The Dark Knight (2008)
Directed by Christopher Nolan Story by Christopher Nolan and David Goyer Written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Morgan Freeman
The Dark Knight deserves credit for more than just its interpretation of Batman’s greatest foe and one of fiction’s greatest villains. Yet it is impossible to understate Heath Ledger’s performance as The Clown Prince of Crime. Put out of mind the howls of derision that greeted his casting. Forget for a moment the staggering transformation that made the Australian actor so unrecognisable. Focus on the performance itself, which elevated already brilliant writing.
The writers give us a Joker who comes out of nowhere, wreaking havoc as he cuts through the film. They give us a terrifying, funny, mesmerising Joker. They present us with a character so manipulative and clever that much of the audience buy into his lies, never mind the characters. An agent of chaos, with no plan? A man who’ll “just do things”? Not really. That’s the lie, but the reality is that this trickster is a master-planner. A character who is all the more frightening for being a mystery, for having no reason other than to do evil for evil’s sake. He knows exactly what he’s doing and as he says himself, he’s not crazy.
The scene in the hospital between The Joker and Harvey Dent is so well written, so cleverly devised that it convinces not only Dent himself but many of the audience members who have come away thinking that The Joker really is “a dog chasing cars”.
Yet there is more to The Dark Knight’s Mephistopheles of Mirth than a good script. The script makes him fascinating, Ledger makes him mesmerising. The script makes him scary, Ledger makes him horrifying. The script makes him memorable, but Ledger? Ledger makes him unforgettable.
The little looks, the walk, the fidgeting and swerving and mouth of perpetual motion add so much life to the creation. The eyes, darting but always focused. The voice, sing-songy yet terrifying. The laugh, nasty and vindictive and wild and cruel. To borrow the parlance of our time, Ledger nails it. You’re watching The Joker. Aside from the make-up instead of bleached skin bit, what we’re given is The Joker, pure and not at all simple. That’s how he talks, acts, manipulates. That’s the kind of monster he is.
The high-calibre writing extends beyond just The Joker. Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent, Rachel Dawes, Alfred Pennyworth, Sal Maroni; all these characters benefit from being well written, all the actors given opportunities to impress. It’s a massively ambitious film, a story full of ideas. It’s a story about society and its fragility. It’s a story that asks how well society endures when it is under attack physically, philosophically and from its foundations. It’s a story about panic and perseverance and the consequences of choices, even the right ones. It’s a story about our time, the here and now, yet it’s a story which is also timeless.
That’s quite the feat for a summer blockbuster.
And hey, it busts blocks left right and centre, too. The bank heist that opens the film is tense, exciting stuff. Batman’s first appearance in the film as he busts a drug meet and handles some well-intentioned vigilantes feels very much like Batman: The Animated Series. Batman going to Hong Kong to take down Mr. Lau is part Bond set-piece, part comic book actioner. The sprawling, high octane chase scene is some of the most fun you’ll have watching a movie, as stunt follows stunt and big moment follows big moment.
With all the well-developed themes, poetic sentiments and emotionally engaging characterisation, it’s easy to forget juts how good the Nolan’s are at writing impressive, show-stopping action sequences. The attack on The Joker’s tower, with Batman fighting through levels of goons and SWAT teams whilst saving hostages, is pure Batman. Anyone who throws around the critique that it’s “a good film, just not a good Batman film” must have skipped this scene. It’s just… essence of Batman.
The Dark Knight isn’t just a great comic-book film. It’s a comic book film that throws out all the rules. The hero fails to save their romantic interest from the villain. Superman saves Lois a couple times a movie. Spider-man does the same for Mary Jane, ditto Gwen Stacey. Iron Man saves Pepper Potts, Thor saves, uhm, whoever Natalie Portman plays. Batman has been in on the act repeatedly, too. Indeed, Bale saved Rachel Dawes in Batman Begins.
He saves Dawes in this film at one point but the second time around? The Joker blows her up.
That was against the rules. The movie tagline, Welcome To A World Without Rules, takes on added meaning here. This was no killing off a woman to motivate the male lead, either. Batman was sufficiently motivated already. Besides, it’s the symbolic and literal destruction of Harvey Dent that pushes forward Bruce’s particular emotional arc. Simply put, The Joker attacks the social order of Gotham, particularly those on the side of good. The curmudgeonly but well intentioned Police Commissioner is killed. The passionate Judge, too. The crusading DA is targeted first for death then for corruption and the Mayor is almost assassinated.
As such, Assistant DA Rachel Dawes is well within The Joker’s sights, regardless of how Batman feels about her. She is killed because she is incorruptibly good, something that has been clear since we first met the grown up character in Begins. She can’t be brought down like Dent can, won’t fight in the way Batman does, so she’s neither a weapon nor a fascination. She’s smart and brave and good and resistant to all else.
So The Joker kills her.
Sometimes, your principles mean you pay the ultimate price. The movie addresses this head on, illustrating that this is no reason to abandon them. It is instead exactly why we need to stand by them resolutely.
The best example of The Dark Knight’s willingness to throw out the rules is the structure of the film itself. Generally speaking, most films are made of up of three acts. First they establish the status quo and add a new element to it. Next, the new element disrupts the status quo and turns it on its head. Then, you get the final act, where the disruptive element is addressed and dealt with, allowing the establishment of a new status quo. Roughly, films tend to follow this arc. Particularly superhero films.
The Dark Knight? Well, act one serves that same function. There’s a traditional act two, as well. Then we get act three, where Batman takes on The Joker, the villain is defeated and carted off to jail. See, thing is?
That third act happens half way through the movie.
Any other film-makers would have the sprawling chase scene as the finale. Gordon and Batman take down The Joker in what strictly speaking is the finale of the third act of this story. Anyone else would have added in a wrap up scene and ended on a cliff-hanger reveal that Harvey Dent had been abducted. End of movie, cue the third film.
Not this time. Not the Nolan’s.
Instead, we get six acts. Or, we get two three act narratives in the one movie. That scene, with Gordon interviewing The Joker before Batman interrogates him? Could easily be the opening scene of the next film, had they drawn out the first three acts to make up the running time. Instead, they skilfully weave it all into one motion picture.The ambition is praise-worthy enough, but the fact that they pulled it off with such panache? There’s really nothing amongst its peers like it. Two three-act narratives, with multiple strands being resolved at various times throughout the film, could easily be an unwieldy mess, a structural disaster. Such wanton disregard for the formula! They pull it off with style.
The ending leaves us with a beaten Batman, on the verge of death, running for his life from the Gotham Police. He’s a wanted fugitive, having taken the blame for several murders including that of Harvey Dent. That’s the status quo we are left with. Yet it’s still one of the most inspiring, stirring endings in comic book film history. It’s a testament to the endurance of the character, to his heroism and self-sacrifice.
It gives us so much. It gives us an examination of Batman’s impact. It gives us a sensational take on The Joker. It gives us a thorough, fascinating take on Batman Vs The Joker. It gives us the joy of Batman, Gordon and Dent working together to take down the mob. It gives us the tragedy of Two-Face. It does this in a finale that is as unbearably tense as it desperately sad and beautifully poetic. It gives us outstanding performances pretty much across the board, none more so than Gary Oldman’s peerless, wonderful Jim Gordon. It’s his performance that we would rank highest of them all.
Yet the film doesn’t feel laboured. Never is the script too thinly spread. Everything is interwoven. The Dark Knight is the best straight-faced Batman film so far. It’s a remarkable achievement.