Where to begin with Batman? The franchise has, after all, been going for nigh on 20 years now, and now we come to the 6th installment, The Dark Knight.
When you think about it, the number of Hollywood A-Listers who were in Batman and Robin, the entirely forgettable Batman movie of the mid-ninties, it is a bit of a shock that between them they managed to turn out the pile of crap that was. I mean, Clooney, Thurman, Schwarzenegger, Sliverstone, and sure, Macpherson even, and with Bruckheimer directing, you’d really hope you got something more for your money. Between that and Batman Forever (Kilmer, Kidman, Carey and Lee-Jones? No?), you’d have thought Tim Burton’s dark and brooding vision of Gotham was lost entirely in a chase for easy money that big names bring.
Little wonder then that Batman Begins wasn’t attempted until many years later, and with a cast far shorter on the A-List side. But aren’t we all glad it was? Dignity was restored to the franchise, even if in a post-Incredibles “No Capes” world, the cape really had to be justified. Not only did writer-director Christopher Nolan show that you could avoid crass blockbusterism, but you didn’t necessarily need to set it in Burton’s alternate reality to make bad guys and good guys work. Batman Begins established that the characters behind the masks could be real, that Gotham really could be somewhere, a true alt-New York.
The Dark Knight continues in that vein. While the broad arc of the story remains true to the comic cannon, Heath Ledger’s Joker is far more grounded, far more visceral than Jack Nicholson’s first incarnation of the Joker. Burton’s vision was a comic book brought to life, and it’s part of what he does best. Here, we have an entirely different beast, one more accessible and requiring less suspension of disbelief, even if the exotic gadgets do step up a notch from the restraint shown in the previous movie.
Much has been said about Heath Ledger and his role as The Joker, and I’m sure much more will be said, amongst them the push for a posthumous Oscar. On the basis of his performance here, it’s hard to see who his competition will be. In The Dark Knight, the Joker is not merely a criminal with a quirk; he’s a full-blown psychopath. Ledger lives and breathes the role, and we are richer for it.
No superhero movie is complete without an arch-nemsis to get in the way, but this movie is so dominated by Ledger’s performance and the Joker’s characterisation that the focus of the movie is more properly said to be the Joker, rather than Batman. It is his actions which drive the plot throughout, and Batman is left playing catchup.
It is a treat to see a superhero movie that both takes itself seriously and pulls it off. Batman has always been the most accessible superhero – his special power is money, not some supernatural, inexplicable power for which we are given pithy explanations. Batman Begins made a serious effort to establish a plausible background for Batman’s abilities, and The Dark Knight takes it to the next logical step, showing Batman still has human frailties. Wayne tires during the day, sleeping in a meeting. After a fight, we see him stitching himself up – he isn’t invulnerable.
While this movie is far from perfect – inexplicable and needless plot points seem to abound, possibly suggesting an even longer movie left (thankfully) on the cutting floor – it definitely is one of the better ones released in the last few years, and strangely enough one where the sequel is more in-depth than the first. Between this and Hancock, I’ve had my hope in the superhero genre renewed.
Christian Bale isn’t my perfect idea of Bruce Wayne – something about him doesn’t live up to the rich-boy image, possibly enforced by another Nolan movie, The Prestige, but he is a capable actor who manages to live the role and make it rise above the standard man-in-leather-tights. Maggie Gyllenhal is a great replacement for Katie Holmes, but is under-used – possibly, again, left on the cutting room floor.
Aaron Eckhart and Gary Oldman round out a solid cast, showcasing some of the better character actors currently at work. Eckhart particularly seems to take his Thank You for Not Smoking role and inject it with a sense of gravitas, while Oldman has long been unrecognisable from one movie to the next.
Well worth watching – all the better if you can catch it on a giant screen, as its cinematography is masterful. ★★★★☆