The Dark Knight really needs no introduction. Fans of Batman and Gotham City have been revelling in the viral campaign and climbing over one another for e-glimpses of Heath Ledger as the Joker and other parts of the Bat-universe for months now, so it’s not overly surprising that the release of the film on July 18 was huge. Add to that a slew of early reviews that claimed how great the movie was and you’ve got a hell of a summer blockbuster.
So Christopher Nolan’s sequel to the excellent Batman Begins really begs the question: is it being grossly and profoundly overrated? The answer is, sadly, yes. It is likely true that a perfect storm is occurring at the moment and that the rating for The Dark Knight will fall over time as people have a chance to see it again and let the hype drain out of the pool. It is also true that the tragic death of Heath Ledger is impacting how people feel about the film, as it is true that the “average moviegoer” has really not weighed in with his or her thoughts as of yet.
The Dark Knight opens with a bank robbery sequence in which the Joker and some cronies take over a mob bank. At the conclusion of the robbery, we start to see what Gotham City has become since we last experienced it. There are multiple Batman impersonators who are acting as vigilantes and crime has disappeared into daytime meetings and shady dealings. The real Batman (Christian Bale) has done his job well, but the city needs a hero who can really start putting the scum of the city away.
Enter Gotham’s white knight, D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). He begins to work with Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) to put away the criminal element and they rely on Batman to help with some loose ends. This leads Batman on a trip to Hong Kong to fetch a criminal in one of the film’s most interesting sequences. Meanwhile back at Gotham, the Joker is beginning to rattle the cages of the mob and introduce his brand of pandemonium to the streets. He proposes to kill Batman and help the mob take back the night.
The Joker’s brand of chaos is negligible at best. Despite the character’s insistence that he’s chaotic, most of his plans and schemes all seem entirely organized and purposeful. The opening bank robbery sequence, for instance, is impeccably planned. His “people will die” threat is immediately downgraded from being a potential nightmare after it is discovered, one scene later, that Joker means to kill three specific people. The notion of Joker’s chaos would have worked better had it been more widespread and random. As such, he comes across as too organized and too focused.
The moral and ethical choices really formulate the framework of The Dark Knight. As the film draws to its conclusion, the “choice” dogma really comes into play with regularity. Characters are given chances to change the path they find themselves on and this “philosophical ground” is somewhat new for superhero films. But at the end of the day, it’s nothing new for film and it begins to fall flat.
The action sequences in The Dark Knight are good, but some are rather confusing to watch. There is a car chase/Batpod/truck sequence that utilizes a range of vehicular work and explosions. Nolan’s direction of the sequence is very impressive, but it felt short and insignificant to me. Contrasting the Batpod sequence with the original Tumbler sequence in Begins, it’s no contest that the Tumbler chase wins. Sadly, the direction falters in many of the fight sequences and they seem to lack the impact that they should have. The finale with Joker and Batman on a rooftop lacks the epic feel such an altercation should have and, instead, resorts to a simple speech-giving session that seems all too recognizable and forced.
The scope of Gotham City feels somewhat lost in favour of a few adventurous rooftop shots. While Batman Begins thrilled viewers with a slew of sweeping shots of the city, the slums, and the grimy depths of Gotham, The Dark Knight is content with action shots that lead places. The lack of location definition wound up hurting the film’s scope, in my view, and it felt less epic and big than its predecessor. The Dark Knight actually comes off feeling rather small in the end.
Ledger is the shining light here and his portrayal of the Joker is astonishing. I couldn’t help compare the situation to that of Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, though. Ledger stole the show, without question, but the rest of the film was on somewhat fragile ground. Without Ledger’s Joker, The Dark Knight would have barely received a passing grade and would be just another superhero movie. With him, it becomes very good indeed. At the same time, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this great performance should have been given more to do.
The Dark Knight really is an ensemble piece, though. Joker is on screen in sprint-like dosages, often disappearing for large chunks of time only to reappear with another well-crafted plan. Other characters follow the same flow. Bale is decent as Batman/Bruce Wayne, but his incessant growling and grunting voice as Batman gets a little overcooked as the film goes on and he’s given more dialogue. Eckhart is also good, but he isn’t given much of a chance to shine until the latter portion of the film.
I was also disappointed with the film’s pacing. We are thrown right into the mix at the beginning and any continuity with Batman Begins is out the window. While Batman Begins closed with the revelation of a joker playing card on a rooftop with Gordon and Batman’s tenuous crime-fighting relationship developing, that development is out the window here and Gordon and Batman are suddenly the best of buds, complete with Batman showing up in broad daylight at a bank to help investigate a robbery. Other cops are brushed aside as though the guy in the black bat suit is just another rough and tough copper. This lack of evolution in the characters gives The Dark Knight a dizzying sense of storytelling and a lack of character development.
Gone also is Batman’s use of utilizing fear. While its predecessor used several scenes to show Batman’s use of the shadows and his enemy’s greatest fears to combat crime, The Dark Knight gives us a Batman lacking any stealth or tact. Instead, here’s Batman lunging through the wall in the Tumbler or, in one of the film’s more ludicrous and preposterous scenes, working his way up the stairs like Seth Rogen in a nightclub. This nonsensical abandonment of the shadows hurts Batman’s credibility as a shadowy figure and plants him, instead, right into simple action hero territory. What set Begins apart was Batman’s use of the environment and of fear, but there is none of that energy in the sequel.
The villain contingent is also lacking any epic scale until the final scenes of the movie. The Joker doesn’t “terrorize Gotham” in ways that other incarnations of Bat-villains have. With the League of Shadows aiming to turn all of Gotham into maniacs, the Joker simply comes up with a series of plans that targets some of Batman’s buddies. Instead of a broad scale scheme to take down the citizens of Gotham and promote mass chaos (the type of chaos we see so eloquently in Batman Begins when the crazies are let out of the asylum and the drugs start kicking in), the Joker simply relies on sequences of dialogue to tell us how nutty he is. It just doesn’t have the same effect.
In terms of chaos, the closest we get to it is the sequence in which the “hospital threat” is being dealt with. While the explosion was impressive, the Joker was still much too focused. He didn’t choose a random hospital; he was purposeful and had a plan. His speech to Dent once he gets in the hospital is completely contradictory to everything we’ve seen the Joker do thus far and the words sound sweet but ring hollow. And any further attempt at chaos is shown in the form of what looks like a small group of people in a boat heading across the harbour. There is no menacing presence here, the people are not running scared. Hell, there wasn’t even a proper Gotham City evacuation scene!
All in all, The Dark Knight is disappointing. I’ve had a chance to see it twice now and I’ve compared it directly to Batman Begins, as you can see. I think this is a fair assessment and shows how much the film dropped off from its excellent predecessor. With such a bold set-up and the potential to really drop some insanity on Gotham and get at Bruce Wayne/Batman, Nolan and Co. seem contented to go with a conventional crime drama instead that is focused more on redundant and routine “philosophical questions” that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever cracked a book and less on any actual terror, fear, and passion. As such, The Dark Knight is barely passable. It’s not a good movie.