The Dark Knight has one tremendous problem; a tight-jawed, muscular, suave, caped-crusading problem: it’s protagonist. That’s right, the glaring bat-signal-sized flub up in an otherwise astonishingly entertaining and thoroughly engrossing Batman movie is, in fact, effing Batman (Christian Bale). The latest installment in what is becoming a massively successful trilogy, quadrilogy, or other more curiously prefixed saga, depending on sustained revenue (check) and artistic continuity (check), has director Christopher Nolan orchestrating a 152 minute-long action-packed circus, full of visual bravado and complex characters (barring one black-masked exception), and centering on the wickedly carnivalesque chaos of Heath Ledger’s already legendary ring-leading performance as The Joker. However, Ledger’s show-stealing is certainly made more obvious when compared to the flat, uninspired performance of his on-screen nemesis, the usually dependable Christian Bale. In the epic sequel, scripted by Nolan, his brother Jonathan, and comic-to-movie veteran, David S. Goyer, the too tight-lipped, too cool, too distant namesake of the franchise seems to be merely a sideshow – not only when compared to the jaw-dropping lunacy of Ledger’s Joker, but also when juxtaposed with the half-dozen other characters who come off as more dynamic and more relatable than The Dark Knight’s shadowy (well, okay), brooding (hardly), slick (like an annoyingly-icy driveway) hero.
With an adequately propulsive plot that is kick-started by one of the most brilliantly edited and photographed heist sequences I have ever seen, The Dark Knight pushes through a heap of action. Having begun a massive clean up of Gotham City with his vigilante actions, Batman, the merry outlaw, completes a triumvirate of ethically-minded executors of justice which boasts the new hotshot district attorney, the “white knight” of Gotham, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and Batman’s staunch supporter, Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) of the Gotham police force. Together, the three attempt to take down the mob, in order to permanently disrupt the city’s crime circuit. After some success, including a heroic mass arrest, they run into a problem when the mob enlists (or does he enlist himself?) an anarchic criminal to protect their interests who calls himself The Joker and whose motives are so illogical and ambiguous as to puzzle even the brightest of criminological minds – well, except for Alfred (Michael Caine), who provides some sharp insights. The film follows the scarred, greasy, flamboyant, make-up-wearing villain as he weaves a web of destruction and rips apart the communal hope that rests upon the shoulders of Gotham’s bravest defenders, manipulating the good and the bad with his psychological games and explosive brutality and pushing the city to the edge of terror. With its urban frontier and its modern cowboys, The Dark Knight plays like a mash-up of Western-style order v. chaos social exploration, a la High Noon (1952) or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and post-9/11 political commentary on the nature and impact of terrorism, a la . . . well, most of those suck. Sadly, The Dark Knight’s Bruce Wayne is no Will Kane or Tom Doniphon, but, gladly, it does not suck.
As one of the few superheroes without any real superpowers, Bruce Wayne/Batman is typically treated with great humanity and emotional depth – more man than myth – or at least a man struggling with his own mythological status (one that he has created for himself, contrary to the archetypal supernaturally-endowed protector enslaved to his or her own powers). In Batman Begins (2005) and in many of the graphic novels and comics that informed The Dark Knight’s storyline: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), and Jeph Loeb’s Batman: The Long Halloween (1996), Batman is painted as having a certain amount of fragility and is framed as a very sympathetic character, always having something to lose, always feeling the full weight of free-will, always making some sort of sacrifice – one that hurts in a way which is visible and that displays a startling rawness not often found in superheroland.
Disappointingly, The Dark Knight is shy in unmasking Bruce Wayne’s surface-level badassery, leaving Bale with essentially one facial expression the whole damn movie – eyes focused, lips tight, sneer lurking, ready for action. The monotony of Bale’s performance restricts Batman to a few zingers and the almost-campy gruffness of his affected crime-fighting voice instead of embracing the psychological fireworks that should be tormenting our sort-of-winged defender. Emotional dynamism falls prey to punchy set pieces throughout the film, and as Bruce Wayne is repeatedly forced to sacrifice his personal life for public justice, his character becomes so selfless that he almost disappears completely, being quickly and effortlessly subsumed into his own moral flawlessness, losing the human difficulty and weakness that made him so unique and valuable in Nolan’s previous cinematic imagining. Even with the completely unsatisfactory handling of its hero, however, The Dark Knight remains a very good film – due mostly to the all-around excellence of the supporting performances of Eckhart, Oldman, Caine, Morgan Freeman (as Lucius Fox), and Maggie Gyllenhaal (as Rachel Dawes, shared love interest of both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent) and its stunning technical proficiency. But the reason this film should be remembered, and will be remembered (it’s already #1 on the IMDb Top 250), is Heath Ledger’s swansong performance.
Comparisons to Brando and De Niro have been lovingly and enthusiastically showered upon Ledger in countless bittersweet reviews full of devastatingly poignant “what ifs” and “probably would’ves,” and while I think these analogies are justified by Ledger’s tour de force, I would like to contribute another analogous acting precursor – young Pacino. If anything, the manic charisma and immediacy of Ledger’s take on The Joker reminded me of the power exuded by Al Pacino’s performances in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Serpico (1973) and, of course, The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974). Like Pacino in his heyday, Ledger gives The Dark Knight its vibrancy, its cohesion and its focus. Although he will undoubtedly be credited as a supporting actor, everyone and everything in the film follows Ledger’s Joker. From the infamously visceral pencil trick to the surprising humor that colors certain scenes with a twisted, totally Gotham hilarity, Ledger’s devotion to his role is evident in the carefully measured physicality and artfully crafted tone and timing of The Joker’s most disturbing moments. The performance and Ledger’s intense preparation for it will be romanticized and embellished as their reputation grows in stature, emphasizing the morbid influence of the external fact of Ledger’s passing, making The Joker’s reckless nihilism even more tragic, insightful, and ultimately unshakeable, highlighting the idea that the fate of Gotham’s “soul” is even grayer and murkier than its own dark streets and alleys, leaving the cityscape in a palpable shroud of gloom.
by Brandon Colvin