BY BILAL LATIF, ART BY JASON DAVIS
Few movies justify their hype. Now more than ever, when a film lives or dies on its opening weekend, effective advertising and positive word of mouth is paramount. The Dark Knight had both of these in spades. Drip-fed viral marketing so infectious it spreads from hard-core to mainstream? Check. Pre-release murmurings of Oscar-worthy performances and comparisons to Michael Mann’s Heat? Check. Offering audiences an early look at the movie’s gripping opening? Shrewd.
And, painful as it is, the death of Heath Ledger undeniably intensified interest in the film.
What matters is the film deserved that interest.
One year after the events of Batman Begins, Batman (Christian Bale) continues to help James Gordon (Gary Oldman) in the fight against the mobsters controlling Gotham city. Additional aid in the form of District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) appears just when it is needed. But all parties underestimate the wiles of the criminal mastermind known only as the Joker (Heath Ledger).
The opening images, a burning bat symbol exploding into an IMAX-photographed view of Gotham, draw the viewer into this corkscrewing crime thriller of order and chaos, truth and deception and the cost of heroism. The first lines of dialogue, ‘Three of a kind, let’s do this’ foreshadow the triumvirate of Batman (Christian Bale), Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and James Gordon (Gary Oldman) that, in a parallel with Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween, will come to dominate the narrative. This dialogue also simply leads into the bank robbery, which, microcosmic of the film as a whole, works on multiple levels.
Superficially, the prologue is about a gang of masked thugs robbing a bank, taking hostages and stabbing each other in the back by shooting each other in the head. Structurally, these constant betrayals fold the scene upon itself, creating entertaining new permutations to maximise audience interest. Symbolically, the manager of a Mob-owned bank laments the loss of honour among thieves while before him a madman demonstrates twisted honesty by removing a clown mask to reveal a painted clown face.
Nothing, the prologue says, is as it seems. Your allies will become your enemies, the foundations of your society are corrupt, and the most truthful person you know is a Joker (Ledger).
Which is not to say the Joker is a reliable narrator. With his limitless supply of Sophie’s Choices and ever-changing origin anecdotes (a nod to Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke), the Joker embodies the classical archetype of the Trickster. He is not a sympathetic fallen angel. He is a Glasgow-grinning force of nature, born fully formed before our eyes, as if by magic. He flits in and out of the narrative, his presence reverberating in his absence, like a great white shark. And when he surfaces, you pay attention.
Every squint, every laugh, every canine tilt of his head and lick of his lips expresses the inexpressible depth of the chaos he represents. He is almost incongruously alert — near-omniscience is required for some of his more elaborate plots, yet what truly unnerves and delights is his implied awareness of the fourth wall. For example, when he strolls into a roomful of mobsters to successfully convince them that Batman must be assassinated, he does so with little more than a guffaw, a pencil and a hand grenade. Ledger’s Joker transforms the resulting scene into a surprisingly effective mix of hyper-realism and black comedy, the latter of which almost ridicules the seriousness of the rest of the film, preventing it from becoming po-faced while leaving its power intact.
Much of that power derives not from the Joker, or even the Batman, but the District Attorney Harvey Dent. The rise and fall of this blond, square-jawed White Knight of Gotham forms the spine of the story. Here is the anti-Batman, the hero with a face, whose introduction is a hostile witness and a swift right hook. Which, elegantly, tells us all we need to know about him.
Though his dinnertime proclamations of the value of martial law and the certainty of dying a hero or becoming a villain are welcome pieces of thematic meat, it is evident from his first scenes that his just, confident exterior hides darker depths. His dissatisfaction with the corruption at all levels of Gotham’s infrastructure is intense to the point of impracticality — were all the city’s crooked cops imprisoned, no police would remain. And for all his airs of idealistic legitimacy, Dent is eager to meet — and in fact admires - a masked vigilante, even requesting Batman to essentially abduct a Chinese national from Hong Kong. Harvey Dent is a good man riddled with so many contradictions that his descent into villainy seems natural; the scarring, the death of his beloved Rachel Dawes(Maggie Gyllenhaal, skillfully replacing Katie Homes) and even the Joker’s meddling are mere catalysts.
Yet, even when he proves the Joker’s nihilistic point, we still want to believe in Harvey Dent. We want to believe in hope and decency and heroism. Which is why we forgive the deception required to attain them.
Sometimes the ends justify the means, Alfred (Michael Caine) implies to Bruce Wayne after Rachel’s passing, the brooding boy billionaire pondering the price of his caped crusade. Taken to its logical conclusion, Wayne’s quest for justice can terminate only in madness and death. The writing is on the wall from Batman’s introduction — he appears amidst a crowd of shotgun-toting copycat Batmen, one of whom will later be murdered by the Joker, who is himself an equal and opposite reaction to the Dark Knight. How to deal with this escalation?
Alfred’s answer echoes Ra’s al Ghul’s now-prophetic metaphor in Batman Begins about fire cleansing the unruly forest of Gotham. Wayne — after violently interrogating the Joker and witnessing first-hand the clown’s insanity — is inclined to agree. The resulting sonar machine he secretly constructs betrays the trust of every innocent citizen Batman is sworn to protect. Yet even Wayne’s outraged ally Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) grudgingly recognises the lack of alternatives. Victory over the Joker requires the sacrifice of morality.
Gordon, too, understands this, perpetrating one of the film’s most effective deceptions by faking his own death. His reward for deceiving his family and colleagues? Promotion to the rank of Commissioner. But in a karmic twist, the Joker escapes, kills Rachel and disfigures Dent. Gordon, the good cop he is, takes all this to heart. His subsequent protestations that he has to save Dent, as well as his pleading for the sparing of his own family are genuinely touching moments amongst the twisting plot and spectacular action.
Bullets fly, bones shatter, cars and choppers speed and spin and smash while semi-trucks flip and buildings explode. Director Christopher Nolan, energised by the fact that he is crafting a superhero sequel, makes full use of the IMAX frame in what seems a conscious (and successful) effort to outdo Michael Bay. Of course, such spectacle would be meaningless without the well-drawn characters and thematically rich story devised by Nolan and David S. Goyer and solidified into a stellar screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan. Wally Pfister’s cinematography is characteristically striking, while the excellent score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard is unsettling, exciting, poignant and foreboding.
This is a team of artists at the top of their game, the fruit of their labour the superhero sequel equivalent to The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part II, a rare follow-up that betters its brilliant predecessor while securing itself a place in motion picture history. And the key to its success lies not in the superficial delight of a pretty explosion or a fancy marketing campaign, but a genuinely thrilling story populated by characters about whom we care. It is blockbuster entertainment done right, wringing value from every cent of its multimillion dollar budget in a sincere effort to engage the heads and hearts of the audience.
You already believe the hype. You already know it is justified. But dig deeper and you realise that the film does not merely live up to its reputation.
The Dark Knight surpasses expectation.