[WARNING—THIS HAS MORE SPOILERS THAN A CAMARO DEALERSHIP]
Here stands a movie that does what few films do anymore: it raises expectations to an almost impossible level and then meets them. Certainly, this is not the perfect movie, but even its minimal almost-invisible flaws are forgivable in the midst of such cinematic excellence.
One possible way to measure any movie is by the passion of the filmmaker. THE LORD OF THE RINGS was clearly made by a man who loved the story, not just the luck-of-the-draw Hollywood schlock who happened to know the right people at the right time. One of the primary reasons that the films based on the work of Tolkien worked was due to the simple fact that Peter Jackson loves Tolkien. The love George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK shines in strong contrast to all the sequels that followed. Still far brighter than most adventures to hit the screen, TEMPLE, CRUSADE, and SKULL were still only echoes of a passion that was captured and lost in the first film.
This being said, it is clear that Christopher Nolan is a BATMAN freak. He was not merely the next schlock-apparent and his passion for the character did not fade after one film. Nolan loves the story of BATMAN and therefore is the ideal writer/director to bring him to the screen even in the aftermath of the admirable Tim Burton versions. Nolan’s passion for the character has accomplished a cinematic achievement of heroic proportions.
Even aside from the story itself, THE DARK KNIGHT defeated one of the most dangerous opponents that a film can face in modern marketing: overexposure and excessive expectation. Often, when the PR machine raises the demands of the viewers to extreme levels, a film can end up defeating itself. This results in the film having to compete with the unlimited imaginations of the audience and no movie can stand up to that. However, THE DARK KNIGHT took on the challenge, rising to meet its own image, and regardless of the hype and hoopla, captured our wildest dreams almost perfectly.
So to briefly address the minimal “flaws,” here are a few shortcomings, which seem nitpicky inside such a powerful motion picture. Yet, for your consideration: it was a mistake to include the Scarecrow. His cameo seemed a sloppy attempt to tie up a loose end with little effort. It would have been better to eliminate him from this story completely and deal with him later. As it is, he is there and gone with the same flavor as a voice-over stating, “previously on BATMAN.”
The China extradition was an unusual and interesting angle for Batman, but mostly came across as a Bond-wannabe tangent. The subplot made the film a little smarter, but it also made it a little more cluttered, and contrived, ultimately taking screen time away from what really worked about the film.
This also ties in with a final slight complaint. One of the primary themes of the film (corruption) would have been damaged without the subplot of the Rise and Fall of Harvey Dent, but it hurt the film a little for two reasons. Instead of investing in a long-term build-up for a future film, a whole villain is introduced and “spent” quickly, not really allowing much time for Harvey’s darkening at a realistic pace. Granted, having your girlfriend murdered in a gruesome and psychologically-shredding way, topped off with a hideous deformity might indeed push you over the edge, but the speed of Harvey’s Fall felt rushed. By the way, the deformity was fantastic—as far as deformities go.
However, the second and primary cost of going through the whole ascension/decision of Two-Face was taking screen time away from the one we all really wanted to hang out with: the Joker. No doubt, Harvey Dent is an interesting tragic hero, but when you have a villain like the Joker and a surprisingly excellent presentation via Heath Ledger, you shouldn’t waste any time on much of anything else. We want the Joker. It was almost annoying to follow the story anywhere else.
In passing, it should be said that the new and improved Rachel Dawes, courtesy of Maggie Gyllenthal, was decent. This writer frankly saw nothing disturbing in Mrs. Cruise’s performance in the first film, but this worked well too. The demise of Rachel was definitely a shocker, but it fit.
One potential downfall that THE DARK KNIGHT could have fallen into was an overdose of gadgets. In the hands of another writer/director, we might have been confronted with the BATPLANE, the BATPHONE, and the BATBLUETOOTH all in one movie. The flying wrist shards and the sonar system are both appropriate and cool. But far and away the best new gizmo is obviously the BATCYCLE—which gets cool points not only for design and function, but also the means by which it is introduced. The choice to make it a break-away section of the BATMOBILE was one of the best decisions Nolan made. At that specific moment, a wave of cool flooded over the audience, making all those in attendance slightly cooler themselves just by being in its presence.
As expected, the Joker steals the film. When the news of Heath Ledger being cast in the role reached the public, the reaction was not overwhelmingly positive. But Ledger is excellent. His research on the mentally disturbed (which some claim may have indirectly caused his death) fleshed out the villain of the Joker in yet a new way. The gestures and tics effectively complimented the whimsical voice. No actor in his right mind would overlook the work of Jack Nicholson in the same role (albeit, it was a tad more cartoony under Burton’s guidance), but Ledger delivers a realistic and frightening psychopath that poses a powerful threat to our hero without overacting or drawing attention to the actor inside. When you watch Jack Nicholson playing the Joker, to some extent you are thinking, look how well Jack Nicholson plays the Joker. When you watch THE DARK KNIGHT, you are given the Joker—not just Heath Ledger playing the Joker. The actor seamlessly becomes the character—a sign of a true professional. There were so many great moments where Ledger made the role shine, from the disappearing pencil to the nurse using hand sanitizer, but the defining moment, as one viewer pointed out, was when the Joker fell from the high rise, cackling all the way.
One of the best things about a Nolan movie is that you are given some memorable lines to mull over, serving ultimately as foundations for strong themes. “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stranger” is clever and will be quoted forever. But the primary statement to ponder was mentioned twice. “You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain.” Although not a solid truth, it does provide a platform for building many conversations of impressive depth. One of the key elements that makes the character of Batman so intriguing is the danger of the darkness inside him. Given the blatant but somber pun of the movie’s title along with these deeper kinds of concepts woven throughout the film, even the cliché of “The night is always darkest before the dawn,” takes on a new and far more interesting meaning.
One final observation can serve as an outright hope. Early in the film, when Bruce Wayne is talking to Alfred about upgrading his body armor, Bruce is primarily concerned about the new material being able to withstand a dog attack. In passing, Alfred says something along the lines of “Probably, and maybe even attacks from cats.” Here’s to hoping that this is a subtle clue about the next film. Although whoever continues the role of the Joker has his work cut out for him following Ledger, great anticipation gathers around the possibility of what Christopher Nolan might do with the character of Selina Kyle. RECOMENDATION: See this. Own this. Whenever you are feeling less than cool, watch the BATCYCLE eject from the BATMOBILE. Repeat.