The Joker (Heath Ledger) goes postal in The Dark Knight. (photo TM & copyright DC Comics)
It’s in the books: The Dark Knight had the biggest opening of all time and may well be the first film to make $500 million plus since Titanic. This is a true testament to an ingenious marketing campaign and the public’s hunger for a real movie event in a dark, economically depressed time. Maybe we wanted a bleak blockbuster, because The Dark Knight is one hard, cruel film. Calling it the most ambitious comic-book film ever made almost sells it short, as director Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight aspires to be nothing less than a crime saga on par with Heat, The French Connection, and Seven. It’s a remarkable experience, perhaps a bit overlong, but nonetheless a raising of the bar for both the Batman franchise and the entire aesthetic of a summer tent-pole film.
The Dark Knight picks up immediately where Batman Begins ended. Batman (Christian Bale) is weary, but making progress. Alongside new crusading DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Batman has squeezed the mob to its breaking point, rounding up dozens of bosses and lieutenants on RICO charges. Enter the Joker. Given no back story, no motives, and one of the more memorable introductions to a screen villain (the disappearing pencil bit), Heath Ledger’s hurricane rendering of the classic villain is bone-rattling. The mob hires him to stop the siege, but little do they know they have made a deal with the devil. This Joker has no interest in money or even power; as he puts it, he just does things. Faced with such an extreme, malevolent force, Batman, James Gordon (Gary Oldman), and the rest of Gotham recoil like feral animals attacked and begin to bend their own “rules” as a last defense.
This is the central movement of The Dark Knight and it’s both a heady and disconcerting parable for post-9/11 times. The film revolves around Ledger’s larger-than-life Joker. Like Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurhh of No Country for Old Men, The Joker is a force of almost metaphysical evil, forcing the protagonists of Gotham into terrible corners. Ledger truly is as good as you’ve heard—it’s a transformative, unhinged performance that bottles the dark tonic of classic villainy. The decision to not explain away his evil with pop psychology or clichéd background was very wise. The Joker becomes both legendary and purely visceral, and forms the burning core of the film.
Budgeted at $185 million and featuring very little CGI, The Dark Knight has an expansive grandeur to it. The main action sequence featuring Batman chasing a semi truck in his batcycle is remarkable, as is the Joker’s escape from prison and subsequent attack on a hospital. Filmed with remarkable definition in Chicago, The Dark Knight has some of the most stunning aerial cinematography I’ve ever seen.
There are two flaws to The Dark Knight. The first is Bale. Though he is outstanding as Bruce Wayne, anytime he speaks more than a couple of lines as Batman, it feels a bit silly. The second flaw is the Harvey Dent/Two Face arc. It’s forced and pads an already too-long film.
Nevertheless, The Dark Knight is the marquee event of the year, the one movie you must see in the theaters. To think, just seven years ago a little film by Chris Nolan called Memento was making the festival rounds. A-
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