Usually, I can sit right down to writing after I’ve seen something. I’ll finish the last episode and fire up Notepad (because simpler is better) to write a review. I’ll come back from the theatre and set immediately to writing. But for some reason, I couldn’t do that after The Dark Knight. Immediately after finishing the movie, I didn’t want to write. I wanted to see it again, maybe two more times, before writing anything, but for a variety of reasons, that’s probably not going to happen any time soon. So I sat on it for a few days, pondering it and trying to sort out my opinions. That isn’t to say that I was ambivalent or didn’t have an immediate opinion at the time, it was just the details of it…
[acting, cast, & character]
Everyone that said that Heath Ledger’s performance was amazing and surely Oscar-worthy? They aren’t just spouting fanboyish bullshit. Mr. Ledger’s Joker blew me away. He had the character down to a T. The Joker’s mannerisms, his supreme disregard for order, and his quirky insanity. All perfect. His laughter, his taunting, his eerily in-control demeanor as chaos erupts all around him. Beautiful. Ledger had said he had studied the character based off the very definitive Killing Joke, brilliant source material if there ever was one. Sure, he’s a clown, but he’s a clown with a purpose and a very specific foil role; it isn’t an easy character to capture. As the Batman is my favorite superhero, surely the Joker is my favorite supervillain, so the bar was set high. The glimpses we’d had of his portrayal in the trailers had already riled the crowd, but Ledger surpassed all expectations. A reviewer for the New York Times declared Ledger’s Joker “some sort of masterpiece.” I concur wholeheartedly.
But while Ledger has had all of the spotlight, the talent definitely didn’t end there. Though I’m also quite fond of Two-Face, his role seemed largely eclipsed by the Joker’s in all the trailers, and I had not paid much attention to who had been cast for the role. I subsequently spent the entire movie wondering why the hell Harvey Dent looked so damn familiar (I’m pretty bad with actors, you see). Walking out of the theatre, I almost yelled out “THANK YOU FOR SMOKING” (a great movie, by the way) upon realizing who it had been. Aaron Eckhart was a huge surprise for me — he was as perfect a Dent as Ledger was Joker. Even though they’d taken many liberties with Two-Face’s storyline, Eckhart managed the role extremely well and the core of the character was beautiful. They managed to play on his duality obsession without making it seem over-the-top and ridiculous, and his gradual descent from righteousness and sanity really, really well done. Impressive, impressive all around.
And our final star is of course Mr. Christian Bale as our Dark Knight — it’s a casting that I had already considered to be good. His chiseled American Psycho exterior is oddly appropriate for Bruce Wayne especially. Sure, it’s a billionaire superhero instead of a yuppie serial killer, but they’re both well played facades. His expressions are perfect for Mr. Wayne, and he’s attractive enough for the playboy role to fly. Bale’s Batman though, I never found to be quite as impressive. To be fair, the mask is a difficulty all superhero actors have had to contend with — it hides expressions, which are a key part of all character portrayals. The only thing that really sets one masked person from another is his voice, and I’ve always found Mr. Bale’s Batman voice to be far too forced. The need to change and mask Batman’s voice is certainly understandable, but Bale’s super deep, wannabe Kevin Conroy voice was already distracting and somewhat laughable in Batman Begins. And it’s even deeper in The Dark Knight. Really did not want. Other than that though, Batman wasn’t so bad. The emotion in the Joker interrogation scene was top notch after all.
The rest of the cast is also quite deserving of praise. I hate Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, but he makes a fantastic (thusly promoted) Commissoner Gordon; I love Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. It’s perfect. And Maggie Gyllenhaal is a grand improvement over Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. Really, The Dark Knight has one of the best casts I’ve ever seen with both major and minor roles covered by stellar acting. Someone really knew who to pick his actors.
[story & pacing]
Now the story… this was probably the main reason I felt the need to delay writing this for so long. The short version is that I thought it felt a bit jumbled. The Joker certainly succeed in making it chaotic, in any case. The overarching theme was, judging by the name of the film and the final line of dialogue, supposed have been about Batman and his controversial role within Gotham City. This was also the major theme highlighted in many of the animated shorts collected within Batman: Gotham Knight, along with explorations of Batman’s morals and character. Unfortunately, both themes were lost somewhere in all the explosions and (albiet fantastic) one-liners. The Joker completely stole the show. Mr. Ledger’s performance was brilliant to be sure, but it came at a price — Batman was reduced to just a shadow on stage, disappearing every time you turned around, and there was no one else to hold together the actual structure of the film.
The beginning had started off well enough. District Attorney Harvey Dent was working to crack down on mob crime and needed Batman’s help in side-stepping jurasdiction technicalities. This was great for grappling with the question of whether or not Batman was really an ally to the authorities and the law. As well, the way Rachel was used to connect Bruce Wayne and Mr. Dent was great. For a non-canonical character, I’m really impressed with the way the scriptwriters worked her into the story, making her relevant, useful, and nonobtrusive. Everything was going fine; really, give Dent a different reason for Two-Face to exist and I think we would have had a perfectly good movie there. But then our clown prince of chaos came along and set everything on fire.
It’s appropriate, I suppose, that a character that bills himself as a messenger of chaos should wreck as much havoc as he did. Everything that came after his introduction was rising action, and at some point, it was such a steep ramp up that it became difficult to understand. Too much happened too quickly; we jumped from scene to scene, action to action; there were unpredictable twists, but I feel like we were forced through it all too fast — we didn’t have time to comprehend any of the themes or messages behind it. That isn’t to say that the Joker didn’t prove to be a great (and extremely entertaining) story element. He forced all the characters into situations they would have otherwise never found themselves in, forced them to make spontaneous, difficult decisions. He put the entire city in a hard place. Of course, that is his entire purpose. He even says it himself.
I guess I still have mixed feelings about it. It was really, really fun to watch, but I feel like it could have been more focused, more tightly wrapped up and packaged. Then again, the Joker did definitely contribute to the city’s debate over Batman’s role, so if that was the point of the movie, then the Joker did his job. So maybe, I was just hated the ending, if it could be called that. All that rising action? We never come down from it. We just sort of hit a wall at the end because it’s been a long movie already and we gotta stop somewhere. The Dark Knight felt more like two and a half hour glimpse into a different world than a cohesive film. There is no real beginning as it picks up in some ambiguous amount of time after Batman Begins, and there is no ending because we are not met with resolution.
But it couldn’t have been a longer movie — making it three hours wouldn’t have helped — so maybe it should have been shorter? Like I said, if we had confined the villain to Two-Face, it would have probably worked just as well, if not better. But we had to have the Joker. He is, after all, Batman’s most formidable enemy. They are probably of equal intelligence, wit, and resolve. The Joker is the chaos to Batman’s order. They complete each other as characters. Yin and fuckin’ yang. We had to have him. So then maybe we shouldn’t have spent so much time with Mr. Dent? Maybe we shouldn’t have given so much time to the romantic subplot, as well done as it was? Sure, both Dent and Rachel were brilliantly woven into the Joker’s plans, but… I dunno. Funny thing. As much as I love the Joker, it seems that most of this critique just stems from a lack of tolerance for chaos on my part.
[sound, design, & animation/effects]
For some reason, even though two of my favorite composers — James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer — collaborated on the score, I wasn’t all that impressed. It felt rather like a generic action score, and even though many of the track titles declare them “Joker themed,” they still felt unimpressively moody and plain. Besides, during the movie, background music is largely overshadowed by fantastic dialogue, revving motorcycles and explosions. The animation and effects also felt rather average. The
Batmobile Battank met its untimely demise after an average chase scene, and though I rather liked the Batcycle, it wasn’t super amazing or anything. The other devices Batman uses were pretty interesting though — the sonar imaging (“like submarines!”) phones were smile-worthy, and there were lots of other things to remind us that these are the Batgadgets of the new century, which is always great to see in a historic franchise like this.
[other stuff i feel like mentioning]
I really appreciated all of the jokes in this movie. Some were corny, and some were subtler and cleverer, but just about all of them brought about laughs and smiles. I was also glad to see that the Joker wasn’t the only one making them, and that the humor seemed well-distributed among the characters. It all felt natural too and each type of joke suited the character it came from. Considering they had worked so hard to make The Dark Knight darker and more serious than Batman Begins, the movie definitely gets extra yaypoints for remembering that their main villain is in fact, a clown, and that there can be jokes in even the most serious of moments.
The Dark Knight was a great movie: it had superb acting across the board; its story was relevant and thoughtful, if a bit chaotic; and its technical aspects, while not breathtaking, were still very strong. Its biggest fault is probably in that it leaves a lot to be desired, and I have a hard time imagining that any sequel will be able to fill in all the holes left by this movie. Obviously, a large part of that is because of Mr. Ledger’s inability to reprise his role, which could have very easily been career-making if it wasn’t career-ending. The Dark Knight leaves Gotham City in relative chaos, and the final fate of the Joker is left rather ambiguous (I also felt Two-Face’s fate was rather ambiguous, but Wikipedia says otherwise). The sequel more or less DEMANDS our infamous villain’s return (the Joker declares Gotham his, how can he not return?), but I can’t see Warner Brothers recasting for the role. Indeed, who could possibly step up to the plate after a performance like Ledger’s? And what else could they possibly do?
Ignoring the Joker’s effect on the city in a sequel would be difficult and unpleasant. Puppeting his character from offscreen would be bitterly unsatisfying. What other major villains are there to take his place? Lucius Fox’s offhand comment about cats may point to a possible Catwoman, but Batman villains come in pairs, so who else? The Riddler might be a possibility, considering that Jim Carrey’s 1995 portrayal was rather similar to classic interpretations of the Joker, but it wouldn’t be the same… The Riddler is a fun villain, but I think pretty much everyone pales in comparison to the Joker. So maybe they will end up just recasting for the Joker… in the end, it doesn’t seem like any option is a good option. What a damned predicament.
I’m pissed as hell that Ledger’s dead. When Warner Brothers announced two years ago who they’d casted as our clown, everyone was rather aghast that it was a gay cowboy. Now, he’s a damned god for getting the character down as well as he did. If he was going to die, maybe he really should have just bombed the role and made this less painful for us to deal with. My brother joked in January that it was all a huge publicity stunt and that Mr. Ledger would show up at the world premiere for the movie in full costume, going “Why so serious?” on the red carpet to a crowd of thousands of cameras, laughing. Given the six months between his death and the opening date, this was an unlikely theory from the beginning, but I think I was secretly wishing that it were true for those entire six months.
Rest in peace, Mr. Ledger. Rest knowing that your final (completed) movie blew Spider-Man 3 out of the water and broke half a dozen box office records. Rest knowing that it opening to rave reviews and
a week’s two week’s worth of sold out IMAX tickets. Rest knowing that you won’t be remembered as just a gay cowboy and that you just might score that posthumous Oscar.
I’m still fucking pissed at you though.