RECAP: The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight (2008): Christopher Nolan

Batman Begins, the 2005 restart for Warner Brothers, was a modest success at the box office, where it grossed about $200 million, good enough for eighth place that year. The critics liked it, and so did fans. Rotten Tomatoes scored it at 85%. Fans voted it at 110 on IMDb’s Top 250 list. A good movie, possibly a very good movie, and iconic at least for giving the world “Batman voice.”

Did Warner Brothers know? Did Nolan know? Did Bale know? The sequel to BeginsThe Dark Knight, was an absolute sensation: 94% on RT, #4 on IMDb, #5 on the all-time domestic box office chart (67% more gross than that year’s #2 grosser: Iron Man), eight Oscar nominations and two wins. Knight swooped in like Batman and nearly choked us like we were The Joker to make us take notice: Nolan and company screamed that their Batman was not a Michael Schumacher Batman. The movie succeeded so well that many commenters credit it with fostering the expansion of the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards.

I saw The Dark Knight four times in theaters, and I can still remember three of those events, including my first date with my future wife. Awww.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Bruce Wayne is in full-fledged Batman mode while battling his most dangerous foe, The Yoker, I mean, The Joker.

Hero (7/10)

Bruce Wayne might be America’s most widely portrayed character. Ben Affleck and Will Arnett have played him in this century alone. We’ve seen him as child and an adult in multiple projects. He’s appeared in multiple TV shows and movies, both cartoons and live action. In short, we know much about Bruce Wayne. Or do we?

Christian Bale assumes the hero’s mantle in the Nolan trilogy, and in The Dark Knight he’s at his best. Wayne is unsure of himself and his place in the world. He spends days and nights and millions of dollars maintaining a playboy image, because if anyone finds out he’s Batman, well, who knows what will happen, but it will likely be bad. What is bad is that The Joker (Heath Ledger) is trying to get Batman to unmask himself, just because it will be fun.

Two iconic adversaries

Wayne serves the police. When a Mobster banker named Lau (Chin Han) flees Gotham for his native Hong Kong, Wayne flies there (after concocting a cover story) and extracts Lau from his heavily secured tower in a terrific abduction sequence. Only Batman can do this, and Wayne feels no qualms about it. He does feel that a time is coming when he can take off the mask permanently. Wayne believes his extralegal acts are acceptable in extraordinary times, like his present moment, as if Gotham were under martial law.

The main foe, The Joker, presents an unsolvable solution for Batman. He’s figured out Batman’s one rule (a rule never stated, only inferred), and he’s going to have to break it if he wants to save a few lives. Wayne quickly learns that The Joker cannot defeat Batman, but he can defeat the IDEA of Batman.

Therein lies Bruce Wayne’s most heroic act. He destroys Batman, “because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now,” as Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) says. The Joker literally destroyed part of Gotham’s best prosecutor Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and Batman destroys Dent to cover up Dent’s transformation from DA hero to Two Face.

Bale disappears into the role, unlike his many stints working with David O. Russell, in which I never get beyond the Bale-ness of the character he portrays. He plays Wayne as an exhausted man devoted, perhaps subsumed, by his position.

Being Wayne OR Batman would be too much for most men, including me, thus I can only imagine being both. I don’t, however, think we particularly like Bruce Wayne. We definitely like Batman, but Wayne is more pitiable, more aloof, less relatable.

Villain (10/10)

What else needs be said about Heath Ledger’s performance? His role as The Joker won him an Oscar and lost him his life. Buzz about Ledger’s Joker drove many to the theater, especially on opening weekend, as it enjoyed the highest-grossing opening weekend in history at the time. In five days it had outgrossed its predecessor. I believe this was all about Ledger. He died earlier in the year, and the talk about the death of the ascendant star and his role in Knight never let up, ending in an Oscar win for his role.

The yardstick of Joker performances.

The Joker was always Batman’s most famous opponent, and the choice to leave him out of Batman Begins was a wise one; a nascent Batman cannot fight a perfect Joker. And The Joker is the perfect villain. You wanna know how he got those scars? Well, he’ll give you a different story each day of the week. We viewers have no idea–and never learn–where from those scars he got. It’s one of many touches testifying of his insanity.

Our first glimpse of The Joker comes in the first scene, when a team of masked goons robs a bank, and not just any bank, a Mob bank. After the successful pilfering of millions in cash, The Joker rips off his mask to show his hideous face before killing the bank director, hopping on a stolen school bus, and joining the train of legitimate school buses rolling down the street.

In other moments we see The Joker stab a man through the eye with a pencil, set fire to tens of millions of dollars, and beg Batman to kill him. He sews a phone inside a criminal’s stomach. He blows up a hospital while wearing a nurse’s uniform. He’s an agent of chaos.

The Joker terrifies us because he can’t be reasoned with or bargained with, much like a Terminator, but with a human brain capable of sniffing out acid traps.

One of the movie’s best moments comes after The Joker has destroyed Gotham Police headquarters. He rides in back of a captured police cruiser, hangs his head out the window, and shakes his hair in the wind like a happy dog. He’s simply in it for the joy of it. How can you stop a man who loves chaos?

Action/Effects (8/10)

Christopher Nolan’s action scenes helped create an aura for his Batman films. He eschews computer effects, preferring to rely on stunts, pyrotechnics, and make-up. Yes, yes, I know, Two Face. He’s the exception to the no-CGI preference, and boy is he.

In Batman Forever, Tommy Lee Jones runs around wearing purple makeup. Nolan spits on purple makeup. His Two Face had half his face melted. We see tendons, full teeth, bulging eyes–whatever’s beneath melted skin. The visual effects team earned an Oscar nomination, as did the makeup team, and they might have deserved the statues in any year in which Brad Pitt doesn’t age backwards.

The lack of CGI creates a jaw-dropping moment in this film when, in other films, they wouldn’t force open your jaw. Beneath an underground freeway, Harvey Dent has just claimed to be Batman, and is given a police escort across town.

The armored truck carrying him diverts to the underground road section, exactly as The Joker wants. The Joker shows up in another truck with some machine guns and a rocket launcher, taking some practice shots at the armored truck. Batman shows up in his Bat Tank, and bears the brunt of the explosions. Effects, music, editing–they’re all working together in top form to create a gripping scene.

“Slaughter is the best medicine.”

Back on the surface street, the Bat Tank has downgraded to Bat Cycle, and Batman uses it to drive through a lot of shopping areas to reach The Joker’s truck. They face off, Old West style, in the street, before starting a game of Chicken.

The Joker wants Batman to kill him, which would destroy Batman in the process. But Batman can’t do it, instead shooting Bat Cables into the truck and twisting ’em all up. After finishing this job, the camera cuts to a wide shot of the rumbling truck as it reaches the end of its rope, so to speak, and careens into the air, falling on its top.

The Joker hoping Batman will drive over him.

And that’s the scene. A truck flipping over causes the audience to gasp. We haven’t seen spectacular battle sequences in the movie, so a simple truck flip can seem audacious and huge.

Perhaps big action sequences were subsumed by Nolan’s desire to shoot in IMAX. Several scenes were filmed in the manner, including the opening bank robbery, some overheads of Hong Kong, the underground highway fight, and the hospital explosion. They look terrific, but are light on dialogue and quick editing. Fine by me.

Sidekicks (5/8)

Batman has a lot of help in Gotham, although those helping him might be the only ones in the city. I’ll run through each.

Alfred: Wayne’s lifelong butler/surrogate father, Alfred (Michael Caine) knows what’s best for “Master Wayne.” Witness his burning of a letter written by Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes) to Bruce, in which she tells him that they won’t be dating any time soon, if ever. He provides just the advice Wayne needs just when he needs it. Michael Caine, as always, is terrific.

Harvey Dent: He wants to lock up Gotham’s criminal scum, and he has no fear about doing it. He even claims that he’s Batman, just to put a little more heat on him. He’s very much his own character in The Dark Knight, and I don’t mean to call him a sidekick, but his arc is important and must be discussed.

District Attorney Harvey Dent and Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. And Batman: suit, suit, Batsuit.

Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed in front of him, but we don’t see it. We do see Dent’s fiancé killed as they speak. Wayne uses his pain to become Batman; Dent uses his to become Two Face, who leaves life up to chance.

Rachel Dawes: The object of Wayne’s eye, Dawes works for Dent at the DA’s office. She is better labeled Dent’s sidekick in this movie, as she believes in his work rather than Wayne’s. It’s why she writes Bruce the breakup letter.

Sassy blazer wearer Rachel Dawes

Poor Rachel is antagonized at a Wayne party by The Joker and thrown out a window. Batman saves by cradling her as they land atop a car roof.

James Gordon: Yet again Gary Oldman delivers a strong performance as Gordon, who gets promoted to Commissioner after catching The Joker. He’s helpless in Knight, to the point where he fakes his own death just to arrest The Joker, who wanted to be arrested anyway so he could more easily blow up the police headquarters. That Joker, man, he’s stirring every pot in Gotham.

Lucius Fox: Bruce Wayne has a large circle of friends, and Lucius (yet another Oscar winner in Morgan Freeman) is one who knows his secret. Fortunately he’s coy about it, while also telling off Wayne’s detractors inside Wayne Industries.

Civil liberties steam roller Lucius Fox

Fox has more confidence than anyone in this movie, including Wayne. It’s as if he doesn’t live in Gotham at all. Fox has cool confidence, he figured out Wayne was Batman, and he knows how to keep a secret. No one frightens him.

Henchmen (5/8)

As great as The Joker is, his henchmen are as strange. We are led to believe that they are fellow insane people. And they must be to follow The Joker. The goons robbing the bank as the film opens discuss The Joker as if he were an urban legend. And perhaps he is, but he’s also on the job. And he probably killed the help soon after. It’s unclear what the henchmen get for henching with The Joker. They would have to be as insane as their boss, and that is very hard to believe.

Two Face warrants more than henchman status, but I’ll discuss him here. District Attorney Harvey Dent is Gotham’s White Knight. Bruce Wayne believes he’ll be able to hang up the Batsuit pretty soon, at the rate Dent’s locking up Mob criminals (hundreds at a time).

Yeesh

The Joker does not suffer fools. Or, rather, he only suffers fools, as he is a fool, jester, agent of chaos. His favorite agent, besides himself, comes in the form of the viciously scarred Harvey Dent, known to us, but never spoken so in the film, as Two Face.

As independent as Dent was, Two Face is not. He craves revenge. But unlike most villains, Two Face leaves to chance who lives and who dies, including himself. His lucky, two-faced coin becomes one clean face and one burned face (the symbolism oozes like Two Face’s open sores).

Two Face is not long for his world. He kills too many people to be allowed to live, and it’s Batman who kills him. Two Face is a strong secondary villain, but he was not long enough in the movie to make a major impact.

Stunts (3/6)

Probably the weakest point of The Dark Knight, the fights leave a little to be desired. I think the problem derives from the cinematography. Most of the movie’s fight scenes are filmed in these great circles that make me feel like I am on tilt-a-whirl trying to focus on the central spinning mechanism so I don’t puke. Perhaps the IMAX cameras caused problems.

The first fight occurs when Batman dispatches some Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy, reprising his role from Batman Begins) adherents and possible disgruntled extras from Batman Begins. Four years is a long time to wait on set for that call of “Action.” I’d be mad too.

Joker burning cash for the fun of it.

Batman is surrounded by many foes, and he beats them in good time, sustaining some knife wounds. And they brought dogs. The camera encircles the scene, with few cuts, so we can really see the stunt men using their choreography. The moves feel stop-motion at times. But at least the moves were well designed.

The Batcycle’s wheels can flip over.

So the fights were meh. The Batsuit stuff soared–literally. Ha. How about that terrific moment when Batman shoots the glass-blowing charges onto the tower windows in Hong Kong, then swoops from his stoop around the building a few times, and finally careens through a window pane?

More encircling camerawork around the fighting, and finally an exploding wall and parachute extract from the tower. I don’t know how much of that was stunt work and how much effects, but I loved it.

The movie’s most dramatic effect came from not having any. Batman weaves his Batcycle underneath The Joker’s 18-wheeler, having shot cables into its front. Batman wraps the cables around light posts and waits for the truck to run out of room. When it does, the truck face plants in the road and the back flies up and over the front. The camera angle perfectly captures the stunt and makes you gasp. The lack of big crashes and explosive fights allows you to feel awe at the truck flip.

Climax (5/6)

The Joker spends most of his time in Gotham creating larger and greater moral conundrums for the city and its Dark Knight to solve. The final one involves two ships, one full of Wall Street types, and the other ship full of convicts. So we have two boats of Wall Street types….

The Joker tells the two boats that each has a bomb on board, and each has a detonator–for the other boat. If one blows up the other by midnight, he’ll let that boat’s passengers live. If not, they all die. Batman believes that neither will push the button, while The Joker believes someone will. We get to see the inner struggles of two of the self-appointed leaders of the boats. One is a huge asshole eager to blow up the other boat, and the other is a convict wearing an orange jumpsuit. Oh, damn, these are too easy.

Anyway, the big murderer dude decides to throw out the detonator, while the suit almost blows up the other boat, until he puts it back in the box. See? People can be nice. But The Joker tells Batman that he’ll just have to do everything himself and blow ’em both to smithereens. Fortunately, Batman fights him real good and stops him from doing that, nearly killing him in the process, until he decides to let him live. He never breaks his one rule.

To even find The Joker, Batman had to spy on all Gotham’s good citizens. A lot of ethical questions are raised, but mostly people want to know where The Joker is. Fox, using a machine reading a network of hacked cell phones, finds him, but, as Wayne kind of hoped for, Fox destroys the machine after its one use. Was it OK to use it just that one time? That is for you, Dear Viewer, to decide.

I thought the boat conundrum was The Joker’s most diabolical, and thus it had to end the film. The tete-a-tete between Gotham’s two most famous crazy characters led to great results that were exactly what The Joker wanted, except he wanted to be killed.

Jokes (1/4)

For a movie featuring a character named “The Joker,” The Dark Knight is light on comedy. In fact, it’s grim. A guy gets his eye gouged out. Nevertheless, Ledger’s Joker is funny enough to score a point. Granted, it’s the blackest of black comedy, but still funny.

For The Joker, comedy is a lifestyle, sure, but also a means to an end, a commentary of life. Consider The Joker’s stolen 18-wheeler, which he drives along the freeway firing rockets at Harvey Dent. The truck’s side says “Laughter is the Best Medicine.” Funny enough on its own, as it relates to the occupant. The Joker added an “S” to “Laughter,” and S+laughter=slaughter. Slaughter is the best medicine. Ho ho ho! Very clever Joker! A+ word skillz.

Setting (4/4)

Nolan’s Gotham is gritty, Gothic, bleak. The only spots of color come courtesy of The Joker and his band of merry pranksters. The Dark Knight was famously filmed in Chicago, a town full of skyscrapers but a film devoid of recognizable ones. This was quite a feat.

Consider the scenes shot in Hong Kong–they are definitely, obviously in Hong Kong. And so Gotham is definitely Gotham–a sad city where people are crushed in on themselves, a city with no trees, and the only water floats  boats with bombs on them. Not a fun place to live, but when the Mob is afraid of other criminals in town, an extra park or two might be low on your voting agenda.

Commentary (1/2)

The main commentary offered involves the cell phone sonar machine Lucius Fox uses to track The Joker. Should people really be able to spy on us without our knowledge? Did Christopher Nolan know about the NSA spying situation before the rest of us did?

The Dark Knight seems to say that violations of civil liberties are sometimes OK, which of course it does, because the entire idea of Batman is that the law just ain’t enough to prevent good people coming to harm.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

Gotham is a whitewashed city. Created in the 1930s, this is hardly a surprising fact, but we’ve moved on. Gotham has yet to do so.

Others

  • (2) Shooting in IMAX was a bold idea, and it soared in its success. Many blockbusters run on IMAX screens, and for an upcharge. For most films, forget it. (Gravity is a good example of an exception.) The Dark Knight achieved everything it could have with the IMAX scenes.
  • (1) Love love LOVE the Hans Zimmer score. As iconic as John Williams’s scores are, Zimmer’s are moody, dark, and bleak. I love them, and especially this one.
  • (-1) That guy riding in Harvey Dent’s police transport truck is so unfunny that I wonder if the real life Joker put him there to mess with the audience. However, if he was Nolan’s idea of comic relief, I’m glad he saved us from himself.

Summary (50/68): 74%

In a Hollywood dominated by caped men, Gotham’s caped crusader stands tallest. Batman has by far the most film and TV adaptations of all comic characters. We love Batman because we can be him. Sure, we’d need a few billion dollars and two murdered parents, but at least Wayne doesn’t have any super powers.

Bruce Wayne embodies the American Dream. He’s a self-made man (in the martial arts sense; obviously he inherited his wealth) and a force for Good in the world. America thinks of itself as if it is Bruce Wayne. Of course Batman is popular; he’s us.