As I write this review, The Dark Knight is the #1 Movie of All Time on the IMDB Top 250 readers’ poll. At 115,000 votes and counting, will there be a backlash? Will the fanboys and girls continue to dominate the polls? Is it, hands down, the greatest superhero movie of all time? One thing I can say for sure: It is certainly the DARKEST superhero movie I’ve ever seen, and you shouldn’t be taking children anywhere near it. I have no idea why this film wasn’t rated R—the fact that the filmmakers cut away just before showing truly graphic violence doesn’t make up for the fact that the bad guys in this film are so frakked up that you’ll leave the theater haunted and traumatized.
Now when I’m saying “dark” I mean it literally and figuratively. The visuals are dark and blue-black. Much of the action takes place on darkened streets, or in rooms with the ubiquitous single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. But more glaringly, The Dark Knight is the most moralistically dark and bleak film I’ve seen in a long time. When I say that, I don’t count horror movies or serial killer movies or some such fodder. The Dark Knight is mainstream entertainment that is so dire and dismal and bleak that you leave the theater (or turn off the film) wanting to run screaming, pinwheeling your arms in despair… or more likely, run home and bury your face in basketful of soft, fluffy kittens to try to fight the demons that have been punching you in the face for over two hours.
The Dark Knight doesn’t bother with Batman’s backstory this time around (that was covered in director Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins). We catch up with Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) doggedly still fighting crime as well-meaning imposters in batsuits are giving him a bad name, bumbling around with their own brand of vigilante justice. The bad guys continue to run wild in Gotham City, and there’s a new player in town who calls himself The Joker (Heath Ledger). His style is sadistic and twisted, and he apparently has no motive for the hell he unleashes. As Morgan Freeman’s technical wizard Lucius Fox says, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
In the meantime, Wayne’s ex-squeeze Rachel Dawes is now dating up-and-coming District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and she has also—quite miraculously I might add—morphed from Batman Begins’ Katie Holmes to the fabulous and soulful Maggie Gyllenhaal (thank god!). Harvey Dent is a squeaky-clean White Knight for the city, an earnest fellow that promises to clean up the city once and for all (perhaps with a little help from Batman). Unfortunately for him, his campaign coincides with The Joker’s shenanigans, whose campaign of terror has paralyzed the city.
And all of this is squeezed into a not-so-tight 2-1/2 hour package!
The Dark Knight has much going for it. It looks great, is dead-on serious (which in this case is effective, as opposed to unintentionally giggle-inducing), and the actors all bring their game. It has surprisingly complex moral themes—nothing is completely black-and-white, and no one is completely good or bad. This is refreshing as well as disturbing. In this film, there are no right answers, as characters’ best intentions are more often than not met with tragic consequences.
But alas, The Dark Knight is almost trying to be too much in its grandiose intentions as The Best Comic Book Movie EVER. The film feels like it has two distinct endings (which makes it feel like its full bloated length). The editing is out of whack, leaving clunky transitions for characters jumping from one place to another—they get out of one pickle with the snap of a finger, or are transported bafflingly into another dire situation without explanation. And by trying to flesh out two complete supporting characters—The Joker and Harvey Dent—it feels like one or the other (or both) got the short shrift in character development.
But I don’t think I’ll hear anyone argue against the fact that Heath Ledger is fantastic as The Joker, his last complete film role. He is easily the best thing about The Dark Knight, and when he isn’t on screen, you check your watch hoping for him to come back. With his smudged, sweaty, and poorly applied freak-show clown makeup, scarred smile slashed across his face, green greasy hair, and purple suit he is a coulrophobic‘s nightmare. He is the worst kind of terrorist: one with seemingly no motive except to see his intended victims squirm in fear before they are obliterated. Ledger’s interpretation of this classic villain is completely modern—and all the more terrifying because of it. Ultimately, this Batman movie speaks distinctly to our post-9/11 world, and is all the more disturbing because of that.