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“Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in where a man dressed up as a bat gets all of my press?” The Joker (Jack Nicholson) memorably complained in Tim Burton’s 1989 masterpiece Batman.
Burton’s film — which took an infinitely darker yet still refreshingly humorous approach in updating the classic comic book character created by Bob Kane and later brought to brightly colored life in the popular '60s TV series and film — seemed to provide the definitive take on "the man, the myth, the bat." That was until Joel Schumacher took over the franchise and turned it into a campy, overcrowded mess in the late '90s, but that all changed when Memento director Christopher Nolan took the Batmobile out for a test drive with his Greek tragedy-tinged epic Batman Begins in 2005.
While nostalgia for Burton’s film grew each year as fans mourned the wrecked franchise, Nolan admirably avoided the temptation to try and rebuild the unstable remnants of Gotham City still left standing by Schumacher. Instead, like a master chef, he started from scratch, taking what he wanted from the comic book and earlier films and, along with his co-writers, inventing a richer, far more devastating interpretation of the Batman mythology. In stark contrast to the socially awkward, slightly bumbling and more lighthearted portrayal by Burton’s star Michael Keaton, Nolan opted to go further in depth into the origins of the tale itself. By putting a completely different spin on the character, he illuminates just how “his” Bruce Wayne came to be the existential, less than gregarious and downright arrogant man he serves up, therefore making Nolan’s Batman a genuine shock to fans, including myself, who remembered seeing Keaton's original characterization in the theatre.
While I still prefer Burton’s version — although I’m possibly biased, as much like one never forgets a first love, they never forget their first Batman -- Nolan’s adaptation of the series is uniquely his own. Upon watching Begins once more in preparation for this review, I became infinitely more impressed by Nolan’s filmmaking craftsmanship and the way he not only set up the character of The Joker in the finale of Begins but also subconsciously prepared audiences for the ultimate darkness that would fill his aptly named sequel, The Dark Knight. And indeed Knight is so entrenched in ominous, forbidding tones that it instantly recalls the nighthawk work of Michael Mann (most notably from Heat, Miami Vice, and Collateral) and makes Tim Burton’s ’89 venture seem downright sunny by comparison.
Admittedly, while Batman films have always been by their very definition distinctly preoccupied with the Bat, the events of Dark Knight’s post-production and the unspeakably heartbreaking loss of its star Heath Ledger earlier in 2008 turned all of the media attention to not only Ledger’s final completed performance — frequently cited as his best — but The Joker himself. Hearkening back to that unforgettable opening quote, somewhere in an alternate universe of movie characters, The Joker - as played by Nicholson in 1989 - must be grinning at the realization that finally it is he, instead of the Bat, who’s been given all of the press. And, this being said, is it any wonder that Nolan’s film is the first one in the series to neglect including the name Batman in its title altogether, thereby making each and every self-proclaimed “freak” in the film a Knight of darkness, if for no more than at least a few minutes?
Picking up where he left off, roughly a year after Begins, Nolan reacquaints us with Gotham City. Not only is Christian Bale’s Batman still deemed a controversial vigilante with police “orders” to arrest him on sight (repeatedly ignored by Gary Oldman’s Lieutenant Gordon) but he’s also unfortunately inspired a group of fame-seeking, action junkie Bat-wannabes who pull out their Halloween styled costumes on any given evening, making do with hockey masks and guns, predictably putting themselves in far greater danger, thereby making Batman’s job harder instead of easier. Of course, this is Batman we’re talking about (or elegantly “The Batman” as he’s called throughout in homage to the comic) so despite needing to iron out a few kinks and take the suit in for additional repairs from Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), he takes everything in stride.
However, that all changes when The Joker (Heath Ledger) appears on the scene and forms a terrifying alliance with the heads of the city’s mafia. He also makes it his personal quest to turn Gotham’s crusading — and far more press friendly “white knight" — District Attorney Harvey Dent (Thank You For Smoking’s Aaron Eckhart) “dark” after Dent becomes the city’s saving grace by taking 549 criminals to court in a landmark RICO case. Whereas Batman must lurk in the shadows and speak in a ridiculously disguised voice to avoid being identified as his carefree playboy alter-ego Bruce Wayne, Dent is the man deemed the true hero in Gotham’s eye. This becomes much harder to bear when Wayne learns that his true love, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal gamely filling in for Katie Holmes) has mixed business with pleasure, falling in love with her dashing colleague, Dent.
Nolan’s version of the exceedingly arrogant Wayne was never one to take things lying down. Thus he proceeds to challenge their courtship at every step, impulsively inviting himself along on a double date, rerouting the leggy stars of the entire Russian ballet aboard his yacht so that Dent is unable to take Rachel to the show, and foolishly trying to inspire envy in his love by making grand juvenile entrances with an endless parade of silicone-enhanced bimbos every chance he gets. While normally — if Wayne was even a fraction more likable — we would feel his pain in not being able to reunite with his true love, most of the time he comes off like an overgrown schoolboy. And intriguingly, the lovely Gyllenhaal has little chemistry with Bale (especially evidenced in a clinically cool kiss) but manages to flirt playfully with Eckhart’s Dent, therefore and possibly without Nolan’s intention, making Batman seem like an annoying third wheel.
But more importantly, this time around, our attention isn’t focused on Batman and it certainly isn’t preoccupied with his nonexistent love life, for as soon as Ledger appears on the screen, teasing us in a fast intro before appearing grandly at a mafia sit-down laughing maniacally, he’s the one keeping us riveted during the film’s overly long 142 minute running-time. While — mostly due to the writing — it isn’t on par with his turn in Brokeback Mountain, Ledger, who drew equal inspiration from Sex Pistols bass guitarist Sid Vicious and A Clockwork Orange’s villainous Alexander DeLarge, does some of his finest work in the film, even if he’s woefully under-used and sadly obscured beneath an unnecessarily sloppy and complicated plot that tries to squeeze in not only every criminal in the city along with all of Gotham’s kitchen sinks. Although I was and still am a true admirer of Ledger’s immeasurable talent, I’d hesitate to go along with the possibly legacy driven sentiment that he’s the worthiest of a Best Actor nomination so far in 2008 since in my opinion that title goes to In Bruges’ Colin Farrell. Still, he heightens every scene he’s in with his musically cadenced voice that punctuates a lackluster score, which never comes close to topping Danny Elfman’s brilliant, instantly recognizable ’89 composition. This time around, and given nowhere near as memorably snappy dialogue as Nicholson was nineteen years earlier to better fit his character, Ledger’s version of The Joker — much like Bale’s Batman — seems far more dangerous, freakish, and twisted than as portrayed in the other films.
In fact it’s ironic that he is called The Joker. Although his face is carved into a frighteningly extra large smile and Ledger delights in spinning a new sinister yarn for every victim he threatens as to how he earned his scars, there are very few jokes or moments for laughter, even nervous chuckles. Instead of teasing us with lines like Nicholson’s proclamation that, “Jack is dead, my friend. You can call me Joker. And as you can see, I’m a lot happier,” merry mayhem and knife-driven chaos proves to be this bipolar Joker’s most effective antidepressant, although the benefits seem short-lived. For quickly after getting his fix, The Joker is out on the street again, cruising for another kill in an unceasing effort to take out The Batman, leaving unpredictable carnage in his wake as major characters are jeopardized and the fate of one in particular I’m still not entirely sure I understand, given the film’s tendency to offer an “ah-ha” magic trick of bringing the dead back to life and vice versa.
Although I’d rather watch Nolan’s original Batman Begins for a richer and more complete storytelling arc, despite its rather rushed conclusion (proving they may be the director’s Achilles heel as it occurs again in Knight) and Burton’s first offering is still my definitive take on the character, when it comes to staging action sequences, The Dark Knight topped every single film that has come before it in the series during four unbelievably tense action sequences specifically photographed in IMAX. Making up for an unrelentingly wandering camera that distracts our eye from cinematographer and longtime Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister’s gorgeous usage of blues and blacks in early dialogue scenes where the camera seems to be tied to a tether ball until it makes a decision to hold steady for one memorable line or moment, Nolan, Pfister and his amazing cinematic partners in crime, ramped up the action for tremendous effect.
While I hesitate to reveal anything in the way of spoilers, be sure to remain in your seats during a sequence involving the transportation of Harvey Dent as Nolan employs the Batpod, motorcycles, semi trucks, helicopters, and S.W.A.T. vehicles in a bravura experience that demands to be appreciated on the big screen (although those with sensitive ears may want to pack along earplugs). In fact, it’s so good, I was still talking about it one day after the screening and it actually out-performed my previous 2008 favorite action sequence included in Spielberg’s awe-inspiring jeep chase from the latest Indiana Jones film two months ago.
So ultimately, despite the film’s flaws as well as our wish that we could go back and rework it at the screenplay stage to make the most of it for the staggering talent involved (especially the late, great Ledger), to quote Nicholson in Tim Burton’s film — in the end, Gotham City, and by association Batman, “always brings a smile to my face.”