Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight

It’s been about 15 months since I walked out of the theater after seeing Spider-man 3, my hands laced in my pockets, and my head facing the ground in disappointment. It was my birthday and by the end of the night, it did not feel like a happy one. Ever since then, I have not even been able to watch Spider-man or Spider-man 2, knowing how the third film let me down, and I own both the movies. 2007 was just a shitty year for comic book movies (Ghost Rider, Fantastic Four, and Spider-man 3). However, 2008 has more than made up for it. A heavy dose of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk have made me feel better, but walking out of The Dark Knight was nothing short of a breath of fresh air. My point is that other comic book movies just feel insignificant compared to this one. So finally, I think I can let go of my Spidey depression and forget about it.

Director Christopher Nolan revived the Batman franchise that was mauled to death by Joel Schumacher with a fresh take, and the result was Batman Begins. While not a perfect movie, it was clear that when Batman closed with the line “And you’ll never have to” in response to Jim Gordon’s “I never said thank you,” that bigger and better things were to come. But take my word for it, even with the hype as high as it is, nothing can prepare you for the greatness you will witness in the sequel, The Dark Knight. Put simply, this belongs on the shortlist of the best American movies in the last two years, and that includes titles like No Country For Old Men and The Departed.

Nolan is already widely beloved by mainstream audiences for his gifted storytelling techniques, but with The Dark Knight, he makes a strong case as to why he should be remembered as the definitive filmmaker of this decade. I’m not the biggest fan of him either. Until now, I don’t think he has ever made a great movie, but he certainly hasn’t made anything that wasn’t good either. How many directors can vouch for that?

Written by Nolan, along with his brother Jonathan and renowned scribe David S. Goyer (credited to the story only), The Dark Knight gets my vote as an early contender for best screenplay of the year. Exceptionally crafted and brilliantly paced, by the 90 minute mark of this 152 minute film, the viewer is sucked down a pitch black rabbit-hole and left to wonder when the light at the end of the tunnel will appear. In other words, this is a rare movie going experience in which you have no idea how things will turn out in the end because you are shocked and amazed by what you have already seen.

The movie picks up just a few months from where Begins left off. The streets are becoming cleaner by the day. New District Attorney Two-Face Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) has been deemed as Gotham’s White Knight after he single handedly puts half of the mob force behind bars. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is starting to get high hopes that the day that Gotham City no longer needs Batman is coming, and he can finally be with true love Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal subbing for Katie Holmes), but he may be too little too late as Rachel is starting to fall in love with Dent.

Down but not out, the mob turns to the Hitler inspired character of the Joker (the late Heath Ledger). Wayne’s butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), says it best: “In their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.” A psychotic mass murderer, and a clever one at that, the Joker devises one terrorizing plot after another in order to turn Gotham into a state of anarchy, leaving Gotham’s finest, including honest cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, soon to be commissioner), not only feeling helpless and unable to protect the public but fearing for their very lives. Things get even more interesting when the Joker announces that he won’t quit until the true identity of Batman is revealed.

Christian Bale in The Dark Knight

The tagline of one of the movie’s posters is “welcome to a world without rules” and it could not be more fitting. Nolan’s vision is no-holds-barred and all the better for it. This movie is dark and complex, and never shies away from collateral damage or the potential thereof, which rewards the audience with one of the most suspenseful climaxes in recent memory. Despite the lack of foul language, how the movie slipped by with a PG-13 is beyond me. This is a haunting picture that left me with trouble sleeping last night. Keep the little ones away.

Much like Iron Man, although far different in tone, The Dark Knight is a movie for our times. The words terror and chaos stick with you consistently throughout the film. The Joker symbolizes terrorism, and similar to the crazy fucked up world we live in today, we don’t quite understand it. The obstacles Batman, Harvey Dent, and Jim Gordon face almost seem insurmountable and will no doubt show their true colors. Viewers will be left glued to their chairs, wanting to turn away at times but finding themselves unable to do so. One of the most disturbing and indelible scenes is where Joker torches a giant pile of money. “It’s not about money,” he says. “It’s about sending a message.”

The three major characters (Batman, Joker, and Two-Face) are each given ample screen time. While many have complained (myself included) about the villains outshining the caped crusader in the Batman films of old, here it works (another pay-off from Begins). Their storylines seamlessly work their way into the script and there is never a lack of character development.

I’ll get to Heath Ledger in a moment, but I would like to start off with Aaron Eckhart, who in spite of the presence of Christian Bale and Ledger, should not go unnoticed. His performance is composed and controlled, and his inevitable fate is just a short cry from heartbreaking. Meanwhile, Bale proves once again that he IS Bruce Wayne and he IS Batman. As the dark knight, he is intimidating and impressive and it’s no wonder as to why criminals fear the streets at night. As alter ego Bruce, Bale is perfect in his scenes with Rachel Dawes. He is confronted with the desire to have a normal life and does everything he can to hold on to his true love.

Then there’s Ledger, who is miles ahead and away from Jack Nicholson’s take on the Joker. As a villain, comparisons to Javier Bardem’s Oscar winning role in 2007’s stunner No Country For Old Men instantly comes to mind. I would say he’s equally good as he completely disappears behind his makeup and gets lost within the mind of a sociopath. The fact that he is dead should have nothing to do with whether or not he should be nominated for an Oscar. Ledger deserves award consideration for his work because it’s a bravura performance any way you slice it. Just as the Coen brothers did, Nolan proves that not wasting time with villain origins pays off in the long run and it only enhances its effect on the audience. Nolan even goes a step further by having the Joker tell anecdotes to his soon-to-be victims about how he got the scars on his face, and he changes the story each time.

As for the rest of the cast, Gary Oldman is superb as his Jim Gordon shows his resiliency in the face of adversity. His impact on this film is thankfully greater than the role he played in Begins. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a step above Katie Holmes in the role of Rachel Dawes, who now seems to be more independent and a stronger presence. Finally, the always reliable Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, as succors Alfred and Lucius Fox, are as good as ever, providing advice and encouragement to Bruce Wayne in his times of distress.

Brilliantly bleak and chillingly Gothic (credit the enthralling cinematography by Wally Pfister), The Dark Knight emerges as the first truly great film of 2008, and it has been a year that has seen a frustrating lack of greatness so far. Christopher Nolan’s epic arrives not a moment too soon. The only downside is that The Dark Knight may be too good. It would be hard to ask and anticipate another sequel to be better than this one. While Nolan and Co. leave the door open with an interesting premise, no one would blame them if they decided to quit while they’re ahead.


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