Studio and production company logos are all tinted blue. There are no opening credits, not even a formal title, just the famous Bat symbol emerging from an indigo firestorm, then we go straight into the first action scene. The Joker unmasks himself, bringing an unpredictable end to a tightly choreographed bank robbery, declaring, “Whatever doesn’t kill you, simply makes you… stranger.” What can a billionaire-playboy turned night-stalker vigilante do when a radical psycho clown threatens good people in the city that our protagonist has sworn to protect? Operating so far beyond any traditional criminal’s code of ‘honour’ that rationality seems just a lost memory in a world gone mad, the Joker aims to make the Batman understand that any genuine victory against calculated wickedness is merely a wishful dream that vanishes in broad daylight. And that’s just for starters, in the best film of 2008!
In this engagingly revisionist big-screen adaptation of Batman comics, what else can the lone hero do except simply endure the worst excesses of brutal anarchy and nightmarish chaos, as perpetrated by his archenemy the Joker? It’s possible that his dual role as Bruce Wayne and Batman is now a Hollywood career-defining one for Welsh-born star Christian Bale. But Australian actor Heath Ledger is certain of a place in the history of comicbook movies due to his tragic death, shortly after the filming of his remarkable scene-stealing turn as the Joker was completed. Oddly enough, there was nothing to be found in Ledger’s merely average co-starring appearance, opposite the typically wooden Matt Damon in Terry Gilliam’s unfortunately flawed The Brothers Grimm, to suggest that Ledger was even capable of such a powerfully dramatic and savagely comic profundity of thespian brilliance as demonstrated here (if the Academy fails to award Ledger a posthumous Oscar, that would be a gross injustice).
With garish clown makeup concealing his ‘mask’ on the inside (we’re not given any facts about the Joker’s past, because he tells eerily disturbing lies about his – probably awful – life story), the Joker is obviously the dark side of an already rather sinister Batman. Perhaps Ledger’s characterisation was influenced by the similarly-scarred hitman Kakihara in Takashi Miike’s extremely violent Ichi The Killer, more than the gypsy clown Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs (1928) – reputedly the inspiration for the comic-book’s original Joker. Furthermore, in the torture video played by Gotham TV-news, Ledger’s quirkily amusing tone of voice (“Are you the real Bat Man?”), pays homage to Cesar Romero’s fondly remembered Joker – in the 1966 film and subsequent TV series, yet, leaving no doubts about the impact of his definitive performance, and adding yet another layer of complexity to his role, Ledger turns the camcorder on himself, dragging attention back from nostalgic whimsy, now speaking directly to camera, ominously, “See, this is how crazy Batman’s made Gotham.” The Joker parodies the face of contemporary terrorism. He’s off-the-wall mad, typically bad, and extremely dangerous to know. He’s the mockingly defiant critical response to Batman’s crusade against mob rule.
Aaron Eckhart follows a string of solid but largely undistinguished roles – in murder mystery The Black Dahlia, the confusing Suspect Zero, and sci-fi chase Paycheck – with a tour de force performance as Gotham city’s new district attorney, Harvey Dent, a legal ‘white knight’ eventually traumatised into becoming amoral gambler Two-Face, a bitterly vengeful, psychologically twisted combination of both Joker and Batman, who casually decides his victims’ fates by the flip of a coin. It’s worth noting that our costumed hero’s moral confidence and combative superiority has advanced from Batman Begins, so that villain Dr Jonathan Crane, alias Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), who seemed a powerful menace for 2005’s Batman, is dealt with easily and dismissed as a petty nuisance here. Also returning to their supporting-cast roles in the previous film, we have Michael Caine – as Wayne’s formidably deadpan butler and supportive confidant Alfred Pennyworth, Gary Oldman – admirably understated and quietly dignified again as lieutenant (soon-to-be police commissioner) James Gordon, and Morgan Freeman – as Lucius Fox, serenely competent CEO of Wayne’s corporate technical interests.
Thankfully, Maggie Gyllenhaal (good in Donnie Darko, brilliant in Secretary, but unfairly wasted in Stranger Than Fiction) replaces boring TV-starlet Katie Holmes (the weakest player cast in Batman Begins) as lawyer Rachel Dawes; then Wayne’s ex-love, now girlfriend of doomed Harvey Dent. New supporting characters making significant impact on this film’s plot, include wily mobster Salvatore Maroni (genre favourite Eric Roberts, a lawyer in One Way, Thompson in Heroes, and The Master in Doctor Who: The Movie), while in Gordon’s elite unit, the top cop’s incorruptible right-hand man, Stephens, is ably played by Keith Szarabajka (Holtz in TV’s Angel, Stephen King’s Golden Years, gun-crazy Mickey in The Equalizer).
“Why so serious?”
Setting new box-office records, and breaking the mould for a blockbuster sequel that astutely melds fantastical antics of comicbook super-heroism with the gritty realism of mainstream action cinema, The Dark Knight is certainly one of this decade’s top ‘event’ movies. However, before last summer’s hit from Christopher Nolan (director of Batman Begins), animated feature Batman: Gotham Knight fulfilled an intermediate role, offering vignette-sized episodes depicting various costumed superhero deeds of the crime fighter, with informative fictions about Bruce Wayne’s secret identity, which slotted neatly into the milieu of live-action movie Batman Begins’ revised origin story and on-going myth building. And yet, unlike 1993’s well-received Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm, this multi-styled animation aims rather low and undershoots, despite sequencing a number of well-chosen aspects of ‘caped crusader’ lore. Emerging from the shadow of Superman Returns as the premier restart for a DC comics’ icon, Batman Begins is best viewed on blu-ray with the lights off. It’s a slickly polished urban adventure that balances moral wisdom and street savvy with extraordinarily detailed combat set-pieces and a perfectly judged recreation of superhero mythos.
The success of Dark Knight as Hollywood product is hardly important, though. As the Joker asserts: “It’s not about the money, it’s about sending a message.” That message seems to be that a clever filmmaker really can have his cake and eat it. Now, shooting in high-resolution IMAX format (a first on a Hollywood feature film), director Nolan achieves varied technical and aesthetic ambitions, developing ‘Steadicam’ devices for handheld usage of bulky IMAX equipment, which enables a dazzling and impressive picture to benefit from such detailed image capturing of key action scenes. Stunts are spectacular, and more convincing than in most comparable Hollywood thrillers. But how can the filmmakers top a lengthy road chase sequence, particularly one that’s climaxed by crashing a helicopter and flipping over a semi-artic lorry? Well, how about demolishing an entire hospital block? Although this epic sequel continues the narrative of Batman Begins, that movie’s superbly gothic visuals and architectural styling are abandoned in favour of Chicago locations, used here to create a more realistic universe for all the comicbook notions and tricks, much like Verhoeven shot the ‘futuristic’ skyline of Dallas to represent a re-developed Detroit for RoboCop (1987). Batman’s hi-tech gadgets aside, the jolting dynamic of action scenes in Dark Knight has been accurately judged as equal to shootouts and chases and in Michael Mann’s powder-keg classic Heat (1995), where clashes between Al Pacino’s manic cop and Robert De Niro’s devious crook produced quite electrifying consequences of a similar nature.
The creative and precisely controlled use of sound cranks up tension and suspense during many confrontation scenes, which makes up for the cleverly hidden fact that Nolan has fashioned a terrifyingly sadistic crime thriller, oozing danger, dilemmas, and bone-crunching violence, yet distinctly lacking in bloody splatter. If compared to David Cronenberg’s gory Eastern Promises (another hard-hitting drama with a lone hero tackling a criminal conspiracy), it’s clear that, however bold its attempts to reformulate comicbook adventure in a down-to-earth manner, Dark Knight inhabits a different universe to genre horror. As the Joker’s restless psychosis shifts into demented overdrive, it’s interesting to contrast his intimidating qualities with those of Dr Hannibal ‘the cannibal’ Lecter – one of the greatest screen baddies of the previous decade. Despite Lecter’s penchant for meticulously planned outrage and eruptions of wild bloodlust, we are left feeling that Ledger’s ultimately chilling interpretation of the Joker as “an agent of chaos” villainy has raised the bar for any such fascinatingly unpredictable murder spree in popular cinema, showing us a curious model of ‘evil’ that’s more astonishing than Lecter’s slasher antics because a troubling sense of peril, and our horrified reaction to it, is accomplished with keenly theatrical skill, without spraying pints of red stuff across the scenery.
But Nolan’s greatest achievement is the assured handling of ambivalent character developments in a cold light and a serious context, granting this peerless variation of Bob Kane’s now 70-year-old champion detective an immeasurably cool gravitas, one that blots out persistent memories of previous film or television adaptations, whether they were campy or not. The Dark Knight affirms its links to much original DC comics’ material, and skilfully integrates story arcs and variant characters from Batman graphic novels in a uniquely persuasive and resonant manner where all the earlier works – including Tim Burton’s fetishistic offerings (was Batman Returns really the best of them?), but especially Joel Schumacher’s lamentably cheesy pictures, were comparatively unsuccessful or wholly inadequate in their attempts to realise any cinematic drama that clearly transcends the milieu’s inescapably ‘juvenile’ origins. It has been rumoured that a third Batman film by Nolan might feature Catwoman and/ or the Riddler, but probably not the Penguin. With the short-lived franchise spin-off TV series Birds Of Prey (2002-3), concerning a futuristic Gotham team-up of Black Canary, Oracle/ Batgirl, and Huntress, also available in a DVD boxset, there has never been a better time for renewing your interest in Bat-mania!
The main disc is mastered in superb 16:9 hi-def, with a mix of 2.4:1 ratio and 1.78:1 for the IMAX sequences. Enhanced viewing includes focus points, also playable as a separate batch of extras, Gotham Uncovered: Creation Of A Scene, which look at production planning and details like new designs for the Bat-suit (enabling Batman to move his head properly for the first time in recent screen history), and the Bat-pod motorcycle (a new vehicle built into the Bat-mobile/ Tumbler). Bonus material on the second disc includes six episodes of the faux TV-news programme ‘Gotham Tonight’ presenting interviews, politically savvy profiles, and compelling reportage supporting backstory elements of the movie’s drama and its principal characters. Documentary featurette Batman Tech reveals updated gadgets and briefly explores the science behind them, while Batman Unmasked considers the psychologies of heroic Batman and nemesis the Joker. There’s also a gallery of photos and artwork, plus trailers and TV adverts.