The Dark Knight
The late Heath Ledger hypnotizes in Christopher Nolan's second Batman feature
Christopher Nolan’s superhero sequel Batman: The Dark Knight, arriving with all the hype that Hollywood can muster, delivers a kick in the face to the summer blockbuster season.
Christian Bale’s vigilante billionaire is still prowling Gotham City behind the cowl, and the new DA, Harvey Dent, is trying to pry the city away from the hands of the mobsters. Bruce Wayne’s plan for Batman to intimidate and inspire is edging Gotham towards the light, but there’s a new guy on the radar. Green hair, purple coat. Calls himself the Joker. And he’s trying to tear the whole world right back down.
Nolan severed the franchise from its 1990s neon naff legacy with Batman Begins, but even that film feels like a warm up lap compared to Dark Knight. This is Batman’s Empire Strikes Back and more - a red-blooded pantomime of violence and madness.
With the origin business already taken care of (see Batman Begins for details), Nolan has the room and the confidence to produce the era’s definitive Batman movie, a stunning post 9/11 psychodrama played out with capes and switch blades.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the Joker who steals the show. It’s an inspired creation of Nolan and the late Heath Ledger, an anarchic vaudevillian arch-terrorist, a kind of devil clown who treats morality as a bad joke.
Supporting Actor Oscar nod or not, Ledger gives an entrancing performance as Gotham’s heart of darkness, lurching from childlike jester to terrifying nihilist. Ledger plays him as a slanted, lip-licking psychopath who’s only a beat away from leaping up and knifing the cameraman in the face. And that laugh. He’ll haunt the space behind closed eyes for a long time.
Reimagined in the style of modern fanaticism, Ledger’s Joker is a villain that strikes close to the heart. His jokes are wrapped in the paraphernalia of contemporary terrorism. The sense of omnipresent, random terror and a city under siege convinces utterly. With shades of Guantanamo and New York, the jester’s stunts are all the more chilling for their familiarity.
It’s a reimagining that works well in Nolan’s modernised Batman universe. Dark Knight takes the realistic, down-to-earth style of Begins and presents it in panoramic vision.
With glowing cityscapes and shining surfaces, Gotham isn’t nearly as dark as its knight, Nolan replacing Burton’s 1990s twisted Hallowe'en town as an every-metropolis. When the opening sequence starts, it’s like you’ve wandered into a Michael Mann film by mistake.
Completely erased too is the camp fantasy of earlier films. With high-tech equipment and SWAT-fighting tricks, it all gets a bit Tom Clancy at times - a slick terrorist-plot thriller that happens to include a guy who dresses up as a giant bat.
Less introspective than the previous film, the broader canvas tries to encompass Gotham as a whole, and the institutions that regulate its justice. The Joker is the film’s centre but Dark Knight is still a more ensemble piece than its predecessor.
The supporting cast of cops and mobsters help develop a better-rounded portrait of a city trying to pull itself out of the gutter. Gary Oldman’s world-weary, soon-to-be-commissioner James Gordon puts in another good turn, while Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman shine as Bruce Wayne’s staff, the former in particular bringing humanity to some very self-conscious dialogue.
Maggie Gyllenhall, playing journalist Rachel Dawes (love interest of Wayne and Dent), pulls off a derivative character with more gusto than Begins’ limp Katie Holmes in the same character. Yet Aaron Eckhart never quite convinces as Dent, the idealistic lawyer trying to turn everything around. The script gives him little more than a type to work with.
In fact, the refusal of the script to get its hands dirty with some solid dialogue and characterisation is a problem that recurs. Dark Knight is definitely slick blockbuster material, but one wishes that Nolan had taken some risks instead of being so darn efficient all the time.
Throughout, the tone is restrained to realistic thriller mode and, Joker aside, rarely has any fun with comic book madness. The ending especially, promising some archetypal fable conflict, instead fizzles out into sermonising.
The terrific pace and frantic score hold the action pieces and myth-building moments together, but stare hard enough and you can begin to see the cracks.
The Dark Knight isn’t as thematically complex or challenging as Nolan thinks it is, trading largely on obvious imagery, trailer-friendly clichés, and big neon Important Themes - issues which, to be fair, probably won’t bother most of the droves attending.
The Dark Knight attempts to raise pop culture to enduring tragedy, falling a bit short in the end. Still, it aims higher than any summer superhero flick perhaps has the right to, and outpaces the rest of the superhero fodder the studios have been serving by a long margin.
The Dark Knight is at cinemas in Northern Ireland now.