Director Christopher Nolan made his name with Memento (2000), a gorgeous puzzle of a movie you have to see more than once to know what the hell happened. For somewhat different reasons, the same could be said of Nolan’s second Batman movie, The Dark Knight. It’s the Wagner’s Ring Cycle of superhero flicks — just as operatic and overblown, just as heavy-handed and myth-laden, just as apocalyptic and genuinely absorbing. The thing is, Nolan has squeezed enough material for a saga into two and a half hours. The action moves insanely fast, the exposition is breathless, and the big setpieces practically tread on each other’s heels. Down time doesn’t exist in this film.
Batman Begins (2005) was an effort to reboot the DC Comics movie franchise that descended into camp in the 1990s with duds like Batman & Robin. Christian Bale’s Batman is moody and martial-arts-trained, and Nolan’s Gotham City is gritty and Mob-dominated. Gone are the twisted humor and oddball production design of Tim Burton. Still, in their different ways, both Burton and Nolan did their damnedest to erase memories of the Adam West TV series and make Batman’s suit and gear seem less, well, silly. Neither completely succeeded: Either you accept the idea of a crime-fighting billionaire playboy who chooses to dress like a bat, or you don’t.
Inspired by Frank Miller’s ground-breaking Return of the Dark Knight comics, Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan make Batman a noir hero walking a thin line between justice and vigilantism. Despite a secret collaboration with police Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldham), the Caped One is always a potential threat to the civil society he’s sworn to protect. At the same time, because he gives himself “rules” — as the Joker sardonically points out — he’s at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the bad guys, who don’t mind causing collateral damage.
They may even want to. The genius of The Dark Knight is in presenting the Joker, the primary antagonist, as a terrorist without a cause. Basically, there are two plots here. The more traditional storyline involves intrepid new district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who wants to smash Gotham’s crime organizations and reluctantly accepts Batman’s help. Then there’s the pure force of chaos that Heath Ledger’s Joker represents, whether he’s teaming up with the criminals or dispatching them in creatively gruesome ways. He’s a free agent, fond of mind games, and seems to be able to wire just about anything to explode just about anywhere.
Cynics may be forgiven for wondering if critics would already be proposing an Oscar for Ledger if the late actor were still with us. True, people don’t often get Academy-anointed for bringing to life an unholy cross between Keyser Söze, Crispin Glover and Sid Vicious — but they should. Ledger is the movie’s motor. For all his smeared makeup, nasal lisp and spastic gait, he still has enough animal vitality to make Batman look like a whiny putz.
That’s ironic, considering talented Bale is the screen’s original American Psycho. But if the summer has taught us anything, it’s that a superhero with a “dark side” is our new cliché. After arms dealer Tony Stark, soused Hancock, anarchically raging Hulk and the sadists in Wanted, Bruce Wayne actually looks like a Boy Scout. He ends up being far less interesting than Eckhart’s character, even if the script’s central conceit — that Batman is tempted to pass his cape to the “white knight” D.A. — doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. Eckhart specializes in playing golden boys who have weathered into assholes, and you can almost hear him breathe a sigh of relief as his Eliot Ness-type character starts soaking up the surrounding corruption.
The difference between The Dark Knight and the summer’s crop of other superhero movies could be summed up thus: Innocent people die. Often. In between beautifully orchestrated scenes of movie mayhem, we see urban war-zone sequences that evoke uncomfortable memories of real terrorism. It’s not a movie for kids; it’s an overheated crime melodrama on adult themes. Still, this is one sprawling mess that’s probably worth watching twice.