After the phenomenal Batman Begins, the Nolan brothers, Christopher and Jonathan, finally hit us with the eagerly anticipated The Dark Knight. Most of the original cast returns as Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman are back in their respective roles from the first film. One change is Rachel Dawes, now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal who replaces Katie Holmes (Did Tom Cruise have anything to do with it?). After the success of their first take on Batman, the Nolans faced extremely high expectations this time around.
While Begins focused on themes central to the Batman character such as fear, vengeance and justice, The Dark Knight challenges everyone’s conception of good and evil. In comes the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. A lot of people see a Best Supporting Actor nomination in his performance. I’m not certain about that, but he is extremely effective as the most famous Batman villain. It becomes clear very quickly that this movie attempts to deal with complex issues. After all, distinguishing good from evil is no small task.
To do so, the film pits Batman and the Joker against one another. Batman is good indeed, but it’s not that simple. Joker is evil indeed, but it’s not that simple. The movie, throughout several actions by several characters, constantly reminds us of that. Batman’s vigilante nature attracts suspicion from the people of Gotham City who blame him for the deaths of citizens and cops, especially since his actions have permitted the emergence of intrepid District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).
The Joker is clearly a disturbed cookie, as he tells a few different stories about how he got the scars on the sides of his face. Clearly, his childhood was not a pleasant experience. Still, his character is so much more evil than just a Freudian villain who wants to make society pay for his suffering. He believes in just about nothing. He is a self-proclaimed “instrument of chaos”. As Alfred so adequately puts it: “Some men can’t be bought, bullied or reasoned with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” And ironically, it is that which makes Joker the most interesting character of the film by far. On a personal note, I find it sad that after so expertly breaking away from the superhero movie tradition of the villain being the most interesting character in the film, they return to it with The Dark Knight.
The Joker’s self-imposed role is to demonstrate to everyone what he sees as the hypocrisy and the futility of the efforts of the forces of good. Therefore, he targets Batman, lieutenant Gordon (Oldman), Rachel Dawes and most importantly, the newly arrived Dent. Too bad for them he is one of these villains so devilishly brilliant that he manages to stay not only one step ahead of his chasers, but one step ahead of the script. Oh, and he’s a mean piece of work. Consider a scene in which he has two ferry boats, one loaded with ordinary citizens and the other with criminals, rigged with explosives and offers both sets of passengers the chance to live. All they have to do is use the detonator to blow up the other boat.
As in Batman Begins, the humans have their screen time and that enables the film to make us care about its characters. That being said, the Rachel Dawes part is rather superfluous and always was. Her only purpose is to set up actions by other characters. This is true in spite of the fact that Maggie Gyllenhaal is an upgrade over Katie Holmes as Rachel. Everything about her is a throwback to traditional love interests across the cinematic universe and there is something unnerving about her uncompromising self-righteousness, as she knows she possesses the values of ultimate good. In the world of nuance and grey zones that is Gotham City, she is the one character that is without these characteristics. Therefore, in the context of this film, she clashes from the rest of the scenery. Besides, she is rendered even more unnecessary by the ever more interesting Alfred, who in this picture, faces a cruel dilemma on what to do with an important letter. Nevertheless, we care about every character outside of Dawes, which makes the movie’s shortcomings even more frustrating.
One minor flaw lies in the pacing. The movie takes too long to garner momentum and get really interesting, although an early scene involving Joker making a pen disappear is just great. However, a few failings in the Nolans’ take on the story hamper the film. Joker really is a great villain and he does work really well to turn Dent into the bitter Two-Face. But, in the end, Two-Face is a limited character. He is so because his sole bitterness drives him and because he is the Joker’s creation. He is a one-dimensional character. From a storytelling perspective, it works, I guess, but I wanted more Two-Face.
If only that was all. Let us first credit the writers for attempting to make a nuanced film. Near the end, there is a fascinating conversation between Batman and Joker as the former has finally caught the latter. Joker drives home one of the central points this movie tries to make, which pertains to the fact that the line between good and evil is so indistinct that it only takes “a little push” to cross it. However, by that point I was still recovering from Batman’s remarkably simplistic and naive interpretation of the Joker’s “social experiment” on a set of boats. This wraps up a somewhat disappointing showing for Bruce Wayne/Batman, who regresses from Batman Begins. After such great development in Begins, it is as if the Nolans had nothing more to tell us about his character. Morgan Freeman’s little jab at the Patriot Act, however noble, feels forced, like the Nolans didn’t quite know where to insert it. And then there’s Commissioner Gordon’s pretentious monologue to end the film, an ending which, aptly set up by conversations between Bruce and Alfred though it may be, stretched logic too far for me to accept it.
All this being said, we must not forget this is a terrific movie. This is due in part to the fact the performances are excellent, that the screenplay has tons of strong points and that we care about most of the characters. It also has (and this should not be understated) absolutely mind-boggling action, which is amazingly well done. However, the flaws I mentioned in the previous paragraph are very real and prevent The Dark Knight from being the great film it was meant to be. Finally, about Heath Ledger, to describe his performance as Oscar-worthy might be pushing it, as the part itself deserves as much credit as he does. This is an outstanding Joker, which makes it even more unfortunate that these two talented screenwriters couldn’t quite elevate their main character in the same way.