OK, let's just get it out of the way here. The new Batman
sequel entitled "The Dark Knight" is brilliant! It is a
triumph not just of action and direction, but also a triumph
of acting and characters. This is not simply a story of
the good guys versus the bad guys, but of flawed human beings
whose childhood scars have formed them into people who can
never lead a truly normal life (whatever that means anyway).
How thrilling it is to see a movie that actually lives up
to the hype. I was desperately trying to control my expectations
before going in, but it was hard to with all the glorious
reviews that the movie was generating. How relieved I am
to see that all these reviews are more than justified!
No longer burdened by the traditional comic book setup
of who the "hero" is and how he came to be, the movie thrusts
us right into the action with a brilliantly staged robbery.
Director Christopher Nolan has said that the movie "Heat"
was actually a big inspiration in the making of this movie,
and it does have the look of a Michael Mann movie. It also
allows us an inspired intro to the chief nemesis of Batman
in this movie, Joker. Unlike other movie villains who are
interested in money and power, the Joker really has no discernable
movie other than creating total chaos. This makes him the
scariest kind of villain in that he really has nothing to
lose while everyone else around him does.
We catch up with Bruce Wayne, once again played by Christian
Bale, whose alter ego of Batman is starting to take its
toll on him psychologically. Like Peter Parker in "Spider-Man
2" or Clark Kent in "Superman 2," he is starting to tire
of the role he is playing, and he yearns to spend his days
with his childhood crush, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal,
stepping in for Katie Holmes), as she represents his best
chance at leading a normal life. This is even more so as
Batman is starting to be seen more as a vigilante and a
danger to Gotham City, despite all he has done to clear
the streets of Gotham of the crime that nearly consumed
it. This is made all the more complicated when the Joker
ends up getting everyone's attention by saying that he will
kill one person a day until the Batman takes off his mask
and reveals himself as who he really is. Naturally, the
public wants blames Batman for what the Joker is doing,
and this adds to his desperation to rid himself of the Batman
costume. Gotham City may be able to live without Batman,
but can Bruce Wayne live without him?
Of all the Batman movies so far, this one gives us a
Gotham City that is totally rooted in reality. All the previous
movies in this franchise have presented Gotham as a place
of gothic buildings and ominously dark colors that consume
the spirits of those who live there. It ends up looking
like a place that can really only exist in the imagination,
and that goes for even "Batman Begins" (also directed by
Christopher Nolan) which was the first Batman movie that
rooted the comic book character in a world more real than
what Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher dreamed up. Shooting
in downtown Chicago, there is not the fantastical city we
have seen Gotham as in the past, but a city like others
we know that deal with high levels of crime and corruption
that are seemingly uncontainable. As a result, the look
and locale of the movie really adds a lot to the story and
the characters in it, and it makes everything seem more
dangerous and precarious. To do this I think is a brilliant
move on the part of Chris Nolan, and along with this summer's
"Iron Man," it helps to completely redefine how a comic
book movie can and maybe even should be made.
I actually got to catch the movie on opening day with
colleagues from my day job. We were having an end of quarter
party, and we celebrated by having lunch at a Hawaiian restaurant
conveniently located in Southern California. Then we went
out to see the movie, and we even got reserved seating which
saved us sitting on our asses on the hard carpeted ground
as we waited to be let into the theater. Now some of the
people I work with live or have lived in some of the tougher
parts of Los Angeles, so they definitely saw some of that
in this movie. When we got out of the movie, one of the
"Gotham is even worse than South Central!"
To quote a line by John Travolta from "Pulp Fiction:"
"That's a bold statement!"
Christian Bale now effectively owns the role of Bruce
Wayne/Batman. Before him, it was Michael Keaton who gave
us a highly effective portrait of this character in the
gothic versions of the franchise directed by Tim Burton.
Once Keaton left, the role of Batman became interchangeable.
Val Kilmer made for a good Bruce Wayne, but not for a particularly
effective Batman. As for George Clooney, he was... well...
George Clooney. Of course, the colossal failure of "Batman
& Robin" did lead to him taking a different path in his
career that his led him to great success. But with Christian
Bale, you get a Batman and Bruce Wayne with different levels
that he plays ever so effectively. Bruce goes from being
a swinging playboy to a fighter of crime in no time at all
it seems. Even if Bruce comes off as a cad, you still care
about him and root for him because it seems like no one
can take care of crime the way he does.
The one person that Bruce Wayne sees as the one who
can relieve him of saving Gotham City is Harvey Dent, and
he is played by Aaron Eckhart as a man with a big ego and
endless integrity that he vows never to relinquish. Now
if this movie does not make Eckhart into a star, then nothing
will. It should have happened already last year with Jason
Reitman's "Thank You For Smoking" where he played a lobbyist
for the tobacco industry, but this one should do the trick.
Seeing Harvey's transformation to strong district attorney
to a tragic figure when he later becomes Two Face is quietly
devastating. Aaron makes you believe in him as a public
servant, and when it seems like so much has been taken away
from him, you feel pity for him while he makes decisions
that you never would have expected him to make before. Aaron
has been a consistently excellent actor in so many movies
over the years, and hopefully that will be more clear to
audiences after they see this film.
By the way, his changing into Two Face was one of the
movie's best kept secrets throughout its advertisements.
His transformation to this sinister character is hideous
in its look, and it is a brilliant mix of both makeup and
technology. It's not at all like the Two Face we remember
from "Batman Forever" as played by Tommy Lee Jones whose
face was a comic visual of duality that was hardly threatening.
It is a face burned to where an eyelid is missing as well
as part of the lip and gums. It is a shocking visual when
we first see it, and it really does look all the more real
in its hideous appearance
The movie has a strong cast that who ably fit the roles
they have been cast in. Maggie Gyllenhaal fits the role
of Rachel Dawes much better than Katie Holmes was. Katie
isn't a bad actress, but I thought she was too young for
the role when she played it in "Batman Begins." Maggie is
more appropriate for the role, and she makes it all her
own by creating a character who you can believe is not easily
intimidated by the criminals she prosecutes alongside Harvey
Dent. When she is caught between with Bruce and Harvey,
she never ever comes across as a pushover.
Also returning to the world of Batman is Michael Caine
as Bruce's loyal butler and silent partner in justice, Alfred.
Caine is always a welcome presence in a movie he does, and
he acts as Batman's loyal conscience in making him see the
things he may have missed without knowing. His moment of
comparing the Joker to another criminal from the past is
a strong moment as he makes it clear for Bruce and the audience
as to what kind of nemesis he is facing up against.
Another actor who is always a welcome presence in any
movie he's in is Morgan Freeman whose character of Lucius
Fox is to Batman what Q was to James Bond. The moment where
he stares down an employee making a threat against him and
Bruce Wayne is a brilliant piece of stone faced acting which
reminds us of why we love Morgan so much as an actor. Even
as a supporting player in the movies these days, Mr. Freeman
is still a force to be reckoned with.
We also have Gary Oldman back as one of Gotham's few
incorruptible cops, Lt. James Gordon. In the past, Gary
has given us some of the scariest and deadliest of villains
we could ever hope to see onscreen. Now he has moved on
to playing the good guy, and while that may seem like a
bland choice for an actor to make, Oldman succeeds in making
his goodness and unstoppable nature in getting the bad guys
very appealing. There are not many other actors that I can
think of who could pull that off and make the one of the
few truly good guys one of the strongest at a time where
other actors would be begging to play the bad guy. You come
to truly respect the kind of man Gordon is thru Oldman's
But then there's Heath Ledger in what sadly became
his final completed onscreen performance as the Joker. There
was a lot of talk, before the movie came out, of how he
should be nominated for an Oscar, and even receive it to
become the first posthumous Academy Award winner since Peter
Finch in "Network." Some like Terry Gilliam have found this
to be utterly annoying and simply see it as Warner Brothers'
way of juicing up the excitement for the movie so that it
has one hell of an opening weekend. While that criticism
is certainly justified in a lot of respects, having seen
the movie, I now count myself on the bandwagon for Heath
getting the damn Oscar. Ledger took on a role already made
infamous by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's original "Batman,"
and he more than succeeded in making it his own. This seemed
unthinkable when it was first announced that he would playing
it, but Christopher Nolan was correct in his assessment
that Ledger was "fearless."
Seriously, Heath Ledger's performance in this movie
is a work of art. Whereas Nicholson made us share in his
gleefully sadistic nature as the Joker to where we couldn't
deny that we were endlessly entertained, Ledger gives us
a Joker who is a viciously terrifying psychotic who is to
be feared at every move he makes. God only knows what depths
he went to in order to play this role, but it is easy to
see why he lost a lot of sleep over it. His Joker is indeed
the scariest of villains in that he has no real motive for
doing what he does. This guy is in it for all the chaos
and anarchy that he can get out of this city he inhabits,
and he couldn't seem to care less about money and power.
Ledger makes his Joker a live wire of a character, and the
tension when he is in a room with someone he is taunting
is so thick that you would need a heavy duty chainsaw cut
through it. There is no real back story to his character
other than a story he tells about his daddy cut his face
to explain why his face is scared to look like a smile.
But then again, can you really be sure that he is telling
Ledger's Joker is one of the scariest movie villains
that I would put on the same level with Hannibal Lecter
from "The Silence of the Lambs" as well as Robert DeNiro's
Max Cady from Martin Scorsese's remake of "Cape Fear." I
would even go as far as to put him on a pedestal with Ben
Kingsley's ragingly raw performance as Don Logan from "Sexy
Beast." I love a bad guy that totally gets under the nerves
of the audience to such an effect where it's like he or
she is reaching out of the screen and into the audience
with their hands out to choke you. I get such a fiendish
delight out of that, and this performance makes it seem
like it has been so long since we have had a truly unnerving
villain show up on the big screen.
While we revel in the brilliance of Ledger's performance
as Joker, I felt a strong sadness coming over me after I
walked out of the theater. It makes his loss seem all the
more tragic because he succeeded in completely disappearing
into the characters the same way Marlon Brando and Robert
DeNiro did in many of their films. We were tragically robbed
of an actor who easily would have become one of the greatest
actors to have ever worked in films. His role as the Joker
is one hell of an exit, but it feels so unfair that he now
has to join the ranks of actors like James Dean who left
us way too soon.
Ironically, the one thing that is as tragic as Heath's
untimely death is the story of "The Dark Knight" itself.
Unlike other summer movie blockbusters, this one is not
afraid to dare us in taking a journey to the darkest and
despairing depths of its characters short-lived triumphs
and endless sorrows. Like I said before, this is not a story
about good guys fighting off the bad guys, but a story of
how blurred our moral and ethical boundaries can get when
we are pushed beyond our limits. Many choices are made not
just by the main characters of the movie, but by the people
of Gotham. What will they do to survive? What choice will
they make? But more importantly, what will their choice
say about them as a person? Are they prepared to live with
the consequences of their actions?
These questions hit everyone hard, but it hits no other
character harder than Batman. Bruce finds that in order
to defeat the Joker, he has to become almost as bad as him.
But can he live with that? Can the others close to him live
with that as well? Bruce starts to find himself boxed into
a corner as the Joker continually taunts him in a way that
turns the public against him. In the end, Bruce Wayne becomes
a lot like Jack Bauer from "24" in that he protects the
people as much as he can, but he ends up paying a very high
price for what he does and gets very little reward from
it. Batman says that he is not a hero, and while his actions
are heroic, he does kind of have a point. To protect what
integrity that Gotham has left, he has to make some hard
Nothing in the city of Gotham is black and white, but
an endless sea of grey as people are challenged to see what
kind of people they really are. No one is innocent, and
everyone is guilty of something. This reminds me of another
Michael Mann movie, "The Insider," which many people thought
was simply an anti-smoking public service announcement.
In fact, the movie was really a look at about endangerment
of ethics and morality in an increasingly corporate world.
"The Dark Knight" finds its power and its tragedy in the
characters who start off good, but soon lose their way and
head down a path that they can never turn back from. That's
the real threat that the Joker exposes by getting underneath
his victim's psyches by manipulating them where they are
"You either die a hero or you live long enough to see
yourself become the villain."
Christopher Nolan is now officially one of the best
directors working in film today, and I am so thrilled that
he got away with making a film like this so dark and still
gets a PG-13 rating. He started his career off with a bang
when "Memento" was released, and it remains one of the best
thrillers of the last few years. Christopher also gave his
one of the few genuinely great remakes of the past few years
with "Insomnia" in which he directed Al Pacino and Robin
Williams to some of their best performances ever. With "The
Dark Knight," he has continued to make Batman and the world
he inhabits very much his own, and he may very well have
made the best superhero movie ever (let alone one of the
best sequels ever). How great it is that he succeeded in
balancing out a strong story with very complex characters
in a tragic setting with tremendous action scenes that get
your adrenalin pumping. Even while the movie clocks in at
about two and a half hours, you never feel the length because
Nolan immerses you fully into what is going on.
All the things you have heard about this movie are true.
It is indeed "The Empire Strikes Back" of the Batman movie
series. It equals movies like "The Godfather II" in its
epic scope of character and tragedy. I could gush and gush
about this movie till the end of time, but a man does have
to exercise something more than his fingers which have been
endlessly typing at this keyboard.
After the movie was finished, I went right out and bought
the soundtrack for it which was written by the same composers
of "Batman Begins," Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.
It is a fantastic and intense score, and they easily best
the work they did on the previous Batman movie. For me,
that is a sign of how much I love a movie. I did the exact
thing after I saw "Pulp Fiction" which has one of the all
time great soundtracks, and then again several years later
with "Boogie Nights."