With my latest look back at the staying power and impact of a key film, I have to address an elephant in the room. Everything about THE DARK KNIGHT, even after a decade is still overshadowed by Heath Ledger’s tragic and untimely death. Yes, Ledger’s Joker is utterly spellbinding, his Clown Prince of Crime is a jerky, volatile, nihilistic terrorist fully deserving of plaudits. But Ledger is far from the only reason why the film is still held in such high regard after a decade. Many would argue that this was the year the Academy could have caught up with the world, that the Dark Knight was worthy of at least a shot at the grand prize. It’s also thought that it’s precisely because of TDK’s snubbing that the Best Picture shortlist was increased, though it would take another decade for genre pictures to get real recognition with THE SHAPE OF WATER and GET OUT.
Three years after he first donned the cowl, billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) works with Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and DAs Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Gotham’s new White Knight, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to clean up their city once and for all. But when in their desperation the mob turns to a man they don’t fully understand (Heath Ledger) Batman’s secret identity and the safety of everyone he loves is put on the line.
This is a seriously strong ensemble piece, with Bale as an increasingly downtrodden, conflicted Bruce Wayne; Maggie Gyllenhaal bringing the attitude and heart that was missing from Katie Holmes’ portrayal of Rachel; Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman bring a little welcome brevity to this otherwise pretty moody film, not to mention the force of nature that is Heath Ledger. I’d be hard-pressed to decide between Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart as the film’s MVP. Oldman’s performance as Gordon is grounded and extremely human – if Batman’s war with the Joker is the main driving force for action and spectacle in the film, then Gordon’s story provides the most scope for genuine drama. I also can’t heap enough praise on Eckhart for his performance as Harvey Dent, whose crusade to clean the streets of Gotham leads to his ultimate, tragic, downfall when he is horribly disfigured, becoming Two-Face (my favourite Batman villain). Eckhart carefully builds Dent’s character and motivations layer-by-layer for maximum pathos, and I like that they touch on his character’s more recent comic portrayals as being a bit unstable before his accident and becoming a violent vigilante rather than a straight villain.
Other than the cast’s performances, I think what really makes The Dark Knight is its thematic richness. The idea of duality and antithesis is continually emphasised – justice vs. injustice, order vs. chaos, Batman vs. The Joker. Even Harvey Dent, with his position openly and publicly fighting crime, is the polar opposite of Batman, a secretive, anonymous vigilante – they are two sides of the same coin, with the possibility of one becoming the other in the right (or wrong) circumstances. The film also looks beautiful, in no small part due to Nolan’s use of IMAX cameras for key scenes, including The Joker’s thrilling bank heist introduction, the action-packed Gotham freeway chase and the grandly imposing establishing shots of cityscapes. Hans Zimmer/James Newton Howard’s eerie and layered score also deserves a mention – this is not the epic, orchestral sound he made for the rise of a hero in Batman Begins, but a dark and disturbing musical accompaniment for a hero’s fall.
All the best Batman films are about his “one rule” directly or indirectly. The Joker will never truly be defeated because Batman will never cross that line to snuff out the pain and suffering he causes once and for all. That’s one of the main reasons why The Dark Knight and UNDER THE RED HOOD hit so hard as stories: they’re prepared to skewer the Batman.
Where The Dark Knight fails is in one sub-par sequence that threatens to derail the whole film. Everything from the hostages on bomb-rigged boats to Batman’s final confrontation with the Joker is overblown, overacted and thoroughly unnecessary. The film would be much better off if this sequence was deleted entirely, if the joker was dealt with more swiftly, then we could progress more directly to the film’s operatic finale with Two-Face.
With a far more formidable baddie, higher stakes and a hero suffering a crisis and hanging up his cape halfway through (for about five minutes) The Dark Knight hits all the darker superhero sequel story beats you might expect. Where it becomes really interesting is in discussing how much of a superhero film something with such a grounded aesthetic and so much allegory and symbolism and melodramatic tragedy really can be. Is The Dark Knight really a crime-thriller with Batman and the Joker in it? By throwing off the shackles of the superhero blockbuster, Nolan has allowed his series to mature, to comment on serious and relevant issues to the modern world.
Christopher Nolan has created a very smart, rich, and exciting thriller that is as different to Batman Begins as is possible to be. There’s very little to criticise apart from that misjudged, flabby sequence towards the end, and the film is technically superb. If only Nolan left it here, left us wanting the film we deserved, but not the one we needed right now. Oh well, an inferior concluding chapter can never take this masterpiece from us.