Batman (Christian Bale) hopes to hang up his cape and hand over crime-fighting duties to District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). But the arrival of clown-faced master criminal The Joker (Heath Ledger) forces the masked vigilante to question everything he stands for.
The hero is a billionaire industrialist who likes to beat people up. The only good cop in the city employs dishonest ones. The psychotic terrorist torturing civilians and chopping up criminals… Well, he’s just about the most charismatic character you’ll ever meet. Welcome to Gotham, where no good deed goes unpunished. And welcome to The Dark Knight, an anarchic, malevolent fury of a movie that takes a switchblade to the face of summer conformity and carves a work of twisted beauty out of it.
Anticipation and escalation were the key words in the build up to, post-Indy, 2008’s most hyped and combustible blockbuster. Director/co-writer Christopher Nolan has talked of making a bigger, bolder picture, unfettered by the origin-construction constraints of the still-excellent Batman Begins. The marketing has been masterful: a lesson in tease and please from 42 Entertainment (earning what must surely be the only mention of a movie’s PR firm in an Empire review; whatever, they deserve it). Then, just as the Sturm und Drang around The Dark Knight built to a frenzy came the January death of Heath Ledger. Peeks at his performance as the Clown Prince Of Crime had already prompted whispers of Oscar, of the birth of an icon. Cynics suggested his passing would boost the box office; pessimists griped that a comic-book movie could never serve as a suitable epitaph to the Brokeback Mountain star.
And — yes — as was, perhaps, always inevitable, The Dark Knight is Ledger’s movie. It is a towering performance. From his menacing, pencil-packing greeting to Gotham’s Mob fraternity (one of the most economic and effective character introductions ever), to the threat and fire he conjures in exchanges with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s sexy, sophisticated brief and “The Bat-maaan”, to the Sophie’s choice surprises of the third act, he is pure, powerful, immense. A force of fucking nature. Informed by Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke and Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween, Ledger’s Joker is anarchy in a three-piece, a ruthless villain who cares for nothing, not even himself. His function, crafted in the hive mind of the Nolans and as Ledger plays him, is to cause chaos, to question everything, to push everyone to extremes, to show Batman there are no rules to this game.
This doesn’t mean Christian Bale is sidelined as either Bruce Wayne or his suited, re-booted vigilante. There’s no repeat of Keaton’s eclipse by Nicholson’s “I’d like eggs with that” Joker turn in Burton’s Batman. Bale is too muscular and committed for that, the Nolans’ script too evenly interested in every character in its universe. So, Batman is more conflicted than ever, still clinging to his parents’ memory but minus the scowly brooding that can make DC’s darkest hero feel like a moody teen. Now his concerns are much more immediate: how to neuter a threat that could destroy a city, how to empower a new DA without blowing his cover, how to work outside the system without bringing it down. He’s Dirty Harry with a conscience: a conscience The Joker plays like a violin.
Pre-release presumptions about The Dark Knight being the comic-book Heat are valid, if not all-encompassing. Visually the comparison is spot on, and regular Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister deserves props: ironically The Dark Knight brings Batman out of the shadows, through a burnished, Michael Mann Chicago into a daylight noir. But while The Joker and Batman are both costumed “freaks”, they don’t completely share the McCauley/Hanna dynamic. De Niro’s criminal, for one, had principles; The Joker has none. And Mann’s film was as much about being a professional as being a cop or a criminal, meaning the characters that are most thematically similar are Gary Oldman’s hard-working lieutenant and Aaron Eckhart’s idealistic lawyer (yes, they do manage to pull off that oxymoron), who are trying to change their world without recourse to gadgets or PVC underpants.
And so on and on (it runs an epic 152 minutes), Nolan navigates through a moral maze and some pointed politicking, but without ever stinting on stunts or explosions. It is thoughtful but never dull, and the OTT action and expansion — underscored in IMAX sequences which will no doubt look spectacular on the enormo-screen (Empire reviewed from a 35mm print) — are generally to its benefit, even though Nolan still appears more comfortable and engaged with interacting people than trucks and Batbikes. After a blistering opening, there’s a second act lull and a story shift not quite as elegant (or, some might argue, even coherent) as you’d expect from the director of The Prestige. But The Dark Knight is spectacular, visionary blockbuster entertainment: pretty much everything you could hope for and then some. It isn’t perfect but then, like its hero, like his late co-star, and as Nolan’s fitting tribute so ably observes, nobody is.
Ledgers performance is monumental, but The Dark Knight lives up to it. Nolan cements his position as Hollywoods premier purveyor of blockbuster smarts and the Batbike is kinda cool, too.