Having seen nearly all Batman movies on opening week since Michael Keaton first donned the cowl in 1989, this repeat viewing of Dark Knight (the second installment of the Chris Nolan series starring Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader) reminded me of everything I love and hate about the Batman film franchises.
On the plus side, you’ve got the greatest villain characterization since Jack Nicholson went whiteface in the aforementioned 1989 Batman with another Joker – this one played by Heath Ledger (right before his sad and early death in 2008). Ledger’s Joker is the edgiest villain in any superhero film ever, a grisly, scarred clown who destroys not for money or power but for the sheer joy of bringing anarchy to Gotham, a city that still sports 30-million inhabitants despite frequent visits by mass murderers itching to burn the place to the ground.
Apparently Gotham’s mobsters are on the ropes, pressed on one side by a certain black-caped vigilante and on the other by a new “incorruptible” District Attorney, Harvey Dent (played by Aaron Eckhart). And so they say “Yes” to the Joker, who promises to solve all their problems, despite misgivings about allying themselves with a murderous nutcase.
Long-time comics fans knew before the first frame was shot that District Attorney Dent was destined to become the psychopathic Two Face, another Batman rogue, one who makes decisions regarding who will live and who will die based on the flip of a scarred coin.
In an earlier, more innocent era, Two Face was just another themed criminal whose duality calling-card primarily manifest as “two-ish” crimes (like stealing twin diamonds and making his escape on a bi-plane). But that was another Millennium, which means today the villainous Dent is left flipping a coin in order to determine if he will plug a child (the son of Commissioner Gordon, played stalwartly yet again by Gary Oldman).
Another thing I like about the Nolan Batman oeuvre comes from the hero’s mature sidekicks played once more by Michael Caine (as Alfred) and Morgan Freeman (as Lucius Fox, the Wayne Enterprises exec who provides the Batman with his military-level armament).
But getting back to Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, the introduction of a second villain represents an element that plays a role in many a Batman stinkeroo: too many bad guys. It was one thing when Adam West faced off against his entire rogues gallery in the 1966 TV-series cinema spin off. But Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Bane (who cares) squaring off against Batman (George Clooney), Robin (Chris O’Donnell) and Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone) in the 1997 Batman and Robin definitely proved that more was much, much less.
Dark Knight’s doubling up on the bad guys wasn’t as much of a misfire as that, but the extra baddie in this picture definitely lessened the impact of Ledger’s signature Joker and blurred the real duality driving the Batman mythos: that of Batman and the Joker as mirror images of one another. And why does so much of the drama in this of the next picture (Dark Knight Rises) hinge on maintaining the heroic myth of the incorruptible Harvey Dent?
In any superhero pick, you come to expect a storyline driven by the need to set up the next action scene. But the most skillful of these (such as the first Superman, Spiderman, Iron Man and Avengers pictures) manage to create enough drama (as well as humor and romance) to make you forget that fact. Not so Dark Knight where I kept wondering why the characters were doing what they were doing, other than to get everyone where they needed to be for the next big fight.
All that said, Dark Knight is definitely not one of those “I’m going to hate this picture just as much when I watch it ten times on cable” pictures. Watching it with Ben made me remember what I liked about the picture much more than what I disliked. So keep ‘em coming guys! I’ll keep buying tickets (this time for both myself and the boys).
Ben Replies: I’ll start with what you said about this film going with the “Sinister Six” approach, like Batman and Robin or Spiderman 3 (where Thomas Haydyn Church, James Franco and Topher Grace teamed up against our webbed friend). I would say this is not a fair comparison. These films were made for the purpose of making the superheroes look unbeatable, and the Dark Knight is trying to do the opposite. The film brings ideas about humanity to the table in a way no film of this sort has ever done before, and brings out the man in Batman much more than Clooney’s attempt did.
On the point of Harvey Dent, I couldn’t agree more about the storyline being forced. And as for Ledger’s incredible performance, I was just as shocked by the merciless clown. I do however believe that the drama that led up to the action was there, even if it was not as skillfully done as the rest of the film.
A final thing you may have forgot was that even though the cast was made up of all-stars (Freeman, Oldman, Bale, Ghyllenhal, Eckhart and of course the Brokeback Mountain star who was acting so much his makeup was sweating off) there were so many characters, everyone except for the clown and possibly Dent were uncomfortably underdeveloped, including “The Bat” himself.