By Thomas Griffiths (Cardiff)
The Dark Knight is directed by Christopher Nolan and stars Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Cain and Maggie Gyllenhaal. I don’t think I can say anything about this movie that hasn’t already been said, but I’m going to do this review anyway because I have a ton of stuff to say about this movie. First, I’d like to have a recap of all the previous Batman films I’ve seen, in chronological order:
The 1989 film Batman, starring Michael Keaton and the great Jack Nicholson, was one of my favourite comic-book movies as a kid, and was directed to perfection by Tim Burton (My all-time favourite movie director). Batman Returns, additionally starring Danny DeVitto and Michelle Pheiffer to replace Nicholson, was also very good in its own right. Batman Forever, directed by Joel Schumacher, was good in terms of being colourful as Burton’s take, with a good performance by Val Kilmer, despite being campy, naively-written and with an unfortunate lack of believability at times. Batman and Robin is probably the worst movie I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and nearly destroyed the character and the franchise, despite having a knockout cast (With the Terminator as the main villain, for God’s sake). Then we get the brilliant reinvigoration of the franchise in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, which regenerated Batman with a fantastic plot, great cast, excellent stunts and action and some true insight into the Batman character and complexity.
The Dark Knight is probably the best Batman film so far until Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is just…genius, absolute cinematic genius. First, the story. This is set after the intense battle with the League of Shadows in Batman Begins, where Batman has become an ultimate part of the Gotham situation, and people have developed hugely convoluted opinions of him – the criminals and mobsters are all terrified of him, and the people look up to him, and the police and law are trying to hunt him down. The Caped Crusader himself is just relishing in the new life he has found, and it shows that he’s doing exactly what he’s meant to do and to him it feels completely natural. The presentation of the people’s relationship with Batman is portrayed perfectly in this film, and it’s one of the most integral pieces of the entire story because that’s ultimately what is explored in the movie.
Christian Bale is terrific as Bruce Wayne, the Batman – up until Ben Affleck, he is the best portrayal of Batman we’ve had so far, he was definitely the one to beat for Affleck. Christian Bale’s performance as Batman is subtle, calculating, intriguing, and it makes you care about his character because everything he does can be understood in terms of motivation. What I loved about Bale in this movie is the way he portrayed the three faces of Bruce Wayne – the first of these is the way he appears to the public, as an irresponsible playboy asshole (For God’s sakes, there’s a scene where we see Bruce Wayne snoring during an important business meeting with an overseas client). The second of these is the way he appears to Lucius Fox and Alfred, as a subtle mysterious investigator (Where he analyses situations in subtle ways and deduces impressive results and solutions). The third is how he appears wearing the Batsuit, as Batman.
Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman both give two of the most underrated performances in the movie. The part that Freeman plays is Lucius Fox, the man who supplies Batman with his gear and weaponry and whatnot, but there’s a scene near the end where he looks at the 3D-map-reader in the Batcave and says ‘This is wrong’, saying it’s unethical, illogical and wrong, showing that he is one of the moral compasses for Bruce Wayne. Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon is also fantastic in this movie, and you care as much about him as you do Batman because we get to see his family and the affect his apparent death has on them, and it doesn’t feel forced or generic because it’s played out the exact right way. Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes is very, very good, and she’s also a moral compass for Bruce Wayne in this movie, mainly because she has been his crush his whole life and he spends parts of the movie trying to keep her close and available to him.
The moral complications and contradictions in this movie are masterfully written and depicted, and based on that the entire premise of this movie and the situations that are played out in its plot seem completely, utterly real and grounded in our world. And there are a multitude of scenes in this movie where morality is discussed between characters, and a series of speeches where morality or immorality is explained and justified and it all feels like it’s real people in real situations. One of the most effective lines in this movie is ‘You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain’, which is such an interesting point because both Batman and other characters in the movie, and the previous and succeeding movies in the trilogy either die heroes or live long enough to become villains themselves.
Of course, there is one major performance that I’ve left out so far – Heath Ledger as the Joker. Dear lord, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight is probably one of the top five casting choices and performances of all time. This guy owned every single second of film that he is in! I’m not just talking about his incredible voice (I’ve seen interviews and other films he’s appeared in, it sounds nothing like he does in this movie) – I’m talking about his mannerisms, the way he walks and reacts to situations and people, and definitely his relationship with Batman. Even now, this is one of the ultimate performances given by an actor. It’s heartbreaking what happened to Heath Ledger, and he had to be posthumously awarded Best Actor and not get to hold the award in his own two hands. The Joker in this movie is almost definitely one of the darkest villains in fictional history.
He is almost the absolute antithesis of Batman, in that he knows and sees exactly what’s wrong with society and wants to make other people see it themselves and to change it, but in an incalculably bad way. However, every single point he makes can be understood, it makes absolute sense and the way he presents it makes it seem so damn simple. The Joker is also one of the most intelligent villains in action movie history, in that throughout the whole entire movie he stands seven steps ahead of everyone else, having their lives in the palm of his hand the whole time. Heath Ledger has so many individual monologues in this movie, and in every single one I was on the edge of my seat because they all sound so incredible and are done so spectacularly well that it has the audience toppling over the edge of their seats.
The action in this movie isn’t Matrix-style focused on, or Tarantino-style over-the-top but it’s directed and executed pristinely every single time. There’s a ton of violence in this movie, and it’s all intense and brutal as hell. The scene where the Joker slams a man’s head on top of a pencil almost gave the audience a heart attack when I saw it in cinema, because even I wasn’t expecting that sort of thing in a Batman movie. Also, the action in the movie is infested with sensational stunt work and practical effects, especially including Batman. I haven’t even talked about the Batsuit in this movie – it looks awesome, as does the Batmobile and Batpod and of course the Batcave. One of the funniest parts of the Batsuit is that one of the main issues of the previous Batsuits in previous movies is addressed almost ignorantly in The Dark Knight – the fact that the Batsuit prevents the wearer to move his neck or move very agilely. The result is extremely pleasing, as is the overall treatment of action in this movie.
Also, the cinematography, screenplay and camerawork in The Dark Knight is done stunningly well, it all looks immaculate and every time there’s a twist or an outburst, it packs a devastating punch. The scene where Batman jumps down from a railing and lands on an escaping van is one of the best shots in the whole movie, as well as the amazing chase scene where Batman nearly runs the Joker right over on the Batpod, and the Joker is just pacing towards him and genuinely daring him to smash him over – the most important thing about that scene is that you can tell Batman is seriously wanting to run him over. The scenes in China where Batman flies in on that plane to take Lau, the cinematography and camera techniques are spectacular. Need I mention that the musical score by Hans Zimmer in this movie is terrific, with such a dark, dramatic and exciting tone.
The internal conflict of Batman is personified by the Joker – the Joker is a person that he hasn’t encountered once before. The Joker is completely immune to Batman’s intimidation techniques and brutal strategies, because he literally has no fear of death. He literally laughed hysterically when Batman threw him off a building, and shrieked with laughter when Batman pounded on him in that interrogation scene. He also doesn’t have a single complaint about senselessly murdering and mutilating other people – he literally just threw Rachel out of the window just to prove the point of a joke, to upturn Batman’s use of the words ‘Let her go!’. The closest person to understanding the Joker in this movie is Alfred, who gives this terrific speech to Batman about people like the Joker, saying that ‘Some men aren’t looking for anything logical like money – some men just want to watch the world burn’.
The Dark Knight must also be acclaimed for not being afraid about killing off major characters early on in the film, in a situation that could be treated as the finale of the film and the setup of the next film: the scene where Harvey Dent (Played by Aaron Eckhart to perfection) and Rachel are tied in opposite buildings to chairs, surrounded by barrels of gasoline, and there’s this amazing build-up to the climactic scene where Batman, convinced by the Joker that the building he is going to is the one with Rachel’s in it, accidentally rescues Harvey and Rachel is just so brave and calm, smoothly awaiting the approaching and inevitable explosions that kill her…and the explosion that rocks both buildings ends up hideously marring Harvey Dent and turning him into Two-Face. This is the ultimate example of how dangerous the Joker can be, because he wielded Batman’s affection for Rachel against him – he built a situation where, regardless of the options chosen, people die and he is the only true victor.
Aaron Eckhart rocks it as Harvey Dent across the rest of this movie, one of the most explosive and compelling performances in the supporting cast. He’s like a lawyer version of Bruce Wayne for the first half of this movie, before becoming a brutal and dangerous version of Batman in the second half, who is obsessed with what he perceives as true justice: the Joker convinced him that they cannot anticipate and endure chaos and only aid and abet it. In fact, Two-Face is the most powerful example of how dangerous the Joker is and why Batman wants and needs to stop him. He is also an example of how complex the character of Bruce Wayne can be, in that at the start of the movie Bruce was jealous of Harvey for being Rachel’s chosen man, but when Bruce visits him in the hospital he openly apologises to him for what he has lost. At the same time, we get the most heartbreaking shot in the entirety of this film – Alfred reading a letter from Rachel that says that she’s going to marry Harvey Dent. Michael Cain’s stunning talent for subtle acting makes this such a compelling part of the film.
One can observe that there are three finale climaxes of this film as a whole. The first of these is the final battle against the Joker. This is where the Joker pits two ferries to try and blow one another up, using their own paranoia against them in such a sadistically clever way, and Batman and Gordon and the police corner the Joker in a construction site, which leads to a riveting three-way battle between Batman, the Joker’s thugs and the police. Before it, we actually see Gordon pull a gun on Batman to stop him from approaching the Joker prematurely, believing that Dent is in there – he screams that ‘We have to save Dent! I have to save Dent!’ showing that (Through Gary Oldman’s superb portrayal of regret) Gordon feels viciously guilty of failing to save Rachel, as does Batman secretly. This climaxes with a shocking final fight between Batman and the Joker, in which Batman eventually wins by throwing him off a building – again, in which the Joker openly shrieks with laughter – and Batman grapples him up so he’s hanging upside down, and Batman learns that the Joker had outstepped him once again.
The Joker speculates that the two of them are destined to battle one another forever, since they can’t bring themselves to kill each other (Batman because it’s his code not to kill, and the Joker because life would be excruciatingly boring without a mortal nemesis). After hearing him say this, I was absolutely pumped to see the Joker reappear in the next film and see them clash epically once more. That’s another reason that Heath Ledger’s death was such a blow for so many people, because it robbed them of seeing him do this spectacular performance a second time as the Caped Crusader’s most dangerous enemy. However, it moves on to the second climax of this movie’s finale – Two-Face’s final stand. The acting performances in this scene are worthy of immortalization in a hall of fame. Aaron Eckhart shines in this sequence, showing the full breadth of a broken man’s sorrow. He has just killed a number of people in vengeance for Rachel’s death, before striking the mother lobe in Gordon – he threatens his family to lure Dent there, and then confronts him.
This is where Batman, Gordon and Dent finally cross blades, and Two-Face dominates the entire scene with what he perceives as moral reasoning. He is furious with Gordon, Batman and ultimately himself that they were unable to save Rachel, and despite the fact that he was considered ‘the best of them’ he believes he was the one who lost everything. Then he gives this really well-put speech that almost matches the Joker’s – ‘You thought we could be decent men in an indecent time…well you were wrong. The world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance: unbiased, unprejudiced, fair!’ This entire speech is what Harvey’s character had been building up to in the end, that one display of a broken, devastated mind – and what that could point to is what Bruce Wayne internally feels following Rachel’s death, personified openly by Harvey Dent. Then there’s the eventual death of Two-Face, and it’s almost poetic that Batman’s the one who slams into him after being shot down by the psychopath – it’s almost as if he has two sides to his nature, and even after the first guns the second one down, the second will just explode back and overwhelm the first.
The third and penultimate climax of this film is some of the best directing I’ve ever seen in a DC movie: the way Batman realizes, in killing Dent, he has caused the Joker to win and the only way to ensure that he doesn’t win is by painting himself as the man who killed the people that Dent murdered, by living long enough to see himself become a villain whilst Harvey publicly died a hero. And then there’s the incredible monologue by Gordon, stating that Batman is the hero Gotham deserves…but not the one it needs right now. He will paint himself as the villain, but that is what a true hero does to protect the reputation and welfare of the people he cares for. The eventual point where Gordon describes him as the Dark Knight sent a chill right down my spine when I first saw this movie, and that just goes to show Nolan’s terrific talent for script and direction in a movie like this.
This movie is as close to perfect as any DC movie has ever achieved thus far. It is a brilliant film with stellar acting, faultless direction, a riveting story and a powerful meaning. However, there is no denying that the genius and power and magnitude of this movie would not be possible without the incredible acting talent of one singular man.
Heath Ledger, I salute you!