July 26, 2008
The Dark Knight (2008)
Ever since its creation in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, the character of Batman became one of the most popular comic book superheroes ever created and, along Superman, the medium' biggest icon (to the point that he can be recognized merely by his silhouette). Naturally, Batman transcended the comic books and is now a major figure of modern pop culture, with multiple adaptations of his adventures to radio, TV and of course film. 45 years after Batman's debut on film (in a serial by Columbia Pictures), Batman returned to the silver screen in Tim Burton's "Batman". The film spawned three sequels, in which the tone set by Burton changed as the director's seat went to Joel Schumacher. Since the series seemed to go nowhere, a reboot of the franchise took place in 2005 with "Batman Begins", starring Christian Bale as Batman and Christopher Nolan directing the film. 3 years later, Nolan and his Batman are back, this time to introduce Batman's eternal enemy to the franchise: the Joker.
In this sequel, millionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) continues his crusade against Gotham city's crime lords under the identity of the masked vigilante Batman. Now, a mysterious man who wears clown makeup and calls himself The Joker (Heath Ledger) begins a series of crimes through the city, but while at first Batman dismisses the newly arrived criminal, he soon changes his mind when the Joker wins the trust of the local mobsters and begins to terrorize Gotham. The psychotic clown soon proves to be more than a normal bank robber, taking everyone by surprise, including the city's new District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who sees in the Joker a threat to his attempt of stopping the mobster's activity. With this common goal, Dent and Batman begin an uneasy alliance, which gets far more complicated as Dent has been dating Wayne's old flame, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The conflict between Dent, Batman and The Joker will have serious consequences in the Dark Knight's life.
Based on a story by David S. Goyer and director Christopher Nolan, the screenplay (by Nolan himself and his brother Jonathan) is definitely one of the strongest elements of the movie, as "The Dark Knight" takes Batman back to its crime fiction roots in a carefully constructed story that showcases not only the epic physical and psychological showdown between Batman and the Joker, but also the tortuous and destructive state of unrest that the murderous clown brings to those decided to capture him, specially its crucial effects in Harvey Dent's life. While still a comic book film filled with explosive action scenes, "The Dark Knight" is more a character study than a tale of adventures, as it explores the psychology of its characters like few films of its kind have done in the past. Filled with constant twists and turns as Batman tries to figure out the Joker's next move, "The Dark Knight" is a story truly captures the essence of Batman by being a police procedural movie taken to the extreme.
And as a director, Christopher Nolan also follows that crime thriller route as well and so, instead of delivering a typical action film he keeps things subtle and lets the screenplay flow as its complex characters take over the scene. This is not to say that there isn't action scenes in the film, there are a couple that really show Nolan has finally learned how to craft visually engaging action scenes (something "Batman Begins" lacked, in my opinion), but while there are several amazing scenes, he never lets action to overrule the characters and the focus is always on the psychological side of the things. With cinematographer Wally Pfister and composers James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer by his side, Nolan creates a gritty portrait of Gotham city that while probably lacking the visual majesty of previous incarnations, the city feels like another character that perfectly reflects the psychology of its inhabitants and the anarchic state of terror that the Joker's actions and crime as a whole have created.
The Nolans' screenplay is truly a gem filled with great and complex characters, and fortunately the cast took great advantage of this in their performances, as most are of excellent quality. Heath Ledger's much touted performance as the Joker is certainly wonderful and truly lives up to its hype, mixing all the previous incarnations of the psychotic character (from comics, film and TV) into one and becoming what's probably the ultimate portrait of the Joker in any medium. However, I feel the true star of the show is Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, whose character faces the most development in the film and Eckhart shines as Dent at both his best times and his harsh times, and I must say it's awesome what he does considering his character lacks the visual flair that both Batman and the Joker have. Speaking of Batman, Christian Bale offers a more mature dark knight this time, although now he faces the same problem that Michael Keaton had: his hero is easily overshadowed by the villains.
This last thing is something that was heavily criticized in the Burton films, the fact that Batman wasn't as interesting as his villains, but I guess it's something difficult to avoid with characters like the Joker. The rest of the cast is also remarkable, with Michael Caine stealing every scene he is in, Morgan Freeman being quite effective as Lucius Fox, and Gary Oldman delivering a subtle, yet quite moving performance as Lt. Gordon. Maggie Gyllenhaal takes the role Katie Holmes played in "Batman Begins" and gives it a presence that Holmes lacked in the first movie. Overall the cast is remarkable, and is the icing of the cake in a movie that literally has everything to become a classic of its genre in the future, because while "The Dark Knight" may lack that visual grandiosity of other superhero films, it has an engaging story that's clever, intriguing and showcases its characters in a way that only comics had been done in the past, and to better yet, it's a movie that everyone (not only comic book fans) can enjoy.
Among the many superheroes of comic book history, Batman has been one who has suffered the most diverse interpretations through the years (from Noir fiction to camp classic to Gothic nightmare and back), and that's because the characters persona and myths really work well for writers wanting to pose exciting and interesting ideas through him. Christopher Nolan's vision is no exception, as there are quite a lot of good themes explored in it. Powerful, brutal, and insanely clever, "The Dark Knight" is a wonderful experience that's easily one of the best crime thrillers done in the decade. It truly is what Batman was supposed to be.