People die in this movie. Most of them are minor characters, a few of them aren’t. This is no watered-down, fresh-off-the-assembly-line, ready-for-mass-consumption summer popcorn flick; this is a grim crime drama that recalls classics like Serpico and The French Connection. Christopher Nolan’s movie contains some evil characters, and he allows them to do evil things.
The majority of that evil is committed by the Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger in a performance that will need some pretty stiff competition to lose the race for the Best Actor Oscar next year. I’m shocked to have written that sentence. For months following Ledger’s death, his Joker has been hyped as an historic, iconic achievement, one of the greatest villains in the history of cinema. Astonishingly, the hype may not have done it justice. Ledger’s Joker is a masterpiece unto himself, frightening and elemental. He is monstrously scarred and almost never seen without his face smeared in grotesque white and red make-up, he murders on a whim and subjects both the heroes and innocent ordinary people to sadistic moral quandaries where the stakes are nothing less than life and death. He is not the wisecracking Joker played by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman. He’s not funny, and he’s not likable, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him when he’s on the screen.
I call him “Ledger’s Joker,” but he properly belongs also to Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who wrote the screenplay. My skepticism about Ledger’s performance prior to seeing it didn’t come from any lack of confidence in Ledger as an actor — I’ve known he was a brilliant actor since Brokeback Mountain, and still think he deserved that Best Actor Academy Award more than Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I just assumed that he wouldn’t be given a role that would support such a brilliant performance. But he was. The Joker in The Dark Knight is the Joker of The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns. He cracks himself up, but to those who witness his crimes he is anything but funny. The Nolans’ screenplay gives us a Joker that will be bracingly familiar to those of us who have gotten to know him from the comics, but they also have a fresh and very exciting view of the character that is all their own. The Joker, Ledger and the Nolans show us, is a terrorist. He makes videos of his hostages, he announces his crimes in advance and outlines consequences if his bizarre demands aren’t met, and at one point he demolishes an entire hospital, just because. And he isn’t motivated by lust for money or power. He doesn’t want to take over the city; he wants only, as Alfred says, to watch it burn. He sees Batman not as his nemesis, but as his soul mate. He doesn’t want to kill him. He enjoys the game. If the Joker can force Batman to break his one rule — not to kill — the Joker wins.
Batman isn’t his only target. There’s also Gotham City’s newly elected District Attorney, Harvey Dent. Bruce Wayne throws a fundraiser for Dent, and alludes to the film’s inescapable “I Believe in Harvey Dent” viral marketing campaign by calling him “the guy from all those awful campaign commercials.” But Bruce does believe in Harvey Dent. He believes in him so much that, after a scheme between Batman, Dent, and Lieutenant Jim Gordon results in Dent sending hundreds of mobsters to jail at once, Bruce contemplates retiring Batman and allowing Dent to clean up the city. “He’s the hero this city needs,” Batman says more than once of Dent. And he’s not wrong. Harvey Dent is a hero. Unlike Batman, who stands up to the gangsters who run Gotham, Dent fights them in broad daylight, in public, unmasked. Where Batman is a vigilante not entirely trusted by the public (“official department policy is to arrest the Batman on sight,” Gordon says), Dent is an elected public servant, proof to the people of the city that their justice system works, that they can take control away from the criminals, that they don’t need Batman to save them.
The Dark Knight is as much Harvey Dent’s story as it is Batman’s. Dent admires Batman, envies his freedom to flout the law and take down the bad guys. But when Batman interrupts a brutal interrogation of one of the Joker’s men by Dent, he chastises him. “You’re the only hope this city has,” Batman tells him. “If they ever found out about this, it would all be over.” Dent is the white knight. Aaron Eckhart gives another impressive performance in what is fast becoming a great career — he starred in the brilliant tobacco industry satire Thank You for Smoking, and he was the only thing worth watching in the otherwise embarrassing The Black Dahlia a few years back. His Harvey Dent is able to hold his own on screen opposite Ledger’s Joker — no small feat. For much of the film, he is its most admirable character; ultimately, he becomes its most tragic.
There’s no shortage of heroes. It says something about Ledger’s Joker that he needs no less than three protagonists to oppose him. The third, after Batman and Dent, is Jim Gordon. As in Batman Begins, Gary Oldman gives an understated, flawless performance. Unlike that previous film, The Dark Knight allows Gordon to keep his dignity. He’s not Batman’s little buddy driving the Batmobile this time around; this time he really is the one good cop in the bad town, dealing with corruption in the Major Crimes Unit he commands at the same time he takes the fight to Gotham’s mobsters and the Joker. He, like Dent, believes in the law, but he’s also willing to break the rules when he has to, as when he turns the interrogation of the Joker over to Batman, with a squad full of detectives watching just outside.
So Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon are great heroes, but what about Batman? Christian Bale becomes only the second actor (after Michael Keaton) to reprise the role, and he obliterates the meager accomplishments of those actors who came before him. You know how much better Sean Connery’s James Bond is than everyone else’s? That’s Christian Bale’s Batman here. In the costume he’s totally convincing, fast and ferocious; as Bruce Wayne, he shows off his perfected detached playboy routine, waltzing in late to his own party with three women on his arm, casually announcing to Dent and Rachel Dawes at dinner that they won’t mind if he pushes a few tables together to join them, since he owns the restaurant.
Like the Joker, part of the credit for Bale’s Batman must go to the director and screenwriter. Unlike every other Batman film made before it, The Dark Knight shows us a Batman who really is the smartest guy in the room, who thinks ahead, who is able to devise and execute ingenious maneuvers instantaneously, who is a formidable warrior and a talented investigator. It amounts to Batman’s first appearance, in full, outside of the best of the comic books.
There’s so much here, I feel like I can’t mention it all and do it justice. Michael Caine plays Alfred with a twinkle in his eye, but also makes it very clear that he’s the pillar holding Bruce Wayne up a lot of the time. Morgan Freeman is back again as Lucius Fox, with even more to do this time than in Batman Begins, not just building Batman’s gadgets and running Bruce Wayne’s company, but also acting as his conscience. And Maggie Gyllenhaal steps in for Katie Holmes to play Rachel Dawes, who is much more likable this time around, not just an arbitrary Mary Jane Watson clone.
And finally someone seems to have done their homework. Whereas the previous films were completely free of references or allusions to the source material, and the filmmakers seemed to have studied the comics only long enough to learn the names of certain characters, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have included in The Dark Knight numerous little moments that will ring true to longtime fans of the characters. Following the destruction of Wayne Manor in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne now lives in his penthouse atop Wayne Tower, and has moved the Batcave to the skyscraper’s basement — a similar, temporary alteration was made to the status quo of the comics in the 1970s. Alfred must decide whether or not to share a potentially devastating letter written by a lost loved one with Bruce, just as he did in Klaus Jansen’s great Batman: Black and White story, “Good Evening, Midnight.” The Joker’s gimmick of announcing who he is going to kill a day in advance is lifted directly from his earliest comic book appearances in 1940. Unlike the earlier movies, the more you know about Batman, the more you will find in The Dark Knight to appreciate.
Christopher Nolan’s best work deals with morally conflicted heroes. In Memento, amnesiac Lenny deliberately tampers with his own hunt for his wife’s killer to ensure he will never find his man, realizing that the hunt is the only thing giving his life meaning. In Insomnia, Al Pacino plays a detective who kills his own partner and tries to cover it up, only to discover a serial killer witnessed his crime and intends to blackmail him. In The Dark Knight, Nolan does not allow any of his three main heroes to be paragons of virtue. Batman, Dent, and Gordon each make morally questionable choices and take actions not usually expected from the good guys. Gordon chooses to keep crucial information from his wife and children, for their own safety; Dent conducts the brutal interrogation of the Joker’s henchman I mentioned earlier; and, late in the film, Batman reveals that his plan to capture the Joker includes secretly spying on everyone in Gotham City. Batman’s action is the most troubling, and how harshly you judge him for it may depend on how you feel about certain provisions of the Patriot Act. It’s also the moment when Batman truly becomes a three-dimensional character. I’ve always felt that there should be something troubling about what Batman does that keeps us from totally admiring him. At his most compelling, he’s not just Superman in a different suit of clothes. He is a hero, and he doesn’t kill, but that doesn’t mean his hands are clean, and that doesn’t mean we all ought to trust him.
Since the disappointment of Batman Begins when I was twenty-five; since Batman & Robin gave me a glimpse of creative rock bottom at its loudest and brightest when I was seventeen; since the first time I read The Killing Joke at age twelve; since the first time I watched a rerun of the 1960s Batman television series, and my Mom bought me my first Batman Super Powers action figure when I was six, I have waited for this movie. Thank you, Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart for finally making a film that does Batman right. And thank you, Heath Ledger, for giving us all one last reminder why we miss you. This is a great film. As an action film, it’s in the same class as the Indiana Jones franchise, The Fugitive, and Tarantino’s Kill Bill; as a crime film, it stands alongside The French Connection and Narc; and as a superhero film it stands almost totally on its own — only Hulk and Superman Returns are even in its class. I don’t know if it’s truly the best superhero film ever made, but it’s definitely the most grown-up.
See this movie. If you’ve already seen it, see it again before it gets away. This one’s a classic.