If you are reading this, you have the ability to communicate with the outside world, which means you are aware of The Dark Knight, the latest Batman movie, easily the most anticipated film of the year. It will boast staggering opening weekend sales and the critical reviews are the only things more inflated than the numbers. It certainly would be hard for any film to live up to hype such as this film is garnering, but, following the path laid out for it by its predecessor, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight certainly has every opportunity.
They say anticipation is sometimes better than fulfillment. Batman Begins was so good, left such a lasting impression on me, perhaps exactly because it was so unexpected. After almost two decades of cartoonish (literally) Batman movies, we were given a serious, moody, philosophical and deep interpretation of our hero, one that could creep into our dreams instead of grin on our lunchboxes. Batman Begins set us up with our character’s beginnings, established his motives and set the perfect prequel to what certainly will be a long line of films where he will be fighting the villains that plague Gotham City. Naturally, when the first of these films comes along, The Dark Knight, it is goosebump-city. No more set-up. No more character establishment. Let’s just get to the good stuff. Let’s see our good guy fight the bad guys.
But that’s what’s so great about Batman. He’s more complicated than that. To call him a reluctant superhero would be putting it mildly. Spider-Man has low self-esteem and just wants to be loved. Superman is an alien with a superiority complex. Batman, however, feels obligated. He’s guilty, he’s vengeful, he’s bitter. He has issues. So, his personal journey, his character development, if you will, continues to be a focal point throughout, which makes this franchise so potent, so un-cartoony. Story and script are crucial pieces and The Dark Knight does not disappoint. Penned by director Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan, with story by David S. Goyer, The Dark Knight establishes Gotham’s newest District Attorney, Harvey Dent, played by Aaron Eckhart, as an idealistic (un-masked) crime-fighter, and Batman’s optimistic hope for the future. Almost like Michael Corleone hoping he can make the Family legitimate, Batman desperately wants to put his mask away and return the law-enforcing to the people, but only if he knows and trusts it can be done in a way he can believe in. But there is always the crux of it for Batman—what can he ever believe in—or trust? Dent and Batman join forces to fight the Mob and a unique criminal plaguing the city in the form of a clown-faced bank robber known as The Joker. This Joker takes a particular interest in Batman and his attempts to draw him out, physically and emotionally, make for riveting theatre as the film pits villain versus hero in a wild ride of stunts, mind games and story twists.
For the most part, The Dark Knight lives up to Batman Begins’ high standard. The story is excellent, the script is even better, filled with nuances and themes that resonate throughout, layered with complexities that keep your mind occupied for days. The stunts are eye-popping and mind-blowing (although some poor editing had me lost during a key chase sequence). And the acting—except for Maggie Gyllenhaal, who, sadly, doesn’t do anything with the bad dialogue she is given—is exceptional, but who wouldn’t expect that from the likes of Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Eckhart, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman. And the score is vibrant and feels like another living, breathing thing, courtesy of the ever-amazing Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.
So, all that being said….. why did I feel disappointed? What was missing?
Gotham City was missing.
In every Batman movie, Gotham is a character. You can feel the city, the grime and the grit at its core. The city has always been the centerpiece, and every shot was filled with its angles, its dark crevices, its ghosts and its haunting spirit—or lack thereof. When you lose Gotham, you lose the soul of the film. This film was shot in Chicago, and, unfortunately, you KNEW it. There was too much realism and it took you out of the world of the film. In my mind, Gotham has to feel abstract, has to feel like, well, Gotham—that place we don’t know, we don’t live in, that place that lives in comic books. In Batman Begins, and even in each of the previous Batman movies, Gotham was a character, but in The Dark Knight, Gotham is gone. Here, it’s just a city, and with that, there is no soul. It’s amazing what a difference that made for me. Even with everything else working, I wasn’t taken into the world of the film. And that makes all the difference.
Still, it is hard to say that this film has no soul because the heart, soul and spirit of this film is in Heath Ledger and his indelible, transcendent and electrifying performance as The Joker. When everything has been said and written about this film, when all the money has been counted and the box office records have been broken, when all the hype has calmed down and the masses have moved onto the next blockbuster, this performance will still live on. Ledger’s deliverance of The Joker is at once casual and carnivorous, forceful and flighty, edgy and loose. He pushes the edges of every envelope but never goes too far on anything, drawing you in and leaving you almost literally breathless. From his first moments on screen, you are riveted, as he delivers a masterful performance, of body and of speech, that I easily can say is one of the most captivating performances I have ever seen on screen. If there is no other reason to see The Dark Knight, this is it.
To be honest, you probably already know whether you want to stand in line to see this film or not. If it weren’t for Ledger’s performance, I would say you could wait for DVD. But his indelible, once-in-a-generation performance, combined with the truly above-average script, acting and stunts more than make up for the lack of atmosphere, cinematography and setting that I crave in these films. Bottom line: is it worth the hype and worth the wait? The Joker’s on us.