Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine
Year: 2008
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 152 mins

If Batman Begins kickstarted a new realistic DC universe, The Dark Knight spat rocks into bystanders faces and roared into the distance. Batman Begins grossed $372 worldwide in 2005 from a cost of $150 million. A good start, and the 8th highest grossing film of the year. In 2008 The Dark Knight joined the $1 billion club (with Titanic, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, The Phantom Menace and the first Pirates of the Caribbean sequel), and from a similar cost of just $180 million, although marketing spend would have been much higher.

There were many factors at play in The Dark Knight’s enormous paydirt success - which would result in the blank chequebook that let Nolan make Inception. There was the pedigree of the initial film, Batman Begins, the salivating concept of a Nolan-style tackling of Batman’s iconic nemesis, and of course the tragic death of Heath Ledger shortly before its release.

This cocktail of design and misfortune resulted in new peaks of hype and expectation, particularly as word spread that the late Heath Ledger had delivered something truly memorable, and frequently jaw dropping, as new Gotham’s wayward clown in residence.

Compared to Begins, The Dark Knight was also a huge leap in scale. For all intents and purposes, Begins was an indie film disguised as a blockbuster. A precision guided missile. In comparison, TDK were four of Tony Stark’s Jericho bombs strapped together and dropped from space. It always wanted to be the loudest and purplest at the party.

In a new villain centric installment, The Dark Knight would have Aaron Eckhart (Thank You For Smoking) playing district attorney Harvey Dent, and ultimately becoming Two-Face, but there could be no doubt that the big draw was Heath Ledger’s Joker. A Joker-based teaser campaign had even begun over a year before the release. As a Batman symbol was gradually eroded, Alfred’s voiceover warned that: “You hammered them, and in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand. Some men can’t be bought, bargained, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

It was true goose-pimply, event movie stuff. The hype train had already left the station.

Previous inhabitants of the green wig role were Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Mark Hamill (voice in the animated series, who would reprise his role for the Rocksteady “Arkum” games). However, this would not only be a new joker, but tragically also Heath Ledger’s last complete performance before he died. The question was how would Nolan – this time screenwriting with his brother Jonathan (although Goyer remained with a story credit) – fit the Joker, and Two-Face, into his more realistic Bat-verse, and how would he combat the slippery pickle of Batman once again becoming focused on its villains?

If Nolan’s more realistic approach to villains hadn’t been noticed in Begins, it was loud and clear after TDK. Rather than worrying about the creation of the Joker and why he came to look like a clown, what Goyer and the Nolans did, as usual, was go another way. As in Batman Begins, they would worry about what went on inside his head. What the Joker actually wanted in life. It seems odd now that the Joker was never developed as far as TDK in his previous screen iterations, as it seems so obvious now. In the past the Joker just generally tried to destroy Gotham, and Batman, and Batman ultimately stopped him. In The Killing Joke - one of the more serious Joker comics - Watchmen author Alan Moore explored what triggered the Joker’s insanity, giving him a bad luck comedian back story, and a twisted motive in the present (he paralyses Barbara Gordon and tries to drive Commissioner Gordon insane – just to prove anyone could become him if they just “had a bad enough day”). However he always remained comic-book evil and insane.

Like in The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight’s Joker didn’t want money. He didn’t want revenge or power. Unlike The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight’s Joker didn’t spike people with Joker poison or want to prove that deep down, everyone could be just like him (though TDK would certainly nod to this in its finish). No, Nolan and Goyer’s Joker simply wanted to shake things up … because that is what Joker’s do.

They didn’t even give him an origin story or a chemical white face. Heath Ledger wore makeup that would rub off as “war paint” and his smile… his lipstick smile… was a creepy smudged over Chelsea scar. Yikes. The Joker himself would explain one time that it was caused by his abusive father, and another that he did it himself to help the morale of his disfigured wife. No one had any idea where he was from, and it didn’t matter. He was a law unto himself.

Instantly people saw this level-up in Joker intensity and got excited all over again. The Joker didn’t need that origin story - Batman created him just by creating a world where wearing a mask was considered acceptable. The subtlety was clever, and together with Ledger’s performance, the clown became an awe-inspiring and unpredictable experience.

After the groundwork heavy lifting of Begins, The Dark Knight could get going straight away. With Bruce’s mansion, burned down in the first film, still being rebuilt, Bruce was living in a city penthouse and operating from an underground cavern in the docks. He was tracking the money of the mob, keen to take them down in one fell swoop, but also looking for a moment when Gotham could look after itself, and he didn’t need to be Batman. Unfortunately for all concerned, the man who could deliver that just so happened to be the man dating the Bruce’s sweetheart, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gygenhall playing an upgraded and spikier Katie Holmes).

This neat setup produced a complex triangle. Rachel was struggling to wait for Bruce to leave his cowl at the dry cleaners, which made Harvey Dent, on top of being destined for villainry, already Bruce’s simultaneous enemy and saviour.

A thematic triangle was also at play. Harvey Dent’s moral compass on fairness and luck would clash with the Joker’s of chaos, and in between Bruce Wayne and Batman would be torn between remaining a symbol of hope, and having innocent people suffering on his behalf. For after the Joker steals from the mob, he emerges from the shadows, publicly terrorizes Gotham and its mob, and escalates his terror while demanding Batman take off his mask, knowing that he can’t.

As a result of all the Joker focus, the development of Two-Face can feel unnecessarily added to an already fairly complete film, and the disturbing CGI of Harvey Dent’s new face begins to threaten the realistic world that Nolan had been building.

Furthermore, with a complex plot and 3 large characters to follow, TDK becomes slightly wobblier than its predecessor and its 2 hours 40 minutes begins to show. Especially on repeat viewing. There are a few too many plot strands, linking scenes that are fun but don't always make sense (e.g. the threatened murder of Colman Reese - how does the guy who tries to ram the van know he's in there?) and ultimately the "going to have to make a choice" motifs begin to border hokey and over-laboured territories by the third or fourth trial-by-Joker.

However this is nit-picking in a film where Nolan parades with a permanent sense of scale and flair, marshalling even bigger set pieces and ending, and skillfully ushering Batman towards his next stage - self-sacrifice.

Repeat viewings can never replicate the astonishment of the first (the pencil trick, truck flip and the burning of all that cash to reaffirm the Joker's message), and cracks do show under the strain of three heavyweight characters and excess moralising. That said, there have been few films this century that have stirred so many into astonishment, and the memories of how it felt to share those moments in a crowded cinema are fun to relive once more.

If the strength of Begins was its intricacy and smarts, the strength of TDK is its scale and propensity to get jaws on the floor.

At the end of this week we will know whether TDK was a middle step, or temporary indulgence for Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Since 2008 rumours have circled that Harvey Dent never died (Maroni previously commenting that he wouldn’t die if dropped from a similar height), and that Joseph Gordon Levitt bears a strong resemblance to the late Heath Ledger. However more believable sources indicate that the Joker and Two-Face are now gone, and that another, Begins-related menace is stalking Gotham city once more…

Whichever way it goes, The Dark Knight will always be the billion dollar middle installment, and remembered as much for the tragedy of Heath Ledger as it will for his performance, and the way his character was written. Taking on the Joker was a big call, but TDK once again proved there were the brains to go somewhere new.

So, once again, it was mission accomplished for Nolan, cast and production team.

And the hype train was reset for summer 2012.

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One Response

  1. David Brook

    Another great write up. You mirror my thoughts on the film almost exactly. It’s a fantastic achievement, but suffers a little under the strain in the last third. I still can’t wait to watch the finale this weekend, despite any minor grievances I have with the series and they are minor, they’re both great films. Now I need to book my tickets before it sells out!

    Reply

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