The evolution of the comic book film has arrived
Image Courtesy of IMPawards.com
Director: Christopher Nolan
Notable Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” – Edmund Burke
Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman has been radically different than any of his predecessors by how he looks at the caped crusader. More known for its Rogues Gallery than the man in the black armor, Batman has been a character more about angst than anything else. Nolan has taken this one step further and used Batman as an exploration of the hero; whereas Batman Begins is about the choice of being a hero, The Dark Knight is about the consequences.
Following the dual life of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who spotlights as the protector of Gotham City, The Dark Knight follows him against a new nemesis: the Joker (Heath Ledger). Whereas most criminals want something, the Joker seemingly wants nothing but chaos. Committing robbery and murder without a second thought, the Joker comes to the members of Gotham’s organized crime families as a problem solver. He’ll take care of Batman, but for a price. With new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhardt) in town to become Gotham’s savior, as well as old friends like police officer Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Batman has a brand new nemesis to deal with and an escalation of his war on crime in ways he never could have imagined. Main characters will die, Gotham City will have horrible things happen to it, mortal choices will be made and no one will walk away the same.
Nolan definitely has a character arc in mind when dealing with Batman, as the eventual trilogy is more of a rumination of the nature of the hero than it is a true comic book movie. With gritty, dark tones more in line with a crime film than a comic book film, The Dark Knight takes the best elements of films like HEAT and Bullitt and meshes them around the character of Batman. The Dark Knight, and to a lesser degree Batman Begins, are mainly crime films with superhero grandeur to guide them above the fray. Nolan keeps it grounded, however, by focusing on the character arc he is developing for Batman.
What Nolan seems to be striving for is an extended rumination on the nature of good vs. evil, and why good men fight that good fight no matter what. His point seems to be that part of being the hero is that you can’t go back once the line is crossed; the whole film Bruce Wayne seems to want to let Harvey be the crusader so Batman can disappear and he can have a regular life. But this will never be, as Harvey is destined to become Batman villain Two-Face for starters, as being the hero means committing yourself to an ideal above all else. Bruce Wayne has sacrificed plenty for his hidden life as a crime fighter.
Nolan’s point behind this is that the hero’s work is never done, and that the ability to be the hero is about enduring the negatives. It doesn’t hurt that he has the actor who will go down being the closest associated with his work to help guide him in this existential exploration of heroism. Bale is on top of his game as Wayne for a second straight time, inhabiting the role in a way that no one else has been able to capture. This isn’t a campy superhero that Batman was, nor is it the secondary character in the original series of films; rather, Bruce Wayne/Batman is a conflicted man who tried to adhere to an ideal but finds himself crossing lines and boundaries he thought he never would have to. It’s conflicting and Bale plays it perfectly; we want justice but sometimes the consequences of crossing the line muddle the waters a bit.
For the Joker, the waters aren’t muddled at all. Ledger, in his final completed performance, puts on perhaps his best performance as the incarnation of pure evil. Its fitting that Nolan would expound upon the nature of the hero by bringing in a villain who engenders no sympathy, has no logical reason behind his plans and does things so graphically horrible that there’s no possible way to root for the bad guy. The Joker is in the rare elite of cinematic villains by virtue of Ledger’s performance; when Wayne’s butler Alfred (Michael Caine) speaks of men’s motivations, and how some just want to see the “world burn,” we know exactly why he says the things he does. The Joker isn’t a caricature, like his previous incarnations, and is evil in a way that is frightening to the core. It’s the perfect balance against Batman and Nolan uses the Joker’s low points to balance out Batman’s high points. By the end it’s a matter of attrition between the two; who can outlast and endure.
Evil prevails when good does nothing, Burke thought, and The Dark Knight is a rumination on the nature of the hero from a man who can seemingly do no wrong as a director. The Dark Knight is easily the best film of 2008 so far and it will be hard pressed to find something better as the year goes on. Comic book films have been evolving since the new wave that began earlier this century; The Dark Knight is the genre’s step into adulthood.
FINAL RATING (ON A SCALE OF 1-5 BUCKETS):