Don’t listen to the fanboys. The Dark Knight does not transcend the super-hero genre, reinvent it, or do anything of the kind. I don’t mean to suggest the movie isn’t good. On the contrary, I find Christopher Nolan’s pulp epic reaches the pinnacle of what a flick about a guy dressed as a rubber bat chasing after a green-haired lunatic and a lawyer with half his face torn off can achieve. I just happen to believe such mythic tales always had the potential to be thought of as high art.
Set a year or so after 2005’s Batman Begins, The Dark Knight retells the fateful meeting between Batman (Christian Bale) and the Joker (Heath Ledger), known to comics fans as the caped crusader’s ultimate nemesis. To some extent, one could view the film as a remake of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), except the familiar bits come across less like tributes than occasions for Nolan to snark, “This is how you do it!” Consider what happens after one of the two iconic figures falls off a tall building. As I mentioned in the previous chapter’s review, Batman has outgrown the adolescent excesses of the nineties.
In fact, The Dark Knight doesn’t play like a classic super-hero showdown so much as a crime drama in the vein of The Godfather (1972) or Heat (1995). Nearly a dozen characters are at play here, and each gets an arc relating to “the battle for Gotham’s soul”. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), for example, struggles with protecting Batman’s identity while objecting to his increasingly desperate methods, and Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) tries to clean up the streets with a unit he knows to be corrupt. Things go exactly as you might expect, and I love the way Oldman conveys all of his character’s guilt and desperation with a single line: “We have to save Dent! I have to save Dent!”
As in the last film, the entire cast does a fantastic job, including the newcomers. I’m especially impressed with Aaron Eckhart as district attorney Harvey Dent and with Maggie Gyllenhaal, who takes over the role of Rachel Dawes, injecting the character with more maturity all the while emulating Katie Holmes’ mannerisms. However, the most memorable performance belongs to Heath Ledger, of course, partly because the actor passed away during postproduction, mainly because he found the perfect note for the story’s only larger-than-life character: a depraved nihilist (not an anarchist as the screenwriters claim) whose sole ambition is to debase the human spirit, unrestrained by reason, compassion, or even self-interest.
Jim Emerson, Roger Ebert’s editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, once complained that the hero and villain’s performances differ too much in scale, resulting in an uneven conflict. I think he’s misinterpreting the movie. The Dark Knight doesn’t pertain to good versus evil, but rather man versus evil. Largely divorced from the source comic book character, Ledger’s Joker acts as a force of nature upon which all the other characters must test their resolve. That Batman should come out a more compassionate human being than even Gotham’s “white knight” is what defines him as a hero, not his ability to punch out the bad guy.
This is not to say the film lacks in pulse-pounding action. In fact, we get a wide variety of set pieces, including an opening bank heist that grows more demented with every casualty, a Hong Kong kidnapping reminiscent of the Mission: Impossible movies, and a riveting car chase that flows just fine as is, thank you very much, Mr Emerson. My favourite, though, relates to the central discussion of heroism as Batman must pounce on Gotham’s finest to rescue hostages mistaken for terrorists. I love everything about the scene, from the caped crusader’s inventive use of sonar to Hans Zimmer’s sweeping score, which had me on the verge of tears (happy ones, I assure you).
Most of all, I admire the climactic battle’s thematic implications: whereas action heroes take down the guilty in the name of glory, true super-heroes rescue the innocent at any cost to their reputation. If that’s not enough to inspire reflection on human ethics, consider the dilemma posed to two nearby ferries as part of the Joker’s diabolical scheme: both boats are set to explode unless one group of passengers detonates the other first. Would you push the button? Do you think others would? The movie’s answer proves nothing short of spectacular.
Indeed, The Dark Knight moves and challenges its viewers in a way usually associated with high art (high art with a rubber suit no less). Sure, the screenplay overshoots at times with dialogue that belongs on the stage rather than on the screen (“He took the best of us!”), but how many comic book adaptations have produced iconic lines like, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” and left you wondering whether the filmmakers were referring to the protagonist, his shining foil, or the very mechanics of morality.