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The Dark Knight Is A Fresh Look for Comic Book Cinema

The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Nolan and Jonathan Nolan from a story by C. Nolan and David S. Goyer based on the comic book created by Bob Kane
Warner Bros., 2008

The opening sequence of The Dark Knight sets the tone for a truly engaging film, and from there it never really stops. This is a new take for comic book adaptations; it’s not the same feel as previous entries in the genre. The most noticeable difference is the film’s restraint in not trying to make every scene a giant action sequence. Here, decisions and consequences are action. It is suspenseful and most importantly, exhilirating.

In The Dark Knight, a new villain named The Joker (Heath Ledger) has just robbed a bank full of money belonging to a bunch of criminals, a wake-up call to arms to get their attention, band together, and kill Batman (Christian Bale). Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, is juggling a lot of responsibility as the multi-billionaire businessman, protecting Gotham, and trying to win back his lady, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal for Katie Holmes). Rachel is seeing the new Gotham DA, Harvey Dent, the future Two-Face, (Aaron Eckhart), who is working with Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) to try to lock up many of these aformentioned criminals. Dent seems to like the idea of Batman, while Gordon is still pretending that Batman is wanted, that he’s broken the law by taking it into his own hands and needs to surrender.

Many of these plot points are seen as great opportunity by The Joker, who like the devil pretends to want one thing but sets the table for another, and makes the outcome the decision of others. All he wants his chaos. His first stroke is to make the announcement that people will die until Batman unmasks, which obviously puts pressure on the hero. Batman wants to make Dent Gotham’s savior, helping him nab hundreds of criminals without any credit, a ruse that he hopes will get Rachel back. She only will go back to him if Gotham doesn’t need Batman. But as the film unfolds, it’s obvious Gotham needs him more than ever.

Returning to help Batman is his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and gadget-meister Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Fox really emerges, in his limited action, as a moral compass for the dark knight.

This film is so much more than a big summer action film; it’s in fact not even accurate to describe it as such. With The Joker pulling the strings, it’s about making the right decision but suffering the consequences for it. The reason why much of the advance word has had surprising comparisons to legendary films and literature is that the dynamic between Dent, The Joker, and Batman is a complex conflict of wants and needs and the power of perception. It is the stuff of Shakespeare, and much like Shakespeare, it will require multiple viewings to understand and appreciate fully. It’s the sort of movie that makes you think, “What if this character had made an alternate choice?” You can have all sorts of fun tugging with those dilemmas.

Bale pulls off a pretty amazing trick, one that mirrors Batman’s in that he’s willing to step out of the way to give others the spotlight. His hoarse line readings as Batman are a bit hard to get past, but his character and the way he deals with it are all first-rate, opening the door for the likes of Aaron Eckhart to shine as Dent and then later, as Two-Face (a horrifying creation), and of course the late Heath Ledger.

I can’t really say anything about Ledger that hasn’t already been said, but his performance is the stuff of legend. I remember back in 1989, and for the many years after many of us couldn’t really see anyone topping Jack Nicholson, his performance in Tim Burton’s Batman an event all in of itself. And again, it’s inaccurate to say this performance “tops” it. It’s like comparing rock and roll to jazz. But now it’s likely that Ledger’s Joker will be the iconic one for so many reasons. While his take is darker and scarier, with the genius stroke from the brothers Nolan not to give him an official origin story (it keeps changing), he can also be sinisterly funny. He’ll put a smile on your face, all right. Ledger’s performance is a celebration of life rather than a memory of his death.

The Dark Knight solidifies Christopher Nolan as one of the best filmmakers this decade. I still can’t stop watching his 2006 flick The Prestige. And of course, 2001’s Memento is still hailed as a classic, a tremendously inventive film that few have topped over the years. When you add his first entry to this revamped franchise, Batman Begins, (and I guess there are a few who will still count Insomnia, which I may have to re-watch one day) I’m not sure anyone has a comparable amount of quality work. This is probably his best, although I have a feeling I’m not entirely sure how good this movie really is. When I see it again, and again, and then in IMAX (which is the format in which much of the film was shot), I might have a final decision. But that’s what I think makes great films; it has a lot of replay value and gets better over time.


Comment from Doc
Time: July 18, 2008, 1:10 pm

Can’t wait to see it, like everyone else. I have a feeling this might come pretty close to edging out Spidey for opening and total gross. Good to see some thought being put into a summer film

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