In “Batman Begins,” the first installment of Christopher Nolan’s superhero trilogy, Bruce Wayne is put under a microscope. Nolan went to great lengths to show what makes Wayne tick, and more importantly, how his dogmatic personality translates to becoming a symbol for justice. It’s, reduced, not much more than a character study, but it worked with Nolan’s fabulous film noir take, Christian Bale’s step onto acting’s A-list, and just enough controlled performances from actors that could, and have, been the lead in other movies.
However, we find out now that is was little more than a foundation, enough of a necessary understanding to allow us to delve much deeper. “The Dark Knight”, quickly crashing every box office record known to man as it hunts down “Titanic” for ultimate box office supremacy, pulls out a far larger microscope. No longer do we leave Gotham City for half the movie — we leave it, but only as a quick aside — because this is a movie about Gotham City. What does it say about a town that allows a masked man to become their vigilante for justice?
One thing that it allows, as we see, is for a masked juxtaposition. Just as the mob has begun to become scared by the Batman’s light in the sky, a new “class of criminal” arrives in town that is unafraid of everyone and everything. The Joker’s first course of action is to steal $70 million from the mob, but it’s only done to turn their heads. HIs true destiny is against Batman, as a symbol for justice meets an “agent of chaos.”
The Joker is a character that, for his own ridiculousness, is pretty smart. He claims to be a spontaneous criminal, but doesn’t give himself enough credit, as we never see a plan that isn’t well-thought out and designed to turn things on his head. Against Batman, he uses everything Batman stands for against him. The vow not to kill? Against Joker’s hunger to kill, it’s truly an “irresistible force meeting an immovable object.” His mask? Joker calls for it to go off, and the movie is set into motion by his vow to kill until the human beneath Batman’s armor is revealed.
Throughout the movie, there is one “ace in the hole,” that has an effect on this battle between good and evil. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham’s new D.A., is Gotham’s white knight. Wayne develops a great deal of respect for Dent, who is unafraid taking down the entire mob at once, unafraid showing his own face. It Batman is a symbol, Dent becomes a face.
And then, on the flip of a coin, he becomes Two-Face. In a series of events that leaves Dent on a vengeance quest, and he flips, becoming Nolan’s No. 2 villain and giving the Joker what he wants — to show the line between good and evil can be crossed by anyone. The film is about, no less, whether or not Gotham City is a town that can believe in the good of people. Bruce Wayne and Batman believe that it can be, that it is, and the Joker believes it’s a desolate environment where everything is headed South.
As much as it’s a story about Batman, it might be more a story about The Joker. Unlike Tim Burton’s “Batman”, Nolan gives us no explanation, just hints, at the Joker’s backstory. His insanity is unchanged, which offers Heath Ledger a chance at controlled consistency in an unstable role. Ledger shines in every scene, so much so that he actually outshines everyone else in the movie. Short of Daniel Plainview, it’s probably the best performance of the decade, and almost certainly the best supporting role. Ledger’s humor, juxtaposing his actions, give such life to a character that is so fictional.
My criticism of “The Dark Knight,” which borders on my only criticism after a second viewing, is that the Nolan Brothers screenplay in ways throws the baby out with the “Batman Begins” bath water, and to mix metaphors, throws Bale under the bus in doing so. Title be damned, this is not a story about Batman, and it’s not a story at all about Bruce Wayne. Bale is given nary an opportunity to react emotionally, to show us that underneath the suit lies an actor with some pretty good acting chops.
Per usual, Nolan handles the rest of his supporting cast with a watchful eye. Eckhart is brilliant as Harvey Dent — for which his role in “Thank You For Smoking” was an interesting precursor — and okay as Two-Face. Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman continue to show great selflessness in reprising their small roles, but Caine is such a good Alfred, I can’t imagine we ever saw the butler as someone different. The lone issue most have is with Maggie Gyllenhaal, who just seems an awkward fit; her fire just comes off different from Katie Holmes.
However, the beauty of this movie is the combination of blockbuster and film noir. The movie will almost certainly win an Oscar in sound editing or mixing, in art direction or because of The Joker’s make-up. However, Nolan has veered from cheesy at every take in this series, and it never feels like it belongs in the superhero genre. Nolan goes after his characrers mercifully, showing us motivations and weaknesses, and showing us that every town has an underbelly. It might not be led by capes, face paint or the Mob, but it’s there, and it’s up to the good to repel it.
With “Batman Begins,” Nolan built himself a foundation. With “The Dark Knight,” Nolan’s interest in this series was truly unveiled, and thanks to Ledger, Nolan’s scope doesn’t feel too big, even if it might be.
WHAP Rating: 4.5/5.0