“Do I look like a man with a plan?”
This film very definitely has a plan. A big plan. It wants to be taken Very Very Seriously Indeed. THE DARK KNIGHT is a follow up to BATMAN BEGINS, Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the franchise that had previously been destroyed by Joel Shumacher’s appalling entries, BATMAN FOREVER and BATMAN AND ROBIN, the films that became notorious for adding nipples to the batsuit. Nolan’s chief contribution to the series is a labored High Moral Importance, as Batman/Bruce Wayne struggles, oh so mightily, to live up to his father’s memory and banish crime from Gotham City. BATMAN BEGINS had a lot of nonsense about an assassin squad known as the League Of Shadows and some nattering about history and the decline of the west, but mostly the film was an excuse for bludgeoning an audience senseless, delivering brutal violence while shaking a finger in your face for enjoying it. It set a bold standard for sheer self-righteousness, even muscling in a reference to one of Bruce Wayne’s ancestors having been involved in the Underground Railroad. It didn’t even deliver an interesting villain, just Liam Neeson spouting mutilated Lucasisms about how you must become fear to overcome fear. All in all, there’s more fun in Auschwitz footage.
THE DARK KNIGHT doesn’t exactly lighten the tone, the occasional daylight scene notwithstanding. The story is terribly busy, too busy. Batman has been cleaning up the organized crime in Gotham City, and the Mob is getting unhappy. The Joker offers to lend the mob a hand. Okay, but there’s a lot of other stuff involving District Attorney Harvey Dent, some Mafia High Finance and a wicked accountant who knows where the money is buried and it clunks and thuds along, never more pointlessly than during a completely expendable sidetrip to Hong Kong. There’s a girl in there too, Maggie Gyllenaal taking over for the chick from the previous one, but basically, you just sit there waiting for more of the Joker.
I loved Heath Ledger’s Joker. He’s very funny and very shocking, going for an unbridled sadism that is unique in this kind of film, where villains are all too often too coy to scare, much less perform lethal sleight of hand with pencils. This Joker is the real thing straight out of nightmareland. It’s an oversize performance, one that manages somehow to match the oversize pretensions of the rest of the film. He's the driving life force of the movie, the pulse and energy of the film much more so than all the stunts and CGI. All the explosions and gimmicks never once impress as much as the sight of the Joker standing in the middle of a Gotham City street daring Batman to run him down, knowing he won't. He's even got a wonderful moment leaning out of a car window in the early light, enjoying the wind in his green greasy hair, a la Fredric March's Mr. Hyde ecstatically drinking falling raindrops. Ledger is also, by the way, the only actor who manages to put over the overt speechifying that mars so much of the rest of the film. When the Joker monologues on his ideas of chaos, he speaks with a demented conviction that poor Michael Caine’s ceaseless pathetic prattling about What Batman Means can’t come near. Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart manage to make something of their roles, which is more than can be said for Morgan Freeman and Caine, neither of whom have broken a sweat in years: their performances are strictly by the numbers and for the paycheck.
Someone should alert the authorities about the block of wood passing itself off as Christian Bale, getting roles and collecting paychecks. Yeah, I know, Batman/Bruce is almost inevitably played as a stiff. Sometimes for laughs, as Adam West’s hilariously pompous goodytwoshoes, or as Psychologically Damaged Goods by Michael Keaton. But no one approaches Christian Bale’s performance for sheer inertness. He just sits there and broods, or stands there and broods, or broods there and broods. Boy does he brood. Brood brood brood. Brood Bruce, brood. I found it impossible to do anything other than root for the Joker, who at least shows some signs of life. This lack of energy on Bale's part, and the nailing home of each and every Serious Point, are the least welcome holdovers from the first film.
THE DARK KNIGHT does go to some lengths to try to show us that there is after all something in Gotham worth saving. BATMAN BEGINS’ Gotham was a charnel house, a vision of urban hell akin to those in BLADE RUNNER and SEVEN, and it is hard to imagine why anyone would want to save it from the Joker’s chaotic demolition performance pieces much less actually live there. This at least partially explains the glimmers of hope that are shoe-horned into the plot, some bits of faith in simple human decency that were completely missing from DARK KNIGHT’s Bleak Chic prequel.
I can’t say I liked the film very much, except as a vehicle for Ledger’s Joker. I think I’ve finally outgrown this Batman stuff, except for Burton’s BATMAN RETURNS, to me still the only Batman film worth seeing, to watch Michelle Pfeiffer deliver probably the greatest performance by an actress in 90s Hollywood Cinema. It never gets stale, unlike the strained seriousness of Nolan’s movies, which fade from the memory almost immediately. They can do the inevitable follow up to THE DARK KNIGHT without me. Unless of course, they find something really interesting to do with Catwoman. Ha. Yeah, right. Not with this joyless batch of filmmakers.