The Dark Knight (2008)

October 3, 2008 § Leave a comment

The origin and exploration of any superhero seems to last about two films, with the franchise often struggling the third time out. We’ve seen this over and over: two good Superman films with Christopher Reeve, and then a daft, comic third film with Richard Pryor, or two Spider-Man films that manage to do what they’re trying to do without overextending themselves, and then a third that’s something of a cartoonish mess. Even though it’s all fantasy, a decent narrative and dialogue make the difference between a passable popcorn film and something more interesting and worthwhile.

The Batman franchise has a lot going for it: a small boatload of interesting villains and a compelling — in some ways, completely messed up — central hero. Despite that, when the series was first kick-started with Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, we still got only two good films (the second was Batman Returns in 1992) before the series was yanked away from Burton and driven into the ground about as quickly as it could be done, thanks to a couple of instantly forgettable films packed with colourful but cardboard villains. The series could have gone on far longer but it became like a kid at Christmas that opens all his gifts so quickly he doesn’t really stop to enjoy anything.

As a result of this swing from huge hits to dismal failures, the franchise was put on hold, then rebooted all over again with Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), both directed by Christopher Nolan.  While the Burton films were appropriately dark, and operated from a lavishly created, operatic Gotham city, the Nolan films are even darker for being grounded in reality and presenting a more recognizable Gotham, even as it’s filled with decay, and danger. As much as I admire their style, the Burton films had Batman alternately trouncing street punks or facing off against the higher class of villain, but there didn’t seem to be much connection between the two. The Nolan films somehow manage to present Gotham like it’s one massive wounded creation, with the more heavy-hitting villains growing out of a background of street punks, mob bosses, corrupt politicians, or different cops and lawyers.  As far as the level of drama is concerned, this is the sort of thing that makes all the difference.

It’s with this background supporting him that Heath Ledger plays the Joker like a mad squirrel loose in a candy shop — he’s not actually physically imposing, but frantically charged with devotion to chaos, and he’s excellent, but I think it’s also fair to say it’s a performance that would be less potent in a less detailed film.  Even the score supports his performance, with no theme at all whenever he appears, in favour of a low, orchestral rising shriek. I don’t think I’d call it a “richly thrilling crime saga,” as they suggest over at Rotten Tomatoes, but the new Batman film is almost flawlessly done, and certainly a satisfying film. My only complaint is that I think the action peaks with the car chase where the Joker is captured for a time, and the final action sequence isn’t as impressive, particularly next to the unfolding drama with the two ships. And there’s even more after that in a long denoument that isn’t nearly as engaging. But that’s nitpicking — The Dark Knight is the best superhero film ever, and simply a good film on top of that. The question now is, can they pull this off a third time, and accomplish something that has never been done before?

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