Comic book movies are all grow’d up and, boy, are they gloomy. Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to his brilliant Batman Begins goes beyond its predecessor and gives us a rich, multi-layered story with one of the more original takes on the comic book villain I can remember. With the creative success of this movie, we can officially write off the Tim Burton Batmans as an unfortunate detour (and the Joel Schumacher films as a large pothole in that detour).
Despite the press that the late Heath Ledger got for his role, it’s really Aaron Eckhart as District Attorney Harvey Dent who carves out the most complex and fully realized character in this story. He’s an incorruptible prosecutor who’s taken the fight to the mob and really cleaned up the streets of Gotham City. In short, he’s just the sort of hero that Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) hoped Batman would inspire. The catch is that he’s also dating Bruce’s old girlfriend, Rachel (a welcome Maggie Gyllenhaal stepping in for Katie Holmes). So Bruce has to find a way to tolerate the guy who’s publicly Batman’s biggest ally despite personally disliking him.
Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) has to learn to trust Dent, too, since the prosecutor was once an equally zealous member of the Gotham PD’s internal affairs division who targeted members of Gordon’s own squad. At stake is the secrecy of Gordon’s private “arrangement” with Batman.
At the moment, the mob has bigger problems than a prosecutor and a cop, namely some clown who’s been robbing them blind. This anonymous, disfigured sociopath has a proposal for them to get it back. Get rid of Batman. Squeezed between Batman, Dent and Gordon, Gotham’s criminal element is just desperate enough to take the Joker up on his offer.
Eckhart expertly walks a fine line, making Dent sympathetic enough to engage our rooting interest but just smarmy enough to hope, at least at first, that Bruce Wayne knocks him on his ass. Of course, fans of the Batman mythos know that Harvey has a major life-changing experience in his future (more than a few, in this movie). When that happens, Nolan and Eckhart combine to make his turn to the dark side of Gotham both believable and tragic.
As the Joker, Heath Ledger’s performance is a fearless and indelible portrait of sociopathic nihilism. It may not have much to do with the Joker either of the movies or the comic books, but Ledger manages to create almost palpable uneasiness every time he’s on screen.
This film breaks with established comic tradition by not bothering with any kind of origin story for the Joker. When he does reveal something about his past, it turns out to be just a story he made up to terrorize his victims. A little like his spiritual cousin, Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs, he’s used sparingly, much to the benefit of the movie. This movie is not about who he is but how decent people like Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon react to someone so far outside of society’s most basic rules.
It could be said that Batman is almost a guest in his own movie, but again, Batman works best as a shadowy figure. Bring him too far into the light and risk shedding everything that makes him effective, both within the story and as a character. Like his chaotic doppelganger, Batman is more about how people react to someone who acts outside the normal rule of law and about how Bruce Wayne balances his dark alter ego. The Dark Knight seems to sometimes borrow thematically from Frank Miller’s classic graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns.
It’s a damn shame that Ledger’s death means they won’t be able to continue the Joker’s story. It’s clear from the ending of this film that Nolan meant to pick up the threads in the next movie, but I think an actor would have to be foolishly presumptuous to step into Ledger’s shoes in this case.
It’s worth noting that this movie is definitely not for little kids. Its length will make them fidgety, the talky parts will bore them and Joker and Two-Face will combine to give them nightmares. For the rest of us, The Dark Knight is an epic comic book movie that adults can openly discuss with enthusiasm and still get a date on the weekend.