The Dark Knight
Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman
Directed by Christopher Nolan
In Batman Begins, the hero operated out of a dripping, gothic cave deep below the Bruce Wayne mansion. The Bat Cave was like the comic book heros psyche: murky and dark.
But in The Dark Knight, Batman (Christian Bale) has gone metrosexual; his lair is a penthouse high above glittering, decadent Gotham and a minimalist laboratory down below the city full of James Bond gadgetry, that looks like a Prada boutique.
Much of The Dark Knight takes place high above Gotham, in glass-walled apartments and on rooftops, but the soul of the film remains earthbound, deep in the muck of Batmans psychology. Batmans back-story hardly needs an intro at this point, though worth repeating is the status he shares with almost every hero/heroine of childrens literature which is rife with orphan children.
Batman continues his dead fathers commitment to moral justice, alongside a host of substitute-daddy do-gooders, from police lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman in that signature face-obscuring brush mustache), his butler Alfred (Michael Caine), and his inventor-pal Lucius (Morgan Freeman).
Batman is as we seem to demand of our contemporary super heroes still troubled, plagued by doubts and unresolved longings. He has a city full of thugs to contend with, including the Joker (Heath Ledger), a giggling psychopath who needs a bath and looks like he applied his makeup on a roller coaster.
And hes in love with a woman, Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whos smitten with Gothams golden boy D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Dent promises to prosecute the mobs top brass (including a thick-necked and hammy Eric Roberts) under threat of death. Batman sees Dent as his hero.
But all these good guys cant hold a candle to The Dark Knights hypnotic arch villain. Like Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Ledgers Joker is a thrillingly watchable, mesmeric monster. A show-stealing sociopath, the Jokers modus operandi is chaos, destruction, and smart-ass quips.
The guy just cant help it: Im a dog chasing cars. I wouldnt know what to do if I caught one, he riffs, of his random criminal methodology. The Joker is a Jerry Lewis to Batmans Dean Martin, a frenzied dervish to Batmans straight man.
In a film that makes more than glancing reference to contemporary politics, the Joker is also a monster for a post-9/11 world, scary because he kills for inexplicable reasons: not money or glory. Dark charisma radiates from Ledgers manic, surprisingly nuanced performance. Every time the Joker appears on screen, the film comes demonically alive.
In director Christopher Nolans (Memento) and his co-screenwriter brother Jonathan Nolans new, über-dark Batman story, the Joker personifies the allure of destruction and mayhem. And though The Dark Knight clucks its tongue and cops a moralistic attitude about the propensity for violence that lurks in all people, the Joker represents the films have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too attitude. The jaw-dropping explosions, car chases, and creative murders unleashed by the Joker prove the point: Destruction is a gas.
Does anyone even identify with Batman anymore, this crime-fighting stick-in-the-mud with the husky, self-important voice who wrestles with a Gotham as apt to treat him as the enemy as their salvation? Even Batmans buddies seem doubtful about his methods, like Lucius, who wags his finger when Batman begins wiretapping Gothams citizenry, a la George W. Bush, to catch the Joker.
And do kids get pure action heroes anymore, or only tortured bundles of anxiety? Gory and hopeless enough to suggest a film made for adults instead of children, The Dark Knight nevertheless comes with the usual ancillary goods, of fast-food toys and action figures. Its the films most troubling, gluttonous dimension: How it markets to innocents despite a thoroughly nihilistic storyline. The Joker may not care about money, but Hollywood will scoop it up in whatever form it can.
But are parents really prepared for thugs impaled on pencils? Adorable towheaded children threatened with a gun to the head? Hand grenades thrust in the mouths of bank executives who try to foil a robbery by blasting the thieves into Swiss cheese? And a villain whose preferred tactic is a knife held menacingly at his victims face?
It seems almost cruel to take beloved child archetypes and turn them into projections for adult angst. Any kid who watches The Dark Knight will be ruined for anything but Peckinpah and Scorsese.
Is it Gotham thats the darkest place on earth? Or is it the multiplex?