Coming out of nowhere to redeem the bat-franchise with Batman Begins (not the Batman film we deserved, but the Batman film we needed), who could’ve known that Christopher Nolan was heralding a new era of superhero with the delirious success of his second Batflick. Never forget that it was released in the same summer as Marvel Studios’ debut outing Iron Man, essentially forming a one-two punch that still affects the very face of cinema itself to this day.
Taking more of an inspiration from modern crime epics such as Heat than anything from the past DC catalogue, The Dark Knight truly forges new ground, feeling far more “realistic” than anything of it’s ilk before. Despite the roaring Batpods and flipping trucks, the film skillfully lures you into a world just a slight step to the left of reality that while it unfolds seems thrillingly and utterly feasible.
It’s been two years since Bruce Wayne has unleashed his nocturnal alter ego upon the crime populace of Gotham City and real progress has been made. The mob is sweating bullets instead of shooting them, casual dealers balk at business at the mere sight of the bat-signal knifing through the sky and any criminal foolish enough to do business out in the open royally gets their behind bat-handed to them (cue an early cameo by Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow, now a drug kingpin dealing in fear gas). However, time has taken it’s toll and Bruce is starting to look for an exit strategy; the Batman, it seems, is burnt out.
Salvation comes in the form of squeaky clean DA Harvey Dent, another rare, incorruptible honest Gothamite striving to clean up the streets of Gotham and in him, Bruce can finally see a day when the city could no longer need his brand of vigilante justice despite the fact he’s dating Rachel Dawes, Bruce’s ex ; BUT, there is a cloud on the horizon. A clown faced, anarchist with a talent for domestic terrorism and who only goes by the name of The Joker has made an offer to the various criminal syndicates and it’s quite simple: kill the bat. Agreeing without really comprehending the being that stands in front of them The Joker then proceeds to hold the city hostage with ever increasingly sadistic scenarios until Batman turns himself into the local authorises and unmasks. Thus a battle of wills erupts with Gotham’s very soul on the line all so a slash-mouthed, lunatic can prove his point that on a very bad day, ANYONE can become as crazy as he is. The ensuing struggle threatens to envelop everyone involved and no one, not Bruce, not Gotham, not Rachel and certainly not Harvey – who by the end of the film should really stock up on some salve – will ever be the same again.
First, as many have before me, let’s address the green-haired, red-lipped elephant in the room. The performance of the tragically late Heath Ledger as The Joker is INSANELY good, delivering what was the last word in killer clown performances for nearly a decade before Bill Skarsgärd and Joaquin Phoenix chose to slap on some grease paint and practice a laugh. The Joker is utterly hypnotic and feels hideously real and genuinely unpredictable and with no plot arc to worry about and armed with multiple origin stories he freely blurs out at opportune moments, is free to roam around the film freely, popping up like the shark from Jaws to gleefully fuck up some poor bastards day. In fact Jaws is a suprisingly good analogy as the three male leads somewhat resemble the trio from Spielberg’s classic; with Jim Gordon’s weary everyman resembling Brody, Harvey Dent’s upper class optimism bowing to Hooper and Batman’s unorthodox drive mirroring the manic Quint. But while Ledger’s performance puts the “mental” in monumental, it’s easy to take the actual movie for granted, which is a shame as Nolan’s sophomore Bat-effort truly sits as one of the finest superhero movies ever made. Stellar action sequences thrill, including a magnificent chase through the streets of Gotham as The Joker’s semi barrels after a paddy wagon with Dent inside while Batman pursues in what can only be described as two jumbo jet tires with a seat on it, while Nolan’s puzzle box storytelling keeps literally everybody on their toes while on the edge of their seat (which, I can attest, is really rough on your feet).
All the while the film keeps wrong footing you with endless rug pulls as to who’s actually got one over on who, proceedings are helped along by the returning cast plus square jawed Aaron Eckhart as the tragic white knight Harvey Dent and Maggie Gyllenhaal taking over Dawes duties from Katie Holmes to much better effect and the ubiquitous Hans Zimmer whose blaring themes and screeching strings bring both the hero and villain to roaring life as they hurtle toward each other toward their dance of destiny.
So is there ANY problems with this movie? Nothing even remotely terminal. Sure, some have complained that The Joker’s plans rely way too much on ludicrous amounts of luck for them to pull off (I would remind them that this, in fact, is a movie and that you can do whatever you want) and after a stunning plot Sophie’s Choice style plot twist, the film wobbles a little bit trying to get momentum back, but these are both small prices to pay considering the legacy the film left behind in virtually no time at all.
A rare superhero flick that actually has something relevant to say (public reactions to terrorism and the loss of public privacy and civil liberties in the wake of an attack) while being completely gripping (the face to face between the two arch enemies is electric) The Dark Knight is a gold standard of genre filmmaking that doesn’t come along every day. Or Knight…