Movie Reviews

Full-Ass Movie Review: The Dark Knight (Jul 18)

Some men just want to see the world burn…”

Let me just say right off that with The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan and company have made the best superhero movie ever. Yes, better than Spider-Man 2. Yes, better than Superman: The Movie. And yes, better than Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. The Dark Knight succeeds on all levels, filled with so much story that by the end if seems like the part where Batman went to China might have been a dream.

Reuniting most of the cast and creative team of Batman Begins (except for Katie Holmes, who’s been replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes), The Dark Knight picks up one year later. Wayne Manor is still in rubble, Lt. Gordon heads up a Major Crime Unit, and Gotham’s organized crime families have filled the void left by Carmine Falcone. In the year that Batman has been operating, concerned citizens have taken to wearing their own homemade Batman costumes and fighting crime in their own way. (Which, in general, seems to be a pretty incompetent way.)

As indicated at the end of the previous movie, the Joker has hit the Gotham scene. We don’t know anything about the Joker. He has no real name, no fingerprints, no backstory. What little we actually learn about him is false – he gives two contradictory accounts of his past in the movie. The Joker is simply a force of evil. He has no real motive, other than causing chaos and ultimately trying to prove that everybody can be just as bad as he is.

On the other side of the coin (pun sort of intended) is Harvey Dent, the new District Attorney. As a fearless, driven prosecutor, he’s made major steps fighting organized crime and inspired the citizens of Gotham. He’s part, with Batman and Gordon, of a trinity of heroism. Harvey is Gotham’s white knight. The Joker and Harvey Dent form the heart of the story – one is inspired by Batman to become even more terrifying and audacious, the other inspires Batman with the good that one man can do.

Visually, the movie is gorgeous. Kinetic fight scenes, beautiful cityscapes, even lengthy conversations that are visually interesting; it looks just about perfect. Even the scenes in China, which take Batman significantly out of his element, fit seamlessly into the film’s palette. Some of the action sequences are dizzying, but it’s always clear what’s happening, even when there are multiple people in clown masks and several fake Batmen.

The story is actually complex. And I don’t mean “complex for a movie where a guy dresses like a bat and beats up a clown”.  Not only does the plot involve legal and political machinations, there’s a real moral complexity at its core. Bruce Wayne questions his mission and answers some difficult questions – many of them in surprising ways. Can a man like Harvey Dent accomplish more than Batman? Does Batman’s presence in Gotham City do more harm than good? Does his refusal to kill indicate a simplistic and flawed world view? The difficult choice he makes at the end of the movie sets up a new status quo for Batman, one that’s really never been explored before.

Christian Bale proves once again to be a great Batman and an excellent Bruce Wayne. As with Batman Begins, the film shows Bruce actively making a spectacle of himself. Bale’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne definitely comes off as a man who nobody would ever associate with Batman. While other actors have played Bruce Wayne as the kind of guy who seems like he’s hiding something, Bale plays him as shallow, narcissistic, and a bit of a buffoon. It’s fun to watch, and you get the idea that the character is having fun creating the charade.

Obviously, everybody’s going to be talking about Heath Ledger’s final completed role, and with good reason. It’s stunning. As the Joker, he’s simultaneously funny and terrifying. His scenes are so full of menace that he can be legitimately uncomfortable to watch. When he’s onscreen, there’s always a question of who’s going to die or what horrible thing he’s going to do. You just tense up, because the Joker is devoid of logic or any glimmer of a soul.

It’s an astounding performance, and Ledger completely disappears into the character. His voice and mannerisms are like nothing you’ve ever seen. He doesn’t talk or move the way a normal person would, and with the makeup rendering him almost unrecognizable, it’s easy to lose track of the tragedy of Ledger’s death and the ensuing media circus. You’re not watching Heath Ledger – you’re watching the Joker.

Aaron Eckhart joins the franchise as Harvey Dent. Dent is a longtime part of Batman lore, but he’s never really been fleshed out. I’d rather not spoil it, just in case anybody doesn’t know what ultimately happens to Harvey Dent in every single one of his incarnations, but I’ll just say that Harvey is usually the means to an end. He’s there to get you to the character that really matters, essentially. The Animated Series took their time building him up, but other than that, he’s woefully undeveloped.

In The Dark Knight, we spend a lot of time getting to know Harvey Dent. He’s a significant part of the plot and the emotional arc or the movie. While Bruce Wayne profoundly admires Harvey and the good that he does, Dent is also dating Rachel, Bruce’s onetime love. As much as Batman may respect Harvey, there’s a little part of Bruce that’s jealous and angry. Eckhart’s performance does a lot to build up Harvey, even for those of us who know how he’s going to end up. We see a good man pushed to the edge, and that makes his fate even more heartbreaking.

Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman reprise their roles as James Gordon, Alfred, and Lucius Fox, respectively. All three are fantastic as usual. Oldman’s Gordon is an interesting character, one who gets much more meat on his storyline this time out. The relationship between Batman and Gordon is one of my favorite parts of the mythos, and it’s gratifying to see their mutual respect grow, while their approaches and philosophy remain very different.

Alfred is much less prominent in this movie than in the first one, but he still keeps Wayne grounded. Caine plays him with grit and humor, making the audience really see how important he is to Batman, even in a time when the idea of somebody having a butler is just kind of amusing. And Lucius Fox is the kind of intelligent and saintly character that Morgan Freeman can play in his sleep, but that doesn’t make him any less fun to watch.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is a definite improvement over Katie Holmes – she’s much more subtle and she seems more like somebody that Bruce Wayne could confide in. She strikes a nice balance between tough and wounded. Eric Roberts is oily fun in a supporting role as gang boss Sal Maroni. It’s an excellent cast, straight down the line.

The Dark Knight is riveting from start to finish. For obsessive fans, it’s full of near-perfect renditions of well-known characters, a story that takes them to new places, and some moments that will shock you no matter how well you know Batman. For casual fans and regular people, it’s smart and cool and fun. You’ll see the Joker flip an 18-wheeler, Batman actually drop a man off a building (after decades of threatening to do so), and find out what matters most to Bruce Wayne.

And in the end, The Dark Knight nails what so many versions of Batman miss. It presents Gotham City as a place worth saving. Rather than the cesspool we often see, Gotham is a troubled city, but it’s full of citizens who are capable of great good, even when their backs are against the wall. By showing us that, it brings home the importance of Batman’s mission. He’s not just fighting evil, he’s fighting to save the soul of a city.

Score: Five Beans (That’s how high beans go, right?)

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