Looking back at The Dark Knight

With the release of The Dark Knight just around the corner, here's Mark's look back at the 2008 masterpiece, The Dark Knight...

It’s been four years since The Dark Knight took cinemas by storm around the world, and it’s hard to think of a film that has been more extensively discussed, dissected and appreciated in online discourse in recent years. In the best way, the film is essentially a crime thriller that happens to have Batman in it, with noble district attorneys drawn into battle with dastardly mobsters and sociopathic killers.

In Bat-fandom, it represents a major milestone; it received eight Academy Award nominations, and won two of those – more than any other comic book movie before or since. Superhero movies have become an indelible aspect of the blockbuster landscape in the last ten years, with some attributing the popularity of superheroes amongst audiences who are less well-versed in comics and continuity to a need for reassurance and re-configuration after 9/11 and the war on terror.

But Nolan doesn’t seem quite as concerned with such reassurance. Having set up the world of Batman Begins, in which Batman is pretty much the only superhero out there, the realistic tone of things explores the character’s autonomy, and the ways in which he can sometimes over-extend his power in the course of seeking justice. As Bruce Wayne flippantly asks, during a dinner scene, “Who elected the Batman?”

Six months after the events of Batman Begins, Gotham City doesn’t seem to have as many qualms with a caped crusader cleaning up the streets. Batman has even inspired schlubby copycats to take to the streets with guns and hockey gear. On the other hand, Bruce is looking for a way out of being Batman, and hopes to pass on his mantle to Gotham’s popular new district attorney, Harvey Dent.

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It’s not an easy path, especially considering Bruce wants to finish his crusade in order to be with Rachel Dawes, who is now Dent’s girlfriend. Even worse, the mob ups the stakes by turning to the Joker, an amoral killer who’s been doing a great line in robbing banks. The Joker poses an ultimatum to Gotham: unless Batman takes off his mask for the world to see, people will die.

More has been said about Heath Ledger’s Joker than we have room to recount in this article, and the performance is truly magnificent. Being the first actor ever to win an Oscar for a role in a comic book movie doesn’t make it any more special, because it would stand up even if Ledger had been overlooked by the Academy. It’s his best performance, but like so many of his late roles, it still seems to suggest how great he might have become were it not for his tragic death in January 2008.

It may surprise you to find out that the Joker’s screen-time amounts to around 33 minutes overall. Although he’s present earlier in the story than Harvey Dent’s fall, it’s Dent’s story, and comparisons between the Joker and the shark from Jaws seem fairly apt – there’s a story about justice and balance going on all the way through, and the Joker just swims through and tears shit up. But at its heart, it’s an ensemble piece.

For one thing, it’s surprising that Gary Oldman doesn’t get more appreciation for his role as Jim Gordon. The film’s debt to The Long Halloween, the comic series by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, sees him becoming one side of a triumvirate with Batman and Dent, and gives him a lot to work with. As much as Ledger draws the eye, it’s the understated power of Gordon’s arc that really stands out on repeat viewings.

Aaron Eckhart is good enough as Harvey Dent that you might catch yourself wishing you could vote for him somehow, early in the film, but his relationship with Oldman’s Gordon is interesting. With the script also drawing from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, it’s actually Dent who falls victim to the Joker’s gruesome thesis that anyone could become like him if they just had one really bad day.

In the graphic novel, it’s Gordon who’s targeted by the Joker, but The Dark Knight has no shortage of drama for Oldman to get through. Still the one truly good cop in a city that’s barely doing any better, Gordon inadvertently plays his own part in Dent’s eventual downfall, and Oldman does a tremendous job of conveying Gordon’s guilt, and his desperation to put things right as the brunt of Dent’s rage falls upon him.

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Given how it’s taken so long in this article to mention how Bruce fares, you could legitimately quarrel with the popular notion that this is the best Batman film ever, because Batman isn’t really as much the focus of the film that he was in Batman Begins. It never gets as detached as the previous run of Batman films, which often spent far more time with the villains than with the hero, but this one feels very much like Harvey Dent’s story rather than Bruce Wayne’s.

Additionally, the Bat-voice so frequently lampooned on the Internet is definitely the product of this sequel. Although it’s not much more extreme than Bale’s interpretation in the previous film, it’s exacerbated by the additional dialogue, and scenes in which he’s required to get mad, and sound a bit out of breath, all while growling. The dialogue is good enough that it’s never bothered this writer too greatly, but Batman’s voice in the trailers for the imminent third film seem to indicate that they’ve taken notice of the complaints.

Elsewhere, Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over the role of Rachel Dawes, in a re-casting that would more preferably have been avoided. Not to stoop to gossip, but there have been rumblings about why Katie Holmes didn’t return for the sequel, and Gyllenhaal has the awkward job of assuming an established character before her death in the second act. It’s to her credit that the scene still packs an emotional punch, even when staged alongside the pivotal point of Dent being disfigured.

Amongst the rest of the supporting cast, Nolan makes some interesting casting choices to appear alongside big name stalwarts like Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. Doctor Who fans everywhere cheered when one-time Master Eric Roberts’ Salvatore Maroni got dropped off a building, Anthony Michael Hall appears as a persistent news anchor, and William Fichtner gets a cracking cameo at the beginning too. Crucially, everyone puts in a good turn, with the exception of a couple of Narm-ish extras here and there.

Gotham City becomes bigger and yet somehow less broad in the film. While we see much more on-location work, with Chicago standing in for Gotham, it almost feels like the Narrows of the first film don’t exist, but perhaps we’re meant to assume that, like the destroyed Wayne Manor, the area is still recovering from the devastation of the first film’s climax. The city streets provide the stage for a number of truly ambitious setpieces, and it’s all very impressively shot by cinematographer Wally Pfister.

Due to Nolan’s preference for physical effects over CGI, action scenes like the hospital explosion, SWAT truck chase, which culminates in an 18-wheel truck being flipped over, have real strength, and Nolan really graduates into the culmination of spectacle and brains that has become his trademark. The spectacle means so much more, not only because of its visual heft, but because of its connection to the drama and introspection on the characters.

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This series has a markedly different sense of morality to most other comic book films. It was amusing to see in The Avengers, earlier this year, that one of SHIELD’s methods of tracking Loki was by using satellites and facial recognition to spy on people all over the world. The use of a similar device to track the Joker causes a crisis of conscience and a rift between Batman and his quartermaster, Lucius Fox, while other comic book movies can, and have, more breezily deployed such plot devices.

With all of the serious stuff that goes down, it would be hard to describe The Dark Knight as fun, especially if directly compared to The Avengers. It is very exhilarating, however, representing a marked step up in pace. The film is near-relentless, if not as lacking in any let-up as Nolan’s subsequent film, Inception. The film is 153 minutes long, including credits, and it seldom feels like it’s that long.

In the interests of balance, it should be noted that the film does feel a little bit busy at times. It’s all administered with such confidence and resonance that it’s difficult to think what could be cut out. Batman’s unorthodox extradition of Lao, the mob accountant who can incriminate all of the key players in Gotham’s underworld, could easily have been a slow start before the larger plot, but it’s executed with massive, exciting action sequences, and figures in the plot later on. However, there’s not really a whole lot of logic to the Joker’s stacked setpieces.

From the Joker’s initial televised threat to Batman, up to the end, everything takes place over a consecutive period of around five days, maximum. For someone who claims that he doesn’t have a plan, his campaign of terror unfolds like clockwork. It’s part of the horrific power of Ledger’s version of the character, that everything just seems to unfold out of his chaotic and anarchic convictions, but it could still be seen as a structural problem.

Most commonly, it’s said that by the time the film gets to the ultimatum on the ferries, the themes feel a little exhausted. On the other hand, it’s impossible to watch those scenes without wondering how it might have turned out. Did each boat really have the detonator to the bombs on the other? Or would they have blown themselves up instead? It’s never explained, and it makes Gotham’s show of faith all the more powerful.

In many other comic book films, perhaps, this show of faith would mean the ultimate defeat of the Joker, but we mustn’t forget that The Dark Knight is Dent’s story. He’s more than the Joker’s “ace in the hole”, but given the killer clown’s tendency to dominate every scene he’s in, his parting shot leaves Batman in worse turmoil, as Dent has gone past the point of no return. In divination, the symbol of the Hanged Man, suspended upside down by his foot, represents a new point of view, as much as surrender; even as he’s taken into custody, the Joker basically wins, unless Batman is willing to make a massive sacrifice.

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Between this scene and the outcome on the ferries, the film sets up to revisit Dent’s solemn precept from earlier in the film, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” In keeping with the duality of the character, Dent actually does both. This is only achieved by Batman making himself into the villain, in the eyes of the citizens he’s trying to protect, and taking the blame for Dent’s crimes.

Although Batman’s sacrifice will certainly have consequences that should follow into The Dark Knight Rises, the interesting part of this ending is that it feels more like a finished story than Batman Begins does, with its clever sequel hook. The film is thematically rich, deeply thoughtful, visually spectacular, and all of those other superlatives that have been thrown at it.

If Nolan never planned to make three films from the start, it will be very interesting to see how The Dark Knight Rises draws upon both this film, and Batman Begins, to conclude the story.

You can read Mark’s look back at Batman Begins here.

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