There’s a beautiful high-angle shot, early in The Dark Knight, that looks down on Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in full Batman regalia as he perches atop a Gotham skyscraper, surveying the city he lives to protect, then leaping off and spreading his majestic bat wings to swoop down into the night. Bruce’s trajectory is also the film’s. It traces a descent into moral anarchy, and each of its major characters will hit bottom. Some will never recover, broken by the touch of evil or by finding it, like a fatal infection, in themselves. The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s second chapter in his revival of the DC Comics franchise, will hit theaters with all the hoopla and fanboy avidity of the summer season’s earlier movies based on comic books. It’s the fifth, and three of the first four (Iron Man, Wanted and Hellboy II) have been terrific or just short of it. (The Incredible Hulk: not so hot.) It’s been one of the best summers in memory for flat-out blockbuster entertainment, and in the wow category, the Nolan film doesn’t disappoint. True to format, it has a crusading hero, a sneering villain in Heath Ledger’s Joker, spectacular chases — including one with Batman on a stripped-down Batmobile that becomes a motorcycle with monster-truck wheels — and lots of stuff blowing up. Even the tie-in action figures with Reese’s Pieces suggest this is a fast-food movie.
But Nolan has a more subversive agenda. He wants viewers to stick their hands down the rat hole of evil and see if they get bitten. With little humor to break the tension, The Dark Knight is beyond dark. It’s as black — and teeming and toxic — as the mind of the Joker. Batman Begins, the 2005 film that launched Nolan’s series, was a mere five-finger exercise. This is the full symphony.
A Better Class of Criminal
Gotham has a new white knight: a fearless district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who’s determined to nab malefactors through the law with the same gusto that Batman, the dark knight, applies using his gadgets and charisma. The Mob (led by Eric Roberts) they can handle, with the help of stalwart police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman). But the Joker — this guy is nuts. He does deals with the Mob, then crosses them up. He makes a point with his pencil by ramming it into a gangster’s head. “This town,” he says, “deserves a better class of criminals.” So do action movies, and here he is, vowing to bring down Batman and Dent, just for the mad fun of it.
In its rethinking and transcending of a schlock source, The Dark Knight is up there with David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of The Fly. It turns pulp into dark poetry. Just as that movie found metaphors of cancer, AIDS and death in the story of a man devolving into an insect, so this one plumbs the nature of identity. Who are we? Has Bruce lost himself in the myth of the hero? Is his Batman persona a mission or an affliction? Can crusading Dent live down the nickname (Two-Face) some rancorous cops have pinned on him? Only the Joker seems unconflicted. He knows what he is: an “agent of chaos.” Your worst nightmare.
No, really. This villain, as conceived by Nolan and his scriptwriter brother Jonathan and incarnated with chilling authority by Ledger, is not the elegant sadist of so many action films, nor the strutting showman played by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. He isn’t a father figure or a macho man. And though he invents several stories about how he got his (facial and psychic) scars, he’s not presented as the sum of injustices done to him. This Joker is simply one of the most twisted and mesmerizing creeps in movie history.
And the actor, who died in January at 28 of an accidental prescription-drug overdose, is magnificent. Echoing the sly psychopathy and scary singsong voice of Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (Hannibal Ledger!), Ledger carries in him the deranged threat of a punk star like Sid Vicious, whom he supposedly took as one of the models for his character. The Joker observes no rules, pursues no grand scheme; he’s the terrorist as improv artist. Evil is his tenor sax, Armageddon his melody. Why, he might blow up a hospital or turn ordinary people into mass murderers to save their own lives.
The Joker may be insane, but he’s a shrewd judge of character. He knows that Batman has two vulnerable spots: his girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, assuming the role Katie Holmes had in the first film) and his hidden identity. So the Joker starts preying on Rachel, and he says he’ll stop terrorizing Gotham if Batman will come out from under the mask. A modest request from the bin Laden of movie villains, yet Bruce is reluctant. Or rather, the film is, since the informing principle of any franchise is perpetuation of the series. No secret, no Batman — just a moneybags with a Messiah complex.
The other would-be hero on a downward spiral is the district attorney. He’s brave and ballsy enough to fight the Mob and the Joker, but when a tragedy makes his guilt roil, Dent gets bent. Old Two-Face has a mission of his own, and like the Joker, he can be a one-man plague — but with some of the poignance of classic tragedy.
Free Fall to Destiny
The mayhem and torture wreaked here, by saint or scum, are so vivid and persistent that it’s a wonder, and a puzzle, why The Dark Knight snagged a PG-13 rating. (Don’t take your 9-year-old son unless you think he’d enjoy seeing a kid just like him tremble in fear while a gun is held to his head by a previously sympathetic character.) But kids would have trouble following the movie, let alone understanding it. For teens and adults, it’s a strap-yourselves-in trip, handsome and assured as only a big-budget picture can be. (Part of it was shot in the IMAX process, which lends the action scenes a startling clarity and depth.) And for reassurance, Nolan brings back old friends from Batman Begins: Michael Caine as Bruce’s butler Alfred and Morgan Freeman as Fox, who takes care of Bruce’s toys.
Actually, they’re just diversions from the epochal face-off of Bruce and the Joker. For a good part of the film, when the two embrace in a free fall of souls — one doomed, the other imperiled — you may think you’re in the grip of a mordant masterpiece. That feeling will pass, as the film spends too many of its final moments setting up the series’ third installment. The chill will linger, though. The Dark Knight is bound to haunt you long after you’ve told yourself, Aah, it’s only a comic-book movie. (Reprinted from TIME)