Do Go Gentle into this 'Dark Knight'

It might be the best superhero film ever made.

By Steve Burgess 18 Jul 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about film twice a month on The Tyee.

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Heath Ledger eclipses even Jack Nicholson's Joker.

Hollywood has passed through the silent era, the film noir era, and the golden age of the western. It seems we are now living through the era of the comic book movie -- although, in order for it to officially qualify as an era, they'll have to stop making them at some point. The release of Batman: The Dark Knight will do nothing to finish the genre off. In fact, though this era lasts a thousand films, audiences may say that this was its finest two hours and 22 minutes. The Dark Knight is arguably the most successful, most artistically satisfying superhero movie ever made.

Following 2005's Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan is back with another episode of the most recent Caped Crusader incarnation, starring Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne's alter ego. The franchise ought to be a very bleached old teabag by now. After all, it was Tim Burton's 1989 Batman that kick-started the modern superhero movie to begin with, in the process giving it a darker cast than the earlier Superman series. But popular and visually arresting as they were, Burton's Batman flicks were ultimately disjointed and disappointing, paving the way for the Joel Schumacher abominations that still mark the nadir of the genre (and George Clooney's career). Batman Begins was a solid restart for the character. Even so, there was something rather clinical and unengaging about Nolan's opening chapter. Exposition can be tedious, and humanizing superheroes is no easy trick.

Whatever mysterious human alchemy was missing from Batman Begins, The Dark Knight captures in spades, thanks in large part to screenwriters David Goyer and Jonathan Nolan (the director's brother). They have created a believable Gotham City in which crime and vigilantism are both rampant -- the appearance of Batman has inevitably led to a profusion of idiots in Batman costumes attempting to emulate their hero. But The Dark Knight works as well as it does by shifting the focus away from Batman to the supporting cast. With the origin story out of the way, Batman is free to function as the dark background for the movie's colourful cast of characters.

It's the villains that make a comic book work. The two on display in The Dark Knight are compelling for completely different reasons.

Good bad guys

First of course, there is Heath Ledger as the Joker. His performance has been hyped, pardon me, to death -- director Terry Gilliam is now excoriating Warner Brothers for the alleged crime of exploiting, for promotional purposes, Ledger's tragic passing. That may be true. But Ledger's performance at least justifies the buzz. Imagine the pressure of reinventing the character Jack Nicholson made his own. But like all great performances, Ledger's creation makes other versions seem irrelevant.

The Clown Prince of 2008 is no joke. Nicholson's flamboyant Joker made sense for Burton's surreal universe -- in that kind of comic book landscape, you're not supposed to wonder how many hours a super villain spends in the makeup chair. This time around the Joker's clumsy makeup lets the skin show through. Like Hannibal Lector, the Joker is a stone-cold psychopath blessed with frightening clarity of vision and terrifying certainty of purpose -- even though his purpose happens to be nothing more than generating chaos.

Great as Ledger's performance is, the success of The Dark Knight is equally dependent on the dramatic arc of Villain #2 -- Two-Face, a.k.a. Harvey Dent. Aaron Eckhart plays Dent, a crusading prosecutor out to tackle the local mob as well as Bruce Wayne's girlfriend, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, an upgrade on Katie Holmes). Unlike Batman, the ambitious Dent works the legal side of the street -- until circumstances and a certain Mr. Joker lead him to cross over. While the Joker follows the great Shakespearean tradition of characters simply determined to be villains, Dent's path must be different. He must make a believable journey from light to dark not because of some innate cartoon-ish villainy, but because of ambition and righteous anger transformed into rage. It's a rare thing for a comic book movie to acknowledge that the road to evil is paved with good intentions. And although it would be a stretch to say that any Batman movie offers a cautionary tale about vigilantism, at least The Dark Knight looks at the issue in unblinking fashion.

Ultimate Joker

Dark though the movie is, I would have preferred it to go a little darker still. An extra fillip of cynicism toward the finish could have resulted in an undeniable masterpiece. And inevitably there were plot elements that whizzed past a little too quickly for comprehension, probably for good reason. Not everything here withstands scrutiny. But Nolan manages the key trick of hiding the implausibilities in unobtrusive places. The Dark Knight manages to weave an unbroken spell -- at least until you find yourself looking at Heath Ledger and drifting into contemplation of Fate's cruelty.

Will the Joker reappear in future Batman flicks? Hard to imagine any actor having the stones to fill those clown shoes. It always seemed like Tim Burton made a tactical mistake by killing off Nicholson at the end of the 1989 film. What a cruel joke that this time around some other author wrote the same ending.

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