How does one say anything about The Dark Knight without their voice immediately becoming lost amongst the hyperbolic masses? It’s a tough thing to do. If you’re anything like me (and I hope for your sake you’re not) the more something is trumpeted about, the less likely you are to bother with it. That’s largely irrelevant here however, as statistically, you’ve seen the film multiple times, own it on a shiny disc and have been working on your terrible Batman/Joker impressions ever since 2008. To the five people who haven’t been living in a Batcave these past five years, let me try and explain what makes The Dark Knight so extraordinary.
The thing to understand is that The Dark Knight was always going to be big, but just how big it turned out to be surprised everyone. Elements started coming together before release (thanks in part to a revolutionary viral marketing campaign), before things started snowballing right up until release date. For starters, Batman Begins had introduced and won a lot of people over to the Nolanverse and its new, gritty take on The Caped Crusader, so naturally these people wanted more. Secondly, instead of facing secondary, lower-level villains like Ra’s al Ghul and Scarecrow, ol’ Bats would be squaring off against his most famous adversary, The Joker. Thirdly came an element that nobody could have foreseen- the tragic death of Heath Ledger mere months before the film was due to come out. This undeniably pushed knowledge of the film beyond the reach of even the most ambitious marketing drive. Amongst the grief and sad head-shakings about a life cut short, a morbid curiosity about Ledger’s last completed role started to rise- a phenomenon that also helped Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. People were champing at the bit to see this film and luckily, it turned out to be an astounding piece of work. If Batman Begins was all about laying solid foundations, The Dark Knight was about escalation, or, as The Joker himself so aptly puts it: “aggressive expansion”.
With the criminal stranglehold on Gotham City loosened by the tireless work of Batman (Christian Bale) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), regular street thugs are running scared from the Batsignal. However, when an unpredictable goon in clown make-up shows up calling himself “The Joker” (Heath Ledger), the gangs turn to him to get rid of their bat problem. Meanwhile, a new hope for Gotham emerges in the shape of the new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who Bruce Wayne hopes will turn into the reason to hang up the cape and cowl. Things are slightly more complicated as Dent is dating Wayne’s old flame Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes). This is about as good as it gets for not only comic book adaptations, but films in general. The plot is slick, tight, compelling and immersive, treating the audience like they’ve got a brain in their head (still a rarity in blockbuster filmmaking). Take away the costumed sillies and you’ve got yourself a damn fine thriller in its own right. The cast, once again, are fantastic, with the possible exception of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who seems to be holding back her acting talent seen in things like Secretary for another artsy-type film. This is pure speculation of course and she’s certainly not bad, I just can’t shake the feeling she’s not as into it as everyone else. As I said in my Batman Begins review, I would have liked Katie Holmes to have reprised her role, especially as the emotional pay-offs for the Rachel Dawes character are in this one.
The smack-in-the-face obvious stand-out is Heath Ledger’s Joker, who gives the film a manic energy and a genuine menace. For the first time on-screen, The Joker is scary. This is a far cry from Nicholson’s portrayal, who came across as a wacky uncle, rather than the demented psychopath we’re presented with here. You can never quite get a handle on Ledger’s Joker. He’s unsettling, sinister and devious but amusing and incredibly entertaining at the same time. He also gets most of the best lines, with some of my favourite moments of the film being his insane diatribes, such as his conflicting stories about how he got his trademark scars to goading a policeman about how many of his friends he’s killed. Ledger deservedly won the Oscar for this portrayal. Oh- and to all the people who said he won it “just because he died”, fuck you- it’s all there on screen. It’s truly a powerhouse performance and one I never get sick of seeing.
As for the rest of the film, it’s astounding. The writing is great and the score is especially awesome (with the usually happy to rest on his laurels Hans Zimmer re-teaming with James Newton Howard to build on the amazing work they did on the Batman Begins soundtrack.) With such an emphasis on story and dialogue, you’d think the ball would be dropped by adding in some generic action beats. However, the action manages to be jaw-dropping whilst keeping it realistic. There’s the famous chase through the streets of Gotham which introduces the cool-as-hell Batpod and culminates in a huge 18 wheeler being flipped. You will believe a truck can fly. The opening bank heist is incredibly well done too. It sets up the film beautifully.
My favourite scene that doesn’t feature gravity-defying vehicles is the interrogation scene where Batman and The Joker have a nice little sit-down before it all goes to hell. To me, this defines The Dark Knight as a whole. In the wrong hands, this scene could have been infamous, up there with the “nuking the fridge” bit in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, as it’s basically a man in unconvincing clown make-up taunting a gravelly-voiced knob in fetish gear armour with silly little bat ears. However, in practice it’s an uneasy, shocking scene that reminds me of a similar bit in L.A. Confidential where Russell Crowe’s Bud White loses his rag with a detainee. The scene is so good, I’m trying my utmost to not quit this review, jam the Blu-ray in the player and lose myself in it all over again. It honestly gets better every time I see it.
In my not-at-all humble opinion, The Dark Knight is not only the best comic book adaptation but one of the best films in the last ten years. It’s one of those films that will be an eternal favourite, something I pop on when I want to be reminded of how good films can be. It’s not just the film you deserve, it’s the film you need.
Win Batman Begins/The Dark Knight on Triple Play (closes July 22nd, 2012)
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