July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight (07/18/08)

Lettergrade: A

The Dark Knight is a better movie than 2005's Batman Begins, which itself was pretty good. Even moreso than its predecessor, this picture feels like a crime drama ala Heat or The Untouchables (with the occasional dash of James Bond) in which Batman also happens to be a key factor, rather than the other way around. That's not to say it doesn't make use of a number of familiar comic book movie cliches, but director / co-writer Christopher Nolan sets it all in a gritty, semi-relatable world not too dissimilar from some of our sketchier cities of today, and that's what makes the difference.

I was talking with my sister the other day, and we realized that this is the first Batman movie in our lifetimes to be more or less a direct sequel to its predecessor. Each new flick in the 80s and 90s seemed to bring with it a completely new look and tone, and nearly as often, a new actor playing the lead. Even 1992's Batman Returns, a rare anomaly in that Michael Keaton agreed to play the role a second time, was such a departure from the first film in terms of art direction, script, and even the general quality of the world Batman exists in, that calling it a "sequel" at all doesn't seem to accurately describe what the movie is in relation to the first. The Dark Knight, not to be confused with the 2001 Martin Lawrence classic Black Knight, benefits greatly from picking up where Batman Begins left off.

Like a number of other excellent part 2s (The Godfather Part II, The Empire Stikes Back, Another Weekend At Bernie's, etc), The Dark Knight ups the ante by taking the proceedings in more of a dark, tragic direction. The criminals and mob-thugs on screen legitimately seem pretty scary, and the Joker's anarchic wave of terror through Gotham City is laced with touches that make it feel like an extreme version of something you might see on CNN. All the details are there to make it visceral and distantly plausible.

The Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman movies, none of which I really like watching anymore, all fell victim to letting the bad-guys suck up all the screen time, leaving Batman himself a little underdeveloped. Although Begins avoided this problem, The Dark Knight does not. Bruce Wayne / Batman does have decisions to make in this picture, but the film keeps us largely on outside, abandoning the lengthy, moody passages from the previous flick, and more or less making Batman an agent of action rather than introspection. A similarly "outside" approach was taken with the Joker, who is unnervingly portrayed as a blank slate. You don't know how he became like he is because he keeps telling different stories about his origin. You don't know what he wants because his goal seems to change every few scenes or so, although his general approach of trying to create as much trouble as possible remains constant. The returning cast is excellent, as before, and the late Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, despite the fact that it had been hyped into the stratosphere before the film's release, is indeed pretty mesmerizing.

One minor complaint is that much of the dialogue, particularly in the first half of the movie, either solely exists in order to advance the plot or to ham-fistedly allude to events that are going to happen later. I'm not saying that throwing in long, rambling speeches ala Quentin Tarantino would have made the movie better, but sentences that were a little more coy might have benefited the script somewhat.

There's also something a little weird about the fact that the Joker and the other bad guys can pretty much make any impossible thing happen with little to no planning. Take, for consideration, a scene early in the flick where a judge is killed while supposedly awaiting her police escort. She gets in her car shortly after starting a trial featuring suspected mob management, and then abruptly gets blown up. So... she didn't have any kind of task force around her after such a high profile case had begun? And what the hell is a wealthy judge with a huge townhouse doing parking her Mercedes on the street after taking on the mob anyway? There are several other instances where Batman foils the Joker's plans, only to realize later that he unknowingly played into some larger, more elaborate plot that the Joker apparently anticipated after clairvoyantly predicting that the first part of his plan would be undone in highly specific, virtually unpredictable way. Well, either that, or the Joker is simply a hell of a contingency planner.

Nevertheless, so much about the movie works so well that it's hard to complain about things like schlocky dialog, loose plotting, and the typically generic score co-composed by shit-maestro Hans Zimmer. The Dark Knight stands firm as one of the best pictures of the summer, and probably the year (although I may be saying something different when I get around to seeing Space Chimps).

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