Night and the vertical axis: the pros and cons of The Dark Knight

A lone figure in the night. A man with a mask and a cape. An anonymous vigilante guarding the people of Gotham from evildoers. Like a gargoyle, he lurks way up high on skyscrapers, looking down, and plunges suicidally into the polluted air until nifty retractable wings go fwoop so he can hang glide into the penthouse window of some criminal stronghold where he abducts the crime lord by using a skyhook that links them to a passing jet. He’s the man of midnight and clipped conversations in a comically low voice with Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman looking fuddy duddy with a mustache). We know the caped crusader and his snidely rich alter ego Bruce Wayne so well, he doesn’t really seem to appear that often in the 2 and ½ hours that is The Dark Knight. He’s mysterious and angry, he wears a bat suit, and he hops onto speeding SUVs several floors down car park ramps when needed.

As played by Christian Bale, Batman is a gruff stiff, so we should all feel blessed that the Joker (Heath Ledger) arrives like a sweet breeze of nihilistic whimsy. Patterned in part on Johnny Rotten, on a greasy unemployed clown with green hair, and in part on a dog who likes to stick his head out of the window of a speeding police car, this Joker sincerely does not care, does not have a plan but for manic disruption and destruction. He’s a pleasure to see even when he’s just leering on the various video monitors in the backround of the bat compound. As Bruce Wayne’s butler (Michael Caine) so aptly puts it, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Even though the Joker instigates a murderous bank robbery at the beginning of The Dark Knight, later he burns the money, dancing before a great conflagration of bundled cash. He interferes with the local crime families of Gotham, throws the city into chaos, but what he really wants is to kill Batman, so in terrorist style he starts to kill people daily to flush the bat out of his bunker.

For all of its endlessly hyped glory, its ownership of the latter half of the summer, and its box office records, The Dark Knight is still a typical summer PG-13 blockbuster with an overly complicated storyline (with an unnecessary Two Face subplot). It has the usual headache-inducing escalating firepower (the Joker in one scene moves from a machine gun to a bazooka), lots of metallic bangs with large vehicles crashing into each other (in this case a semi ramming vehicles left and right before being flipped over on its back), damsels in distress tied to chairs (Maggie Gyllenhaal subbing for Katie Holmes as Rachel), military convoys moving into position, and fist fights with snarling bad guys.

I was surprised to find Christopher Nolan ramping the intensity with the same kind of extreme threat-of-death emotional scenes that Tom Cruise used at the beginning of Mission Impossible 3. Late in The Dark Knight, someone threatens to shoot a child in front of the mother and dad and daughter. And then he tells the father to lie to the son that it will be alright. The family starts to weep with fear and despair. Isn’t this kind of drama cheap and manipulative?

For all of its pyrotechnics, much of the success of the film hinges on the occasional well-delivered lines of its better actors. When some fellow proposes to Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) that he will get money out of Bruce Wayne or give away his identity, Freeman coolly asks “You will take a vigilante used to beating up criminals with his bare hands and blackmail this person?” When he followed that with “Good luck,” the whole theater erupted into laughter. Similarly, when Bruce Wayne tells Alfred (Michael Caine) that he did warn him, Caine follows that with “I did bloody tell you,” to the same effect. The old pros keep upstaging the younger actors.

Heath Ledger's Joker pleases in part due to his geeky unwashed charm. Sometimes his white face paint gets half-smeared off his forehead. His greasy hair hang low and green. He tends to lick his lips and speak softly of the pleasures of watching people expose their innermost selves under a knife. In his best scene, the Joker infiltrates a hospital by cheerfully donning a nurse uniform and a red wig, reminding me of Kurt Cobain’s tendency to cross dress. He walks away from the hospital, pressing a remote to have the big building behind him explode piecemeal, and his small signs of exasperation steal the picture. In a film with so many stuffed shirts like Lt. Gordon and Batman, the Joker enjoys himself immensely. He says “I like this job” and laughs as he tries to burn the city down. People can understand his position, so he gets more audience sympathy than anyone else.

I find I quickly forgot the plot, the monetary machinations of the gangsters, Aaron Eckhart as Two Face, the cheesy lines like “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” and “Batman stands for something more important.” What sticks in my mind are the images, mostly vertical ones of skyscrapers at night, the explosions shattering glass, and the caped figure pausing before swooping down to the traffic below. At one point, the Joker dangles Rachel out of a window. Batman says “Let her go.” The Joker responds with “Oohh. Very poor choice of words,” and drops her. Batman jumps after her and manages to break her fall on top of a car hundreds of yards below. He says, “Are you alright?” Suddenly intimate, the wind knocked out of her, Rachel looks into his eyes and responds, “Let’s not do that again.”


George Kaplan said…
I agree with your review Doctor, but as a normal teenager in the
21th century I must say THE MOVIE KICKS SO MUCH PATUTIE, YO!!!!!
Dr. K said…
I respectfully disagree. This movie had a lot more going for it than most summer movies, especially in its moral complexity. The Joker is a thrilling force of chaos, and his sole goal is to strip away the veneer of order in Gotham and expose the chaos just below the surface. And the Two-Face subplot was wholly integrated into the Joker plot: we see exactly how the Joker's chaos works, and the level of threat it brings to Gotham, when the Joker can turn to his side the one man who offers hope for Gotham's future. The hostage situation at the end is then used to show how far Harvey has fallen, and he tries to find some answer as to why he has suffered the most in his crusade with Batman and Gordon.

Sure, there were some exciting and well-staged action scenes in this film, but there were a lot more character moments where you get to see the consequences of the events on the lives of Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent, and Jim Gordon--especially more than you'd expect in a summer action film. I seriously think this film raised the bar for summer movies, and superhero films in general, even moreso than Iron Man did.
Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Dr. K.

No doubt you picked up more of the nuances of the characters in The Dark Knight more than I did, but I've noticed other film critics agree with me about the Two-Face subplot. Here's Jason Bellamy writing for his blog The Cooler:

"Before The Dark Knight concludes, Two-Face joins the fray providing a subplot that feels both thin and rushed, despite a whopping 152-minute running time. The cost is twofold: 1) time spent away from the Joker is considerably less interesting, causing some of the movie’s momentum to leak; 2) the implication (though certainly unintended) is that the Joker isn’t villain enough to terrorize Gotham on his own, thus snuffing out part of the inferno Ledger works so hard to ignite."

Also, I noticed in Culture Snob, Jeff Ingnatius made a similar point:

"As the idealistic, relentless DA Harvey Dent, Aaron Eckhart is convincing and compelling. As Two-Face, he’s a pretty cool special effect, and is the de facto — and disappointing — denouement to the real show of the Joker.

The big problem is that the Nolans create and kill Two-Face as if they couldn’t wait to be done with him. He’s burned! He’s angry! He’s dead!"

Ultimately, I found Two Face most compelling as a facial special effect rather than the logical development of a character, but otherwise your points are well taken.
Dr. K said…
It is certainly interesting that all those reviewers missed the same point.
Anonymous said…
i still wish Katie Holmes had stayed on board as Rachel Dawes for the Dark Knight; it was like the time spent getting familiar with her character in Batman Begins was wasted...