From the opening scenes of thugs holding up a bank and blowing employees and each other away, to the Joker carving smiles into people's faces (remind anyone of the Black Dahlia?), to a horrific half-faced burn victim, "The Dark Knight" is dark indeed. Definitely not for most kiddies under twelve. DK is shaping up to be a controversial film because of its genre-mixing: comic book (kid friendly) with psycho-thriller (not kid friendly). The Joker's makeup alone, in early publicity photos, clued me in that this Batman tale would be different. It wasn't cartoon/graphic novel/comic book style. It was disturbingly realistic.*
The Wall Street Journal blasted "Dark Knight" for being almost nihilistic in outcome, for "humiliating" the superhero in his own movie, and for killing off a main character. The Hollywood community is focused on Heath Ledger's "fearless" and brilliant performance as the antagonist (so, who's the main character here?)
Another point of controversy is: Did the depravity of DK send actors Ledger (who presumably accidentally OD'ed on prescription drugs he was taking for insomnia and depression) and Bale (charged with assault by his mother and sister) over the edge? As we know, actors have to bury deep inside their roles. But if this were the case, wouldn't there be such incidents after every horror, war and action movie?
A huge problem with DK is that there are many, many ideas—some of them inchoate, confused, complicated, unclear. I'm sure that if we were to do an exit poll of moviegoers, we would get cosmically different opinions about what just transpired, for this reason.** I found myself asking, "What did I just see?" A coherent story-line doesn't seem to be important in DK. The value seems to be examining the recesses of the psychotic mind, and setting up "Sophie's Choice"-type "social experiments."
I think what needs to be kept in mind is that this is a series, and writer/director Chris Nolan can get away with a down, ambiguous ending because another installment will follow on DK's heels. Already, there were several "resurrections" of characters we thought dead, so my money is on future character comebacks.
I also disagree with the critics who think that somehow The Joker won, that the only way to stop The Joker is for Batman to become like the Joker. Rather, Batman's seeming defeat is similar to the seeming defeat of nonviolent action: We pay the price ourselves rather than kill others (in this case, Batman won't kill the Joker). It takes more time when we won't do evil in order that good may result. But this is the only way to create lasting change. It seems that Batman's "one rule" is never to kill anyone. Actually, whenever he comes on the scene, the violence de-escalates. He doesn't use guns, but more of martial-arts, mano-a-mano type fighting. The nine year old next to me in the cinema will be chewing on this lesson for a while. He kept asking his big brother: "Why doesn't Batman just kill the Joker?"
As the audience, we can't relate to the psycho, but we can relate to a good person who has overwhelming evil coming against them, or as The Joker says (he has all the good lines): This is what happens when "an unstoppable force meets and immoveable object." At the end, the young boy in DK says: "Batman did nothing wrong," and the Dark Knight's role as "watchful protector" is reiterated.
ALL that being said, this new addition to the Batman saga is certainly a very serious exploration of the Caped Crusader's escapades.
Some of the central questions are: 1) Who is the real hero of Gotham? Batman (the mysterious, brooding Christian Bale); Harvey Dent, the D.A. (a mighty, strong performance by Aaron Eckhart), or perhaps even the people of Gotham themselves? 2) What will a real hero do and not do? What is their code of honor? How far will they go? Just when does a hero become an anti-hero? What's the difference between a vigilante/outlaw and a hero? 3) Are Batman and the Joker both freaks? Two sides of the same coin? 4) Why be good anyway? The lengthy (2 hrs 32 min)"Dark Knight" is dripping with moral musings and conundrums worthy of an ethics thesis, and is stocked with some of Hollywood's finest: Gary Oldman as the police commissioner, Michael Caine as Alfred the butler, Morgan Freeman as Batman's technology meister, and Maggie Gyllenhaal*** (who thankfully replaced the lightweight Katie Holmes) as lawyer Rachel--Batman's love interest.
Of course, the real, real hero of DK is our fair city of Chicago! How grand that New York (the real Gotham) was evidently not good enough for "the Batman" (I noticed for the first time that this is his proper title). Lower Wacker, Navy Pier, the River, La Salle Street canyon, the Christian Scientist Church, Chicago Police bagpipers, Lake Street, the Wrigley Building--Chicagoans who hung out at the peripheries during the filming will get a kick out of seeing how the locations are utilized.
What is the Batman fighting in DK? What he's always fighting: corruption in Gotham. This time his nemesis is The Joker (RIP, the scene-dominating Heath Ledger, rumored to be a shoe-in for a posthumous Oscar). This Joker is a far cry from the Jack Nicholson character. Ledger plays a vicious psychopath who is motivated, not by money like the mob, but by blood sport, the game, torturing and killing to see what makes people tick, inciting anarchy for the sake of chaos. As Alfred says of him: "Some men just want to watch the world burn."**** The Joker wants to show Batman that the rules by which he lives his life don't work. Batman, of course, is also fighting himself. Is he responsible for the people the Joker kills (because Batman won't kill the Joker?) Is it all right for him to do some dirty dealings (so Harry Dent doesn't "have to"?) Will Rachel wait for him or will she marry Harry Dent?
Most of the humor involves The Joker and is sadistic. But it's not exactly cheap laughs, it's some kind of relief in a very bad world that cannot be escaped but only negotiated. A few people laughed very loudly in my theater, the rest of us grimace-smiled to ourselves.
There are incredible car/truck/motorcycle/Batmobile chases, aerial views, cool new techie toys, pyro-technics and my favorite shots: The Batman gliding through gleaming cities at night. (I think I like the Batman best of the superheroes because he has the coolest costume, based directly on one of the coolest critters in Creation.) There are many levels of the good guys' and bad guys' power structures (some reaching to Hong Kong), and The Joker aptly describes his battle as being "for the soul of Gotham." The people of Gotham figure in pretty heavily in DK. Batman has to be "what the people need him to be" (relativism?), and the Joker sets up a fascinating life-and-death choice to be made by ordinary people on two ferries, both set to blow up.
Why is a movie with such a demented character breaking box office records? First--it's a BATMAN movie. Second, at least for the USA, we're in a time of war, and I think people can handle, want to handle, feel obliged to handle darker themes (but only as metaphors, not head on).
DK incorporates some comical, paunchy Batman impostors trying to "help" Batman, which reminded me of Comic-Con (the world's largest comic book/pop arts convention in San Diego—in progress as I write--that is now an industry bellwether and project maker or breaker) attendees who are actually true romantics. They want to save the world, too. But how to translate saving virtual Gothams to saving real Gothams? Virtual nobility to real-world nobility?
The people in my theater clapped at the end of the show. I hope for all the right reasons.
*Media Literacy Core Concept #2: "Each medium has its own media language."
**Although Media Literacy Core Concept #3 is: "Different people experience different media differently," reaction to DK will be all over the board in great part due to a wildly spinning story compass.
***Gyllenhaal, known for her quirkier roles, didn't seem to totally commit to the one-dimensional role of Rachel. I could be wrong, but I seem to sense when brilliant actors hate their part or their lines and subtly sneer and mock their way through them. So don't take the job! Aaron Eckhart treated his--(albeit more fleshed out)—role like he was a figure in a Shakespearean tragedy. A joy to watch.
****Media Literacy Core Concept #5 is: "All media messages are for profit and/or power." The Joker is quite clear what his motive is: "It's not about money, it's about sending a message."