When The Dark Knight (2008) opened, it was an unstoppable behemoth, demolishing box office records whilst simultaneously garnering critical praise rarely seen for any film, let alone a comic book based major studio release. As time has passed, it has been slightly fashionable to put the film down, even if only a little. To say that the hype over Heath Ledger’s passing and posthumous Oscar skewed perception of the film.
I think that is a little unfair. Sure you can quibble with some aspects of the film, pick tiny plot holes or discuss the occasional pacing issues. But this is an incredible piece of mainstream filmmaking, that from the excellent opening set piece bank robbery never really lets you go. And yes, Heath Ledger as the Joker delivers one of the best performances that I have ever seen on screen. I don’t know that it is possible to exaggerate just how good he is in the film. Plot wise, the film is focused on Christian Bale’s Batman going up against the Joker, whilst dealing with both his place in the city of Gotham and in particular his relationship with his beloved Rachael (Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes in this second film) who is now dating the dreamy new District Attorney Harvey Dent. Obviously that is a rather simplistic rendering of the story, but the film is predominately driven by all the incredible work that surrounds this basic plot.
Plenty of analysis of the film focuses on Ledger’s performance, which is understandable because it would be criminal not to highlight it in any examination of the film. But there is plenty more that makes this film so good. There are some great subtleties to the script, including some lighter moments. Comic book films tend to either be totally dark or totally light and fluffy. The Dark Knight definitely leans to the former, but is never too onerous and the occasional lightening of proceedings definitely helps in that regard. In terms of the shooting, Nolan is fantastic at getting the relatively epic scale just right. You can definitely feel that it was shot for the IMAX format and even just on blu-ray on my average sized TV, the cityscapes that paint out Gotham look amazing. There is a real sense as the film progresses that it is close to a perfect merging of craft and art. A couple of times throughout I found myself tearing up watching this film, at points where I had not in other viewings, such was the power of what was on screen.
Out of the three Nolan Batman films, this is the one in which Michael Caine’s Alfred plays the most integral role. For a minor supporting role, this character is really well fleshed out. Alfred is simultaneously Bruce Wayne’s best (and only) friend, as well as his confidante. They have a wonderfully light patter between them but Alfred is also the one looking out for him, the mother waiting up worried sick when he has been out all night. Quite importantly too, Alfred is the only person who is willing to remind Batman (well at least Bruce) that he has limits. In fact Alfred is probably the most well written character in the film, perfectly combining narrative function with great dialogue. Now back to Ledger. His Joker is an incredibly evil creation, ‘a man who just wants to watch the world burn’. Indeed I cannot think of a truly mainstream film with a more evil character at its core. The performance is staggeringly good. Ledger will make you stare at the screen, jaw dropped in astonishment. He will make you feel chilled to the core. And yes, there is no denying that watching the performance will make you lament that Ledger is no longer with us but also rejoice that he was able to reach these heights before he died. Ledger leads a pretty amazing ensemble cast, the equal of any film of the last 20 years – Bale, Ledger, Caine, Eckhart and Oldman, all at the top of their game, really rams the film home. Only Maggie Gyllenhaal is a slight letdown for me. I can’t help feeling that Katie Holmes did a slightly better job with the same role in the first film.
I have no doubt that the iconic status that The Dark Knight has gained is going nowhere. This is one of those films that will still be viewed and admired in 50 years time. Either as a stand along work or for the changes it brought about to mainstream filmmaking. On any list I make of the greatest mainstream films of all time, this film belongs near to the top.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Don’t forget there is a competition all this week on the blog, details here. Also, I will be live tweeting the sequel to this film The Dark Knight Rises tomorrow afternoon, so be sure to check that out if you can.