Critically, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005) was received rather well and despite its slow momentum at the box office, a sequel was soon announced. However, the question hanging over production wasn’t whether Christian Bale would return, or who would be the film’s bad guy -that was obvious -the real question was whether or not Nolan would be back. And return he did.
Here, following hot-on-the-heels of my retro-review of Batman Begins, are some thoughts on Nolan’s second foray into the world of Batman, in my reassessment of The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008).
The thing about sequels is, the audience always expects something far grander -more ‘bada-boom’ for your buck. And The Dark Knight does not disappoint. The film begins with a Heat (Mann, 1995) inspired robbery, organised by the Joker. Nolan openly drew comparisons to this film in interviews and explicitly so with his casting of William Fitchner as the mob bank manager -Fitchner played a bondsman out of his depth in Heat. Even Zimmer’s score (in this sequence) is reminiscent of the botched bank heist, in Michael Mann’s epic crime-thriller.
The scene also beautifully introduces Heath Ledger’s, Joker. Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight is deserving of the ‘best supporting’ gong he was awarded posthumously, but I doubt he would have been given it if it wasn’t for his untimely death. However, for every second the Joker isn’t onscreen, you’re awaiting his return and that’s high praise in a film which is filled with great acting and plenty of action.
Simply, whether he’s dressed as a nurse, explaining how he got his scars or performing a magic trick for the mob, you can’t help but marvel at this (surely) definitive interpretation, of the greatest comic book villain ever.
Ledger’s Joker cuts through the film, leaving chaos and bodies in his wake. But Nolan wisely neglected to give the Joker an origin, like the shark in JAWS (Spielberg, 1975), one day he was just there. Wisely, the origin story is saved for the film’s other villain, Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart).
It is to Nolan’s credit then that he decided to emphasise Harvey Dent’s origin tale. Harvey Dent is Gotham’s hot new District Attorney of Law. He’s a DA who’s not afraid to fight and working alongside Lt Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman (Christian Bale), Harvey is determined to save Gotham City from the criminals.
Bruce Wayne sees Harvey as a legitimate ray of hope, the opportunity to retire the Batman and so backs him both financially (well, it’s implied) and with muscle, as Batman. But predictably, things don’t run smoothly and thanks to the Joker, Harvey ends up being horribly scarred down one half of his face in an explosion -thus, Two-Face is created. This leads to a confrontation between Dent, Gordon and Batman -with the former blaming the latter for his horrible transformation and the death of a loved one.
In keeping with Nolan’s realistic modus operandi, Eckhart’s Two-Face, is a very grounded villain, more of a desperate, angry man, seeking vengeance, instead of the pantomime-ish version from Batman Forever (Schumacher, 1995). However, his death was perhaps a rather impetuous decision because he’s never afforded the time to become a truly great villain.
Naturally, Christian Bale reprises his role as Bruce Wayne/Batman, but gone is the guilt of his parents’ murders, he’s still brooding but as Katie Holmes’ Rachel observed, Wayne is the mask not Batman and this is something reinforced throughout. I’m still not convinced that Bale is the definitive Batman, although he did do a grand job with Wayne in Batman Begins. Personally, I still reckon Keaton is the best silverscreen incarnation of the ‘pointy-eared night rat’.
Maggie Gyllenhall turns up as Rachel Dawes, Bruce’s former love, who’s now warming the cockles of Harvey Dent’s heart. Fortunately, she’s a marked improvement over Tom Cruise’s latest victim, but even so, an actor is only as good as the dialogue their given -and some of Gyllenhall’s lines suck! Cillian Murphy makes a welcome return at the film’s beginning as the Scarecrow, and delivers one of the film’s funniest lines, and fingers crossed he pops up in The Dark Knight Rises.
The Dark Knight despite all its triumphs isn’t without its failings. There’s this continued emphasis to cram sonar technologies into Batman films, from Batman Forever to this. Quite simply, the sonar sequences look stupid at best, sure it enables us to witness how Batman can navigate a building, successfully avoiding/taking-down his enemies without being detected, but it looks bloody daft. He’s Batman and bats have sonar, but please no more stupid bat-sonar inventions with crappy CGi sequences.
One of the most noticeable absences in both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is Danny Elfman’s iconic theme tune, which was reused in Batman: The Animated TV Series. Instead, Zimmer’s choppy theme continues to build towards… something. Hopefully by the third film’s conclusion we’ll be treated to some epic Batman theme, if not, perhaps I could re-edit the film and play Elfman’s theme -the proper Batman theme -over the final confrontation!? Hmm…
As with Batman Begins, I would also argue that this film is too long. The two boats scene at the film’s end -the Joker’s last hurrah -proves to be one set piece too many. Then there’s the Wayne employee who discovers Bruce Wayne’s secret identity, an intriguing idea, but one which is ultimately squandered. It does nothing but reinforce Wayne’s selfless mentality -so one has to ask, what was the point?
However, minor niggles aside, The Dark Knight, is extremely deserving of its praise. If not the best comic book movie, it’s certainly a contender. But watching the film again, you appreciate just how great Ledger’s Joker really was and how many scenes are memorable because of his performance. Whether that’s the interrogation scene in Gotham Police station, his bedside manner when greeting the recently disfigured Harvey Dent or his fantastic introduction to the mob. Ledger’s performance will forever be remembered as the definitive Joker.
Nolan should be commended for refusing to explain the character’s origin, which to some degree would have humanised the villain. The character is all the scarier and mysterious because of this. It will be a very brave -or is that foolish -man, who attempts to reinterpret the character, in his next, unavoidable appearance on the silver-screen.
The Dark Knight edged Batman even further from the fabled city of Gotham, creating a gritty and realistic world for Batman to inhabit. But as with any good sequel, Nolan upped the ante with more action, bigger explosions and multiple villains. Nolan’s film is not only a great piece of escapism, but a standard by which all other comic book films should be judged even his own.
Exeter’s Picturehouse are screening both Batman Begins (6pm) and The Dark Knight (9pm) on Thursday, July 19 prior to The Dark Knight Rises, nationwide release on Friday, July 20. For ticket information click here.