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The second film in Christopher Nolan's Batman film trilogy released in 2008.

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Why So Serious Indeed: The Dark Knight

  • Sep 12, 2008
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Finally, after what seems like an eternity of buzz, waiting, hype, and tragedy, what could easily be the biggest movie of 2008 is upon us: Christopher Nolan's second installment in his re-imagining of DC Comics' Batman, The Dark Knight. Does this mammoth two-and-a-half-hour superhero magnum opus live up to expectations? The simple answer is yes.


With The Dark Knight Nolan has crafted what may be the greatest superhero film to date. In a summer where Marvel blew the doors wide open with the lighthearted and fun Iron Man and then followed up with an entertaining rebooting of The Hulk, it looked like DC was at a distinct disadvantage in this whole cinematic superhero renaissance. Hell, even superheroes who never appeared in a comic book (Hancock) are raking in box office dough by the fistful. Fortunately for DC, their lone summer offering features their most interesting character by far (I know there are guys out there who would argue for Superman—but Batman's internal conflicts and existential crises make him a lot more interesting than The Man of Steel in my opinion), a fantastic ensemble cast, a director on top of his game, and an aesthetic presence that's so far removed from the Marvel comic book films that it often feels like a different genre entirely.


Iron Man is a great film, filled with fun and fluff and powered along by a fantastic performance from Robert Downey Jr. It's exactly the sort of thing filmgoers expect from a "comic book movie"—meaning lots of fights, explosions, and good times. The Dark Knight is almost a diametric opposite—it's a somber and heavy affair with a surprising amount of philosophical weight. It doesn't skimp on the action, mind you, but surrounds the action with an air of seriousness that has been lacking in this particular type of film to date. Because of this, comparisons between The Dark Knight and other superhero films are going to be hard to make. This film stands in stark contrast to the typical comic book movie and has more in common with the noir crime films of the 1940s than it does with caped crusaders. Because of this, I find myself loving the film but wondering what the popular consensus is going to be. I'm sure there are people who will find the tone of The Dark Knight at odds with their expectations. Some will accept and appreciate the film for what it is, while others will walk away sorely disappointed and wondering what all the praise is for.


I don't want to spend much time on the plot of the film—so here's a very brief rundown.


Christian Bale is back as Batman. He's cleaning up Gotham City, and along with Jim Gordon and new DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) they're making quite a bit of progress. Of course, Batman's success has led to a spate of "copycat" vigilantes working the streets—which certainly makes things tougher on the real Dark Knight. In fact, the public isn't even entirely sure what to make of Batman anymore. Anyway, The Joker (Heath Ledger) turns up and things get really interesting. And that's all I'm saying about the plot. No spoilers here.


Nolan's direction continues to inspire in this outing. When Tim Burton was making Batman films, the movies featured a decidedly gothic looking Gotham City. At the time, I remember being quite taken with the effect. Nolan has dropped this in favor of a more industrialized look that seems to work even better than the gothic aesthetics of the older films. Gotham City in Nolan's film has a very oppressive feel to it—you can almost taste the danger that potentially lurks around every corner. In this regard, Gotham City is almost a character in its own right. It's a living, breathing metropolis that will beat you down if you're not careful.


The only real negative in the direction of this film is found in the editing of the action scenes. The frantic, quick-cut editing style worked well in Batman Begins because Batman often attacked out of the shadows ninja-like precision. It doesn't work as well in The Dark Knight because the action scenes feel more traditional and less like guerilla warfare. Because of this, the hyper-edits mostly serve to make the action confusing at times. It's not a major flaw, but it is something worth mentioning. It's one of the few flaws in a fantastically lensed film.


The cast is uniformly excellent. Bale is a fantastic Batman, the perfect mix of playboy playfulness as Bruce Wayne and tortured crime fighter as Batman. You can sense that the time between the two films has allowed Bale to refine his take on the dual characters, and the end result is an even more nuanced performance than his first time out in the cowl. He remains the only actor other than Adam West to make the character his own. It's a far different appropriation, of course, but from here forward there are only going to be two men who spring to mind when Batman is mentioned—West and Bale.


The rest of the cast is equally impressive. Aaron Eckhart continues to demonstrate just how diverse an actor he is. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine bring depth and respectability to their roles. Gary Oldman is Gary Oldman—I love the guy. Maggie Gyllenhall makes a fine replacement for Katie Holmes. The performances are great.


And now, we must spend a few minutes talking about Heath Ledger's portrayal of The Joker. Since Ledger's unfortunate passing, there's been a great deal of debate about whether or not he deserves a posthumous Oscar, whether he or Jack Nicholson was the better Joker, and if this is a performance for the ages. I can't answer any of these things definitively (and neither can anyone else—it's all subjective opinion), but I can tell you what I think of the performance.


I wasn't a fan of the Ledger casting when I first heard it. I couldn't offer up a viable alternative, but I just couldn't see this guy as The Joker. My fears were further confirmed when I saw footage of him in the role—his "Joker voice" was awful. The final nail in the pre-release coffin for me was the PG-13 rating. I understand wanting the PG-13, but when a Batman film does a Joker story with a PG-13 rating, the character is greatly reduced. As comic fans know, the Joker is not just a crazy clown—he's a full blown psychopath. The Joker kills with impunity and complete disregard for human life—innocent or not. Being restricted by a PG-13 rating generally means that this character will be neutered. It's just the nature of the business.


That being said, Ledger's Joker is the closest cinematic interpretation to the comic book version to date. I love Nicholson's Joker in the first movie—he's borderline psycho, he gets great quotes, but he also brings in a little of the Cesar Romero Joker's campiness. Ledger is genuinely scary at various parts of the film—which is a dimension that Nicholson's Joker never quite had. There's no campiness in this portrayal (unless you count his voice—which still bothers me). This is the finest portrayal of the character in terms of bringing the monster of the comics to the big screen. That being said, this takes nothing away from Nicholson's performance—the two movies are so different that comparing the Jokers is essentially pointless. Both characters work perfectly in their respective films and wouldn't work at all in the other. Nicholson's Joker in The Dark Knight would be a disaster, and Ledger's in Batman wouldn't be any better.


Whether or not Ledger deserves an Oscar is hard to say. We haven't seen everything that's coming out this year, so it's really too early to tell. It's a very good performance though, and I wouldn't be surprised if it did garner a nomination. I'd just hope it would be because Academy Voters were pleased with the performance and not the groundswell sympathy movement that seems to be afoot.


Finally, I've read a lot of glowing praise saying that Ledger gives a performance worthy of DeNiro or Marlon Brando. I don't know that I'd go quite that far personally. The real tragedy of Ledger's performance here is that it does show signs of brilliance—of an actor coming of age and learning his craft. He may have become a DeNiro or Brando later in his career, but crowning him as such now is shortsighted and a disservice to two men had an entire body of work that was impressive as opposed to two performances. It would be nice if we all could just enjoy Ledger's performance for what it is—a truly inspired interpretation of a character who's very hard to portray accurately—instead of trying to hyperbolize it and place it into some historical context whether it fits or not.


In the end, The Dark Knight stands alongside Iron Man as my favorite films of the summer blockbuster season. The two movies are so different (despite sounding so similar) that it's all but impossible to compare them with any kind of objectivity. Nolan's film has a few very minor flaws (it could have been a little shorter, the editing could have been tighter), but nothing detracts from the power of the performances and the director's vision. Not everyone is going to like this film—but anyone who considers themselves a connoisseur of superhero films needs to see it anyway.

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April 01, 2009
I fell in love Batman flicks back in the day when he was played by Michael Keaton. I fell in love with Bale in Batman Begins which rocked the box and this one just rocked it out.
February 12, 2009
That's absolutely nuts.
February 12, 2009
If you're to belive what people write, yes, its true. They've actually started one. And yes it is totally nuts.
February 12, 2009
Is there actually a petition for that? That's nuts.
February 11, 2009
It has become a bit silly--for instance a petition to stop film makers from ever using the Joker in another Batman film since no one would ever be able to equal Ledger's portrayal! Bizarre.
February 09, 2009
Great review. I'm glad to finally see someone address the sudden mythical aura surrounding the tragically short-lived career of Heath Ledger, especially his acting in this film. I've heard from too many how great he was at what he did, and he certainly was a professional and persistent actor but...Robert DeNiro? The comparison shouldn't be made. This was by far his most accomplished role, and one that I think anyone would be proud to leave behind as part of his or her legacy, but he was nowhere near the household name, the man amongst men, that DeNiro, Pacino, Ford, Hanks or a host of others are. Given time, he probably could have been, but what role prior to the Joker can anyone claim was his Godfather, his Scarface, his Taxi Driver, his Forrest Gump, his Indiana Jones? Not one. In fact, the film I'll personally always remember him for is The Patriot, because it was a great film (and that was mostly due to Mel Gibson and outstanding drama between him and that jerk-off calvery captain). Sorry to ramble, but enough of the "Ledger the Legend" talk. He was just scraping the surface of such prestige here.
February 02, 2009
Not being into the who Batman thing, I'll be seeing this as a rental. But I remember seeing the trailer in the theater and thinking that whoever was doing The Joker was channeling Jack Nicholson's voice. Of course that was just an impression based on a couple of lines of dialogue. I feel fairly certain that Ledger will get an Oscar, but perhaps not. Perhaps voters will feel that the SAG awards etc will be enough of a tribute. But I don't think so.
December 18, 2008
I was late seeing this in theaters (I saw it on Labor Day), but it was well worth the wait. I really hope Heath Ledger wins a Golden Globe and Oscar for his role as the Joker. Here's hoping I get the DVD for Christmas!
December 09, 2008
I think I'm the only one who didn't see this movie in the theaters. Now waiting for it on DVD. I loved Batman Begins so I'm sure it won't disappoint for me. I too was apprehensive about Ledger's cast as the Joker, but have heard rave reviews about his performance.
September 15, 2008
Great stuff. Makes me want to go out and see the movie again!
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About the reviewer
Mike Bracken ()
I'm a 36-year-old film critic who specializes in Horror and Cult Cinema as well as Asian films. I spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture quiz show, Beat the Geeks. I'm also … more
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The Dark Knight is a 2008 American superhero film co-written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Based on the DC Comics character Batman, the film is a sequel to Batman Begins. Christian Bale reprises the lead role. Batman's primary conflicts in the film include his fight against his arch-nemesis the Joker and his strained friendship with district attorney Harvey Dent. For his conception of the film, Nolan was inspired by the Joker's first two appearances in the comics and Batman: The Long Halloween. The Dark Knight was filmed primarily in Chicago, as well as in several other locations in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Hong Kong. The director used an IMAX camera to film six major action sequences, including the Joker's first appearance in the film. The Batsuit was redesigned, with a cowl allowing Bale to move his head.

The film was released on July 18, 2008 in North America, and on July 21, 2008 in the United Kingdom. During its opening weekend, the movie brought in over $155 million, breaking nearly every box office record.
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Director: Christopher Nolan
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Release Date: July 18, 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13
DVD Release Date: December 9, 2008
Runtime: 152 minutes
Studio: Syncopy Films, Legendary Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Studios
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