Movie Review: The Dark Knight
By Matthew Huntley
July 22, 2008

I never pictured him as a Harley Davidson guy.

Before watching Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, I revisited his Batman Begins (2005), which, in as little as three years, has become a classic tale on the origins of the Batman. I say "the Batman" because that's how he's still referred to in these movies. The people of Gotham City still don't know what to make of him - is he a crusader or menace? - and even Batman knows it's not so simple. What he does know is people need something to believe in - something good - and he's willing bear any burden to make sure that happens.

With Batman Begins fresh in my mind, I admit I wasn't blown away by The Dark Knight. That is to say, it didn't surprise me how well-made and sophisticated it was. Nolan, an artist with a serious strive for detail, maintains the brooding, penetrating and uncompromisingly dark mood of his earlier film. His agenda, once again, is to make us believe Batman could really exist, that his world is governed by the same laws of nature as our own. Nolan doesn't give us a hyper-reality but one that's incredibly grounded and always willing to explain itself in practical terms. He's always watching the over-the-top meter so it never goes beyond a point where we'd start to consider it preposterous.

Such standards are what made Batman Begins so special and engaging. When The Dark Knight begins, we're already aware of the rules and have accepted them. It's Nolan who obeys them.

In the film, enough time has passed so that Batman (Christian Bale) now has imitators. Cops dress up like him as a way to scare criminals, which suggests he's become a positive role model. Batman continues to learn about himself too, like the vulnerability of his suit, which, you'll recall, was supplied to him by Wayne Enterprises' Applied Sciences division and its department head, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Bruce Wayne, Batman's alter ego, decides he needs something lighter and less prone to dogs.

As you must already know, the villain this time is the iconic Joker (the late Heath Ledger), the psychotic yet strangely lucid trickster who likes to wreak havoc for havoc's sake. Before slicing a man's face apart, The Joker, who doesn't have any other identification, alludes to his abusive childhood, which may explain his behavior, but I think it's better to simply say this guy likes to cause trouble because that's who he is. As Bruce's faithful butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), explains, "some men just want to watch the world burn."

The brilliance of Ledger's performance, which does live up to the hype, is in the way he's able to make us not crave a motivation for why The Joker murders, maims, steals and destroys. He is who he is and he's fascinating to watch. Years down the road, Ledger will no doubt be remembered alongside other great cinematic villains, and not just those within the superhero genre.

When Ledger died last January, Hollywood truly lost a natural talent. Think about his performances from A Knight's Tale, Brokeback Mountain and now The Dark Knight. They have almost nothing in common. Ledger individualized each of them and was a character actor in every sense of the phrase. As The Joker, he's in complete control, right down to the way he blinks, sticks out his tongue, turns his head, jumps, swings. It's an extremely calculated performance and, boy, does he put on a good show.

The plot finds The Joker wanting to rid Gotham City of Batman so he and his criminal cohorts can take back the streets. In a dynamic opening sequence, The Joker steals from a mob-owned bank as a way to catch the criminal underworld's attention. The mob boss is a weasel named Lau (Chin Han), who has taken the rest of their money for safekeeping and flown to Hong Kong. District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who's become Gotham City's golden boy and savior, advises Batman and Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) that catching Lau will be a big step towards ridding the city of its scum.

Batman knows the people of Gotham need a face they can trust and he's willing to help make Harvey Dent that hero. What's not so easy for Bruce Wayne is watching Dent date and woo Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Bruce's childhood sweetheart.

As it proceeds, the plot of The Dark Knight becomes quite layered, and while it's always interesting to watch, it's also exhausting. What helps buoy it are the stupendous action sequences, which are so amazing it looks like no CGI was involved in their execution. Nolan, whose action scenes in Batman Begins were too dark and incoherent, gives this film more room to move. He and director of photography Wall Pfister shoot in grandiose wide shots, mostly at night, and we get some magnificent aerial photography of Hong Kong as well as a virtuoso tunnel chase, climaxed by a stunt involving a semi. I've not yet seen this footage on IMAX, but The Dark Knight will go down as the first film in history to shoot using actual IMAX cameras, and I've little doubt it's even more breathtaking.

Where the story eventually takes its characters, I will not reveal, but any fan of the comic books or graphic novels, or even the earlier Batman films, will have some idea. The screenplay by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan is perhaps overly saturated with people and developments that go beyond their call of duty. At 152 minutes, The Dark Knight does slow down a bit in its final act, but it's never boring. I just think they could have saved some of what they have for the next installment, especially the side story involving Dent. Nolan wants this one movie to be an entire saga when it might have been tighter broken up.

I also felt there was too little screen time for Bruce Wayne himself. Batman Begins was so good because it was finally a Batman movie about Batman, and it didn't solely focus on the villain. The Dark Knight seems more fascinated by the side players, and with good reason, since each is intriguing in his and her own right, but I wanted more Bruce Wayne. He's too distant and bland this time, which may be inevitable for such a dark character, but the movie still has to make him interesting outside of his alter ego. Only towards the end do we feel it going that way.

My other quibble was the way the screenplay handled the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). Compared to Batman Begins, his appearance in this film is so brief that it's nothing short of a cameo. What's he even doing in the parking garage where we see him? This just seemed a little sloppy and lazy for a movie that's so exceptional on other levels. I wonder if the Scarecrow should have made an appearance at all. Why not save him for a story in which he could be better utilized?

Even with its minor flaws, if I were to compare The Dark Knight to Batman Begins, I would say it's just as good, and that's saying a lot. In some ways, especially with regards to the action scenes, it's better and more exciting. The villains, led by Ledger's indelible Joker, are also more dynamic, funny and infectious. But "Begins" remains a superior character piece for the titular hero.

Still, The Dark Knight is another outstanding manifestation of Bob Kane's original comic book. The filmmakers and cast truly believe in this material and approach it seriously and intelligently. When I reviewed Batman Begins, I wrote, "...they got it right." With The Dark Knight, they continue to get it right.