(Mild spoiler alert – as if anyone who wanted to see the movie hasn’t already seen it)
Batman and I go back a long, long way. My first introduction to him was the Adam West/Burt Ward television series, and I was young and dumb enough not to know that they were playing it for camp. I really thought Batman was in peril at the end of the first part of all those two-parters, and would rejoice when a few “POW” and “WHAP” fights would set the universe back on its course and return Gotham City to a period of relative peace. Until the next bad guy/gal came along.
In those days, I was also a collector of Batman trading cards. They were sold in bubble gum packs, just like Topps baseball cards, and each card depicted a piece of a story – a typical story would be comprised of several dozen cards, so you had to buy a lot of lousy gum to get the complete set. But each card was like a little storyboard, and since there were usually two or three stories going on at any given time, you could set all of your cards in front of you, put them in a particular order, and create your own little stories. That was usually more fun than just going along with the story that they had written for you.
Batman’s image as haunted dark knight of vengeance was rehabilitated a bit in the 1970s, thanks primarily to Dennis O’Neill, a talented writer for DC Comics who also spent some time during that decade reinvigorating DC’s other top franchise, Superman. O’Neill doesn’t get as much ink as some of the other great comic writers that came after him, but he deserves a lot of credit for setting both characters down a path that would ultimately result in series of films which have made billions of dollars.
What really pushed Batman back into the zeitgeist was The Dark Knight Returns, the 1986 four-part graphic novel by Frank Miller which set new standards for the darkness and violence surrounding the character, while maintaining Batman’s humanity through his discovery and nurturing of a new Robin character (this time, a young girl). After Dark Knight, the number of Batman books exploded, and it was a veritable feast for those who had longed for his return to the spotlight. Alan Moore, author of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and other famous books, contributed a story that was one of the best, The Killing Joke – featuring, of course, Batman’s best foil, The Joker.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the Batman franchise of movies which began in 1989. They haven’t aged particularly well, though there are great moments in each, with the exception of Batman and Robin, the abomination which featured what were probably the worst performances ever from George Clooney, Uma Thurman, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The first two movies were pretty good, though after years of reflection they were probably less about Batman than they were about Tim Burton - a talented director who has made great movies but was probably a bad choice for Batman. Michael Keaton was good, Jack Nicholson less so as Joker, and the rest was hit-and-miss.
At the time of its release, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins was the best Batman movie ever made. It took the character seriously, and established a strong back-story for what was to come. But even that movie could not possibly have prepared Batman fans for what was to come.
Which brings us to the second entry in the Christopher Nolan Batman franchise, The Dark Knight. As anyone with access to a newspaper or the Internet knows, the movie has been enormously popular, has generated critical raves, and has inspired an enormous amount of debate, both good-natured and otherwise.
What do I think?
To say that The Dark Knight is the best Batman film ever made is to state the obvious. Even saying that it is the best comic-book movie ever made doesn’t do it justice. As far as I’m concerned, The Dark Knight merits consideration as one of the greatest movies made in my lifetime. True, I was prepared to love the movie, but even I was surprised at how captivated I was throughout. It is the first time since Moulin Rouge, and before that Pulp Fiction, where I felt completely immersed in a movie, where what was happening on the screen pushed out all other thoughts and considerations from my mind. It is the movie that the character has always deserved, and it is the movie by which all others based on comic books that follow it will be judged.
“Sometimes, truth isn't good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.”
Make no bones about it, this is a dark, dark movie. It is a troubling movie. It is not a movie with a lot of laughs in it, aside from the nervous ones that follow a scene where you’re just happy that things didn’t turn out quite as badly as they might have. This is not a movie for anyone under the age of 10, and perhaps even older than that. As did Batman Begins, The Dark Knight takes seriously the world that we live in, and the darkness which fuels the actions of the Batman. It presents moral choices and moral dilemmas – suggesting at one point that blind vengeance may be the only solution to the problems ailing Gotham City (standing in for the world), and later that blind vengeance only results in the very things that the vengeance-driven actions of the Batman are designed to rid the city of. It explores the concept of heroism, and what constitutes a hero. The conclusion that the film reaches – that Batman can only be effective if he is not held up as a public hero – fuels the tragic nature of the character. There is no place for love and gratitude in the world of the Batman.
“You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn't fully understand.”
The performances are stellar. Maggie Gyllenhaal is an enormous improvement over Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, the would-be love of Bruce Wayne’s life. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are predictably great. Gary Oldman has been criticized for mumbling through the role of Commissioner Gordon, but I don’t agree – his understated performance is what establishes Gordon as the moral center of Gotham City, in quiet contrast to the confidence and bluster of Harvey Dent, perfectly portrayed by Aaron Eckhart.
“I took Gotham's white knight, and brought him down to our level. It wasn't hard. Y'see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little...push.”
But the film boils down to Christian Bale and Heath Ledger. Bale is the perfect Batman, easily surpassing those who preceded him in the role (only Michael Keaton came close). But even Bale’s performance is eclipsed by the performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker. You can count me as one of those who was skeptical when it was announced that Ledger had been tabbed to play the Joker. But Ledger is magnificent. Every move he makes on the screen, every word that comes out of his mouth, is harrowing and terrifying. It is a performance for the ages, and a fitting testament to a career cut tragically short.
“Do I really look like a man with a plan, Harvey? I don't have a plan. The mob has plans, the cops have plans. You know what I am, Harvey? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do if I caught one. I just *do* things. I'm a wrench in the gears. I *hate* plans. Yours, theirs, everyone's.”
I don’t know if Nolan plans to continue on with the franchise, but it is hard to imagine how he will ever top The Dark Knight. I’ll be happy if he manages to come close.
“...and so we'll hunt him, because he can take it.”