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Film Review: The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight (2008; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

The reinvention of Batman as a morally-ambiguous anti-hero for a morally-ambiguous time continued with The Dark Knight. As in its predecessor Batman Begins or the less-worthy trilogy capper The Dark Knight Rises, Chris Nolan’s starkly realist interpretation of the Caped Crusader has its unquestionable strengths and its nagging weaknesses. For one, it’s oddly paced, set forth in a spiking series of mini-climaxes, after half of which the film could well have ended. This movie doesn’t flow so much as thrust and parry, and it’s a strange and sometimes tiring experience.

Performance-wise, even if all of the actors aren’t hitting every note perfectly, they are at least working hard to play real people rather than comic book caricatures. Caine, Freeman, and Oldman are solid if generally unremarkable in basically stock roles, Maggie Gyllenhaal may actually be slightly less engaging than Katie Holmes as the same character (I am stunned, too!), and Aaron Eckhart is upstaged by his makeup in the late stages of the film. It’s astoundingly cool makeup, mind you, but still. Christian Bale, however, is at his most phoned-in here; he’s a cipher, lacking any of his usual sneaking subtexts, which is disappointing given his abilities as an actor.

But, of course, this is Heath Ledger’s movie. This is the kind of performance that seals the near-legend status that his unfortunate passing already hinted at. Unlike Jack Nicholson’s scenery-chewing Joker, Ledger’s is a vicious, unpredictable, deeply twisted freak, a self-professed “agent of chaos” who gleefully adds an “s” to the front of “laughter” when given half a chance (but still slips in some snide humour here and there). Always a trickster figure, here the Joker takes those inherent possibilities to the extreme, posing large-scale philosophical quandaries to his bat-shaped nemesis that risk hundreds of lives in the process. The influence of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke is often apparent, but at times Ledger’s Joker is aligned much more closely with another Moore creation, “V” from V For Vendetta. An anarchical situationalist whose violent, criminal demonstrations always have deeper points about morality (or the lack thereof), he’s also always many steps ahead of the authorities and seems to operate with impunity and with an unexplained infinite reach, to say nothing of the fixed grin and the fondness for explosives.

The Dark Knight‘s Big Moral Questions only really carry any bite when the Joker poses them, however. Ledger’s mercurial trickster takes the heavy-handed statements about good and bad, moral and immoral that Bale, Oldman, and Eckhart are saddled with and twists a knife in them, all the while asking, “Why so serious?” His skewed role (along with the occasional badass action beat, when Nolan relaxes his editing finger long enough to show us one) suggests something more uniquely corkscrewed and less ponderous than the movie’s “heroes” are able to provide.

And yet the Joker is also allowed to question his own purported role in this morality tale, pointing directly at his own essential unreliability even as an agent of violent deconstruction of social order: “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?” Nolan had tended in his Batman films to throw around open-ended questions of moral philosophy while offering no remedies to the ills depicted, outside of some vaguely fascistic appeals to duty-bound male power. But in Ledger’s Joker, he finally had a figure whose willingness to upend and mock the very tenets of morality allowed him an out from the thorny answers he was so skilled at dancing around. No wonder that same figure was the element that audiences seized upon most enthusiastically, and remains the notable feature of the film that deserves to be best remembered.

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Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews
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