So it’s been a week and Dark Knight fever has seemingly struck everywhere. Like the lowly criminals of Gotham City, its hard not to see Batman as being everywhere at once, wholly taking over our pop culture in a firestorm of popularity that we haven’t seen in since Spider-Man caused a similar sensation in 2002. While some critics have tried to go out of their way to nitpick at what they perceive as flaws with the film, the movie’s popularity has gone a long way to defending it.
The Dark Knight is that rare blockbuster that manages to engage us on an entertainment level as well as being able to make us think with an incredible character study. Last week, I started off my thoughts on the film by looking at the world that Nolan had created, and how real it felt, but if you don’t have characters that inhabit that world that we care about, then all of it is for naught. The Dark Knight is uncompromising in how it is able to truly translate its character out of DC’s Comics’ pages and onto the big screen, showing us exactly what Batman fans have known for decades; you don’t have to make these stories neat and tidy in order to make them work. The Joker doesn’t have to kill Batman’s parents, he just has to be there.
Alright, enough intro, let’s get into some meat and potatoes here and dig into the rest of my thoughts on the movie. Again, this week’s column will be inundated with spoilers, so fair warning. I had intended to cover a number of things, but there’s so much to say just about the Joker and Batman that I’ve got enough material for at least one more column, so expect one more of these before we get to finish the superhero lame-off . That’s the plan anyway. At any rate, in the words of the Joker, “So… here…we…go!”
The Dark Knight Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Morgan Freeman. Directed by Christopher Nolan.
If there’s one reason to see this movie, I’m sure most people agree its Heath Ledger’s Joker. I think when it comes down to it, from a huge fan of this character in general, its easy to say that this is the purest version of the character we’ve ever had in a movie. Now, that’s not to say that I’ve ever really disliked any Joker we’ve had in the past, in fact I’ve loved them all. Caesar Romero’s Joker is a perfect fit for the Batman TV series, and having read a lot of the comics of the period, he’s a pretty accurate representation of “The Clown Prince of Crime” of the 1960’s Comics Code Era.
Of course the biggest comparison that Heath Ledger’s performance will have will be against Jack Nicholson’s Joker from Tim Burton’s ‘89 Batman franchise starter. It’s tough not to love Nicholson’s crazy antics on screen, and the script certainly goes out of its way to make him memorable. Then again, on some level its easy to see that a lot of Nicholson’s performance is just a darker version of Romero’s camp, only much more deadly.
This becomes even more apparent when you look at Mark Hamill’s Joker from Batman: The Animated Series, whose easily taken the crown in this category for years from Batman aficionados. While Hamill always voiced the Joker larger than life, he always tried to have the darkest of undercurrents going on with the character, even though he had the limitations of being on a kids’ show to deal with. Deep down, this Joker could still be scary, which separated him from the others of this group.
Well, as much as I love Hamill’s incarnation, the role simply belongs to the late Heath Ledger now, even though he’s actually distanced himself from the sacred texts of his source material farther than any others before him have done. This is a character that is just working on so many levels. I mean, its easy to just recognize the horrible psychopath that he is. If it really came down to picking my favorite moment of this entire movie, I’d be hard pressed to pick a moment more thrilling than the Joker’s “magic trick”. The scene just throws you against your seat with the starkness of its violence, but also gives you the guiltiest of laughs as well. You can’t help but take perverse pleasure in seeing him pull out his jacket-full of grenades or how his Chicago accent comes out when he tells another gangster about feeding him to his own “pooches”. It’s just one scene after another of being blown away by this performance, and there isn’t a single misstep in it.
Ledger could have really just tried to go the Nicholson route and just make the Joker as large as possible, but though its easy to get caught up in the Joker’s black humor, I’d never once call this performance camp. In fact, its when Ledger seems to pull back a bit that you really get a sense of what’s going on in his head. You can see the intimidation on his face when Michael Jai White’s Gamble wants to personally tear him apart, or maybe even a little bit of shyness when he tries to relate the second version of his origin to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel Dawes.
It’s just incredible how Ledger is able to balance making this character as chilling as humanly possible, but then turning around and making you actually kind of like him as well because you know how principled he is. You know he isn’t just after money or power, because both of those things would seemingly be beneath this character. Instead he just wants to wreak as much havoc as possible, and by doing that he completely throws any order in Gotham City out the window, and not just by attacking Gotham’s officials, but by utterly destroying its underworld as well.
A good villain is only as good as the protagonist that you match him up with though, and that’s why Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman has to be just as amazing as he was in Batman Begins, and once again Bale proves why he’s such a sought after star these days. Just as it is with the Superman/Clark Kent dynamic of DC’s other big franchise, I think it’s a much more thankless task to try and make Bruce Wayne just as interesting in a movie as it is Batman. This is a character that is all business all the time, no matter whether his suit is survival gear or three-piece.
In fact, just as he did last time, Bale’s Bruce Wayne is absolutely brilliant; the billionaire playboy who is a complete buffoon, using this persona to really gauge everyone around him. It’s when he really takes the Bruce Wayne mask off, as he does to Harvey Dent during his toast to him, that we really start to see what’s going on underneath. This is such an amazingly crafted persona, bringing real justice to it every time he’s on screen, which is really much less than the last time out.
To be honest, its just a little bit of a blessing and a curse to have all of these incredible performances going on around you onscreen. The pressure had to be off of Bale a bit this time because so much of the screen time is given over to the Joker and Aaron Eckhart‘s Harvey Dent, and he doesn’t have to worry about having to tell an origin again (Does he even mention his parents this time out?), but to be honest, the charges that the Batman character may get a little lost in this chaos may not be totally inaccurate. Again, I think Christopher Nolan finds exactly the right balance of getting all of these characters the right amount of screen time.
It helps that Bale completely throws himself into every scene, and not once do you not buy a single turn this character makes. I also love how we never once doubt how completely bad ass this character is. While The Joker’s trick may get my vote for the movie’s best moment, The caped crusader gets scenes two and three. One of them is the simplest of fight scenes, as Bruce Wayne walks toward his new bat cave entrance and runs into a thug, which summarily defeats easily and then dismantles the scumbag’s gun. The moment is so quick, but is so quintessentially Batman that it makes an awesome impression.
The other moment is classic, as Batman interrogates Eric Roberts’ Sal Maroni and drops him off of a second story window, knowing that it won’t kill him, but get him the reaction he needs. Again, the moment is a quick one, as are most of the moments of violence in this movie, but also shows just how far Batman has had to go and the limits of where he is willing to go all at the same time. All of this adds to the ultimate portrayal of the Dark Knight, forever putting to rest the argument of the best version of the character.
Alright, so I’ve got so much more to talk about that I’m going to have to stick it in another installment, and I can’t wait to get to the rest of my thoughts next week.