Friday, January 17, 2020

The Dark Knight Review

"It was a dark and stormy night." --Edward Bulwer-Lytton

This "Two-Disc Special Edition" DVD set makes a person wonder if Warner Bros. aren't trying to use it to push Blu-ray. Not only are the picture and sound on the DVD markedly inferior to that of the high-definition product, which we would expect, there are considerably fewer extras in the DVD set than in the BD set, which is not usually the case. Interesting.

Anyway, like most viewers, I enjoyed director Christopher Nolan's second "Batman" movie, "The Dark Knight," quite a lot. Yet I will dare the slings and arrows of dedicated fans to cite a few of the shortcomings I found in the film. Here's the thing: "The Dark Knight" turned out to be the most financially successful motion picture of 2008, an accomplishment in itself. One wonders, Why? What made it so successful?

Was it the movie's star actor in the leading role that primarily encouraged its popularity? Not entirely. Christian Bale is good, and he looks right for the part of Batman, but he doesn't quite project as complex a character as Michael Keaton did in the Tim Burton films. Moreover, Bale's voice is truly odd when he's in the guise of the Caped Crusader. Sure, he needs to alter his voice to help hide his identity, but in this episode he seems to be conjuring up the spirit of Lamont Cranston as The Shadow. One superhero with an eccentric voice is enough, I think. Besides, in this second outing Bale's role is almost secondary to that of the villain's, and Bale merely does his best to cope with the cape.

Was it the movie's supporting cast that generally encouraged its popularity? They're good, but I don't think they carry the picture. We've still got Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth, the unflappable butler and father figure to Bruce Wayne; we've still got Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Wayne Industry's most valued employee; and we've still got Gary Oldman as James Gordon, seemingly the only incorruptible cop on the Gotham police force. But their roles are diminished compared to the first movie. And, yes, Maggie Gyllenhal as attorney Rachel Dawes does seem a bit more mature than her predecessor in the part. Furthermore, we've got a capable Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, whose personality metamorphosis almost mirrors Bruce Wayne's. Notwithstanding, these people don't sustain the picture any more than Bale does.

Was it the movie's plot that mainly promoted its popularity? I don't think so. "The Dark Knight" has a rather convoluted story line that goes on too long and makes little sense when you think about it. I've read that the movie "Heat" inspired Nolan, and "The Dark Knight" begins brilliantly with a bank-robbery sequence that foretells good things to come. If only it were so. Instead, much of the creativity of the opening robbery quickly dissipates into flashy action, questionable characters, endless narrative gyrations, and glorified sadistic violence. By about three quarters of the way through the picture, I wasn't sure what was happening or why, and by the time the conclusion rolled around, I was scratching my head wondering when the string of anticlimaxes was finally going to end.

Was it the movie's themes that propelled its popularity? Maybe some viewers appreciated the film's sentiments on dual personalities, its treatment of antiheroes, its exploration of vigilanteism, its 9/11 references, its seeming opposition to unregulated surveillance, and so on, but I found most of these topics superfluous and rather superficially glossed over. Surely, these points added to the film's prestige, but I doubt they played a major part in heightening its approval rating.

Was it the movie's costumes and settings that predominantly encouraged its popularity? Not quite. Batman himself looks much the same as ever despite a slightly altered Bat suit. The Joker's makeup is crudely scary but nothing special (which probably makes it even scarier, so what do I know). Gotham, now more clearly than ever the city of Chicago, looks rather matter-of-fact, especially in the daylight. Did the filmmakers think that New York City, whose real-life nickname has long been "Gotham," was too obvious or too familiar to viewers? Be that as it may, Wayne Manor is now up in flames, replaced by a bland underground Bat lair. And the movie's general production values are only so-so for a multimillion-dollar project. Frankly, this is not a film whose graphic images seem all that striking to me.

Was it Christopher Nolan's directorial skills that chiefly elevated its popularity? Maybe. He's an accomplished director, certainly, but he still favors too many quick edits and too much swirling camera movement. Worse, half the time you can't tell what the characters' motivations are, why they're doing what they're doing. Perhaps with Bruce Wayne this is justifiable because he's got such a conflicted personality. But the Joker, Lucius, Harvey? We never really know why they're behaving as they do. Let's just say that Nolan keeps the action moving forward, whether we can follow it or not.

The fact is, the movie's enormous popularity is probably the result largely of one person: Heath Ledger as the Joker. Indeed, Ledger is so good in the part, he practically owns the picture. The filmmakers might just as well have called the movie "The Dark Joker" and been done with it. Ledger overshadows everyone else in the show. Never mind that his Joker is a preposterous villain who, like so many villains before him, is all-knowing, all-powerful, and everywhere at once, with practically everyone in Gotham on his payroll. Oh, well. The fact is, Ledger is good. He's scary. He's obsessed, and his character is literally maniacal. I've read that even his fellow actors found his characterization terrifying on the set. Maybe that's just publicity talking, but you get the idea. When Ledger in on the screen, he dominates it, and you don't notice anybody else. Ledger's Joker will undoubtedly go down in the annals of film villains as one of the very best, alongside such perennial favorites as Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, and the Wicked Witch of the West.

The question is, Can one great character carry an entire movie? In the case of "The Dark Knight," the answer is obviously yes. Ledger does it. I still can't get over a scene that involves something so simple as a pencil. Chalk that one up to Nolan, co-writer Jonathan Nolan, as well as Ledger. Moviemaking is a collaborative business.

And, needless to say, there is still the movie's cumulative effect to consider. The plot, the characters, the cast, the costumes, the settings, and the action, whether they equal the quality of Nolan's first "Batman" movie or not, continue to add up to a rewarding experience. You'll find "The Dark Knight" filled with twisted loyalties, corrupted moralities, and blurred lines between good and evil, which, despite their superficiality, imbue the film with an intelligent sensibility. Despite its grimness, "The Dark Knight" is an engaging superhero movie.

"The Dark Knight" is more than a sequel to "Batman Begins." It is an extension, a second chapter to the story, if you will. In the 2005 film, the groundwork is established for the characters, the relationships introduced and the world created. Here, aside from a very quick re-introduction to the players, the 152-minute running time is taken with briskly paced plot and rather little character development, as if writer/director Christopher Nolan is daring the audience to keep up with the action.

Gotham City is under siege. With the police and new district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) raiding banks for mob money, the underground leaders turn to a diabolical villain known as the Joker (Heath Ledger). He begins targeting Gotham for the express purpose of unmasking Batman (Christian Bale), the city's protector. But are there enough good guys to capture the new terrorist…or have they, too, been corrupted?

What Nolan did with "Batman Begins" is make an explicit promise to the audience. Stick with me for the backstory and a slower comic book film than you expect and you'll be rewarded in the second act with a grand and epic spectacle. And by god, he delivered. Whatever small deficiencies the first film had have been corrected, including more action, a more menacing antagonist and a confidence from everyone concerned about their individual role to play.

In essence, "The Dark Knight" is a continuation of its predecessor, more than "The Empire Strikes Back" or even "The Godfather part II," completing the Arkham Asylum escape storyline early on. And it's done with panache. I half expected flashbacks to the Scarecrow's plot to remind the audience what happened before. Not to be, as Nolan expects us to know the franchise's history. He also doesn't bother with long scenes of exposition designed to catch us up, so to speak. In their place, shortly after the opening action scene, the story drops in on the leads, just giving us enough information to see where they are now. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Bruce Wayne (Bale). Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking the place of Katie Holmes) and Dent and Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). It's at this point the editing and pacing of the film becomes evident. It's brisk and lively, never lumbering or belabored. Almost too fast, some may say.

Why too fast? Nolan never lets the story slow to a pace where the audience can catch its breath, regroup and come back again. He assaults our senses in every possible way at every possible moment. Small, character scenes are rapturous (a scene late in the film featuring Wayne and Fox under Wayne Enterprises, for instance), filled to the brim with information integral to the story. Nolan, his brother Jonathan (who also wrote the screenplay) and David S. Goyer (who shares story credit with Christopher) use dialogue and visuals to convey story information in a way most of Hollywood lacks the talent to replicate. Each frame is a small painting into the world of Gotham, even when the camera is simply flying by a building or two. The darkness, the scattered lights…they carry a sense of fear.