Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is a nearly perfect superhero film. The superhero, Batman, evolves from the last film and comes to personal realizations about himself. The underworld Batman combats becomes more dangerous out of desperation from his crime fighting, spawning an incomprehensible villain and a would-be example of bravery in the face of adversity.
The Dark Knight, like most sequels buttressed by a larger production budget, begins in aggrandized fashion with a lavishly shot (they used IMAX cameras) bank robbery. This is not your ordinary bank robbery however, which should come as no surprise when the mind that created it is revealed. The bank robbed is no ordinary bank either, it’s a mob bank. The bank robbery was orchestrated to bring its architect to the attention of all the mob bosses in Gotham City. That architect is none other than The Joker (Heath Ledger).
Dealing with the bank robbery and its repercussions are Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Dent has recently won the election to become Gotham City’s new District Attorney with the campaign slogan: I Believe in Harvey Dent. By the mid-point of The Dark Knight, it’s clear that a large portion of Gotham City believes in Harvey Dent, including Bruce Wayne. Wayne longs to be with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, formerly played by Katie Holmes) and not only sees Dent as Gotham’s legitimate savoir but as a means for him to stop being Batman and require Dawes for himself. As in all good and note-worthy romantic dramas, things don’t go as planned. This is also one of The Dark Knight’s strengths. As The Joker says in the film: “It’s all part of the plan.”
The Joker is the most exciting element of The Dark Knight. The viewer is always waiting for him to do something or say something as only he can. This is the mercurial Joker that has, up to this point, only existed in Batman comic books: a lethal sociopath and master criminal. Who else could do a magic trick with a pencil, making it disappear with such panache and flash? And this Joker is a great story teller as well, always regaling those he gets close to about the tale of how he acquired his facial scars. His oratory technique is very intense, imbuing the listener with trepidation and in specific cases, pain.
Harvey Dent, who initially seems to not have a substantial role in The Dark Knight, turns out to be one of the most important characters in the film. Because of a litigious investigation Dent conducted before the events in The Dark Knight as a member of the Internal Affairs Department, Dent suspects something about Gordon’s unit that turns out to be absolutely true. This lack in judgment on Gordon’s part costs the facund Dent greatly, both emotionally and physically. Eckhart really sells Dent and what he is going through. The audience clearly sees Dent’s point of view unlike The Joker’s and his need for anarchy.
Bruce Wayne, on the opposite end of the spectrum, is showing the physical wear of his nightly occupation as Gotham’s Dark Knight. Most of the adversaries he has faced in the past he knew how to deal with. When The Joker arrives in Gotham, Batman finds himself in a few predicaments. How do you stop someone like The Joker without taking his life? How do you intimidate the criminals of Gotham City when they are more afraid of The Joker and his retribution than yours? The resolutions to these quandaries are more reasons why The Dark Knight stands out from other comic book-based films.
The human element, toyed with and poked at in Spiderman 1 and 2, is brought to bear fully in The Dark Knight. The situation has to do with sacrificing someone else’s life to save yourself and how far you would go to live. It is scripted and acted with sincerity, doesn’t seem artificial but authentic, making the scene all that more powerful and real. It is one of the most finely written scenes in The Dark Knight and most-likely is the cause of the early, positive buzz the film garnered. That and Ledger’s performance, his best to date and sadly his last, much like Brandon Lee’s in The Crow.
I did find that the pace of Batman Begins was better than The Dark Knight’s and that the hand-to-hand combat scenes were more effectively in the latter film as well. In Begins, Batman took down adversaries quickly, stealthy, in The Dark Knight he fights out in the open and the fights have been slowed down. Maybe this was in response to viewers not actually seeing every blow Batman delivered in Batman Begins and voicing their opinions on the fact three years ago.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is not as great a sequel as Aliens or The Godfather 2 nor is it the best superhero movie sequel since I believe X-Men 2 is a tighter film, with a better score that one-up’s its predecessor in almost every area. The Dark Knight fails do that. What The Dark Knight does do is raise the bar for superhero films, as Iron Man did earlier this summer. The Dark Knight’s greatness lies in the fact that it gives the viewer what they were not expecting. The Dark Knight surprises viewers that have “seen it all before.” Humanity and human life are what most super-heroes strive to preserve at all costs. In The Dark Knight, humanity acts on its own behalf and saves itself.