Movie Review: The Dark Knight

The year’s most anticipated summer film is still weeks away, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give you a first-hand account of its brilliance. Yeah, that’s right — we said brilliance. Behold, the epic spectacle that is The Dark Knight.
By  · Published on July 14th, 2008

As faithful readers of this site will note, we generally like to title our reviews with some witty and catchy phrase rather than the generic “Review: Title” format — this helps us fulfill our need to be hip and different. It also helps set the tone for the review, giving you a small inclination as to what we thought up front. In the case of reviewing The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to 2005’s dark, re-inventive caped crusader tale Batman Begins, I have no such witty title, no such pun to earn your click-through. What I do have is a reverence for the fact that a film, for the first time this year, left me with no knee-jerk reaction, no immediate opinion to be had. In a way, it was a stunning, awe-inspiring experience — and in no way to I feel that I will be overselling it.

I would be overselling it however, if I were to call it a masterpiece, a revolutionary piece of cinema or heaven forbid “the greatest movie of all-time” — such determinations can not be made three weeks before a film is released and should always be decided by history. As well, I believe that statements like that create unreasonable expectations for great films, leaving audiences predisposed to disappointment. What I will say is that The Dark Knight is easily the most well-crafted superhero movie that I have ever seen, one that transcends genre, on a scale that is as epic as they come and with performances that will shake you to your core.

The core of the story is The Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger. He has descended on the streets of Gotham, where Batman (Christian Bale) and newly elected District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) have been able to curb corruption and mob rule, hell-bent on creating chaos wherever he goes. He is, for the first time in any cinematic adaptation, a character whose actions follow no logic, no reason other than to create havoc and plunge the city of Gotham into a state of peril.

With respect to Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, he appears to be merely a caricature of the Joker compared to Heath Ledger’s embodiment of the raw irreverence of the Clown Prince of Crime. In his first moments on screen, we see Heath Ledger, a talented actor who was lost before his prime, only to see him disappear seconds later into the character of the Joker. From there, he delivers one of the most unnervingly good performances since Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector — he becomes a truly terrifying vision of the Joker, one that challenges Batman’s sense of order and forces him to play by a different set of rules.

And between this epic battle of order and chaos is the character whose story arc is the most complex, Harvey Dent. As Gotham’s White Knight, the beacon of hope for a city on the verge of being ravaged by the mob, Dent’s story becomes the most interesting, as he is the character who experiences the most change in the film. While The Joker’s chaotic nature cuts right through the film, Dent’s story is one of great change, as he is transformed by the circumstances of his storyline, becoming something entirely different as the film moves along.

As you can imagine, it is a story with many layers — Batman’s battle with a foe that poses such a great challenge, Harvey Dent’s struggle to find justice in a world of chaos, the Joker’s rule-less existence and yes, even a love triangle between Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Dent and Bruce Wayne — but these layers would have just been lost had they not been illuminated by such an impressive cast. The aforementioned performance of Heath Ledger is scary-good, a transformation into a character unlike any that we have seen in Batman films of the past. Should he be nominated for and/or win an Academy Award posthumously, I for one would not be surprised. And it has nothing to do with his passing, or paying tribute to him — his performance is not only worthy of recognition, but downright brilliant.

The rest of the cast isn’t too shabby either. As we experienced with Batman Begins, Christian Bale is as good a Batman as we have seen. Aaron Eckhart comes in as a great surprise as Harvey Dent, carrying much of the weight of the film on his shoulders — for fans who thought Harvey Dent would be a side character, one that Chris Nolan was saving for the future of the franchise, think again — this is as much Harvey Dent’s film as it is Batman’s or The Joker’s. And Eckhart pulls it off, in a surprising way. As does Maggie Gyllenhaal, who takes over for Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. She is obviously respectful of the character that Katie played in Batman Begins but also infuses her own strength into Rachel, who is a lot tougher this time around.

And all of these exceptional performances, as well as those of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, are just icing on top of the foundational cake that is the epic scale of this film. With the use of IMAX cameras and location shooting in Chicago, Christopher Nolan has created a Gotham City that feels real, feels huge and at certain points of the film, feels as if it is genuinely in peril. Unlike many superhero flicks of the past, where the last big fight scene is fought between hero and villain on the streets of a major city that is oddly void of occupants, every moment of The Dark Knight makes us feel as if the city of Gotham is alive and that it is being held hostage by a mad man. The scale combined with a pounding score from James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer delivers an experience that is so engaging, so overwhelming that you will easily forget that it is two and a half hours long.

In fact, that is probably the only thing that people may not like about The Dark Knight — it is a bit long. Then again, having seen it, there is nothing that I would have wanted them to cut out. Every layer, every subplot and every character works perfectly to move the story along. As well, said story is dark — perhaps dark and terrifying enough to warrant special consideration by parents. This is a film that is a PG-13 by technicality only, as it has a lack of cursing, nudity and blood — but don’t let that fool you, it is by no means a film for the little ones. That’s not to say that The Joker will give every kid nightmares, I’m just saying that I had a few — so consider yourself warned.

In summation, The Dark Knight is a rarity in Hollywood — a truly earnest adaptation that in many ways exceeds even the brilliance of the work upon which it is based. It is a film that is on a grand scale with larger-than-life characters, but also that is grounded by a plausible story and a very real environment. For the first time, a superhero movie could have us believing that this could all really happen. And whether or not this film will change the way superhero flicks are made in the future is unclear, but should more directors choose to go the route of Christopher Nolan and make films that are as jarring, as epic and as expertly crafted as films, not just as adaptations of a comic medium, then I certainly wouldn’t complain. For as much as The Dark Knight is not a perfect film, it is certainly pretty damn close.

The Dark Knight will hit theaters in standard and IMAX versions on July 18, 2008. It is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace and has a running time of 152 minutes. For more, check out our The Dark Knight archive.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)