By Joel Christie
The Dark Knight might just be the best superhero movie ever made. I’ll have to see it again to be sure, but it easily cracks the top three. Why? It’s simple: because director Christopher Nolen refuses to be confined by the traditional limits of the genre.
With superhero movies, the audience is expected to be generous with its suspension of disbelief, and clearly (judging from the box-office returns of many superhero movies), we’re okay with that. We can live with a certain level of nonsense, because it’s fun and exciting. It’s just a superhero movie, right? Lighten up. But as a result of this agreement, it can be easy to dismiss the Herculean characters we’re watching as mere pawns of entertainment. We like them, sure, but we don’t really identify with them.
The Dark Knight pops that old agreement like a zit; no more nonsense. Knight insists on being taken seriously, and defies you to dismiss it as just summer entertainment. Everything hammers the audience as dead-on real. The settings. The danger. And most importantly, the characters.
Like all good stories, it starts with great characters. There are no weak links; Christian Bale plays the increasingly smug Bruce Wayne with cool candor; Aaron Eckhart dials down his usual pomp a half degree for Harvey Dent and makes him both likable, and tragic; Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman continue to be perfect in the supporting roles of Alfred and Lucius Fox; Gary Oldman is subtly brilliant as the determinedly righteous Officer Gordon; and Maggie Gyllenhaal brings a nice spark to the role of Rachel Dawes. Yes. She sure does. I know what you’re thinking: this is all just filler talk. Yup. You busted me. Because as good as these actors are in the film—and I meant it when I said there were no weak links—they pale in comparison to the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. It is already becoming something of a cliché to praise Ledger’s performance, but the truth simply can’t be understated: Ledger’s Joker ranks among the best movie villains of all time. He’s flat-out mesmerizing, and it will be a stinging disappointment if he doesn’t posthumously receive the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It’s strange to admit, but I found myself being increasingly lured into enjoying his sick psychosis.
Anchored by the maniacal Joker, the tone of the film is relentlessly dark. That’s not to say there isn’t humor. But it comes in unsettling forms: Alfred’s dry witticisms of the harsh times, the passively bitter exchanges between Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent, and most especially, the sinister musings of the Joker. Yes, the Joker is funny, but it’s definitely in the how-can-someone-be-so-evil-and-so-charismatic-at-the-same-time category of humor.
The Joker never breaks the forth wall, but he might as well; his mockery of humanity’s goodness strikes us with uncommon force because indeed we fear that he might very well be right. As the Joker puts it, “People are only as good as the world lets them be.”
That’s really the theme of the movie, this question being asked again and again: What happens to good when it is confronted by evil? Which is stronger? Even as he is terrorizing the hapless citizen of Gotham and challenging Batman to rise to the occasion, it is as if the Joker is actually looking at us—his audience—and demanding that we answer. When you are confronted by evil—and the movie promises that we will be—how will you respond? It is a haunting question, and not one easily shrugged aside. For it is one thing to denounce evil when it is locked in the realm of fiction; it is quite another to stand against it when it is manifested in its most terrifying and seductive forms in our actual lives.
Four stars out of four.
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace
Runtime: 2 hrs 32 mins
Joel is captivated by good stories; the Bible, movies, novels, and the flesh and blood stories being told in people’s lives every day–God communicates powerfully through stories.