When Batman Begins ended, with Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman (Christian Bale) on the roof of Gordon’s police station after using the Bat-signal for the first time, I was filled with excitement more than should’ve been rational for a nearly-28-year-old. Not only did the scene perfectly show the Gordon-Batman dynamic that I’d loved in the comic books, but it also ended on a teaser for a possible follow-up that probably sent all the nerds in the audience into a frenzy. Gordon talks to Batman about escalation: the cops get something to fight crime, the criminals get something even deadlier. Then he refers to a case he’s working on, with a criminal who “has a taste for the theatrical, like you.” The criminal, who has robbed and murdered someone, has left a calling card.
That Joker card was a shock. Everyone in the theater I was in cheered. Would it work, though?
Between the critical and financial success Warner Bros. had with Batman Begins, it was obvious they wanted a sequel. Not only that, they wanted Christopher Nolan to return along with the rest of the cast. Nolan wasn’t entirely sure he should–or even could–do another Batman. He was happy with the first movie and wasn’t sure if going back would be a worthwhile exercise for him. But David S. Goyer had given Warner Bros. a proposed trilogy that included The Joker and Harvey Dent in the second film, and Nolan became interested in reinventing The Joker…
In 2005, when Batman Begins came out, I was lost. In 2008, when The Dark Knight was released, I’d been found. I’d been with my fiancée for over a year-and-a-half, I had just completed my first (and I daresay, worst) year as a teacher, and I was living in Boston. A major city. A dream come true. My excitement over the imminent release of The Dark Knight was helped along by its massive viral campaign. Hell, I’d even taken part in it when an I Believe In Harvey Dent campaign van drove by me on the streets of Boston after having just seen No Country For Old Men. I chased the van down and got three campaign buttons. The summer of 2008 was like the summer of 1989 in some ways, a Batman movie and an Indiana Jones movie. Who could ask for anything more?!
Christian Bale continues to be a solid Bruce Wayne and Batman. He’s doing the best he can and pushing himself hard and one feels that Bale is doing the same for this role. He doesn’t just want to portray the character, but make the character live. This is a Bruce Wayne who has suffered from his inner demons but has mostly beaten them. The obsession that has fueled him in his crusade against crime seems to have lifted. Wayne talks about being able to hang up the cowl and attempt to live a fully-realized life. And…
Batman’s voice is great! I know that people have been especially hard on his voice in this movie, but I loved it. It’s just how I’d expect Batman to sound. For starters, Bruce Wayne wants to hide his identity, so he’s changing his voice. He also wants to be intimidating, and the growl helps with that. People suggest that it’s a little over the top, which I’d agree with if it weren’t in a movie where a guy in a rubber bat costume is chasing a clown around a city. Bale’s Batman voice is perfect, so fuck off.
Heath Ledger. I know it goes without saying, but his performance is amazing. When it was announced that Ledger would play The Joker in this film, I remember there was a lot of unhappy nerds. Perhaps because I lived through the Michael Keaton-as-Batman fiasco, or perhaps because I understand that actors are supposed to act, I wasn’t worried. Brokeback Mountain had made him and Jake Gyllenhaal critically acclaimed and I suspected that he wouldn’t take a role that wasn’t in some way challenging to him. That and because Batman Begins hit so many of the right notes, I figured Christopher Nolan could be trusted when it came to bringing new citizens to Gotham. What we got was beyond anything I could’ve hoped for. When the first trailer to reveal The Joker–and Ledger’s performance–debuted in December 2007, the hook was in. I was beyond excited to see the new movie. Ledger gave a performance that not only amazed but terrified. As Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson (and Mark Hamill, for that matter) all tapped into The Joker’s zany, terrifying ways, and there was definitely a sinister edge to their characterizations, especially Nicholson’s and Hamill’s, but Ledger pushed the character into the modern world. His Joker is terrifying and insane in a way that makes him fascinating but not fun. You’re not really laughing with (or at) Ledger’s Joker, so much as releasing nervous chuckles. It’s easy to suggest that Ledger not so much embodied The Joker but rather The Joker embodied Ledger in light of his tragic end in January 2008. There’s a sort of romanticism that goes with saying that Ledger may have gotten too into the role, that he’d allowed the character that Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, and David Goyer envisioned as this incarnation of a beloved evil character to get too deep into his own psyche, but I’m not sure that it’s true. I think what we see in Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker is the perfect mix of a young actor with demons finding a role that appealed to those demons and truly going for it. His performance helped elevate the entire movie, which hardly needed it to begin with.
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes is great. People have given her a hard time, saying incredibly rude things about this beautiful woman’s looks. The funny thing I noticed while rewatching Batman Begins for these essays, is that Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal could almost be sisters. Either way, looks aside, she brings a depth and grown-up feel to the character that Holmes lacked. Gyllenhaal looks like she’s seen some bad shit go down in Gotham City but still remains hopeful. Her death is shocking a brutal.
Gary Oldman’s Gordon remains spectacular. He is mostly understated, saying more with his eyes and mannerisms than with what he says. He shows a warmth and sense of trust to Batman that remains throughout. Even by the end of the movie, when he’s frustrated and nearly crazed by what The Joker has been able to pull off, and he’s ready to shoot Batman for getting in the way, he’s more believable than most actors would be in this situation. Instead of a crazy turnaround of a character, it feels like a natural sense of frenzy, frustration, and fear.
Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and everybody else in the film, are all perfectly cast. Nolan even gets Eric Roberts to turn in a great performance.
The new Bat-costume is great. It’s pretty bold to change it so much yet it works perfectly in the world Nolan, et al, has created. The small pieces of armor, the mask as its own thing, all of it, make this the coolest Bat-suit on film. And even better than the look of it? The fact the filmmakers actually show us a transition between costumes. Batman starts the movie in the suit he wore in Batman Begins. We then see Bruce Wayne talk to Lucius Fox about enhancing the suit. There are a few more times Batman in the Begins suit shows up, and then he’s in Tokyo in the new one. No unexplained enhancements or changes between movies. No strangely embellished suit at the end.
The Batpod is an amazing vehicle. The fact that they tied it into the Tumbler is even better. I want it. I want it. So. Bad.
The writing of the movie is great. The pace is perfect. I have heard of people, even people whom I admire like Harlan Ellison and Joe Hill, say this movie is boring. It breaks my heart but I must respectfully disagree. You get two great action pieces, some story, more action, more story, more action…you get it. And the fact that the entire movie hints at what will happen to Harvey Dent in its structure is even better. There are two introductory scenes, two major happenings in the middle, and two endings. Using Gordon’s statement about escalation at the end of Batman Begins as a jumping off point, the cornered mob turns to The Joker but can’t rein him in. He is the genie out of the bottle. One of the best lines in the movie is given to The Joker, “I think you and I are destined to do this forever!” That line always gives me chills. It acknowledges the 70 years of source material in the movie as well as the idea that this movie will live on.
But it’s not just the final showdown between Batman and The Joker that’s great, but every single showdown between the two is like it’s straight out of the comic books I read as a young teenager. The first time they meet face-to-face at Bruce Wayne’s fundraiser for Harvey Dent is chilling and has all the elements one would expect from both characters. And while some nitpickers have gone online to protest that Batman leaping out the window for Rachel Dawes was silly, let me break down a few things. I may be a nerd who’s apologetic for a movie he loves, but this is how I see it as a storyteller and an observational person: 1) Batman’s going on his guts and adrenaline at that moment. While he’s usually calm and collective, we know Bruce Wayne–and therefore Batman–can be impulsive when it comes to his personal feelings. Look at what happened when he lost his parents! So if he’s against the idea of any criminal ever taking someone he loves away from him, and The Joker has possibly done just that, and Batman thinks he can save that person, he will. It may not be the most heroic choice, but it’s in line with the character in these movies. 2) Logic dictates that The Joker will not kill anyone (else) at the fundraiser. The Joker has just thrown a woman–not just any woman, but Harvey Dent’s “main squeeze” out a window, and the one person who he thinks may stop him just leapt out the window to try to save her. The Joker must realize that someone has called the police, or will when the woman and the guy in the bat suit crashes to the ground, so he’s gonna hightail it outta there! As a matter of fact, the safest place in Gotham, at that moment, is probably Wayne’s apartment. 3) Even if The Joker stays, even if he begins slaughtering party guests, the police are on the way and no amount of bribes would keep him safe. Nope, Batman jumping out the window to save Rachel Dawes makes sense to this guy. Now the two of them landing on the cab without injury…well….
And of course, the showdown between Batman and The Joker in the interrogation room at the police station is iconic. Straight out of the comic books, it’s classic Batman and Joker. The Joker is doing his best to get under Batman’s skin, and finally pushes the right button. The rage that Christian Bale exhibits, the beating Heath Ledger takes, is right out of all those classic Batman/Joker showdowns. It is the one scene that constantly makes my heart race and gives me goosebumps. It is perfect.
Nolan’s direction of The Dark Knight is stronger than Batman Begins. His choice of using Chicago for the exteriors as opposed to sets built on soundstages made this Gotham City feel like Metropolis did in Superman: The Movie, huge and real. The use of IMAX cameras also makes for an interesting home experience while watching it on Blu-ray. The IMAX fill up the 16:9 ratio while the regular scenes will have the black bars at the top and bottom.
The music and sound effects are astonishing. That’s not hyperbole, either. I got to see The Dark Knight in the theater twice, once in its standard format, once in IMAX, not to mention the countless times I watched it on DVD, television, and Blu-ray, and I’m constantly amazed at the two audio elements of this movie. In a day and age when one expects the sound effects to be superb, something about the sound in this movie seems to tower over the rest. I’m thinking of two scenes specifically, although they’re all great.
The first scene is the chase through Gotham, where The Joker is trying to get Harvey Dent. Even before Batman shows up, the sound is incredible, but after he shows and gets the Tumbler blown away, the sound kicks into overdrive. As Batman races on the Batpod, shooting through windows, you can hear every little sound of glass tinkling on the ground. The sound the big tires make on the street, the various sounds of the Tumbler releasing the Pod, and The Joker’s post-crash walk, firing a machine gun at cars and at Batman, are all a feast for the ears.
The second scene is when The Joker blows of Gotham General Hospital. Again, it’s not just the explosions, but the sounds of debris falling all around, glass tinkling, that really helps sell the scene.
The sound effects’ biggest frenemy is the music, and Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard is phenomenal. From the very first criminal sliding on a line from a building to the roof across the Gotham skyline to the point when the sad clown reveals himself to be The Joker, the music goes from what we experienced in Batman Begins to a fever pitch that puts you on edge. Throughout the movie, Zimmer and Howard go from the heroic marches one expects for a superhero to a deranged cacophony for the Joker. It contributes to Ledger’s performance because the music is intense and nerve-fraying.
There are a few too many coincidences. I think. Or The Joker is a little too good. There’s a lot that happens in this movie and The Joker seems to be one step ahead of everyone a little too much. For a guy who claims he loves chaos, he’s always at the right place at the right time, and no one ever seems to be able to outsmart him. He knows exactly how every single police officer, how Batman, and how every major and minor character is going to think, behave, and act. Except for the ferries of Gotham citizens and criminals, those people he can’t read worth a damn.
The Nolans come through their characters a little too much. Certain phrases keep popping up, and while I do believe that the characters are reusing key phrases they heard from another character, they sound a little too much like phrases that are popular with the writers at that moment. They’re a little too neat. Nothing wrong with some of that, but when you can easily quote:
“That night is always darkest before the dawn.”
“…played that hand close to the chest…”
“You either die the hero or see yourself live long enough to become the villain.”
You get what I mean. And there are more, I’m sure, but I’m stopping there. If Bruce Wayne tells Lucius Fox that he’s playing something close to the vest, I expect Fox to say it later in the movie, not Harvey Dent commenting on Gordon’s sudden resurrection.
Harvey Dent is under-utilized. This is probably the one point in this essay that I’m going to really sound like a nerdboy, but when you have such a great character, being portrayed so well by Aaron Eckhart, killing him off so quickly is a sin. Apparently, the original treatment that Goyer submitted to Warner Bros. had The Joker helping turn Dent to Two-Face, and then Two-Face would be the main villain of the third movie, but Nolan thought Dent as Two-Face was too good to save so he included him in this story, helping with the notion that this Batman wasn’t interested in being Batman forever but hoped Harvey Dent would be the city’s White Knight and save the day. Dent’s death does help bring Batman back to fugitive status, which is kind of where the hero works best, but still feels a little too soon.
Damn, wasn’t that night really dark for the last few sentences of the last paragraph? Anyway, The Dark Knight, by setting aside Batman from its title, distinguishes itself from all the other movies made thus far, including its direct predecessor, Batman Begins. It brings the superhero movie into the present, with real-world issues, carrying on the question, “What constitutes a superhero in a post-9/11 world?” How can the people, like me, who oppose the wire-tapping dissolution of rights under the Patriot Act be cool with Batman using his cell phone sonar device to catch The Joker? If we say the end justifies the means, then wouldn’t that be an argument against our own beliefs? I think Christopher Nolan likes that. He likes to raise the questions but let you worry about the answers, without ever answering them himself, or having his characters answer for him. One could argue that the destruction of that ability would mean that as long as we go back to how it was before those rights were removed, then it’s all right. But the conflicting argument that comes out of this movie is that once the change starts, it won’t stop. The Joker tells Batman that he’s changed things, and that there’s no going back, and even The Joker doesn’t understand how deep that message has sunk until his ferries don’t blow up.
Either way, The Dark Knight made me break one of my own rules: I never talk about a movie I’ve seen in the theater until I’m in the car and on the way home. I was leaving the theater and turned to Pamela and said, “We need to see this again.”
The film was critically loved and became one of the highest grossing films of all time. It was nominated for Academy Awards and Heath Ledger’s performance won every acting award it was nominated for, including the Academy Award. Surely, with all the hoopla and love for The Dark Knight, it was inevitable that there would be a sequel.
Or was it…?