I've spent the past six to eight months tracking down every last scrap of information that I could about The Dark Knight. I read the set visits at Batman On Film, interviews with Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer, and Christian Bale, and Nolan and Goyer's introduction to the Absolute Edition of The Long Halloween, among other articles. Against my better judgment, I looked at sneak peek pictures and clips. I participated in all the ARG viral marketing, and have tried to get my hands on all of the endless parade of posters. I've gone over each of the trailers frame by frame, just to see what little clues might be hidden there. I watched and rewatched the IMAX prologue. I read every review as they came out. After all of that, I felt I had a pretty good idea of what The Dark Knight would be. Now, having finally seen it, I am shocked to find that the film took all of those expectations and presumptions, shattered them, spit on the remains, and proceeded to go in completely surprising directions. I am shocked, and extremely pleased.
Having succeeded in saving Gotham from the diabolical machinations of Ra's Al Ghul, Batman (Christian Bale) now focuses on achieving his original goal: Cleaning out the corruption of the mob. He's aided in this quest by police Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and the two are considering adding another to their ranks: Gotham's idealistic District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). The Gotham mob, now being led by Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts), seeing their revenue dwindling due to Batman's efforts, turn to a mysterious man known only as The Joker (Heath Ledger), who promises to kill Batman for them. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne, Batman's alter ego, realizes that Harvey Dent may be the man who can be Gotham's hero in the daylight, and begins to think that he might be able to retire the mantle of the bat and live a normal life with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). However, nobody suspects the lengths to which The Joker will go to unhinge all of their lives.
The Dark Knight marks one of the few times I've sat in a movie theater and had no idea what was going to happen from one moment to the next. If you think about it, Batman Begins follows a fairly classic trajectory: Young man experiences tragedy, grows determined, gets trained, faces obstacles, overcomes them, and triumphs. It's a hero's tale, and it's comfortable. That's not to say Begins took the easy way out in its storytelling, simply that there's a certain level of comfort in the telling. There's no such safety net for The Dark Knight. Throughout the film, Bruce Wayne is riddled with insecurity about his choices. In fact, the entire film revolves around choice. Everyone is responsible for the choices they make, whether they like it or not. Bruce Wayne can't be with Rachel Dawes due to his choice to be Batman. Harvey Dent finds himself a target for the mob and The Joker because of his aggressive tactics as the D.A. And Jim Gordon also faces tough decisions as a result of working so closely with Batman. It's often difficult to watch many of the scenes in the film. We want our heroes to be confident, not insecure and unsure of themselves.
For all the insecurity the characters go through, the same cannot be said of Nolan and his team. The Dark Knight is, without a doubt, Nolan's best work yet, a sprawling crime drama that pulls no punches. I almost hesitate to call it an action film, as so much of the action is consciously subverted. Take, for example, the sequence where Batman and The Joker face off in the middle of a Gotham street. That sequence, part of a larger chase, is edited in a manner that could almost be called subdued. There's barely any music. Watching the sequence, and knowing how good of a handle Nolan has on the material, it forces the question: Why? Why not shoot and edit the scene in a manner similar to the Batmobile chase from Batman Begins, which was thrilling and exciting? Because Nolan isn't interested in revisiting set pieces from the previous film. He's going for a different effect, and while it works, I would hardly call it crowd pleasing. Simply put, The Dark Knight is nowhere near as accessible as Batman Begins. And while that does make it the more mature work, I do wonder how it will play out to the public at large.
If this wasn't a movie about men who dress like bats and clowns to fight each other, I think a lot more emphasis would be put on the superb cast. Of course, there's the late Heath Ledger, giving his all in his final performance. He truly takes The Joker places he hasn't been before, and he's always riveting when he's on the screen. That being said, if Ledger hadn't unfortunately passed away prior to the film's release, no one would be talking about an Oscar nomination. That's not to slight his performance, which is excellent, I just think people are letting real life events cloud their judgment on this particular matter. And also, all the praise Ledger has garnered really does a disservice to the rest of the cast. Everyone returning from Begins (except for Cillian Murphy, who appears in a brief and insubstantial cameo) steps up their game. Bale gives even more weight to Bruce Wayne, and adds a vicious streak to Batman that tops anything we saw in Begins. Michael Caine proves why Alfred is Batman's closest confidant. Gary Oldman gives, in my mind, the best performance in the film, making Jim Gordon the emotional anchor for the piece. His portrayal is subtle and layered, and he's inevitably going to be overlooked because of it, but it's truly great work. Aaron Eckhart is fearless as Harvey Dent, marking the best iteration of the both Dent and Two-Face yet seen on the screen. Maggie Gyllenhaal gives more dimension to the role of Rachel Dawes, although the role is still largely underwritten.
There's a scene in the film where The Joker explains to Harvey Dent that he's got no master plan, he simply likes to foil the plans of others. In a way, The Dark Knight unfolds in a similar fashion, building up certain expectations in the audience, only to tear them down. It feels as chaotic and unpredictable as The Joker himself. That's not to say it wasn't carefully planned, only that it feels spontaneous and surprising. And that is a true filmmaking feat: To constantly undermine your audience's sense of comfort without ever alienating them. It's bold, daring, and dark. Yes, make no mistake, The Dark Knight takes you to bleak places. I've heard someone refer to it as The Empire Strikes Back of comic book movies. I have to respectfully disagree. No matter what happened in The Empire Strikes Back, there was always hope, and the promise of redemption in the inevitable sequel. That's not true of The Dark Knight. Nolan, in a recent interview, said he held nothing back for a potential third film, and it shows.
The Dark Knight is thrilling, troubling, tough, and ultimately great. But not great in the way you'll want it to be. It works because it's unpredictable, and takes chances you would never imagine to see in a big budget summer blockbuster. The Dark Knight subverts everything people accept about comic book movies and action films in general. It's not easy to watch, nor can you walk away without a strong opinion. And that's why it works. Kudos to Nolan and company for not playing things safe.
A side note: If you are able, see this film in IMAX. Nolan shot several sequences in the IMAX format, allowing for several breathtaking moments that will not be nearly as effective in 35mm. The Dark Knight was designed to be seen in IMAX, and now that I have, I have no interest in seeing it on 35mm.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.