I wanted to love Batman: The Dark Knight. Director Christopher Nolan (also cowriter with brother Jonathan) and star Christian Bale have long proved themselves thoughtful, serious filmmakers, but if they have one common flaw it might be a terminal deficiency of levity. The Dark Knight inarguably has all the hallmarks of quality, intelligence, and craft, but it makes a miscalculation in tone. Aspiring to the cinematic heights of epic crime melodramas like Heat and The Godfather Part II, The Dark Knight overshoots the limits of its source material and becomes oppressively grim and depressing. One of the film’s marketing taglines was The Joker’s catchphrase “Why so serious?”, a question it should have taken to heart itself. Batman is, after all, a dude who dresses up in a rubber bat suit with pointy ears.
The Dark Knight takes its name from the seminal 1980s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns by comics auteur Frank Miller, but is not an adaptation. At this point, an adaptation would be redundant anyway, as Miller’s general tone and interpretation of the character as an obsessed, psychotic loner has informed every Batman film so far. Spider-Man 2 remains, for me, the only film adaptation of a comic book superhero property to strike the right balance between comics’ heightened reality and cinema’s more grounded literalness.
This blogger grew up with Tim Burton’s two original Batman films, which took the character “seriously” insofar as giving him a reasonably plausible psychological motivation. But they also plopped the character down in an obviously fantastical parallel universe in which such things as rocket-powered penguins and death by laughter (literally) were plausible. In contrast, the two Nolan / Bale films drain all the wit and whimsy from the core Batman mythos, and place him in a decaying, corrupt, crime-ridden city straight out of 1940s pulp noir novels. Living in modern-day New York City, it’s almost impossible for me to imagine Russian and Italian organized crime families being so powerful as to commandeer five big city banks for money laundering purposes, and yet that is a key plot point in the supposedly serious and realistic The Dark Knight. Indeed, any viewer of The Wire and The Sopranos will know that what contemporary organized crime families are capable of is far more mundane. Comic book fans will realize this is the same mistake often made in post-80s comic books: mistaking bloody murder and mayhem for “realism.” If The Dark Knight wanted to be taken so seriously, it could have begun by tweaking its depiction of the contemporary real world.
Every emotion, motivation, and plot point is pushed to such an absurd degree of pretentious gravity and self-seriousness that it almost becomes comic. The precise moment where the film irrevocably lost me is the scene in which the grievously disfigured Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) bellows at Detective Gordon (Gary Oldman) from his hospital bed, commanding him to speak his old derogatory nickname gleaned from years of working internal affairs cases: Two-Face. The performances were so exaggeratedly despairing and melodramatic that I frankly started to laugh.
What little deliberate humor there is is misplaced and awkward. As before, there is some levity to be mined from Bruce Wayne’s deliberate pretense to aimless trust-fund wastrel. Most of Alfred’s reliably dry dialogue amuses, mostly thanks to Michael Caine’s superlative ability to command the audience’s attentions and sympathies. But other stabs at humor misfire; during The Joker’s extended siege on Harvey Dent’s motorcade, one of the security guards provides a running commentary on the proceedings, as if the audience needed any verbal cue that an about-to-be collision with a tumbling helicopter is a bad thing indeed. The action, while spectacular, is nevertheless mostly plausible, save for Batman and Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal)’s fall of some 20 stories from Wayne’s penthouse apartment onto the roof of a car. How is it even remotely believable that they could survive without a scratch? I doubt such a plot device would pass muster in a vintage Batman comic book.
The performances are good all around, but The Dark Knight could very well be subtitled the Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart Show. Christian Bale, the ostensible star of the proceedings, is given little to do. I assume his hoarse Batman voice is meant, in story terms, to prevent him from being recognized as Bruce Wayne while also making him sound more scary. Instead, he seems asthmatic and out of breath. Morgan Freeman summons his reliable gravitas to plays Batman’s supremely capable beard, Lucius Fox, the nominal head of Wayne Industries. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a huge improvement over Katie Holmes. Although just as young and stylish, it is slightly easier to suspect disbelief that she could be a top District Attorney. Gary Oldman provides another example of his ability to subsume his physical appearance behind makeup and props (as in Hannibal and Dracula), but here he is all cuddly fatherly warmth and righteous but fair vengeance (basically a retread of his characterization of Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films).
Setting aside the nostalgia and goodwill surrounding his premature death, Heath Ledger is indeed amazing. Even if he hadn’t died shortly after completing the role, his performance as The Joker would likely be remembered alongside other classic cinema nightmares: Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter, and Kevin Spacey as John Doe in Se7en. One of the best aspects of the character is the clear emphasis that he’s not in the least bit interested in the traditional pasttimes of Batman’s colorful rogues’ gallery. Rather, his aim is to foment anarchy, even self-aware enough to ask “Do I look like a man with a plan?” He does occasionally let rip with a maniacal laugh on a par with the great Jokers of the past (no less all-time great scenery chewers than Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero, but most of the time he’s creepiest when not even smiling. One nice idea that isn’t fully developed is that this Joker doesn’t have the standard comic book “secret origin.” This Joker tells two very different stories explaining how he became both physically and mentally scarred. It’s possible he may not even remember how he became the way he is, but even if he does, does it matter? Which is all the more scary.
Must Read: The New Yorker review by David Denby