Few, if any, movies have been hyped to the degree that The Dark Knight has. After the successful reboot of a series that was languishing in exile after nearly a decade, the deadly serious interpretation of this classic character from Christopher Nolan was just waiting for the sequel everyone knew it was going to get. And after the tragic death of Heath Ledger, things kicked into overdrive with the hyperbolic talk of Oscar nominations and The Joker literally causing Ledger to go insane.
Yet, when walking into the theater last night, I attempted to put all of that aside. Forget the reviews, forget the hype, and forget all the talk about Ledger's interpretation of The Joker. Just enjoy the movie for what it is and accept what is up on screen.
Fortunately, The Dark Knight delivers, but not in the way that some reviewers or fans would have us all believe. The Dark Knight is in fact an incredibly solid movie, a complex morality tale that finds itself wading in shades of gray, where other movies in this genre often take a strictly black and white approach to evil.
The story picks up shortly after the end of Batman Begins. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is the new DA, the human face of Gotham who tries desperately to clean up the city in a legal way. He is currently dating Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who replaces Katie Holmes), an assistant DA. Meanwhile, The Joker (Heath Ledger) starts a crime wave throughout the city and offers the mob bosses a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rid the world of Batman for good as Batman continues to do his vigilante thing that he does so well.
Much has been said about Ledger's performance as The Joker, and much of it is true. His origins are shrouded in mystery. No one knows anything about him, nor do they have any leads. He is a master of misdirection and offers no real clues as to where he came from. No, he is little more than an insane individual who just relishes in evil. By appearance he seems to be motivated by little else than being Batman's foil, Batman's opposite incarnate. The Joker is equally brilliant as he is mad, hatching incredibly complex plans that often go precisely as he expects them to, regardless of Batman's attempts to stop them. And Ledger plays it with such a ferocity and so calculated that you can just buy it instantly. He is increasingly entertained by carnage and the most disgusting facets of the human experience and that excitement is undoubtedly scary. This is truly the greatest iteration of The Joker to be placed upon screen and frankly, I do not see how it could possibly be duplicated. But whether or not it is Oscar worthy is certainly up for debate. While I would love to see actors nominated for a movie like this, I fear that the only reason the award train is moving so quickly is because of the tragic demise of Ledger. While I certainly cannot think of any other such memorable performances this year, we are only half way through the year and prime awards season does not even start until late fall. So I will reserve my judgment on that for now.
Less has been said, however, about Aaron Eckhart's turn as Harvey Dent. This is a man who exhibits true bravery, who is unrelenting in the face of undeniable evil. He truly believes that Gotham can be a better place and does everything in his power to make that the case. Yet, slowly but surely things begin to change. And, without spoiling anything, Dent's transition from upstanding DA to the villain known as Harvey Two-Face is not only believable, but incredibly compelling. You buy his descent into insanity, if insanity is what you want to call it. To devote so much of your life towards a goal, only to see much of that shattered, well, those are certainly valid reasons to lose one's mind. And not only the character, but the Two-Face effects are incredible. With imagery reminiscent of the animated series, whenever Two-Face is on screen you can't help but be mesmerized by the character.
But that's not to say that other performances are weak. On the contrary, everyone in the entire film delivers solid performances. From Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) to even smaller players like the mayor of Gotham (Nestor Carbonell), everyone comes through with compelling conviction.
Bruce Wayne in particular is tormented. While he has become the symbol that Gotham needs, Gotham needs more than he can give. And not only that, he's inspiring people both positively and negatively and doesn't know whether or not it is worth it to continue his journey down this path. There is not a clear cut answer that he can take. If he quits, then things could end up getting worse, but if he continues, then things, again, could also end up getting worse. There doesn't seem to be an easy way out of all of this. But the one strong point, essentially Bruce's moral compass, is Alfred (Michael Caine). Alfred understands what Bruce provides for this city, and Caine plays him with such a history that you understand where he is coming from with the advice that he gives. It is obvious Alfred is more than just a butler and the concern he has for Bruce and for the city delves deep for him.
The complexities of this story and the force with which The Joker delivers on many of the anarchic promises he makes place many of the individuals in this movie in impossible situations. Decisions need to be made for the greater good, but without losing one's soul. Sure, Batman could easily shoot The Joker in the head and be done with it, but that's not what he does. He needs to stay true to himself and resisting that temptation to become the thing he hates the most is a struggle, and it becomes a struggle for all characters with a solid moral center in this movie. The way Nolan explores these themes is not only effective but also a welcome change from a lot of the lighter fare often released during the summer months. Strip away the costumes and the comic book history and at its core, The Dark Knight is a human drama based in the reality we see around us today. How do you fight evil without losing yourself in the process? And are humans as disgusting as The Joker interprets them to be? Questions that do not have easy answers and questions that are explored in many interesting ways in this movie.
Yet, interestingly enough, on a strictly entertainment level, the film doesn't deliver as much as it could. The first hour and a half felt like nearly three hours. I was surprised when I had realized that there was still another hour to go. I was engaged, but not fully entertained by what was placed before me. I found myself zoning out in some parts, but I think much of that is because it goes against your expectations on what a "Batman" movie should be. By taking a different route and only occasionally going the more predictable route (which is pretty close to never), sometimes it does affect the base entertainment value of the movie. Yet, the last hour essentially grabs on and doesn't let up until its over. And what made this even more interesting was the way that the movie took turns that I didn't exactly expect. Not "plot twists" exactly in the Sixth Sense way, but just going in unexpected directions. And as a result, I find myself a little conflicted about where it leaves the characters going into a third movie.
I can easily recommend this movie to just about anyone. The performances alone are worth the price of admission but there is also so much more to it as well. And one thing is for sure, this seems to be a movie that will continue to add layers upon each viewing, so on that note, I can't wait to go see it in IMAX.