The Dark Knight (2008)
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Premise: A sequel to Batman Begins. As Batman (Christian Bale), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) close in on Gotham City’s organized crime syndicate, the local crime lords turn to The Joker (Heath Ledger), an anarchic criminal genius with no scruples and a hidden agenda.
What Works: Where Batman Begins took a step away from formula and convention in the superhero genre, The Dark Knight takes a leap, grabbing elements from crime films like Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and Michael Mann’s Heat and places them inside of a superhero context. The transposition works extremely well and The Dark Knight is first and foremost a thriller but the film also has a lot of intelligence about it. The story of these characters and their efforts to combat evil and the ways their struggles change them elevates The Dark Knight beyond a superhero film or a crime film and into something nearing a Greek tragedy. The dramatic heart of The Dark Knight is supported by some tremendous performances. The most celebrated has been Heath Ledger as The Joker and it is a performance that will enter the archives of cinema as one of the most memorable villains ever committed to film. Like other actors who have played the role, Ledger captures the maniacal nature of The Joker but what sets his portrayal, and the film, apart from other superhero adventures is that this may be one of the only times where the filmmakers realized the true potential of superheroes and super villains; they are flesh and blood characters as metaphors for complex sociological, psychological, and philosophical ideas. The conflict between The Joker and Batman in The Dark Knight is not just a man dressed up in a cape chasing another guy in clown makeup. These characters are hypertexts of ideas, representing the conflict between chaos and control, the line between cop and criminal, and the ambiguous areas in which lawless action may be morally correct and lawful action could be immoral. And as Ledger’s Joker embodies the anarchic glee of a man who just wants to watch the world burn, Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart play men who try to stop him and in their efforts risk being corrupted themselves. Christian Bale steps up his work from Batman Begins and takes the character down darker roads and expands on the flaws that were established in the previous film. Where most superheroes struggle with duality, trying to balance their heroic alter ego with a normal identity, Bruce Wayne has at least three faces and in this film he’s not clear which, if any of them, are the real Wayne. Aaron Eckhart’s work is also very strong and he has the biggest transition to make as an idealistic district attorney who is corrupted by his own desire to have justice seen through. His story grants The Dark Knight an element of tragedy and makes the film a thoughtful consideration of justice and heroism. While doing all of that thematic heavy lifting, the filmmakers also remember to have fun and The Dark Knight finds director Christopher Nolan much more comfortable behind the camera, directing action scenes that are elaborate and exciting.
What Doesn’t: The one weakness of The Dark Knight is in its treatment of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Where Batman Begins gave the character something to do, her place in this story has been supplanted by Harvey Dent, and so she is left to stand around and look pretty. It’s a disappointing waste of a character in what is otherwise an excellent film.
Bottom Line: The Dark Knight is one of the greatest superhero films of all time. This picture fully realizes where a superhero film can go and it takes us there, managing to do something all too rare in Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking: telling a character-based story that is as thought provoking and dramatically involving as it is entertaining.
Episode: #198 (July 27, 2008); Revised #398 (July 29, 2012)