The Dark Knight revisited

How has The Dark Knight fared since its release in 2008, and how does it compare to Inception?

In our Den Of Geek interview with Alex Zane last week, the comedian and fellow movie lover talked about Inception, and how the way one film is perceived can be altered by the movies that come after it.

“I think if I love Inception as much as I think I’m going to,” Zane said, “then I’m going to go back to The Dark Knight and reassess that judgement and say, ‘Yes, this is The Godfather Part II of superhero movies!'”

And it got me thinking. After two years and the appearance of Inception, how does The Dark Knight fare in 2010?

In a perennially risk-averse Hollywood studio system, director Christopher Nolan is a rare gambler. After Batman Begins successfully brought the caped crusader back to the screen after Joel Schumacher’s abysmal 90s efforts, Nolan attempted something brave and potentially risky with The Dark Knight, crafting a multiplex blockbuster that alludes to subjects of violence, corruption and terrorism.

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As Batman continues his ruthless fight against crime, aided by incorruptible cop Lieutenant Gordon and idealistic attorney Harvey Dent, Gotham City’s gangs turn, in desperation, to The Joker, a demonic and anonymous character whose only desire is “to watch the world burn”.

Stunningly shot, from the beautiful and dizzying aerial shots of Gotham at the movie’s opening to the intense chase sequences, cinematographer Walter Pfister has crafted an aesthetic for The Dark Knight which is coldly realistic (the opening bank robbery is strikingly similar to the heist in Michael Mann’s Heat) while still retaining some of the dark, ghoulish atmosphere of Frank Miller’s comics.

Returning to The Dark Knight after almost two years, it’s notable just how little Batman, and his alter-ego Bruce Wayne, are on screen. The caped crusader may form the movie’s narrative hub, but the greater part of The Dark Knight is more focused on the sprawling drama of Gotham’s underworld, detailing Harvey Dent’s metamorphosis into the disfigured, raging Two Face and The Joker’s endlessly cunning schemes to terrorise and corrupt Gotham’s populace.

Time has done little to dim the quality of the late Heath Ledger’s performance, and his Joker is a genuinely maniacal, malevolent creature. Far from the disfigured hoodlum depicted by Jack Nicholson’s scenery chewing turn in Tim Burton’s Batman, Ledger’s villain is more akin to Seven‘s John Doe in smeared make-up, an anonymous, apparently purposeless force of nature.

Ledger dominates every scene he’s in, and the strange, keening violin note that precedes his arrival ensures that his presence is felt even before he appears, but Aaron Eckhart’s dual performance is equally worthy of note, with his brief flashes of aggression hinting that his Dent may not have been entirely unblemished even before his grim transformation into Two Face.

A meditation on human nature and the corrupting power of anger, The Dark Knight dares to suggest that Batman shouldn’t exist at all. His form of vigilante justice, funded by a seemingly limitless personal wealth, and which attempts to control crime through fear, has only added to the violence in Gotham City.

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And just as acts of terrorism are hastened by oppression, the existence of Batman, the film implies, only serves to bring forth nightmarish characters like The Joker, a man who thrives on murder and chaos, and whose corrupting influence touches almost every character in the film.

There’s a running theme of duality, too, in The Dark Knight, just as it did in many of the best Batman comic stories. Harvey Dent is presented as the polar opposite to Batman, a virtuous public servant who fights crime within the confines of the law.

The Joker could also be seen as Batman’s lawless doppelganger, a similarly damaged individual whose inner demons have driven him to perpetuate crime rather than fight it. The Joker’s blackened eyelids bear a striking resemblance to the make-up Batman applies around his own eyes to blend with his mask, perhaps suggesting that, without his vast sums of money, Bruce Wayne’s life could have continued along a similarly murderous path as his nemesis.

When compared to Inception, it’s interesting to note that the flaws that affect Nolan’s latest work are also present in The Dark Knight. Like Inception, there are sequences in The Dark Knight that simply drag on too long, and ideas that never fully convince, most obviously the ‘sonar mobile phone’ plot device, which is a glaringly obvious prop to allow Batman to find The Joker as quickly as possible, and as Alex Zane put it, there’s a fair amount of flab located towards the middle of the narrative.

Nevertheless, The Dark Knight remains an exciting, intelligently wrought film with surprising flashes of violence – it’s arguably more violent than Inception, in fact – and its themes fit neatly into Nolan’s steadily growing body of work.

Looked at as a whole, Nolan’s films are uniformly about a conflicted male protagonist. Whether it’s the amnesiac avenger of Memento, the sleep deprived cop with a guilty conscience in Insomnia, or even the masked vigilante of the Batman movies, Nolan’s work continues to tell rich, clever stories based around central characters who are complex, enigmatic, and possibly on the very edge of sanity.

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Like Inception, The Dark Knight is an unusually individualistic piece of popcorn cinema, and if its reach sometimes exceeds its grasp, it’s never less than fascinating to watch.

Let’s just hope that Nolan, Hollywood’s great storytelling gambler, gets to roll the dice for many more years to come.