Directed by Christopher Nolan. Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Note: I’ve avoided discussion of actual plot points in this review in an effort to stay spoiler-free. As I well know, however, spoilers are different things to different people. If you’ve been reading other reviews of the movie in print and online, it’s unlikely that you’ll encounter anything in this review that will surprise you. However, if you’re like me and want to avoid knowing anything about the film until you see it, it’s probably best that you avoid reading this until you have.
One of the strange things about watching The Dark Knight is that so much of it was filmed in Chicago. Christopher Nolan filmed Batman Begins in this city also, but not much of the city is immediately recognizable in that earlier film. In The Dark Knight, though, the city plays a much bigger role, and I recognized locations throughout. Honestly, it was a little distracting at first. It’s tough to believe in a city in desperate peril when you can see places you go to all the time (yes, I know – insert Chicago joke here).
And I’ll be up front about it; this is not a movie without flaws. After a good opening scene, the Nolans decide to tie up a loose end from the first film in a very half-assed way. There’s a trip to Hong Kong that technically fits in the story but feels like it would be more at home in a Justice League movie. And as much as I hate to say it, the filmmaking is occasionally sloppy; more than once I found myself asking questions about what I had just seen and even whether characters were alive or dead.
Yet I’m more than willing to put all that aside, because The Dark Knight is the most thoughtful, suspenseful, and even outright terrifying movie I’ve seen all year. The Nolan brothers up the ante from Batman Begins considerably, not just in terms of action spectacle but thematic development. The film is a landmark accomplishment of its genre, finally moving the comic book movie irrevocably beyond the formula of hero vs. bad guy and into something that asks hard questions about the world we live in with no easy answers to be found.
We begin shortly after Batman Begins leaves off, with Batman teaming with Lieutenant Jim Gordon to clean up Gotham City from years of mob rule. With the mob on the run, new District Attorney Harvey Dent arrives in town, and gradually earns Bruce Wayne’s trust as an honest public servant. Both men are tested, though, by the rise of the Joker.
I was expecting the Joker to be a dark and psychotic character, but I honestly was not prepared to see a character as intensely frightening as this one. Even in this day and age of fashionably psychotic movie villains, I don’t think I’ve encountered one with the total lack of humanity that the Joker embodies. The closest analogy I can come up with is to the sadists in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (either version); in what I suspect may be a deliberate nod to that film, Ledger’s Joker gives several different explanations – all equally ridiculous – for why he is the way he is.
Given a character like this, the first instinct of many filmmakers would be to exploit him and the audience for cheap spectacle; Haneke made Funny Games for a reason, after all. Nolan, however, has a more serious role for him in mind, and uses the Joker to pose a series of questions about the Batman mythology specifically and western society in general. He introduces an ambivalence about Batman that was absent in the first film. The film places much more emphasis on his vigilante nature and as the film progresses, the question of whether Gotham City would be better off without Batman comes into clear focus, not least to Batman himself. Is Batman a hero to Gotham? What is a hero, anyway?
And for that matter, what is justice? The Joker’s most frightening moments are when he devises schemes that put that question to a very severe test, leaving Batman with no easy answer and makes it difficult for the audience to know who and what to root for. For that matter, Gotham is thrown into such chaos that established society begins to break down. How can a democracy exist when the public can be so easily manipulated by fear? How far can a vigilante go in the name of public safety before he begins to undermine the foundations of the society he fights to protect? “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” says Harvey Dent, in the clearest statement of the film’s point of view. If that sounds ominous and open-ended, well…
All of this unfolds in a surprisingly realistic way. I don’t mean that the movie is literally realistic, but the ethical dilemmas that Batman faces are pretty close to the questions that a Batman would face in the real world. As copycat Batmans spring up around Gotham and the public grows increasingly restless about his presence, he is forced to face his own limits and even his role in the causes of Gotham’s problems. To that end, the Batman of this film is a flawed character, reckless and impulsive, and often giving the Joker the upper hand.
Simply put, my expectations for the movie were as high as for any movie I can remember, and the Nolans have managed to exceed them. Sure, there are some minor flaws, but early as it is (only the first weekend of release) it feels like a turning point in the franchise era of studio filmmaking, taking a big canvas and filling it with ideas beyond those that we are used to seeing. Excessively CGId spectacle will no longer be enough. The same formulas will no longer be enough. The Dark Knight presents a real story with real implications, and it has set a new standard to follow.