All the things you never thought you would see in a Batman film are present in "The Dark Knight." Christopher Nolan's dark, disturbing sequel to 2006's "Batman Begins" pulls off an impossible task: making an epic from a movie with a man in tights. The film also reveals to a mass audience what fans of the characters have known for years - the Joker is nothing to laugh at.
Heath Ledger's final role brings to the screen the Joker that lurked in all comics readers nightmares. In "The Dark Knight," we are given a Joker that is truly dangerous. Just how does Ledger pull it off? Is it that voice? We've never heard him or Joker talk in such a manic, unhinged, and truthful way. Is it that gait? True to the brutal force of nature he is portraying, Ledger even defies the basic form of walking. Is it that his pretty face from teen movies has completely vanished without the aid of expensive prosthetics? Sure, he has scars applied, but most of that face is his, contorted into a primal visage of pure madness. In this portrayal, we are not given the Clown Prince of Crime, or a slick mobster. Instead, we see the raw, arbitrary force of disorder.
Attempting to pull Gotham back from that disorder are our three principle protagonists (there is a reason not to refer to them as "heroes."). In Christian Bale's Batman, we do not see warring identities; at long last, the rumination on dualism is put behind us. Instead, Bale's Batman considers his role and the consequences of his existence. This is made clear when he first meets Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). In the new District Attorney he sees a man who can operate in the light of day and go where Batman cannot. Eckhart's Dent is a tragic soul - we all know his fate, but the film, and his performance, makes us wish Dent would not meet his destiny.
Gary Oldman's James Gordon has, perhaps, the most surprising journey in the film. The only ordinary man in the whole lot, he is pulled into the trajectory of epic forces and must deal with them as only one good cop could. For his efforts, he becomes Commissioner. He also sees his city turned upside down and the true danger that lurks within it.
Morgan Freeman continues to delight as Lucius Fox, re-imagined in this series as Batman's "Q." The back and forth continues between Fox and Batman. The interplay between the two actors is dynamic and a small ray of light in the otherwise dark and twisted story. Fox's unstated acceptance of his employer's choice to be Batman, however, is brought into play for this film as the technology Fox designed becomes perverted by the Dark Knight into a dreadful tool.
The only character seemingly untouched by the darkness is Rachel Dawes, a character brought to life almost effortlessly by Maggie Gyllenhaal. In some ways, the Dawes character is the most thankless role; the forced-in love interest. In this film, however, her character is given something to chew on and Gyllenhaal makes you care enough about the character that her relevance to the film pays off.
Christopher Nolan never meant to be a director of titanic tent-pole films, but he delivers them with grace, confidence, and power. The fights are true to Batman and the chase scenes are electric. If "The Dark Knight" were simply an action film, it would be one of the best. However, what makes the film truly amazing is how it grows beyond its basic remit as a summer action film. The story, guided by the Joker's antics, reveals a dark rumination on the Western World in the twenty-first century. It suggests the line between upstanding citizen and a homicidal clown is not very well defined. The film has a sense of relevance in a way no other superhero movie can claim to suggest. This is a truly amazing feat for any film, never mind one which features an actual building exploding.
That explosion, like most of the stunts and effects in the film, is genuine - it actually occurred for a camera and wasn't created in a computer. Eschewing the trend toward more outlandish uses of green-screen and CGI, Nolan achieved most of his film in camera. A shot of Batman jumping off a Hong Kong high rise is real. That shot of a big rig truck flipping over really happened. The only computer effects to be seen in the film are used to aid in the realization of Two-Face. Even then, the technology is used in such a subtle way, it gives Harvey's fractured soul a reality it has never seen on screen before. These choices gives the film an authenticity few action films can offer these days. It is that verisimilitude that makes so much of the film so terrifying.
Make no mistake; "The Dark Knight" is frightening. Tension ramps up. Blood is spilled. Every body that drops has weight. Every shout is as unsettling as an explosion. As soon as the Joker begins his stage show of terror, you will expect every window and every quiet moment to explode into anarchy. This is not the Superfriends. Scooby and Daphne are no where to be found. Even if they were, they would be strung up on the pillars of Gotham City Hall, broken and still bleeding with a note posted to Scoob's intestines saying, "Good one, Shaggy." The vision of humanity the Joker presents will haunt you.
One of the most surprising aspects of the "The Dark Knight" is its third act. Instead of an orgy of models, stunt work, special effects and a doomsday machine, we are presented with multiple hostage situations that are surprising in their emotional tension and weight. Here, there are no trains, no archrivals in stolen battle armor, or a magic clingfilm "S." Instead, the choices characters are presented with are more gripping and satisfying than a fight that overstays its welcome. Oh, but don't worry, there's still plenty of fighting in the films final half-hour.
"The Dark Knight" continues the ethos established in "Batman Begins." By sticking to a "real interpretation" of the material and characters, mainstream audiences see the true spirit comics fans have always known them to contain. Gone are the days of day-glo villainy. Bat-credit cards and ice skates are a dim memory or fever dream. Instead, the serious undertones of those garish and outlandish four-color ideas are laid bare in their darkest, terrifying forms.
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