United States, 2008
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Written By: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman
Running Time: 152 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace
This review was originally published August 4th, 2008.
Thank you for your patience. Many factors contributed to the time it took me to write this, not least of all its length, but I hope it was worth the wait, and I hope that you are still interested in reading it.
There is a clear distinction between the film reviewer and the film critic, although at first glance it appears to simply be semantics. The film reviewer writes for the person who has not yet seen the film in question and may not know anything about it. They avoid significant spoilers, spend a great deal of time synopsizing, keep things relatively brief, and cultivate a tone of recommendation: thumbs up or thumbs down, praise or pan, see it now, wait for the DVD, or avoid like the plague. The film critic, on the other hand, writes for the person who has already seen the film. They discuss the internal workings of the movie, wrestle with why it succeeds or fails, and attempt to bring about a deeper understanding of the film’s sociological implications and its place within the culture at large.
I attempt, with varying degrees of success, to combine both of these paradigms in my writing, but The Dark Knight necessitates a more critical approach. In my professional career as a critic so far, it has been the only film that I have required myself to see twice before writing about. Although I am somewhat late to the party, you would have all seen the film whether I told you to or not, so I’m not concerned with the tardiness of this piece. I am also eschewing the guidelines for reviewing, embracing the role of critic instead, so if you’re in the 5% who have yet to see the box office record breaker (rectify that immediately), consider yourself forewarned.
As filmgoers we are often asked to choose between films that entertain and films that stimulate thought, but rarely are we given both in the same package. Few have accomplished this in recent memory (No Country For Old Men, The Lives of Others, and The Mist all come to mind). The Dark Knight, however, is an epic achievement on both counts.
Even with 5 months left in 2008, I guarantee you will not find a film this magnificently entertaining all year. Allow me to retain my ‘reviewers’ cap for a moment and say that if you consider yourself a movie lover of any significant worth, this is the one film that must be seen theatrically. Must. And having seen it in both standard 35mm and in IMAX, I can happily regurgitate what hundreds of others have said over the past few weeks: you have not truly seenThe Dark Knight until you’ve seen it in IMAX. The difference is night and day, due to Christopher Nolan’s brilliant decision (I can only hope other directors follow his lead) to film the action sequences entirely with specialized IMAX cameras. When Batman leaps off a building in Hong Kong and the camera gleefully follows his plummeting descent, it sucked the breath out of my lungs. Literally. The Dark Knight is one of the most exciting, adrenaline-fueled films I have ever seen.
But plenty of films manage to be exciting, even incredibly so. Wanted, Iron Man, and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, each comic book adaptations debuting in the past 3 months, have all registered shockingly high on the fun-o-meter. And while Batman Begins, Nolan’s previous foray into the world of the caped crusader, was considered by many to be the cream of the superhero crop, it remained securely anchored to the ground by its comic book origins. What, then, makesThe Dark Knight different?
Christopher Nolan, like (to a lesser extent) Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and Peter Berg (Hancock), has realized that superhero flicks need to evolve to remain viable, both critically and financially. While Tim Burton’s vision of Batman worked fine in 1989, his kitschy and conspicuously stylized aesthetic is no longer relevant, especially in the post-post-9/11 world in which we live. We are reaching superhero burnout, and it won’t be long before Spider-Man goes the way of Daredeviland Ghostrider.
So Nolan strips his film of all but the most essential comic book conventions. While characters and outfits remain, gothic-pop landscapes and goofy plots to destroy the city go. There are no wink-wink-nudge-nudge moments that announce that this is a Comic Book Movie, no traces of irony, no cheeseball asides. Christopher Nolan takes the central question behind Batman – what are the consequences of putting on the mask? – and completely legitimizes it. The entire film is a meditation on the answers to that one question.
Note: Do not read any further until you’ve seen the film.
Bruce Wayne is a man in conflict. Having created the Batman persona, he finds himself disappearing further and further inside of it. Not only is it like a drug, consuming his life to the point where he doesn’t even return home after a night of crime fighting, it is also fracturing his personality. He and others have begun to refer to Batman in the third person, as if he was another entity entirely and not simply Bruce with a mask over his face. Is Batman a part of Bruce Wayne or is Bruce Wayne a part of Batman? The balance is shifting away from the former and ever closer to the latter.
The playboy billionaire, however, is the only one who doesn’t seem to realize this. Alfred recognizes the symbol that his employer’s alter ego has become (“Batman can make the choice that no one else can.”) and Rachel realizes the addictive toll it has taken on the man she loves (“When I told you that if Gotham no longer needed Batman we could be together, I meant it. But now, I’m sure, the day won’t come when you no longer need Batman.”). Wayne, in the meantime, obliviously continues to slip further into the dark abyss of the cowl.
Christian Bale’s guttural, almost ridiculously gruff growl as Batman has drawn a lot of criticism, and initially I was put-off and distracted by it as well. This choice, however, is a finely calculated decision, both directorially and in terms of the character. The difference in voice between Batman and Wayne is so extreme that it effectively separates the two in the audience’s mind. They feel like different characters, and the overlap that existed between them in the first film has almost entirely disappeared here. Gone are the suiting up sequences, and only one scene in the entire film shows us Bruce in the Batman outfit (fittingly enough, it is an emotionally pivotal moment wherein he wrestles with how his choices have led to Rachel’s death). The basement-crawling growl serves to accentuate this division, and it becomes a brilliant maneuver rather than a grating liability.
In addition, it serves to reason that as Bruce is further consumed by his dark half he will embrace, and even revel in, the theatricality of the Batman. The grand entrances, the stunning exits, the shock-and-awe gadgetry, and the rumbling bass are all part of the performance. In The Dark Knight, Bruce begins taking that to ever increasing extremes: escaping with captured criminals by being whipped out of skyscrapers by Skyhook, harnessing the power of thousands of cellphones to paint a sonar portrait of Gotham, and deepening his already-deep growl. As he builds up a tolerance to the Batman drug, Bruce accelerates the spectacle, becoming more and more of a theatrical junkie. And while this certainly serves to threaten his sense of personal identity, it also harbors a much nastier and much less psychological consequence.
Enter the Joker, the direct and tangible result of Batman’s existence. In pulling on the mask, Bruce has “changed things forever,” as the Joker opines while hanging upside down by one leg. He is the yang to Batman’s yin, the Laurel to his Hardy, the flipside of the coin, the unavoidable balance that the universe must bring about. In previous incarnations, both comic and cinematic, Batman was directly responsible for the Joker’s creation by accidentally knocking him into a vat of acid, but here he simply exists by virtue of Batman existing. “You crossed the line first,” Alfred remarks. Giving birth to a new class of crime fighter, Bruce Wayne inevitably birthed its dark twin, a “new class of criminal.”
Heath Ledger is a force of nature. Despite his tragic and untimely death, despite the media circus surrounding him and the film, his performance crushes whatever preconceived notions or extenuating expectations you might have brought into the theater. It is not Heath Ledger. It is not an actor. It is not a real person who once lived and is now dead. It is only the Joker. In all his chaotic charisma, he reaches out with his velvety gloves and erases everything from your mind but him and him alone. There is no hyperbole in saying this is an Oscar worthy performance. Given Ledger’s death and the political nature of the Academy, his posthumous win come February is absolutely guaranteed.
“Nothing. No name. No other alias. Clothing is custom. Nothing in his pockets but knives and lint.” Commissioner Gordon’s estimation of the Joker is a snapshot of who Nolan and Ledger have chosen to give us. Rather than delve into a tired origin story, they have stripped him of his past and loosed him, like a “mad dog,” upon Batman and audiences alike. There is no beginning to him, no back story that might grant him “motivation,” no before and after that has marked nearly every villain in Batman’s storied history. The multiple sob stories that the Joker tells only serve to highlight the fact that he no longer has a story. The Joker simply is.
But what he is not, however, is solely a metaphorical symbol for anarchy and chaos. The Joker did have a past life, and the fact that he was someone is important, even if who he was is not. The original man has been swallowed whole by the Joker, as whole as hell swallows the doomed. The person has become the persona, disappearing fully inside the theatrical – scars, makeup, and purple cloth are all that remain. It is the same fate that awaits Bruce Wayne – how long before he has been completely replaced by cowl, growl, and cape? They are the same at different stages, Bruce Wayne in transition, the Joker having completed his. The Crown Prince of Crime is the inevitable conclusion to the Caped Crusader.
Other moments in the film bear this interrelatedness out. In front of one of the Joker’s deranged and schizophrenic henchmen, Batman remarks to Harvey Dent, “[He is] the kind of mind that the Joker attracts.” The irony is lost on him, as he himself attracts likeminded individuals, unstable copycats intent on vigilantism. “What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?” one of them challenges Batman. His response, “I’m not wearing hockey pants,” is an indication of Bruce Wayne’s self-delusion. Whereas the Joker recognizes, and embraces, the attractive gravity of his persona, Batman denies it. “See, to them, you’re just a freak, like me.” The hero refuses to accept that he is identical to his wannabe batmen and his freakish opponent, just coated with a different shade of paint. His disillusionment is total.
Even the score and the method in which it was created illustrates both the dichotomy and the similarities between the Joker and the Batman. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard collaborated on the score, and when asked which one had composed which aspect of it, they said,
HZ: Nobody will ever know who wrote what tune and what piece.
JNH: Including us!
HZ: Including us. We were doing it on this one, listening to something from the first one, going is that your tune or is that my tune?
JNH: Really true, we just don’t know anymore.
Yet when composing for the Joker they split apart, and Hans Zimmer alone composed the twisted clown’s theme.
HZ: I think that the fearlessness within the character of The Joker and the recklessness, I felt the music had to reflect that – and the single-mindedness. So that in a funny way was where the team idea went out of the window because it really had to be written as one.
Together, yet separate. Alike, yet different. Opposite sides of the same coin.
The image of a coin carries the symbiotic relationship between Batman and the Joker even deeper. Like warring parents within a destructive marriage, others become pawns in their quest to triumph over one another. One of those pawns is Harvey Dent. Batman sees him as a way to escape from his addiction, from the self-inflicted prison he is unable to break out of: “Gotham needs a hero with a face…Harvey is that hero.” The Joker sees him in an entirely different, yet no more selfish, light: “You need an ace in the hole. Mine’s Harvey.” Between them both the White Knight of Gotham is torn apart. If Batman represents the second act and the Joker represents the tragic finale, then Harvey “Two-Face” represents the entire 3-act play.
Handsome, charismatic, idealistic, and with a flair for the dramatic, Harvey Dent is initially no different than Bruce Wayne. Where Wayne ‘kidnaps’ an entire Russian ballet company in order to fabricate an alibi, Dent disarms a witness in court, strips the gun apart, and then insists on continuing his cross-examination. Both of them are consummate showmen.
And then, just as it descended upon Bruce, tragedy strikes Harvey Dent. His loved ones taken from him by violence and his face boiled to char, he enters a dark, self-destructive place. The same anger and inner turmoil that took Bruce to a Chinese concentration camp in Batman Beginstakes Harvey deep inside his own ruined psyche. As it happened to the Joker, and as it is happening to Wayne, Harvey fully embraces madness. He destroys the man he was, and Harvey Dent disappears forever. The arc is complete. In his place he leaves Two-Face, the twisted child of both Batman and the Joker. Batman gave him the coin, but the Joker taught him how to flip it. “I brought him down to our level. It wasn’t hard. You see madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.”
The structural beauty and thematic symmetry of The Dark Knight is completely owed to both Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s brilliant script and Lee Smith’s precise editing. Both are works of art in their own right. Like movements within a symphony, the Nolans weave Batman and the Joker and Harvey Two-Face in and through and around one another, each character reflecting the themes of choice and responsibility and madness. And each of these movements is juggled with expert skill by Smith, who manages, during key moments, three to four separate sequences, blending them all together to create a single, cohesive narrative vision. Notice the final scene, where Batman chooses to shoulder the blame for Harvey’s crimes. Smith moves from Batman and Gordon, to Harvey Dent’s funeral, to Gordon destroying the bat symbol, to Alfred, to Lucius, and then back to Batman, all within the space of mere minutes. Each characters’ story is resolved, and the themes that have been building and rising the entire film crest the top of the wave and crash down in a stunning crescendo, set to Newton and Zimmer’s epic score.
“I’ve seen what I would have to become to stop men like him.” The irony is that in order to stop the Joker from triumphing, Bruce has to embrace the very thing he desperately attempted to reject. He must become the criminal, the murderer, the hunted dog. He must be the man who has no rules, the one who defies laws. He must become the villain. He must become the freak. He must completely, and totally, become the Batman.
With Dent lying broken before him and Rachel, dead, behind him, Bruce finally accepts what he is, what he has become, what Alfred saw from the beginning and what Rachel somehow knew all along. Batman is no longer a part of him, but an icon, a symbol, something beyond himself. The Bat has taken on a life of its own, and the man, at last, embraces the truth of the persona. His sacrifice in doing so is personal, psychological, and perhaps ultimate. One of the strongest ties to his former life, the woman he loved, has been severed, and his hope for a Batman-less Gotham has perished with Harvey Dent. So he willingly races into the future, into a world where Bruce Wayne has faded from memory, a world where only the Dark Knight remains.
He finally understands the consequences of putting on the mask.
BATMAN: You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. I can do those things, because I’m not a hero, not like Dent. I killed those people. That’s what I can be.
GORDON: No, no, you can’t, you’re…
BATMAN: I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be. Call it in.
GORDON: (to crowd at Dent’s funeral) A hero. Not the hero we deserved, but the hero we needed. Nothing less but a knight, shining.
(to Batman) They’ll hunt you.
BATMAN: You’ll hunt me. Condemn me. Set the dogs on me. I guess that’s what needs to happen, because sometimes, the truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.
Batman flees on foot.
GORDON’S SON: Why is he running, Dad?
GORDON: Because we have to chase him.
GORDON’S SON: He didn’t do anything wrong.
GORDON: He’s the hero that Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him, because he can take it, because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector.
The Dark Knight