Unless you were on another planet for the last few weeks, you’ve probably heard by now that “The Dark Knight, the latest installment in the long-running “Batman franchise, is the film of the summer.
The sequel to 2005’s smash hit “Batman Begins has, as of today, grossed $400 million domestically, faster than any other film in history. Less than three weeks from now, the film will surpass the total earnings of the first “Star Wars to become the second highest grossing film in the US, right behind “Titanic.
The shower of praise, usually reserved for indie dramas of the fall or Pixar films, has been exceptional, too good to be true, one would presume. If you haven’t seen the film until now, believe the hype. “The Dark Knight is spectacular; a perfect marriage of art and entertainment; a mainstream blockbuster created with the spirit and dramatic complexity of independent cinema.
And yes, it’s as dark as Gotham’s foreboding sky, darker than any summer blockbuster of late, including its predecessor.
Freed from the shackles of the original story, British helmer Christopher Nolan jumps straight into the action. The film begins with a meticulously orchestrated heist, shot by IMAX camera, Sydney Lumet or Michael Mann would’ve been proud to direct.
The bank robbery announces the arrival of the most demented criminal Gotham has ever encountered. The Joker is a man fixated on one target: absolute chaos. Soon, he transforms the city into his own playground.
Meanwhile, Batman (Christian Bale, still displaying the same brooding, stoic look) starts to grasp the pitfalls of his unwarranted stardom. Imposters, hiding behind bat masks, commit numerous crimes as Gotham grows skeptical of the Caped Crusader.
But hope emerges in the form of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the scrupulous new District Attorney who’s on a mission to clean up the streets of Gotham and put the Mafia behind bars. Dent is dating Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, happily replacing bland Katie Holmes), Bruce Wayne’s childhood sweetheart.
The most striking aspect of the latest comic book adaptation is that it rarely feels like a comic book adaptation. From the intricate themes it explores and its several subplots to the subdued, washed out color scheme and Nolan’s even-paced direction, “The Dark Knight is a gritty, sometimes nightmarish, crime saga with a flawed, unglamorous hero, unlike any protagonist presented in previous adaptations. A film for the fanboys this is not.
Nolan, who co-wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, ceases developing Wayne’s character and refrains from exploiting Wayne’s tragic childhood, thus, producing an inherently abstract hero.
Wayne completely disappears under his costume, turning into a beast with “no limits, as he says at one point. Throughout the course of the film, Batman becomes less sympathetic. His questionable morals and uncertain ethics are perhaps more alarming than any wrongful act he commits.
Batman is a vigilante, a weary man who takes the law into his own hands. In this context, Wayne resembles the fading heroes of John Ford and Anthony Mann’s Westerns of the 50s and vengeful cops of the 70s. He’s Ethan Edward’s grandson; a rationalizing postmodern Dirty Harry for our age.
This is why the Joker’s presence couldn’t be any more destructive. Unlike Jack Nicholson’s over-praised, garish incarnation of the first Tim Burton film, Ledger’s take – dictated by source material of Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke and Jeph Loeb’s “The Long Halloween – is pure menace.
Nolan doesn’t provide a back story for the Joker, which makes him fairly akin to Chigurh from “No Country for Old Men; a sweeping force all characters must face. Unlike his arch-nemesis, he has no principles and abides by no code of morality.
The thin line that separates Batman from the Joker gradually disintegrates and the central conflict changes from the standard, superficial good vs. evil to a more ideological dilemma: How societies should face such unabashed, unjustified anarchy? Are law and democracy stringent enough to counter such a force? Most imperatively though, do the ends justify the means?
Dent comes to be the sole purveyor of justice, as envisioned by the masses.
A hero of the people, he exemplifies a form of idealistic justice that can barely survive in a doomed city like Gotham. Hence, the inevitable tragedy that transforms Dent into Two-Face is the most disconcerting plotline, one that eventually looms over the conclusion’s dim rays of hope.
With “The Dark Knight, Nolan has established himself as the smartest, most exciting director working in mainstream cinema today. With six successes under his belt, Nolan hasn’t missed the target once. “The Dark Knight takes the comic-book genre to new, uncharted territories, straying from most of the conventions and putting it on the road to maturity.
Nolan is yet to refine all his skills, however. Although the one-on-one combat sequences improve over the wooly, rapid mess of the first film, they still lack coherence. Moreover, Nolan is still confined by the requirements of the genre; including the obligatory climactic battle and the allegorical connotations.
But these are all minor missteps. Nolan conjures scenes of striking morbid beauty, his grand action sequences are dazzling and, despite what pundits may claim, his themes and concepts are not directly addressed.
Although the entire cast put on truly impressive performances, this is Heath Ledger’s film. Frighteningly intense, incredibly malicious and charismatic, and unapologetically sadistic, Ledger owns every scene with tainted makeup, a devouring lip-licking tongue, tufts of clingy damp hair and an erratic, jolting physique.
Excessively spontaneous yet focused and calculated, Ledger as Joker is an unpredictable, gripping beast. His menace isn’t only induced by his mercilessness or brutality, but, more imperatively, by his intellect.
This brings us to the first showdown between the two foes. Devoid of any action, the first confrontation between the Joker and Batman sent shivers down my spine. This is when Hollywood’s notion of heroism finally crumbles. No matter how the story progresses in the next films, if Nolan returns to the franchise, the righteous Batman has been tarnished for good.
I don’t believe that the implications of 9/11 were on Nolan’s mind when he wrote down the story, but truth, justice, and the American way is nothing more than a myth now. “The Dark Knight is gloomy, an often bleak picture with a downbeat end, signaling the death kneel for heroism.
A few months back, I wrote that the austerity of “No Country and “There Will Be Blood will reshape American cinema. “The Dark Knight is the first mainstream film to accept this reality, a trend bound to surely continue. This is just the beginning, and there’s no turning back.