It’s an awfully good year to be a comic book fan in the movie theater. That being said, it’s just been a great year for moviegoers in general. The biggest film of the year, Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” was released last week to record box office numbers. Not only is it deserving of those earnings, it is without a doubt one of the best comic book films ever and features one of the most hauntingly, unsurpassed performances by a prime actor who left us laughing and left us way too soon.
In 1997, the Batman was discredited as a movie star. Joel Schumacher’s vomit-inducing garbage receptacle titled “Batman & Robin” was perfectly described by “Mystery Science Theater 3000” writer/star Mike Nelson as “not the worst movie of all time, but the worst thing of all time.” 2005’s “Batman Begins” not only healed the wounds of batfans but ushered in a new generation of superhero filmmaking. We not only looked up in pride of our long lost hero, but found ourselves with a British director as our savior (all of this taking place in Movie Heaven of course, whereas Schumacher had descended us to Movie Hell in which the formal look always includes rubber nipples).
“Batman Begins” was a masterpiece – a purely perfect comic book film. It had all the elements that both literary critics and comic nerds had always exclaimed in excitement over graphic novels. It created a star out of Christian Bale, the new man in the cape and cowl. The end of that film promised a sequel starring Batman’s most infamous nemesis, the Joker, and since then there had not been one whisper of doubt in the second film’s success. That is until January 2008, when “The Dark Knight” became the center of controversy as we lost Heath Ledger. Months have passed, wounds still open and the movie has finally arrived.
“The Dark Knight” takes some time after the events of the first installment. Batman’s intentions are still debated by the people of Gotham, although it seems as though he is deemed a hero by the majority. Carmine Falcone’s reign has ended and his protégé Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts) is the new mob boss in town. Luckily for Gotham’s citizens, the new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) with a little help from the pointy-eared hero, Maroni’s big plan is foiled and over 200 criminals are tried and convicted. Unfortunately for Batman and Dent (who is deemed Gotham’s new “white knight”), fear has a new face as the bizarrely maniacal Joker (Ledger) takes the town by storm.
The first film dealt more with the origins of Batman and felt a respectably singular film. “Batman Begins” concerns were more about engaging the audience in what was felt as a dead character. It succeeded by delivering a layered, and emotionally perfect Bruce Wayne as portrayed excellently by Bale. Bale was to Batman as Connery was to Bond or Ford was to Indy. This second film is much more complex and presents intricate portrayals of each and every character in ways that its predecessor never could. Instead of thinking a character is cool or fun to watch, we are actively engaged in their depiction.
The performances are mostly to blame for this incredible viewing experience. Bale proves his mettle again as Batman, and even though his Bruce Wayne doesn’t make enough appearances Bale’s few scenes as the marauding playboy are terrific. His job in the batsuit is strikingly, profound and moreover Bale proves he is not just interested in entertainment but superb acting and imperial showmanship. This Batman is a flawed hero, and he begins to realize the real damage that his personal hatred for the Joker could bring him down to the very same crime he vowed to erase from the beginning. Nolan brilliantly brings a very emotional side to his Dark Knight, and Bale churns out another fantastic show.
The supporting characters are also magnificent. While he had only a few scenes in “Batman Begins,” Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon receives a lot more screen time and a much more fleshed out character. Unlike Pat Hingle’s comedic portrayal in Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher’s movies, Oldman brings us a noble yet beautifully exhausted Gordon. This Gordon is much like the one Frank Miller created in “Batman: Year One” and it is exceedingly refreshing to see an actor with the prestige of Oldman dedicating such grace to a once laughable character.
Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman also return for this bat-venture. The latter is his typical self, however his humorous timing works very well for his particular role and it would be hard to see anybody else in the role at this point except for Freeman. Michael Caine was Oscar-worthy in the first film, and shows why he’s one of the greatest actors of all time with another lived-in performance as Alfred. Like Hingle, Michael Gough was always enjoyable to watch in the other flicks, but Caine notably researched his role and like the title of Nolan’s previous film he shows why he has prestige.
The only cast change that was made for this film was in the character of Rachel Dawes. In “Batman Begins” the role seemed phoned-in by the one-hit-film-wonder Katie Holmes. She was recast and the great Maggie Gyllenhaal stepped in to fill her heels. In this movie, Dawes is not as profound a character as she was when we met her three years ago but Gyllenhaal does add a refinement that was missing from Holmes’ performance.
For fans of Aaron Eckhart, his performance is eerily insurmountable. He offers trustworthiness to the character of Harvey Dent that had never really been translated to the screen. Billy Dee Williams wasn’t Harvey Dent in the earlier films; he was just Lando Calrissian taking a break in Gotham City. In “The Dark Knight” Dent is a major character and the talent of Eckhart shines through wondrously. When he makes the inevitable change into the villain he is destined to become, Eckhart’s physical appearance and voice transform into a sickly cool son-of-a-bitch whose penchant for coin-flipping is the embodiment of a great movie bad guy.
In the history of acting in film, there have been moments of absolute consummation that rarely take place. And even in those occasions, a lot of people tend to miss the genius that was delivered. Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker is a privileged look at one of these rare instances. His personification of pure, unfettered evil is downright terrifying. He is the unadulterated fire to Batman’s oil or as his character describes, “This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.” Early reviews announced an instant Oscar nomination for Ledger, posthumously of course, and it would be easy to take the critical route and say that it would be a pity vote. After watching his immaculately insane performance it’s much easier to say that had we not lost one of the best young actors of our generation, he would still have found himself not only being nominated but winning.
After years of being sort of an enigma in a range of smaller independent films to big budget adventures, Ledger won international acclaim as Ennis Del Mar in the gorgeous “Brokeback Mountain.” Instead of leaving that performance as his only critical legacy, it’s absolutely gratifying to see an actor at the top of their game delivering poignancy to a character that had never been seen. Ledger’s joker is the best performance on screen this year, and without any question the best villain rendered in any comic film ever.
In comparison to Jack Nicholson’s classic job as the clownish criminal, there can be no comparison. These two Jokers are completely different characters in a completely different series. Nicholson’s Joker does seem to be degraded as a sort of a who’s-your-uncle type mob boss after Ledger’s demented maniac. Jack’s jester would be shaking in his boots if he ever ran into the new clown in town.
Performances aside, Nolan confirms he’s not giving up on our new favorite screen hero. His respect for the character, the series, the fans, the critics, and the audience validates a superb cinematic experience. The script is near flawless, and Batman has never been better. Nolan demonstrates a real talent for filmmaking, and it’s hard to say if there are any other superior contemporary directors with the amount of intrigue and explosive addiction to the screen as Batman’s most literate artist.
A notably darker film attributed to the never-before-seen self-doubt to Batman, “The Dark Knight” is simply the perfect film we all wanted it to be. It is an undiluted masterpiece, timed excellently and never dull. A third film is not only inevitable, but ultimately deserved. For now, Nolan & Co. have delivered us an expertly moving masterpiece and we get the privilege to watch one of the best performances from a truly great actor.