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Is The Dark Knight the best movie of the year? Well, if not, kids, it’s pretty bloody close. Miles away from anything resembling a “comic book movie,” The Dark Knight is an intense, harrowing tale of good struggling to find itself in time to battle deepest evil. It’s a story of the price of valor and sacrifices made in the name of righteousness. The least gothic-looking of any of the previous Batman entries, in storyline and mood The Dark Knight captures the operatic bombast of Wagner in a world incinerating into a Hieronymus Bosch rendering of hell.

How fitting, then, that our resident angel wears black. Since Batman Begins, Gotham City’s local populace has embraced the good works of the Caped Crusader in turning the crime-ridden metropolis around. Some citizens may have embraced him a little too much; while many hooligans have turned tail out of Gotham entirely, others continue to scheme whilst being hounded by well-meaning Batman-wannabes wielding shotguns and hockey pads. Various factions of organized crime have not run scared yet, but have opted to do their worst in the bright light of day far from the nocturnal eyes of the Bat. One renegade criminal has seized the daylight and taken over where the mobs no longer tread. The grapevine buzzes with mention of a painted loon of a up and coming thug. Rootless and loyal only to his mad whims, this nut job boldly robs banks that served as fronts for Gotham’s underworld bosses undermining their plans at every turn. No mere lunatic, The Joker leaves no stone unturned in his elaborate strategies and has a nearly prescient grasp of not only the minds of the thugs he extorts from, but those of the heroes who would stop him. Besides Batman and Captain James Gordon, the newest champion in Gotham’s war against crime is the gutsy hotshot District Attorney, Harvey Dent. Part showman, part avenging angel, Dent has made his career putting villains in jail his entire platform and it’s done him a world of good. He’s beloved by his constituency, as well as those of his ladylove Rachel Dawes, former paramour of our favourite dissolute playboy, Bruce Wayne. Dent’s aggressive public stance against organized crime and his willingness to stand up to the slings and arrows (- and bullets) that entails has made him a White Knight to Batman’s Dark Knight. Compelled to admiration for the deeds of the earnest public defender, old Bats holds him up as a paradigm for what Gotham City needs and shares Dent’s vision for a Gotham free of crime and free of a need for Batman. The only fly in that plan’s ointment is there’s that colourful fella who likes things just the way they are and plans to make matters a lot worse, smearing anarchic graffiti all over the pretty picture of Gotham Batman and Dent have in mind.

How brave of director Christopher Nolan to make a Batman movie where Batman isn’t the main focus? The Dark Knight is a tug of war of good vs. evil and our two main players are Harvey Dent and The Joker. Gabriel and Lucifer locked in a struggle for the soul of Gotham City, a battle high in civilian casualties and collateral damage.  More than just doing his worst simply because he can, The Joker seems determined to prove the sanity of his madness. Rather than punishing Dent for his transgressions against his fellow evildoers, he wants Dent to see the world through his psychotic vision. The Joker is out to utterly corrupt the virtuous Dent, rotting him from the outside in and no one within splattering distance is safe from the brutal lesson. Batman is almost a third wheel with his many shades of gray between pillars of black and white

Before I can begin to discuss the incredible, terrible beauty of the production, or muse about the mind-blowing action sequences, any praise of The Dark Knight must begin with its performances and its deceptively cogent script. Summer movie popcorn pleaser, my eye (- and So not for little kids). Some of the actors do their greatest work to date here particularly two of the sides of the Gotham triangle, Harvey Dent and The Joker. Aaron Eckhart’s balancing act would shatter lesser thespians. Harvey Dent, full of righteous thunder and altruistic purpose, how do you make such a cardboard comic book persona not only real, but accessible? For all there is that is good in Dent, Eckhart injects him with a definite ego and a sense of hubris in his showy victories – the inevitable ooze in every politician. His confidence in his mission and blind refusal to acknowledge any vulnerability drops Dent hard off his pedestal when The Joker challenges every moral certainty he had. Harvey’s dip into the abyss is a lulu and Eckhart seizes that part of the character with a restrained gusto that’s not the least bit camp. For all Dent’s pride and bullheadedness, Eckhart infuses him with a heart and sympathy that one might not have expected to feel for the gung-ho, coin-flipping politico.

Ah, Heath …

Neither a portrayal of a comic book character or the reinterpretation of a villain previously played with vivacious camp by Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson; what Heath Ledger has done with his Joker is embodied the spirit, power and purpose of punk rock and hurled it at the screen. Ledger’s Joker is a figure of such deep subversion, I’m not entirely sure he wasn’t a figure of Gotham’s collective imagination and the damage in his wake a sort of stigmata. No DNA matches, no fingerprints on file, tagless, handmade clothes, The Joker is Sid Vicious as the Angel of Death, sprung from the head of Vivienne Westwood with a bellow of anarchic, nihilistic rage. Your ever-luvin’ pachyderm was even moved to cross all four goose-pimpled arms at the pure under-your-skin, creepy menace of Ledger’s performance. With unkempt, green-tipped hair and smeared clownface, this Joker is not a powerful physical adversary one might picture going toe-to-toe against Batman, but this is a battle of wits with a body count. Ledger makes his form small and wiry so the wellspring of chaos and psychosis bubbles through his piercing eyes and out of every painted pore of his skin. His twitching, spastic movements seem as if he is near to bursting with uncontrollable wrath, yet The Joker is smarmy and hilarious with offbeat, often-inappropriate dark humour and outrageous sputtered one-liners. Don’t ask him to make a pencil disappear! There is no origin story here; indeed hapless victims are regaled by the ever-changing story of the scars at the corners of his mouth which serves as a prelude to making the luckless tellee as gloriously afflicted as himself – if they’re lucky. Where Joker’s rage comes from is anyone’s guess and it only makes him scarier, no past, no fear, no reasoning, just chaos.

Heath Ledger’s Joker is this generation’s Brando moment. Like Brando in a Streetcar Named Desire, with The Joker Ledger has achieved a thespian nirvana that many will aspire to and never attain. If he had to leave early, at least we should take comfort that he left us with this Everest of a performance.

Early on, Michael Caine as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, regales his master with another homily (- there are many from the fortune cookie-like manservant) that captures the essence of Batman’s new foe, “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” In the intelligent, brutal, brilliant screenplay cowritten by director Christopher Nolan and brother Jonathan Nolan, that line captures the essence of this villain. How much like The Joker will Batman have to become to stop the chaos? The classic, symbiotic relationship between Bats and The Joker is a beautifully twisted Gordian Knot. Christian Bale’s Batman struggles to hold to the rules that keep him on the side of right while making him vulnerable to every criminal who knows just how far he’ll go. Piece by piece the good that Wayne’s pointy-eared alter ego have attempted comes back to smack him in the mask. Wayne is set up in a new high-rise and uses a techno-fabulous underground bunker as substitute Batcave since stately Wayne Manor was burnt to the ground in Batman Begins. He’s losing Rachel to Harvey Dent because he can’t give up the Bat, and a pipsqueak Wayne Industries drone blackmails him after cluing into his secret ID. He’ll sacrifice much more than that before The Joker’s done and Bats’ fatigue and frustration is evident in Bale’s performance. Batman is more angry and brutal than before, the growl in his voice at first computer generated and then simply part of Bats’ anatomy. He pushes the limits on the whole right/wrong thing in the name of what he deems justice. Morgan Freeman’s Jiminy Cricket act has the right place here; inventor Lucius Fox slaps Wayne’s wrist after discovering the zillionaire has made it possible to spy on every citizen in Gotham, scolding, “That’s too much power for one man to have.” As losses rise, the temptation becomes stronger for Batman to embrace The Joker’s chaos theory and every scene between Bale and Ledger, particularly the police station interrogation, absolutely crackles with the electricity of two of the screen’s most talented young actors going head-to-head. Happily, there’s more Gary Oldman in this one, doing a swell job as the anchor between the dual forces of Batman and Dent. The trust between Caped Crusader and Jim Gordon has deepened and when Batman makes a tough sacrifice for the good of Gotham, Gordon supports him as The Dark Knight becomes more than just the film's title.

What a glorious thing this is in IMAX. Six scenes were shot directly in the process and the iconic images of Batman doing his looming skyscraper pose is as beautiful and heroic as anything comic artist Alex Ross could have drawn. The story goes out of Gotham to Hong Kong and the IMAX filming breathtakingly captures Bats gliding through the valley of steel mega structures and neon as if through the Grand Canyon. (The IMAX shots of Hong Kong are so powerful they even managed to find runaway Hong Kong actor Edison Chen in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo. Shh, don’t tell the Triads.) Composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard outdo themselves with a heart-pounding score that surrounds every moment and makes the suspenseful scenes nearly unbearable with tension. Any scene where Lucius demonstrates new gizmos and goodies to Wayne is as entertaining as the tête-à-têtes between James Bond and Q. A new leaner suit replaces a larger, bulky monstrosity with the trade-off that it leaves Bats more open to injury. Batman’s new optical sonar lenses glow with a blue light that helps him see through walls. The poster image doesn’t do enough to promote the genius of the new Bat-Pod, basically a completely maneuverable cycle with two monster-truck wheels and a whole lotta firepower. The Bat-Pod is born out of the belly of the Batmobile which ends up a scrap pile after a seat-gripping car chase with The Joker.

The Dark Knight’s opening credits feature the Bat-symbol emerging through flames; that visual is a solid motif for the entire film. By the end of this chapter, each of the characters and the entire city of Gotham will forge new lives and new identities out of the blaze set by The Joker’s Nero. The question is can a third episode – one lacking the unforgettable, superlative performance of Heath Ledger - possibly top the magnificence of The Dark Knight? I’d be perfectly happy to stop right here, but I’m so enrapt with this movie, I’ll follow wherever it leads next. With so many ‘bests’ evident in The Dark Knight, I predict it’s going to be a very interesting Oscars next year. 



~ Mighty Ganesha

July 16th, 2008




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