Batman has been, hands down, the most malleable superhero ever to make the leap from the page to the screen. He's been adapted many different ways. The 60's TV show took a campy approach. Tim Burton (using Frank Miller's seminal graphic novels as inspiration) captured the character's dark, brooding side in 1989's Batman and 1992's Batman Returns. Joel Schumacher mixed camp and homoeroticism in 1995's Batman Forever and especially 1997's Batman and Robin. Then, in 2005, director Christopher Nolan (Memento) had the brilliant idea to play the character with as much realism as possible in Batman Begins. He asked: What if someone really did put on a bat costume and fight crime by night? How would that work? In what ways could he accomplish this goal? With The Dark Knight, Nolan takes that idea to the next level, giving us not just a comic book movie but a virtual dissertation on the nature of good and evil, as well as the thin line that sometimes separates them.
There is a very elaborate and intricate plot involving the efforts of Batman (Christian Bale) to shut down organized crime in Gotham by hindering the mob's money laundering operation. While the film goes into glorious detail about how this is accomplished - and how the mob tries to fight back - I want to focus instead on the larger arc of the story. And that means talking about the Joker (Heath Ledger). With his makeup-smeared face, the Joker is intent on spreading chaos throughout the city. He approaches the collective heads of Gotham's crime families and offers to kill Batman for a fee.
Little do they know that the Joker's plan is actually much more sinister. He really wants to prove that people are, by nature, corruptible and that under the right circumstances anyone can be "evil." His key to doing this lies in the form of hotshot district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Dent has been a dogged pursuer of the mafia, hitting them in their wallets and cleaning up the streets to a noticeable degree. Even Batman is impressed, and he thinks about hanging up his cape now that a more "visible" hero is protecting Gotham. But the Joker believes that if he can cause Dent to morally fall, it will create such paranoia and distrust in Gotham's residents that Batman could never again hope to restore order. Those of you with knowledge of comic book origins will be able to make a pretty educated guess as to Dent's fate.
When Bruce Wayne has trouble figuring out why he can't understand the Joker's motives, butler Alfred (Michael Caine) rightly pegs him as the kind of guy "who just wants to watch the world burn." This is the idea that The Dark Knight keeps coming back to. Although he's a masked vigilante who technically breaks the occasional law in his crime-fighting efforts, Batman has his limitations. There are things he won't do because they go against his personal moral code. The Joker, on the other hand, has no moral code. He's a true nihilist who believes in nothing besides the power of anarchy. The difference between them is beautifully epitomized by a scene in which the Joker practically begs Batman to kill him, knowing that use of unnecessary deadly force is something the Caped Crusader staunchly refuses to engage in. Nolan, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, goes very deep into the ideas of heroism and villainy. Rather than making them black or white, the movie sees only shades of gray. Nolan wonders where the line is between bending rules for the sake of good and breaking them for the purpose of evil.
A good superhero movie (like The Incredible Hulk) gives you some bang for your buck. A great superhero movie (like Iron Man) gives you bang for the buck, plus finds something intelligent and substantive to say. A brilliant superhero movie (which The Dark Knight certainly is) gives you all that, plus it also explores its themes with the same passion and intensity as any serious drama. What I liked most about this film - and what I hope you can gather from the things I've written above - is that it uses the comic book format to explore ideas that are particularly relevant in today's society, when crime is up and terrorism is a constant fear. This is not just a movie about a superhero fighting a maniacal bad guy; it's about our nation's need for a hero in troubling times, as well as our frequent inability to find one who's trustworthy and incorruptible.
The Dark Knight does have plenty of bang-up action sequences, and what makes them ultra-effective is that they serve the story and themes. There's a thrilling bank heist in the beginning, an intense car chase, and some first-rate fighting. Batman's new gadgets are cool too, especially his new bat-motorcycle, which figures creatively in that chase. Nolan also once again provides a dark, foreboding atmosphere that perfectly suits the tormented hero and the insane villain.
Christian Bale may be the best Batman on screen yet. Some of the other actors to play the role have been better as Bruce Wayne than as Batman (George Clooney), while others have been better as Batman than as Bruce Wayne (Val Kilmer). Bale is good playing both. The supporting performers are also outstanding. Morgan Freeman returns as Lucius Fox, who makes all Batman's cool toys, and this time he also gets to act as a moral barometer for his boss. Gary Oldman is back as Lt. Gordon and Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. Both serve important purposes in the story, but to avoid spoilers, I won't elaborate.
And, of course, there is the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. What an immense loss we all face in the wake of his death. After years of establishing himself as a name in middling fare such as A Knight's Tale and The Order, Ledger really broke onto the A-list with his moving, Oscar-nominated performance in Brokeback Mountain. His work in that film and this one suggests that he was finally at the point where he could show the world what he was really capable of. In both movies, Ledger disappeared deep into character. He made choices that were not at all obvious, displaying the kind of inventiveness that only the greatest of the great ever achieve. This Joker is frightening and disturbing - a genuinely unhinged human being who lives to inspire fear. When Jack Nicholson famously played the Joker in Tim Burton's Batman, many people felt it was the definitive version of the character. By going in an original direction, Heath Ledger proved that, like Hamlet, the Joker can be played brilliantly by more than one world-class actor.
I've written quite a bit so far, but I could easily sum up The Dark Knight in four words: Best Superhero Movie Ever. It's just that simple. And the film ends on a surprising and intriguing note - one that I never expected, but which paves the way for a third installment that promises to be just as deep, ambitious, and penetrating as this one.
( out of four)
The Dark Knight is being released on DVD and Blu-Ray on December 9. The DVD is available in a single-disc movie-only format, or in a 2-disc special edition.
The 2-disc DVD of course has some bonus features. They begin with "Gotham Uncovered," a two-part segment. Part one shows how composer Hans Zimmer created a special musical soundscape for the Joker, using intentionally dissonant sounds (including razor blades running across violin and piano strings). Zimmer even admits that he was trying to make "something that people would hate" because it captured the madness and chaos of the Joker. If you've heard the film's score, you know it's one of the year's best, and this feature nicely documents how music can emphasize and support what's physically on screen.
Part two looks at some of the key physical props of the film, including the redesigned costume. In case you hadn't noticed, for the first time ever in a Batman movie, the Caped Crusader is able to twist his neck. This segment also documents the making of Batman's motorcycle, including how it was designed. There is some fantastic test footage of the bike, along with other notable props. It's fun to see how some of the props were tested to make sure they'd be effective.
Next, there are seven episodes of "Gotham Tonight," the news show that plays on TVs throughout the film and provides some necessary exposition. Being able to watch all the episodes uncut - running about 45 minutes total - is a treat for Batman fans, as the extremely well produced episodes further explore some of the ideas contained in the movie.
One of the most interesting features is the inclusion of Dark Knight IMAX scenes. The movie was the first major motion picture to use IMAX cameras for the filming of key sequences. The cameras allowed for increased visual detail, as well as a larger viewing area during those parts. If you saw The Dark Knight traditionally, the scenes still looked amazing but were cropped to fit the standard 2.40:1 "scope" aspect ratio. On the DVD, these scenes, including the amazing bat-cycle chase and the bank robbery, are presented in the proper IMAX ratio, meaning you see a lot more in the frame. Sit real close to your big screen TV, and you can even get a bit of that IMAX feeling.
There are also two photo galleries, which you can move through one frame at a time or just let play by themselves. Rounding out the disc are three theatrical trailers for the movie and a digital copy for use in your computer or other personal viewing device.
The bonus features on The Dark Knight are something of a mixed bag. What's here is excellent, but the set lacks many of the traditional supplementary material fans will expect. No commentary, nothing about the set design, no deleted scenes, no making-of featurette, etc. (And, for that matter, no Heath Ledger tribute.) If you remember the outstanding special edition released for Batman Begins, you may be surprised at how less thorough this DVD is. No doubt there will at some point be yet another Special Edition that has all this stuff, so you may have to decide whether to buy it twice or wait.
If you have a Blu-Ray, the choice is a little easier. In this format, The Dark Knight will contain all the above-mentioned bonuses, as well as additional material covering the stunts, the use of the IMAX cameras, the gadgets and tools used by Batman in the film, and the psychology of the Dark Knight.
The Dark Knight was, obviously, a sensation, earning over $500 million at the box office. It's a great, great film. And while the DVD perhaps does not contain everything one wishes it would, the quality of what's here is nevertheless first-rate.
The Dark Knight is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace. The running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: The Dark Knight
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