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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews The Dark Knight (2008)

My excitement is building for The Dark Knight Rises, which opens today!  I hope to be seeing it soon, and of course I’ll be posting my thoughts right here as soon as I do.  In the mean-time, let’s continue my look back at Christopher Nolan’s previous two Bat-films. Last week I wrote about Batman Begins. Of course, after re-watching that film, I was eager to dive right back into Christopher Nolan’s first Bat-sequel, The Dark Knight.

I have written about The Dark Knight before on this site.  Here is my original review of the film, which I wrote soon after having my brains blown out the back of my head by my first viewing of this magnificent film.  I stand by my rapturous review.  Having now seen the film several times, I think it has held up extremely well.  When I first saw it, I was continually shocked by the film’s plot developments, but even knowing what is going to happen I think the film still totally works.  In fact, knowing what is to come, there’s a powerful sense of additional dread watching the story unfold.  You know it’s not going to end happily.

I have read this film described as “Batman Loses” and that pretty much sums up the story.  Bruce Wayne gets smacked around for pretty much the entirety of the film’s long run-time.  This is the way a super-hero sequel should be.  Once you’ve established your super-heroic character, you need to really stack the deck against him/her.  It needs to be nearly IMPOSSIBLE to conceive of a way that your hero can overcome these tremendous odds, and boy oh boy does The Dark Knight do that in spades.

Key to this, of course, is the incredible success of Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker.  Everyone went crazy, back in 1989, for Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, and rightfully so.  It’s a spectacular performance, and one that was long-deemed un-toppable.  But Mr. Ledger’s work absolutely blows Mr. Nicholson out of the water.  This Joker is DANGEROUS in a way that Nicholson’s never really was.  Ledger’s Joker is creepy and weird and scary.  He clearly has a brilliant tactical mind (a point driven home by the film’s terrific opening sequence, an intricately-orchestrated robbery of a mob-controlled bank) but also a wild unpredictability.  Pretty much every single Joker scene in this film is instantly iconic, from his magic trick making a pencil disappear, to his various stories about how he got his scars, to his taunting of Batman in the police station’s interrogation room, to his conversation with a scarred Harvey Dent in his hospital room.

Which brings me, of course, to Harvey Dent.  I was worried when I heard that Dent would appear in this film, along with the Joker.  I worried about the trend of bad super-hero sequels (Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, Spider-Man 3) to become bloated by stuffing in too many villains.  But not only is Aaron Eckhart fiercly brilliant in the role, his character is absolutely central to the story being told, and the themes being explored in the sharp screenplay by Jonathan & Christopher Nolan (based on a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer).

I love that the film picks up on the idea of the early-in-Batman’s career partnership between Bats, Gordon, and Dent that I first recall seeing in Jeph Loeb’s Batman mini-series The Long Halloween (a sort-of-sequel to Frank Miller’s seminal Batman: Year One that inspired so much of the material in Batman Begins). It’s a really juicy idea, and one of my favorite scenes in the film is the rooftop meeting (and argument) between the three men, early in the movie, after a botched attempt to raid several mob holdings.  It’s beautiful and perfect that the climax of the film isn’t a confrontation between Batman and the Joker, but rather a tense sequence that once again features those three men, all three of whom have been horribly scarred (physically in Dent’s case, mentally and emotionally for the other two) by the events of the film.

The film is brutal, and pulls no punches, and I love it for that.  Rachel Dawes’ fate still shocks me, even years later.  With the recent re-launch of the Spider-Man film series, now featuring Gwen Stacy, I know that sooner or later they are going to depict that fateful bridge scene.  That’s exciting to me as a comic book geek, but the Spidey team will have their work cut out for them in trying to match the heartbreaking emotional power of this moment in the middle of The Dark Knight. That whole sequence, in which the Joker makes Batman choose between saving Dent or Rachel, is, at its core, a classic comic-book scene.  Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film (since I seem to have Spidey on my mind, as I write this) contained a great depiction of that classic comic book trope, with the Green Goblin making Spidey choose between saving the girl he loves, Mary Jane Watson, or a cable-car full of innocents.  Of course, in Spider-Man, as is usually the case in the comics, Spidey is able to figure out a way to save them both.  Not only is Batman unable to do that in The Dark Knight, he’s really not able to save EITHER of them.  That is brutally twisted, and makes me love this film even more.  This is a mainstream big-budget super-hero film???  Not like any other mainstream big-budget super-hero film I recognize, and thank heavens for that.

The score (by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer) builds on the great music from Batman Begins and takes things to an even higher level.  I love the creepy, quiet, nervous music and sounds that serve as a theme for the Joker, and I adore the pulsing, pounding, drum-beat-driven action music that accompanies the film’s action scenes.

The film is gorgeous, and the sequences shot in Imax are particularly jaw-dropping.

And the ending, oh that ending.  I wrote in my review of Batman Begins how much I loved (despite the addition of two extra, superfluous lines at the very end) the ending of that film (directly adapted from the brilliant ending of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One). Revealing that Joker card was a ballsy call-to-action on the part of the filmmakers, announcing that Batman Begins was the beginning of something big, and that they weren’t afraid to revisit the character of the Joker and try to top Jack Nicholson’s famous performance.

The ending of The Dark Knight is even more perfect.  Not only do we get probably the best use of a film’s title in dialogue within in a film that I’ve ever seen, but it’s an ending that somehow manages to be heroic and uplifting even while being deeply dark and sad.  Batman is able to make the right choice, the heroic choice, even as the character basically loses yet again, as he has lost time and again throughout the film.  It’s a perfect ending to the dark film that Mr. Nolan had crafted.

There are some weird idiosyncrasies to The Dark Knight, some moments that I wonder about, having now seen the film several times.  It’s curious to me that the film totally ignores the biggest dangling plot thread at the end of Batman Begins, that the Scarecrow’s fear gas has been unleashed in the Narrows (the seediest, poorest part of Gotham City) and all the inmates of Arkham Asylum have been unleashed to terrorize that island-area of Gotham.  I don’t believe the Narrows are mentioned at all in The Dark Knight, nor do we see them in any of the shots of the city.  (The Wayne elevated train, so central to Batman Begins, also seems to have mysteriously vanished.)  I could do without Batman’s super-sonar-computer that somehow links every cell phone in Gotham.  That’s a bit too James Bond silly for me, and seems tonally to be out of place in this film.  But these are tiny quibbles, and the whole film works so brilliantly that these tiny complaints are easily ignored.

I waited a long, long time to see Batman, the way I’ve always seen the character, realized on film.  Bruce Timm’s animated Batman series from the ’90s came closest for me.  For many years, the animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm stood tall as my favorite Batman film (followed closely behind by another animated Batman film from Bruce Timm and company: Batman: Return of the Joker). Even Batman Begins, which I loved and still love, couldn’t top Mask of the Phantasm in my mind.  But then The Dark Knight came along, and at long last my perfect Batman film had arrived.

I have high hopes for The Dark Knight Rises, and I hope it brings this terrific Batman film series to a fitting ending.  But whether I love or hate The Dark Knight Rises (and I think I will know for sure very soon!!!), I will always have The Dark Knight. It’s not just my favorite film depiction of Batman, it’s one of my favorite films of the past decade.

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