(2008)4.5Jeremy WheelerThe caped crusader gets a stunning dose of hardcore dramatics in The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan's ambitious follow-up to Batman Begins. Hailed as the first real big-screen adult take on a popular comic mythos, the film goes to great lengths to show that costumed characters can indeed exist in genres outside of their comfort zone -- which in this case, spells gritty crime drama. Nolan's Gotham City might be beautiful, but it's decaying from the inside out -- as are most of the people in control of it. So at what point do the efforts of a costumed vigilante cease to have an impact on the city he vows to protect -- and when does his mere presence become a detriment to that society? It's these kinds of hefty issues that embody what could accurately be touted as a reinvention of the entire superhero film altogether. Thick with rich dramatics, daring performances, and a few knockout scenes of action gusto, The Dark Knight strives to not only one-up its predecessor, but also to lay down a measuring stick of quality for the rest of Hollywood to live up to.
Viewers' strong reactions to the picture likely have a lot to do with the casting. Heath Ledger's sad passing gives his fearless performance -- and in effect, the movie -- a sense of importance that is hard to counter. For his part, the talented performer gives a full-on show each time he is onscreen. His approach to this anarchist embodiment of The Joker is something truly special to behold and easily one of the boldest portrayals in comic-to-screen history. Take him away and there's still plenty of A-game being brought to the screen, thanks to the talents of Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Aaron Eckhart, whose solid performance as Harvey Dent makes up the tragic backbone of the film. For his part, Christian Bale does a fine job embodying the lonesome hero of his city, even if he persists in giving Batman's voice the same guttural growl that hurt his performance the first time around. Thankfully, the costume has been given an overhaul to address some of the "rubber suit" issues that have plagued the franchise since its Tim Burton days.
Yet just as Burton reshaped the character to fit his own gothic tastes, so does Christopher Nolan paint a picture all his own. By luring audiences in with a consistently light first half and then turning things bleaker as the movie progresses, the filmmaker has created a truly engrossing tale of modern decay. By the end, much has changed and no one is left unscathed. It's not an easy story to either tell or sit through. There are casualties -- and this most certainly is not a crowd-pleaser in the typical sense of the word. By eschewing what many others in his field are doing with similar comic properties and seeking out his inspiration elsewhere, Nolan shows that mature thematic material can have new life when adapted for even the most beloved heroes of the printed page. Critically, he does overshoot things a bit by bringing in slightly heavy-handed messages into the final chunk of the film -- and it seems that a few characters really get the short end of the stick (Scarecrow, anyone?). Perhaps the rumored three-hour cut would iron out a few of the film's issues, including rushed character arcs and especially one seemingly needless late set piece. The action, while improved in this installment, also is a bit hampered by some confusing techno-gadgetry (in one of the only moments where the action is dictated by fantastic spectacle).
Still, with its virtuoso vision and near avant-garde score from James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer fueling the picture's ever-growing dread, The Dark Knight stands on its own in a world full of easy entertainment. Perhaps someday someone will be able to happily marry the best that both Nolan and Burton have brought to the screen -- until then, this remains an impressive feat of studio-backed artistry. Like its own crime-fighter, the movie is a symbol that aspires to greater things; where it will lead is anyone's guess.