Friday, July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight

“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Christian Bale returns to the role of Bruce Wayne, and his pointy-eared alter-ego Batman. The sequel takes place months after the end of Batman Begins. Batman and Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) have been busy squeezing the Gotham mob, and with the help of the golden-haired District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), they hope to make real changes in Gotham.

However, there’s a new player in town. A psychotic mystery man named the Joker (Heath Ledger) who, after robbing them blind, offers his services to Gotham’s crime families to kill the Batman.

There’s so much to discuss. And I haven’t even mentioned the love triangle between Bruce, Harvey and Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over the role Katie Holmes played in Batman Begins) or the in-fighting among the mob, or the cops on the take. Whew! The film is a bit long at 152 minutes, however it’s also chocked-full of plot; there’s barely a wasted moment. This is the Batman movie fans have been clamouring for. I’m betting good money that more than one fanboy will wet himself.

And there’s much that co-writer and director Christopher Nolan and company do worth praising. First, the costume is updated from the one used in Batman Begins. Although still a bit too armored for my tastes, especially around the arms, it does flow better and gives Bale a much more movement. Not to mention making it more plausible he could skulk about in the shadows of the city.

Even more than the first film, this one borrows from Batman: The Long Halloween (read that review) and I love how much time passes before Batman comes in contact with the Joker or Dent is gruesomely transformed. The film is patient enough to build the characters and still smart enough not to give everything away too soon.

Bale has really grown into the role of Bruce Wayne, both the public persona and the troubled man behind the cowl. Though, for some reason, his Batman voice has become a bit more gruff. There are times when he barks at the baddies I wondered why they didn’t raise their hands and ask for him to speak more clearly.

Now, about those villains. Heath Ledger’s Joker is terrific. I’d like him to have a bit more of the whimsy, but he’s certainly got the homicidal parts of the clown down cold (though his insanity seems to come and go as called for by the plot). I also have to applaud Nolan for not forcing a mediocre origin tale on use for the character (like Batman) and instead letting this unfathomable character remain, well, unfathomable. Over the course of the film the character himself gives conflicting stories about his past which only further muddy the waters.

As good as Ledger’s Joker is at acting creepy and munching scenery, Aaron Eckhart is even better as Harvey Dent, especially after his transformation into Two-Face. And the effects used on the character will make you instantly forget the Tommy Lee Jones version from Batman Forever. As Dent Eckhart is earnest, honest, funny, brave, and everything you’d want a hero of Gotham to be. Which means his fall from grace and actions taken after his disfigurement are that much more meaningful.

I was lucky enough to view the IMAX version of the film, which I recommend. At first the jumps from the regular footage to the IMAX footage may seem a bit distracting (the regular shot footage doesn’t take up the entire IMAX screen) but the story is engossing enough and the effects are so good, that you soon just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Although I enjoyed myself, there are still a few nagging issues here. As much as some fans will praise it, this isn’t a perfect Batman film. Once again Batman is a bit of a dummy. It’s Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) who develops the technology necessary to catch the Joker. It’s Alfred (Michael Caine) who makes obvious remarks about his new adversary which put Batman back on the right track. It’s “The Dark Night Detective.” The missing word makes all the difference. Still, two movies into the franchise, the character has shown none of the legendary bat-detective skills so inherent in the character’s make-up. If Michael Keaton and Adam West can get it right, what’s the problem?

He’s not even smarter than the guy in make-up! It’s the Joker, not Batman who’s in control here. I don’t mind this as the Joker’s unpredictability should give him an advantage, but Nolan decides not so much to make the Joker crazier and more unpredictable than Batman, but smarter than the Dark Knight. And, I must say his intricate plans require a huge amount of set-up time and rely on others all to make one of possibly many decisions for his plans to succeed. Yes, the pay-offs are cool, but often unlikely as well.

There’s also the BatPod, which, don’t get me wrong, is cool (even if we have to see it drive-up a wall in one of the film’s few groan-worthy moments), but if feels a bit like the door to the merchandising department taking over the franchise has been opened. This is a slippery slope that, along with Joel Schumacher, killed the franchise for a decade, and needs to be watched carefully. Just because you can clutter a film with cool toys doesn’t mean you should.

Finally, Nolan also makes a Tim Burton mistake with a choice coming late in the film. Although I won’t give away what happens (and I’m not talking about the final scene, but the actions which cause it) limits future use of a character that plays well on screen when it isn’t really necesary (or a good idea).

The year of the comic book movie continues. Although I still have issues with this film, it’s a big improvement over Batman Begins. Nolan and his team have learned from some of their mistakes and have raised the bar with this second entry. Even with my quibbles it’s an easy recommendation and at least as good a comic book film as Iron Man (read that review) from earlier this year. The film is packed with effects, performances, stunts, new Bat-gadgets, and more, which should send most fanboys home deliriously happy.

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