies altogether and bridges the gap into an "entity."

What did you think about the whole "Joker switching the locations/Batman going after Dent on purpose" thing?

Anonymous said...

i felt completely satisfied with the movie, but i felt sad afterward because it seemed like nolan was planning on maybe reprising the joker role for another film and it would have been interesting to see where he would have gone with it. i also feel like there is no way a third one will come even remotely close to this movie and that is depressing, but let's hope i am surprised

Anonymous said...

i thought it was great that scarecrow was brought back into the film even for a brief period of time because unlike other comic book films it gives you some sense of continuity between the first and the second films. it was obvious that scarecrow wasn't killed so, to me it was awesome for a director to show that he's not afraid to show some continuity and all that. I imagine two face is very much alive and will be seen again.