Setting the scene: When Batman began again…
When 2005’s ‘Batman Begins’ re-launched the Caped Crusader franchise I don’t think I or anyone else quite knew how it was all going to work out. For one, new charge Christopher Nolan hadn’t really handled anything quite on the scale of such a beast of a budget and two, the Joel Schumacher neon mess that was ‘Batman Forever’ and ‘Batman and Robin’ left many with the bitterest of all tastes in their mouths and the mother of all movie headaches, induced by the searing mess placed before our eyes. To say ‘Batman and Robin’ was a calamity is no underestimation. It nearly killed Batman!
So when Batman ‘began’ again in 2005 as an origin story, many fan’s Bat-ears pricked once more. Origin stories were very much the big thing at the time with many franchise reboots and ‘Begins’ was finally going to tell a true Batman origin story that had not been faithfully done yet.
‘Batman Begins’ quickly erased the horrible memory of Schumacher’s camp terrors with a real world adaptation of Batman’s origins, true to the source material of the ‘Year One’ graphic novel. Most importantly, it gave renewed hope to all Bat fans that a new believable re-imagining would bring a truly brilliant new saga.
Superior sequels are a rare thing…
but In 2008, Christopher Nolan amazingly bettered ‘Batman Begins’ with ‘The Dark Knight’.
Where ‘Begins’ focussed on the themes of criminal escalation, fear and darkness, ‘The Dark Knight’ went epic on themes of morality and the belief in good. It was a grander movie not just in budget and you could instantly tell.
‘The Dark Knight’ picks up recently after the events of the ‘Begins’; Gotham’s streets are cleaner due to the vigilante justice handed out by Batman (Christian Bale) and by the swift incarceration of the cities criminal element by district attorney Harvey Dent.
Gotham is no longer a narrow, dark criminal playground but a lighter, vast sprawling metropolis. All is seemingly well; Batman has Gotham’s crooks running scared.
with an intimidating and cagey entrance into a throng of gangster’s “group therapy session” that fully reveals the bat’s greatest nemesis – The Joker. Gotham now “deserving of a better class of criminal”, he is intent on uniting Gotham’s criminal underworld to destroy “the Batmaaaaan” and bring chaos to the city.
The Joker (Heath Ledger) is bored of ripping off gangsters, he’s “ahead of the Curve” and has a plan to throw Gotham into anarchy, and in doing so he will pitch Batman’s and Bruce Wayne’s life into turmoil, leading him to contemplate his own deepest moral commitments as The Joker sets about proving that all are corruptible when the “chips are down”. He begins a campaign of terrorising the whole city and the setting of a variety of cruel choices for all of Gotham’s citizens and Batman himself.
Heath Ledger’s ‘Joker’ is both terrifying and hilarious, just as he should be. “An Agent of Chaos” he has no need for anything, he cannot be bargained with, not intimidated by strength, making him almost imperishable.
Ledger was posthumously awarded a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his hip and trendy portrayal of a younger Joker, perfectly played, fitting seamlessly with Nolan’s new, gritty, real world image of Gotham. The success of many hero movies is down to the strength of the Villain, and The Joker is without question one of THE greatest villains. ‘The Dark Knight’ owes so much to this believable interpretation of The Joker and Ledger’s utterly consuming and captivating performance. As to whether his portrayal is better than Nicholson’s previous rendition of The Joker is difficult to answer; each performance represents different traits, one camp and surreal a ’la Tim Burton, the other younger, hipper and savage, consistent with the more realistic vision of Nolan.
The Joker brings the best and worst out of Christian Bale’s Batman and Bruce Wayne and so begins their epic struggle against each other, and their opposing beliefs of order and chaos. The Joker’s rampage of terrorism sets tests for all in a series of moral set piece dilemmas that provides the proving ground for their ideologies; Pushing the bat to challenge his one unbreakable rule not to kill, all the while unknowingly battling for Gotham’s “White Knight”, the cruelly exploited Harvey Dent.
Bale is brilliant as both The Dark Knight and Bruce Wayne, bringing great dexterity to the role of both alter egos, the only lead so far to capably fulfil both personas; superbly encompassing both in moments of emotion in Bruce’s deepest despair, and dark intimidation and honourable sacrifice as the Bat. Never has Batman’s flaws and human frailties ever been more exposed, confirming his non ‘Superhero’ status. The finale and Batman’s closing ride off into the night with Gordon’s voiceover perfectly sums up the true strength of Batman, his commitment to protect Gotham’s citizens no matter the personal cost; True heroism.
The Dark Knight’s epic, real scale took the Batman legacy onto ambitious new levels, never before seen in a hero movie. Tim Burton’s vision in ‘Batman’ and ‘Batman Returns’ was regarded as precise (still very worthy entries into the Batman saga), but this now seems far too curious and fantastical when placed within a changed real world and an audience demand for realism. Director Christopher Nolan fashioned a new Gotham, using Chicago’s streets as the grand-stage, creating imposing cityscapes for pulsating set piece action; as well as bringing a new sense of realism and believability to both the characters and the story, with a tragic and foreboding screenplay. Events played out in a hero movie had never felt so important or reflected real world events and emotions. Nolan didn’t just create a hero movie, he is a grander filmmaker than that, the fact that ‘The Dark Knight’ doesn’t ‘feel’ like a hero movie is testimony to this.
Nolan gave due attention to all of Gotham’s major players, fleshing out ancillary characters with a continuing level of characterisation that elevated the story into epic, almost Shakespearean territory.
Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes) as the conflicted love interest for both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent.
Gary Oldman, brilliant once more as Lieutenant Gordon, the only ‘straight’ shooting cop in the city, who too sacrifices much in the battle for Gotham.
Alfred (Michael Caine) is worldly wise, Bruce’s protector, confidant and conscience. A rock in the darkest times.
Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) returns as Wayne’s corporate right hand man, unquestioning, but whose own morals are tested when he unwittingly falls into Bruce’s grand city surveillance plan, a step too far for Lucius and a metaphor for the real world issues of identity and privacy.
The Dark Knight has many landmark moments. The opening bank heist immediately creates a foreboding aura of the soon to be seen Joker as his bank goons talk mythically about him as they unsuspectingly carry out his splendid plan; before we even see him he is already raised to a level of menacing that sets the tone for events to come and instantly creates an iconic movie villain.
The grandest piece is a midway street battle – a subterranean highway chase, leading to a Bat pod – juggernaut joist and Batman and Joker’s subsequent talky face off.
Batman’s “good cop, bad cop” interrogation of the briefly captured Joker, pushes the bat to his limit and tests his unbreakable rule as he soon sees that strength counts for nothing in his battle of wills with the ‘clown’ prince of chaos.
“You’re just a freak”
‘The Dark Knight’ is a modern classic, and is the greatest hero movie made. Epic in scale and characterisation, set within a real world about real themes; but more so, accurately capturing the relationship between Batman and The Joker for the first time on screen.
The greatest comic hero and his greatest nemesis; complete extremes, both equal and opposite of each other – both “freaks!”
Their comic book relationship has spanned decades and Ledger and Bale give huge performances that respected this perfectly in the real world vision set by Nolan.
Nolan achieved greatness by making ‘The Dark Knight’ pure theatre.
Now at the peak of a bloated hero movie age, The Dark Knight still sits at the summit. This summer’s sequel ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ can surely be the only real contender to surpass its greatness. If it is half as good, then Nolan will have achieved something special once more.