The Dark Knight (2008)

 For the last time, let us forget anything and everything done to the Batman by the double-hack team up of Directors Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher In all four films- none of them were able to tell a compelling Batman story as both directors totally missed the point.. Special-effects and over-the-top villains took the lead while Batman’s motivations took a back seat to Jack Nicholson, Jim Carrey and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Studio greed stripped Batman of his soul, his relevance and crammed as many baddies as possible into a contrived screenplay that let the special-effects do the work. All gadgets, no drama, none of the moral dilemmas the comic is known for were ever fully exploited. His tragedy was diluted, his pathos practically ignored. The last two sequels especially mocked his mission by turning him gay with nipples on the bat suit and the bat cave decorated like a Euro trash disco-tech.

 It’s hard to believe there is only an eight year difference between the dreadful “Batman & Robin” and the masterful “Batman Begins.” It’s an interesting experiment to observe as one film brought the Batman character to the forefront of pop culture, (1989’s Batman) two sequels continued a downslide (Batman Returns, Batman Forever) and the last film, (Batman & Robin) all but killed the franchise. 

 2005’s “Batman Begins” changed all that, giving us a blank slate to work with and how to do it right. Director/Writer Christopher Nolan stripped everything non-essential from Batman as a movie character and concentrated on Batman the comic book icon. Gone were the over-the-top baddies, the stupid stunt-casting, the ugly, cartoony landscape and the ear rape music perpetrated by Danny Elfman those that followed.

  “The Dark Knight” is stunning in it’s perfection. An uncompromisingly great film that never lets up and takes you on a journey most modern films can not even ponder. Nolan has delivered a true urban gothic thriller that once again delves into Batman’s damaged psyche and his battle for his beloved Gotham City. A brilliant, no bullshit approach presents a fascinating scenario that Bruce Wayne didn’t bargain for; if a hero can don a costume and a strange persona to fight for justice; then the opposite can be done for the bad guys who don costumes and personas to terrorize Gotham.

 The story takes that thread and runs with it as the mob is still active in Gotham yet its leadership is up for grabs. Cue The Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger as a seriously sick ticket who gets things going on the wrong foot by robbing one of Gotham’s biggest banks that happens to belong to the Mob. With the Mob’s leadership in chaos, The Joker is allowed to take over even though no one fully understands this guy, but all are too afraid to try and stop him.

 A new man on the scene and one just as eager to fight crime is District Attorney Harvey Dent played by Aaron Eckhart who becomes one of many of the casualties fighting for the soul of the city in the war between Batman vs. The Joker.

 That’s the gist, because to delve anymore is a bit of a challenge as the movie’s screenplay is one of the most complex and dense for mainstream entertainment. That’s not a knock, but a blessing as the movie engulfs you like a horny lover refusing to let go until the deed is done. The film’s running time is nearly three hours, but it never feels like it, it uses every minute to push the story forward, never once do you detect waste or bloat. Even though I had to take a wicked piss at the start of the opening credits, the film was so good and engrossing, I forgot about it.

 From the opening scenes with the Joker robbing a bank, you know this is not the goofy kids crap from years past, but a realistic, sometimes brutal take on costumed heroes and villains. These early scenes belong to Ledger as this will be the defining on-screen performance of the Joker, who does such an outstanding job of portraying someone so totally detached from reality, so unhinged that at first Batman is perplexed on how to stop him. No origin is ever given to explain the Joker’s scars on his face. An interesting thing is done however, as the Joker tells a different story each time about his past. A clever move by Director Nolan as if to say; you pick which one works best for you.

 Intent or not, the movie is filled with terrorism allegories and many conservative ideas as Batman tries to use logic and rules to fight the Joker. Many times he attempts to fight a dishonorable fight with honorable means, but gets his ass handed to him a few times causing him to rethink his tactics, (think Vietnam and the current fight against terror) as the Joker doesn’t fit into type of conventional/logical representation of aggression.

 Batman constantly tries to uphold a standard of decency while fighting for the world he dearly loves and wants to protect, the Joker of course has no use for anything but mayhem and uses whatever methods are at his disposal. He even kills his own bank-robbing henchmen when they get in the way. Sure, he’s a mass murder, but he sees that only as a means to an end, nothing more. The Joker knows he’s a bit off, but he doesn’t act like an ass and jump around listening to Prince like Jack Nicholson’s insultingly bad performance demanding to be seen as a psycho. 

 While watching Ledger, he reminded me of Charles Manson and how controlled his “insanity” was, Manson has been diagnosed over the years as not specifically insane, but an extreme sociopath. Make no mistake, The Joker is insane, but not in the predictable sense as he knows exactly what he’s doing at all times, usually one step ahead of everyone else and the two are similar in that sense and in their body language, their delusional claims, their ego and how they thrive on fear and want people around them to feel it.

 It’s a brilliant form of control by the Joker to establish power in any situation he’s in to get whatever he wants. A great acting technique by Ledger who licks his lips constantly creating a very unsettling presence and thrashes his hands about like a true schizophrenic, one obviously with psychotic tendencies.

 His appearance is rather restrained, other than a head full of greasy hair, subtle scars around his mouth and some haphazardly applied clown makeup, he looks like he could exist in our world. The menace and derangement come through his actions and speech.

 It’s the finest piece of acting since Anthony Hopkins in “Silence of the Lambs,” wonderfully controlled, but wild and unpredictable constantly emanating an evil aura. . A damn shame we lost him, as he would have been a bigger star and better actor because of this.

 As the media will definitely cry and focus on Ledger’s untimely demise, Christian Bale needs the correct attention as Bruce Wayne/Batman still owns the show. Unlike Michael Keaton’s performance in the 1989 version, Bale is not overshadowed by the Joker. He takes his performance to the edge and wallows in the moral dilemmas these films create. The moral quandary this time around is being a hero is not always fun nor are you always liked. We see he’s a good man trying to make something worthy out of his tragedy by preventing others from experiencing his pain. He and the Joker are steeped in irony, they share a connection as both characters are begat of violence; one resulted from a positive, change the world mentality, the other resulted with a FUCK the world attitude, yet both fight for it, Wayne for noble reasons, the Joker for freedom as he sees it- anarchy.

 “Batman Begins”presents a still rather naive, at times idealistic Wayne who so wants his idea to catch hold and release his city of the crime and evil and it does to an extent, but in TDK, it also stirs a hornet’s nest and gets away from him by creating villains far worse than mobsters like Falconi and Maroni who can be fought with conventional and predictable methods. The Joker is just one of the many bad guys that spring from Wayne’s Pandora’s Box as they are next to impossible to understand as they do not covet the usual criminal things of money, drugs, prostitution, gambling, racketeering etc….

 As Alfred, (Michael Cain) Bruce Wayne’s loyal man Servant so succinctly puts it, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

 TDK shares its similarities with two films, “Superman II” and “Dirty Harry.” Batman goes through an identity crisis and the emotional wringer as he questions and ponders turning himself in feeling he’s caused more harm than good and briefly considers giving it up for the woman he loves. 

 The films overall political messages and gritty feel and look evokes a “Dirty Harry” urban thriller vibe with the thugs just barely being kept at bay by one man, some call him a vigilante, while the police, riddled with corruption play politics.

 Gary Oldman as Commissioner Jim Gordon, Batman’s insider link, is still gripping as he wants the best for his city. Both see good in each other and are forced to team up when the Joker has the city in his grip. I do enjoy Oldman more in roles like this as he’s far more believable when he plays normal guys put into extraordinary situations, instead of the over-the-top foolish he became famous for.

 The film’s look and performance belong to Director/Writer Chris Nolan who again uses Chicago as the stand in for Gotham. He nails every single character no matter how small down to their barest essence. Michael Cain is excellent as Alfred, the Wayne family Butler who also acts as Bruce’s surrogate father and conscience, his man servant Yoda, steering him in the right direction, protective, without being didactic or preachy, often times he’s the wisest character in the film and there is a reason why Bruce listens to his opinions.

 Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, the weapons/gadgets developer for Wayne Enterprises, continues steady support as he takes issue with several of Batman’s questionable tactics. The theme of fighting terrorism pops up most visibly during Fox’s screen time as he objects to Batman’s privacy violation tactics and threatens to quit his services when Batman briefly takes an ‘anything goes’ idea to fight back.

 Batman’s existence is questioned many times by Wayne himself and others as he tries to put the lightning back in the bottle. The more he fights, the more people get hurt. Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes are two casualties, the latter is spared the pain, Dent has half his face burnt off and eventually turns into “Two-Face,” thanks to the prodding and manipulating of the Joker. He convinces Dent that it’s all Batman’s fault, when in reality Dent shares some of the blame as he too was the face of the new Gotham intent of cleaning up the city.

 Bruce Wayne is soon struck by his decency and integrity and Dent seems to not be troubled by the Batman’s antics. Wayne quickly gets over the impending engagement of his ex Rachel to Dent.

 Eckhart is excellent as Dent, at first the Kennedy-esque politico sets out to do exactly what he says he will. He gives Dent at first, a fierce sense of justice, then when he’s burned, a righteous sense of revenge against Batman. Eckhart keeps it on a realistic level; he never takes the revenge too far nor his political idealism.

 A decent man forever changed by the actions of Batman, this plays heavily on Wayne as he takes responsibility for his friend’s accident and Rachel’s death.

 Maggie Gylenhall replaces Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes who could not return due to pregnancy. A good choice as she is definitely a better actor, more mature and less stuck-up and does as much as possible with her limited screen time.

 I could go and on about themes and the character interactions as they all are perfect and so is the action. The best most thrilling moments came from the car chase through downtown Chicago. Batman crashes his Batmobile chasing the Joker, so of course, a motorcycle emerges from the crashed heap and rips down the street, into stores and across the plaza in hot pursuit. It easily ranks up there with Indiana Jones climbing on the Nazi truck in “Raiders.” Flawlessly shot and edited, Nolan is becoming quite the action director, able to balance out the drama with top-notch, memorable stunts. The best part is, he keeps that camera still, focuses on the action and gives the viewer a sense of scope and geography.

 The best thing about this film is not that the action is great, which it is, but the characters are interesting and we can root for the good guys. We care about the action because we care about the characters and their outcome. Without that, it’s just another action crap-fest video game.

 The score is too a sequel to the last film that builds on the universe. Not packed full of themes like a John Williams score, it’s effective nonetheless and surprisingly memorable. I can hum it now as it elevates, amplifies the urban Goth vibe and makes me glad I don’t live in a hellhole like Gotham.

 As modern as the movie obviously is, it has a 1970’s vibe of vermisilitude. You could almost smell the gritty, grimy urban rot perfected by Nolan and his production design team. They go out of their way to make this film timeless, to make Gotham the beleaguered character that everyone is fighting for; we see both it’s beauty and it’s ugliness- this is the what gives the film it’s soul that results in its transcendence into a classic. Right up there with my personal favorite and still the best, “Superman: The Movie,” another film that fought a hard battle to remain truthful to the character, shot in real world setting and provide enormous amount of entertainment.

 I can not stress how great this film is without sounding like one of those goons that can string adjectives together. The film is not only one of the best superhero films ever- it’s one of the best films—ever! I seriously mean that, it will easily sit alongside “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and especially  “The Godfather Part II“, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Revenge of the Sith” as one of the best sequels and one of the great seminal movies of modern times.

 My only gripe- why did they have to hurt that beautiful Lamborghini? It didn’t hurt nobody!

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