The Dark Knight

For my money, Batman is the super hero. I just don't need any others. Ever since Micheal Keaton donned the cape in '89, sexing up Kim Basinger and layin' the smack down on Nicholson's creepy-cool Joker, I've been totally hooked. I was seven. It was an awesome movie then, and it's an awesome movie now. It was dark, gothic, and straight as an arrow. I watched it endlessly. The film was the product of Tim Burton, who was then unproven as a helmer of big budget projects, and it turned out to be his first major breakthrough, and a major, major hit to boot.

From there, as with most movie franchises, Batman's panache slowly began to wane. Batman Returns took a strange (if fun) turn, and the others that followed only continued the trend, slowly sinking into schlocky awefulness. But, as nearly all failed franchises do, Batman was given a reprieve. Warner Brothers again put the fate of their beloved Batman in the hands of a competent, fairly green director, Christopher Nolan. The resulting film, Batman Begins, successfully reinvigorated the character's reputation. Christian Bale was Bruce Wayne, and Nolan put Batman back in the seedy, corrupt Gotham where he belongs. But it was 2005, not '89, and Batman Begins showed the effects of the fifteen years in between, cramming in as many characters (remember Rutger Hauer? Ra's Al Ghul??) and weird subplots as possible, extending it's runtime well past the 120 minute mark, and clearly laboring to supply it's viewers as much bang for their buck as plausably possible. In the end, though roundly excellent, the film strained credulity just a touch. Either way, Batman was back, and we were glad to have him.

Starting out with a weird whimper, with Batman encountering the now docile Scarecrow from the first film (?), The Dark Knight quickly picks up where Begins left off, and we plunge into the labyrinthine story. We are introduced to Harvey Dent (played by Aaron Eckhart,) Gotham's new District Attourney and "white light," ready to take on the unruly mobsters who hold control the city. Eckhart, unfortunately, is one of those actors (like Nicholas Cage) who can really only play one person: himself. Thus, Dent comes off like a soulless puppet, even though I think we are meant to take his talk of cleaning up the town to heart. The part needed a touch of boyish altruism, but instead Dent merely competes with Batman for the affections of his city, and of his fiancee (Bruce's former girlfriend, Rachel.) I can't buy Eckhart as Gotham's saviour, and the character falls totally flat. But the film presses on, quickly relieved by it's other excellent performances. Gary Oldman, reprising as Chief Gordon, is the heart and soul of the film. His cop 'stache and straight talk keep everything grounded, and keep Gotham feeling like a real place. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman again return, dependable as ever. Maggie Gyllenhall is given the seemingly simple task of replacing Katie Holmes in the role of Rachel Dawes, but though I know Gyllenhall to be an infinitely better actress, and much more attractive than Holmes (I'm not sure why, exactly, but she is,) Rachel is sadly boring as ever. Then, of course, we have.. the Joker.

At one point, the Joker enters a scene and announces himself as "tonight's entertainment." This introduction may as well be directed at the viewer, as a more perfect description can't be penned. Heath Ledger's performance elevates the film from a perfunctory sequel into a riveting, thrilling entertainment. Though I still feel Ledger takes most of his cues from Nicholson, his Joker is absolutely spellbinding, and remarkably consistent. You can't take your eyes off him, and he imbues the film with it's rousingly troubled soul. Hollywood seems to be painting itself into a corner offering up super-dishy parts for villians (see: No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood) and leaving the straight (read: hero) parts to a lesser caliber of actor. To his credit, Bale's performance is efficient but unremarkable. Certainly he lacks the goofy, funny side that was Keaton's trademark. But, after all, perhaps Batman purists would prefer him this way.

The action, of which there is much, is equal parts hit and miss. The parade of fistfights, though competent, are easily the least interesting scenes of the movie. The stunt setpieces, however, are mostly fantastic, particularly the absolutely apeshit armored vs semi truck chase through the heart of Gotham (or, for attentive Chicagoans, lower Wacker Drive. Chicago hasn't looked this gritty and fantastic in a film since The Fugitive.) The script, even in it's talky moments, is actually pretty impressive and fun to listen to. Like the Joker, The Dark Knight has a bunch of nasty little tricks to play on you. For two and a half hours, it just keeps throwing shit at you.

In this way, the film is a product of the current movie climate, where every big movie with big expectations (ie; Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, James Bond ) is guaranteed to arrive in theaters equally big in size, it's producers injecting artificial "value" in the form of extended run times. This has made for an abundance of overlong (if sometimes excellent) films, of which The Dark Knight is certainly one. After the first fully satisfying climax, the movie just refuses to die, setting up another round of Joker play that, while plenty of fun, is just too much already. If you know anything about Batman (or have overheard any of the millions of people who have seen the film except you talking about it,) you know who Harvey Dent eventually is to become. So, he becomes him. Eckhart is especially awful in these scenes, and I was left hoping that Nolan and company had squeezed the character into this film in order not to have to depict him in the next one. After Ledger's magnificent turn as the Joker, any new villian is almost guaranteed to feel like a tremendous letdown.

Eventually, finally, the film ends, and you are free to relieve your overworked bladder and ponder Ledger's spectacular performance. I can understand people's complaints about this film. In my heart, I may share them. But The Dark Knight does a lot of things right, and it is surely a marked improvement from its predecessor, which was itself an excellent exercise. Not every scene plays, but it's a 152 minute movie, and there are plenty that play just fine, and more than a few that are wonderful. For my money, I'll gladly plunk down $11 every three years or so for another one of these (trust me, IMAX is worth the extra.) Basically, you either respond to it or you don't. And if you've ever liked a superhero movie in your life, you will respond to it. If you haven't.. why did you buy your ticket?

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