Batman’s back. Unless you live in an isolated third world village, you knew this already and, frankly, even if that’s where you live you probably know it anyway. In 2005, Christopher Nolan reintroduced the world to the infamous Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy by day, caped crusader by night. His film, “Batman Begins,” reinvented the iconic hero for a new generation, discarding the camp and flash of the previous films and introducing a hero that strayed very far from the classic Boy Scouts we’d come to associate superhero films with. He took a 16 year old franchise and wiped the mud off, breaking IMAX records and pumping life into a movie hero that had been M.I.A. since a Mr. Clooney pulled on the cowl (shudder).
It is official. “The Dark Knight” has set the world on fire. Picking up where “Batman Begins” left off, we follow Bruce Wayne/Batman as he attempts to remove Gotham’s worst from their position of power and pass the mantle off to a new hero, D.A. Harvey Dent, played by veteran star Aaron Eckhart. Since the conclusion of “Begins,” Batman has been successful in striking fear in the hearts of Gotham’s villains and it appears that he might actually see the light at the end of the tunnel in his fight against crime. Unfortunately for Batman, that light happens to be an oncoming train, embodied by none other than the most notorious of the vigilante’s nemeses, The Joker. As you’ve no doubt already heard, this is not Jacky’s Joker from the 1980’s. This is Heath Ledger unleashed, a rabid dog of such unspeakable evil that nothing is left untainted in his wake. The Joker’s mission is simple – bring chaos to Gotham. As he moves through the city like a maelstrom, it is up to Batman, Dent, Gordon (again played by Gary Oldman) and the rest of Batman’s allies to save the city from the Joker and his corruption.
The Defending Champion
In 2004, if you asked a person on the street what they thought of when they heard the words “Batman movie,” they might have brought up rubber nipples, or missile-wielding penguins, or Arnold Shwarzenegger. But then, in 2005, Christopher Nolan happened and the world changed. Nolan’s “Batman Begins,” a revamp of the Batman-cinema mythos and re-interpretation of the masked vigilante brought the Batman into the real world, or as close to the real world as we had ever seen. The film focused on the progression of the long-orphaned Bruce Wayne from bitter youth to caped crusader and in doing so changed the world’s perception of the Batman. Not only was a new, young star (Christian Bale) donning the cowl, but the Batman that Nolan depicted was not the fun, goofy hero of the 1980s and 90s. He was gritty, unapologetically-violent and without the flash and camp that had ended up ruining the franchise. He was the 21 century’s Batman, rubber nipples not included.
“Batman Begins” brought a new vision of the Batman to the screen – a dark, brooding, obsessive vigilante whose struggle with the Gotham underworld is only rivaled by his struggles with his own personal demons. One of the most obvious and impressive factors of “Begins” that distances itself from the previous campy and flash-filled adaptations is the amount of time we actually spend WITHOUT a Batman. Nolan allows us to watch the development of Bruce Wayne into the costumed vigilante, from his failed vengeance on the man who murdered his parents to his continents-spanning education of the criminal mindset. We watch him voluntarily lock himself in Asian prisons, trek across mountains, study the dark arts amongst fellow ninja. NINJA! All the while Nolan flaunts the size of his balls by giving his audience exactly the opposite of what they expected, nearly a full hour without a Batman. I’d argue that everything up to Bruce Wayne actually being Batman is what makes this film really great. The Batman stuff is largely very good too, but watching the development of this character, watching Wayne become “something more than just a man” is what sets this apart from what had come before and makes you realize that this isn’t your parents’ Batman.
Couple this new take on the Caped Crusader with a stellar cast and this film was destined to be solid. Christian Bale is, to be blunt, the best casting of Batman there has ever been. Yes, Keaton was fun, but Batman isn’t a fun guy and Bale simply nails him. Sure, the weird Batman voice does get a bit grating, but it is a logical choice for someone trying to disguise himself and Nolan is presenting a much more realistic world for the Batman to live in. And they do technically show you that his voice is supposed to be device-altered by something in the suit, I think. Either way, that’s a blemish I can look past, especially since we’ll only be getting more crazy-voice in the Dark Knight. Ultimately what makes Bale a terrific Batman is his ability to go to the darker places that really makes the Batman character what it is, what sets him apart from the rest of the big 3 superheroes (Batman, Spiderman, Superman). We watch him nail the arrogant, self-destructive playboy Bruce Wayne with ease, playing up the facade that hides the dark truth of Batman. His improved monologue to his dinner guests at his birthday party is hilarious and that scene really exemplifies the skill that Bale brings to the character. Nolan surrounds Batman with only more solid performances. Michael Cane, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman – legends that make up an incredible ensemble for not only a comic book movie, but a movie period. Younger star Cilian Murphy delivers as the insane Dr. Malcolm Crowe/Scarecrow, and I hate to say it, but Katie Holmes isn’t as deplorable as all the fanboys would have you believe. After all, she was Nolan’s first choice for the role of Rachel Dawes, and she does bring some pretty good (not great) stuff when the writing allows her to. I would argue that the majority of her flaws stem from a greater problem that “Begins” faces, the struggle between totally assuming Nolan’s new vision of the vigilante and placating to conventions that up to this point have been considered inherent to the genre.
What “Batman Begins” ends up being is an origin story that is 70% perfect. Watching Bruce Wayne’s evolution into the role of Batman is not just engaging and fun, it’s something incredibly special, something we have yet to see. Once he becomes Batman, however, things begin to turn. The development of his suit, construction of the cave, finding the tumbler, are all awesome. (On a side note, the tumbler is the greatest depiction of the Batmobile ever [a-la Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns] and the chase sequence with Gotham police is simply stunning.) But it is when things go really crazy in Gotham that “Batman Begins” gets a bit awkward. Suddenly, we start getting lengthy, expository monologues explaining to the entire audience what exactly is happening, what’s at stake for our hero and what Batman needs to do to win. It turns from an incredibly smart movie into a generic superhero film, employing the same kind of flash and simplicity that hurt its predecessors. “Batman Begins” throughline largely stays consistent. The film revolves around fear and its effects on mankind, how it can turn us against ourselves and prove to be our ruin. But what largely rides as a smart, complex and engaging character study evolves into stale popcorn in its third act.
To use a reaching metaphor, if “Batman Begins” were Wayne Manor, then “The Dark Knight” is the cave. It’s where the darkness lies, where the elemental parts of the human spirit strike out without warning. To call this film a sequel is to suggest that it is cut of the same cloth as its predecessor and I cannot easily do so. Sure, it picks up where “Batman Begins” left off. It involves the same wonderful cast, though the speed bump that was Katie Holmes has been replaced with the wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaall. And yes, it has been crafted by Christopher Nolan and his amazingly talented crew. But “The Dark Knight” is also something completely different, something we have never seen before. It is a near-perfect film, not just a comic book film. People might say it’s not a Batman movie, that it is something else entirely. I would say that it IS a Batman movie, it’s what Batman movies should have always been, or at least hoped to be. And it is more. It is a crime epic. It is a morality tale. It is a complex, engaging, tension-mounting ride that will leave you breathless when you leave the theatre and will haunt you for days.
The film’s structure is played out very differently from “Batman Begins,” and that is one factor that I could see people calling a flaw. We are not always with Batman. I wouldn’t even suggest that he is the main character. Instead, we
watch as the movie focuses largely on the arc of D.A. Harvey Dent, while Batman and the Joker duel for his soul and the fate of Gotham. “The Dark Knight” is largely an ensemble piece and allows its tremendously talented cast to blow your socks off, giving each their measure in terms of screen time. Christian Bale delivers as the brooding hero/arrogant playboy, Gary Oldman gives a lesson on the power of subtlety and Aaron Eckhart makes the fall from grace heart-wrenching. And then you have Maggie Gyllenhaall, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman. Oh, and Heath Ledger.
Heath Ledger will win a posthumous Oscar – I have no doubt in my mind. His creation, his Joker, is unlike anything we have ever seen- a force of nature, a hurricane personified. I can confidently call it the greatest cinematic villain of all time. He absolutely steals the show, though I would suggest that that was Nolan’s every intention. The writing for the Joker is phenomenal. He is given the best lines and the most engaging action so that the audience is drawn into him, despite how horrified they are with his being. In a film that focuses on the potential of the human soul for both good and evil, giving the devil his due allows Nolan to shove our high and mighty self-righteousness, and the self-righteousness of the Batman, right back in our faces. He makes us question ourselves, just as [SPOILER ALERT!!] Joker forces the innocent people on the ferry to choose between committing a horrible act of self-preservation or leaving their lives in the hands of others. The Joker exists to bring anarchy, to show the world that given the chance, people will “eat each other.” He is a self-described “dog chasing cars” and presents a wonderfully horrific complement for the Batman and his rules. He loves doing what he does, and whether or not we’d like to admit it, we love watching him do it too.
“The Dark Knight” is, very simply, a masterpiece. It is so layered and fast moving that it requires its audience to either pay close attention for the entire 2.5 hours or risk getting lost. Every piece of the puzzle that Nolan has crafted is important and drives the narrative. This is by no means a bathroom break movie. It is rich, complex and unforgiving and it has every right to be. I would suggest that it has created a new genre for cinema, that “crime fiction,” “comic book adaptation” and “superhero movie” all fall short in describing its nature, but to suggest a new genre would be to assume that someone else will be able to accomplish this. And I’m not sure that’s possible. It is something new, something to marvel at. A Batman movie, and so much more.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a no contest. While “Batman Begins” is a very well-crafted, fun superhero film, “The Dark Knight” stands as a haunting, seminal feat in cinema history. A work of art that shows us that there are still new creative roads to be taken, that maybe not everything has been done before.
To quote Commissioner James Gordon, “The Dark Knight may not be the hero that we deserve, but it’s definitely the one we need.”