Movie Review: The Dark Knight

By Matthew Huntley

July 22, 2008

I never pictured him as a Harley Davidson guy.

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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.

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