Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Dark Knight: Telling You What You Already Know

The Dark Knight is a good movie. You should see it.

That's pretty much all that's left to say about the latest installment in the revived Batman series. The riotous reviews have been flowing in from all corners. Professional critics love it. Pretentious amateur critics (hi!) love it. Comic book fanboys love it and proclaim it the best superhero movie of all time. On opening weekend it hauled in roughly the annual GDP of Belarus. Hell, we haven't even really seen the expected backlash yet; the movie's been out for a little more than a week and Slate hasn't published a contrarian column labeling it a scourge. So that's impressive.

First of all, let's establish what The Dark Knight isn't. It isn't the greatest movie ever, which is what the rankings on IMDB say. It isn't a once-in-a-lifetime experience you'll regret missing when you're in your deathbed. In that regard, the hype needs to be deflated just a little.

But the hype, the critical reaction, it's all irrelevant. The movie itself is all that matters. And The Dark Knight is legitimately outstanding.

The late Heath Ledger and his portrayal of The Joker has been the focus of many reviews. Again, the hype is slightly overinflated. Ledger's excellent and throws himself into the role so completely that the identity of the actor would be impossible to discern without any foreknowledge. Ledger's Joker is a cackling, clumsily made-up force of nature. He's an urban forest fire, an inferno with no real motivation. He has no origin story. He's simply a monster who has set his eyes on Gotham and Batman. So yes, Ledger's fantastic, but it's hard not to wonder if the delirious reviews are motivated in part by the actor's tragic death.

Ledger certainly stands out, in no small part because the nature of the role allows him to find a psychopathic glee that's amazing to watch. But he's not the only actor to turn in a great performance. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman do their parts to add heft and credibility to the summer blockbuster, and to their credit they take the job seriously.

Christian Bale does an admirable job carrying a tough role. He was allowed to stretch his legs a little and explore the difficult Bruce Wayne/Batman dynamic in Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan's initial entry in the Batman reboot. Bruce doesn't play as large a role in The Dark Knight, and Bale spends most of his time in the suit and mask; it's rather hard to convey emotion with only your eyes and a digitally enhanced voice. (That digital enhancement, by the way, is a little over-the-top in the movie and can make the actor's lines inaudible, especially when spoken over the soaring score.) But Bale takes advantage of the "Bruce Wayne- playboy" scenes when he has them and continues to delve into the deep-seated conflict between the billionaire and the bat without falling into angst.

Maggie Gyllenhaal thankfully replaces Katie Holmes as assistant district attorney and superhero love interest Rachael Dawes. She doesn't distinguish herself, but she's a solid improvement over the one glaring fault in Begins.

But Aaron Eckhardt deserves some real plaudits for his performance as district attorney Harvey Dent. He deftly handles Dent's arc, the gradual evolution of the crime-fighting, hard-charging white knight into something far more complicated. Eckhardt plays the role with genuine skill, and in some ways it's a pity he gets over-shadowed by Ledger's turn as The Joker.

The movie is two and a half dark hours. The first half of that running time is surprisingly slow and more than a little disappointing. If you go in with extraordinary expectations, the early returns aren't promising. Don't worry- it gets better. A lot better. Because halfway through The Dark Knight takes a turn that is shocking, effective and, well, pretty damn dark. Nolan plays the moment with all the skill of a violin virtuoso.

Nolan also did well in overhauling his fight scenes, which were widely panned in Batman Begins. He uses fewer sharp cuts in murky, claustrophobic environments and as a result causes far fewer headaches for the viewer. It's now possible to discern what's happening when two characters are trying to kill each other.

I don't know if this is "the greatest superhero movie ever," but it's not an irrational position. It's certainly better than Iron Man or Spider-Man 2, both of which were given that label when they were released. Regardless, don't be turned off by the hype.


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movie junkie said...

i still wish Katie Holmes had stayed on board as Rachel Dawes for the Dark Knight; it was like the time spent getting familiar with her character in Batman Begins was wasted...