ARCHIVE REVIEW: The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan (screenplay), Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer (story) and Bob Kane (characters)
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart and Gary Oldman

The Dark Knight changed the landscape of comic book movies by taking the super out of “super hero.”  The caped crusader at its center is a man tasked with an evil so great, so uncompromisingly senseless and terrifying, that he must sacrifice his moral superiority in order to fight it.

To me, this is not only Christopher Nolan’s crowning achievement as a director (so far), but also one of the best summer blockbusters ever made.  Just as Batman (Christian Bale) is brought toward the moral center, the movie’s heavy-handed post-9/11 politics and its gloriously conceived action sequences must also meet in the middle.  
As a result, each explosion and casualty has implications far beyond that of most senseless action pictures.  Many of these scenes, despite their obvious Hollywood production values, are acts of domestic terrorism.  A hospital blown up, public officials  assassinated, boats rigged with explosives- all of these are a far cry from the heightened reality providing comfort in many other comic book movies.  
Nolan, much like Batman, finds comfort in the shadows.  His take on Gotham City is one more out of a noir than the the enhanced gothic tones of Tim Burton’s take on the city in Batman  and Batman Returns.  It is a city drained of hope and teetering on the edge of chaos, which means that for the movie’s central villain, it is a playground.  
There has been so much talk of Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker and his subsequent death after finishing filming that it seems forever destined to overshadow the movie.  If his performance weren’t so monstrously realized, his death would be all that people remember.  In many ways the Joker is the brightest thing in Gotham City, with his ghastly white make-up, purple suit and a bright red smile carved into his face.  He is all id, a manifestation of not just everything that Batman is against but also the homegrown product of a Westernized world that attempts to legitimize its sins in the name of freedom or democracy.  
Joker lays bare the hypocrisy of the civilization he sees around him.  His sole goal in the movie is to get people to give up on all their societal constructs, especially Batman.  It’s not the operatic action sequences that make The Dark Knight the classic super hero movie but that scene in the prison where Batman is rendered helpless by the Joker’s gleeful anarchy.  “You have nothing! Nothing to threaten me with! Nothing to do with all your strength!” the mad clown howls as Batman attempts to extract time-sensitive information from him by beating him to a pulp.  
Is Batman justified?  The outlandish entertainment value of the Joker’s character somewhat obstructs this and the movie’s other political questions.  This is where Nolan finds common ground with the chaotic villain: he’s playing games too.  There are no outright answers, much like the deliberate (and much less impactful) ambiguity of Inception’s conclusion.  
Adding this to the movie’s obvious broad summer action appeal offers reasons why it captured the collective pop cultural imagination in the summer of 2008.  A uniformly excellent supporting cast that features veterans like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman mixing with younger talents like Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn’t hurt, either.  
Each of those actors plays an important role in the morality play that the Joker and Batman dance around.  Commissioner Gordon (Oldman), an irrepressible good cop, and Lucius Fox (Freeman), Wayne Industries’ tech guru, both grapple with the role Batman must play in cleaning up Gotham.  Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred (Caine), is loyal to the idea of Batman no matter the moral compromises that get in the way.  Rachel Dawes (Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes) is the feisty damsel who knows Bruce/Batman best, and for whom there is not always salvation from distress.  District Attorney Harvey Dent (Eckhart) is the tragic White Knight that is key to the Joker’s menacing victory.  
And make no mistake about it, Joker does win.  Batman kills Harvey Dent to save Gordon’s son, breaking his one rule.  Earlier, he implemented unethical surveillance on Gotham and employed barbaric interrogation techniques on criminals in his single-minded pursuit of bringing down the maniacal terrorist.  The image of the Joker leaning out of a stolen cop car window as he escapes is a hauntingly quiet illustration of his triumph.  
Yes, Nolan has made a definitive comic book movie, but he’s also made one of the most entertaining critiques of modern American politics without succumbing to pandering.  From other perspectives I’ve heard, Batman didn’t lose at all, but did what was necessary to get the job done.  The morality of vigilante justice is one of the most common themes in Westerns and noir, and Nolan’s Batman is certainly a part of the neo-noir tradition.  He is a hard-boiled detective that achieves his ends, and suffers the consequences of his means.

Grade: A-

You can enjoy free movies online, including all the Batman films on LOVEFiLM.

 
 
 
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One thought on “ARCHIVE REVIEW: The Dark Knight

  1. Pingback: REVIEW: Iron Man 3 | CyniCritics

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