So I know that a pop culture website should stay more up to date than this one has as of late. However, I have a good excuse as I have been away in rural Mississippi for a week and a half trying my hand at filmmaking. Now that I am back and recovering, putting up some new material is a number one priority. In the near future, look for a review of Craig Detweiler’s newest book, Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century, and also an on-line interview with the author. I’ll also be joining Tripp Fuller and Chad Crawford on their Homebrewed Christianity podcast to talk about all things comic books and films in what will hopefully become a recurring conversation. Until then, I thought I’d give my belated review of this summer’s biggest box office hit (and quite possibly of all time), The Dark Knight, which I have seen three times already. Yeah, it’s that good!
Every once in a while, you should let your reservations go and believe the hype. The internet…ipods…Crystal Pepsi…well maybe not the last one. But, believe all the hype surrounding The Dark Knight, surely the best film of the summer and quite possibly one of the best of the year. Director Christopher Nolan picks up right where he left off with Batman Begins. Christian Bale returns as the caped crusader in a Gotham City that seems to be turning a corner on the way to a brighter, less crime-riddled future, with the help of District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and Lieutenant-turned-Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). That is, until a new, darker iteration of The Joker (Heath Ledger) limps onto the scene, turning the criminal underground, the police, and all Gotham residents on their collective heads. By now, most of you have…or better have…seen the film, so I will dispense with plot details. Basically, The Joker calls Batman’s bluff, exposing his “hypocrisy” and injects chaos into the city by bringing down, through a series of catch 22’s, Dent just as he is about to crumble the criminal underworld’s infrastructure.
Nolan’s latest Batman film is visually and thematically darker. Most of the film takes place at night or in dark corners. The only day shots shine light on massive chaos as The Joker robs a bank, sabatoges a police funeral, and blows up Gotham General Hospital. The themes are even darker and more complex than the visuals. But they should be given the source material.
Let’s think about Batman for a second. Here is a superhero who compensates for his lack of superpowers with an all-consuming desire for revenge. Bruce Wayne lost his parents to murder as a young child and has spent his entire life seeking revenge, not necessarily on the criminal(s) who effected his parents’ murders, but on any criminal(s) that stand in his way. In this film, Bruce/Batman is continually fueled by the revenge and rage that sprouts in Batman Begins. In the Gotham Knight anime DVD recently released, a short featurette compares Batman to the villains that he fights. Nolan does a great job of drawing this connection as well. Two Face (A.K.A. Harvey Dent) and The Joker both roar when they are angry or do not have their demands met. Listen closely when Batman does not get his way either: close your eyes and they sound the same. While Batman may naively claim that he does not…or does not want to…kill people, he blindly misses the fact that his (in)actions result in untold, unknown deaths. The Joker recognizes this and finally calls him on it: “You complete me.” He later tells Batman, “I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve.” If anything, The Joker might be more faithful to his words, as demented as they may be.
Critics have been quick to point out the parallels between The Dark Knight and contemporary socio-political mores. Nolan does not deny their presence, but rather sees them as a reflection of the times in which he lives and works…an impossible reality to ignore, even in filmmaking. Cell phone bombs, “ransom note” recordings, cell phone tapping, torture, attacking terrorists first so that they will not attack us…. Craig Detweiler picks up on the diverse interpretations in the beginning of his article at conversantlife. All of these are present and relevant but perhaps a bit too simplistic for Nolan. He takes these issues a step further in his construction of Batman.
What is this symbol to which Bruce Wayne, Batman, Harvey Dent, and Commissioner Gordon all make reference? What is Batman supposed to be in these chaotic times? If not the moral or ethical center of the film, it certainly is one of its high points. There is no easy answer here, and I would imagine that it will remain one of the lingering questions even after multiple viewings. Alfred (Michael Caine) reminds Bruce that Batman stands for something more than responding to the whims of a terrorist. What then is Bruce/Batman to do in the face of The Joker’s scare tactics? Though Batman responds with force, he also chooses what could be described as the role of a suffering servant or, as Gordon calls him, the silent protector. Batman willingly takes on Two Face’s guilt and complicity in the police murders and the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhal) that surround The Joker’s mayhem.
Ledger’s Joker stands for something more than a comedic villain that Batman must overcome. Here, The Joker believes in something more destructive than violence and could care less about financial reward. Towards the end of the film, he burns a heaping pile of money and tells a fellow criminal, “All you care about is money…this town deserves a better class of criminal.” For a while, The Joker gives it to them in the form of chaos, a world without rules. Ledger will not be able to reprise his role as The Joker, and, out of respect to the actor, I doubt Nolan would include that character in any future sequels, if he signs on of course. However, The Joker’s survival at the end of the film and Batman’s escape, signal that they could be locked in that romantic “good versus evil” dance about which The Joker surmises, “I think we could do this forever.”
No review of The Dark Knight would be complete without a nod to Heath Ledger’s performance. Three viewings later, it still consumed my attention, shocking and unnerving me. It is an Oscar nomination worthy performance, and if he does win, it simply won’t be just because he died too soon. Very quickly into the film, I found myself forgetting that Ledger once existed behind that grotesque makeup and having to convince myself that The Joker wasn’t real after all.