"...we will be looking at the definitive comic book series..."

The Definitive Second Act

(072508) When a movie gets things so right, the least a writer can do is to take the time and find the exact words that it deserves. While hyperbolic phrases and fan boy adjectives swim around in my head, they are somewhat cheap and childish compared to what a rich and mature piece of work that The Dark Knight is. Yes, the word mature has been applied to a comic book translation. No less to a character that has endured the campiness of a Ď60s TV show, Tim Burtonís Prince soundtrack and Joel Schumacherís emasculating reimagination. Christopher Nolan brought him into the 21st century and took so much care in setting up Batman Begins that it immediately became one of the best comic book film ever made. For its inevitable sequel it would have been so easy, now having reinvigorated Batman fanatics and hooking a few uninitiated, to take the standard studio approach to bigger, faster, louder. Throw money at the venture and let the filmmakers run wild until it acted and sounded like every other big budget summer tent-pole. Along with his screen-writing partner brother, Jonathan, Christopher Nolan has gone beyond every call of duty including the unwritten rule that sequels cannot possibly measure up to the original. You will notice that those which are almost universally accepted as accomplishing that feat are also considered some of the finest films ever made (i.e. The Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back). The Dark Knight rises to that ranking as the most brilliantly complex, perfectly paced, nerve-jangling, moral-wrangling film ever based on a graphically detailed literary work and, dare I say, one of the most important American films to be made in years.

For those remembering the tease at the end of Nolanís first chapter, a criminal known as The Joker (Heath Ledger) has been robbing banks across Gotham. We are witness first hand to one in the opening scene led by the mysterious sociopath colored with green hair and white makeup. Meanwhile, the Batman phenomenon has really taken hold around the city. Before he can even answer the bat signal, crude amateurs arrive on the scene in homemade outfits and awkwardly try to thwart the criminals. It may seem like precisely the kind of inspiration that Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) was hoping for with his little gambit but their sloppiness is liable to eventually produce greater harm than good. Those scars and late nights are catching up to him though and it would be nice to have a little more reliable help.

Bruce isnít sure what to make yet of District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), especially since heís dating his childhood friend, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over for Katie Holmes). Heís out there making speeches and doing his best to put away mob boss Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts) but is he just another politician or a true-to-life do-gooder that can operate within the law instead of outside it? Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) isnít about to introduce his avenging wild card to the establishment but Dent and Wayne/Batman find each other on their own and recognize the otherís importance to stopping crime for good in Gotham. The Joker isnít interested in stability though. Once a detriment to the mobís cash stash, he is also joining forces to produce a reign of terror and restore his own twisted sense of balance back to the big city.

When history looks back upon the great villains of the cinema, it would be shortsighted and downright foolish not to include Ledgerís Joker in the discussion. And note I said Ledgerís Joker because this is more than just a full embodiment of even the most nightmarish view of the character. Every affectation, lizard-like tongue slurp, dialect octave and devil-eyed clarity that hypnotizes us into believing every word heís uttering turns the take of the character from Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson into a literal interpretation of his name. Ledgerís turn is no joke. His ďwar paintĒ isnít just for show. He is death incarnate; a terrorist of the first order that nothing on the color chart could warn us about, committing crimes in the light of day, escaping under cover of night and a large piece of The Dark Knightís master puzzle of moral contempt.

Ledger certainly doesnít ignore the flamboyance of the Jokerís twisted mental state. (Youíll never look at a disappearing trick the same way again.) But even as heís sliding down a mountain of cash, we are brought up to speed on the modernization of the character. The gangster archetype of old in it for the money now being replaced with the ďburn, baby, burnĒ psyche who would rather introduce fear into the world and watch it implode. While many accept the chemical bath method as the most common theory of the Jokerís creation (from the comics or Burtonís 1989 film), the Nolan's have done something very clever. Not just by throwing us into an already established villain (and not wasting a minute on a visual origin), but making him a mystery to even himself. Decades of comic issues have developed varying stories for the Jokerís existence and past speculation by his accomplices in the opening scene, Ledger spins one horrific tale after another feeding into his own legend but also the more terrifying prospect that evil has no definitive explanation.

Whatever he may or may not have done to himself, to go out on a performance of this magnitude will only feed into the tragedy of Ledgerís passing, especially when he IS nominated for supporting actor. Itís unfair to deflate the chances of all the unseen performances of 2008, but whatever may be in store for us during the final five months, The Dark Knight still should be nominated for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Makeup, Cinematography, Editing and Sound. Just to name a few. Itís also off the mark to spend multiple paragraphs on Ledgerís Joker when The Dark Knight is a true ensemble piece with even minor characters like Morgan Freemanís Lucius Fox, Michael Caine's Alfred and Gary Oldmanís welcome-ly elevated Lt. Gordon receiving major moments that define them.

Without clocking each actorís screen time, it would not surprise one if you were told that Bale, Ledger and Eckhart were within seconds of each other. As Batman Begins dealt primarily in beginnings, Baleís Bruce Wayne/Batman was a necessary dominance. The Dark Knight delves deeper into duality; another chunk of the giant puzzle. Batman on one side. The Joker on the other. Harvey Dent in-between; a split that obviously achieves an further allegorical slant towards the end. And still, Dent is no black-and-white figure. Making it clear early on that he sees Batman as a necessary evil, Dent cannot help but be fueled by the same anger when he feels unable to protect the citizens or even himself by those who donít prescribe to rules and codes. His lucky coin of chance allows him to ignore the tough choices and leave it to the higher power of fate, which has a not-so-funny way of deciding who lives and who dies. Since seeing the film, Iíve already been asked twice by friends why we should care about Harvey Dent. Itís very simple. Because Bruce Wayne cares about him and what he represents. Hope. Promise. A Better Life. Weíre already keyed into Bruce from the first film and instinctually we care about his interests and relationships, which are slowly being torn apart since his newly minted nightlife. First his house, the Wayne legacy and everything in-between. The Dark Knight is the tragedy of Harvey Dent for certain, but it is foremost a tragedy of us all.

With an election forthcoming this November, no matter what side youíre on we can all agree that the prevailing factor in one candidateís popularity is our belief in what he represents Ė Hope. Promise. Change. We want to believe. We want to care. We are Bruce Wayne wanting to protect him and will share the devastation if he turns out to be just another politician. Gotham is our world, the grungy half-empty glass where the Arkham inmates are running the asylum. (Even the privacy vs. safety debate surfaces during a key moment.) At least it was until Batman began making a difference, so it makes sense for Nolan & Co. to drop the pretense of Gotham being otherworldly and making the city look a whole lot like Chicago. (We are, after all, the much cleaner New York.) We all, also, have a little vigilante in us. Could just be through words or an errant thought on some unspeakable crime we hear on the nightly news. The Dark Knight finites the concept though (to far more lasting effect than Neil Jordanís pretentious The Brave One last year) and has its villain do what another Gotham-esque hero preached and thatís (paraphrasing) ďtaking the battle to us.Ē How will the public react when presented with the choice. Will we Ė could we Ė kill? Or would we BE killed? Boasting a lionís share of solid action set pieces (and drink-clutching moments of suspense), Nolan has avoided making everything that Batman does as ďcool.Ē Sure he can handle a motorbike as well as any circus performer and over-end a semi like nobodyís business, but we also see the scars, the consequences and the outrage of his actions.

The only film that even comes close this year to matching the power of this experience is WALL-E. But if that masterwork spoke to the child within me then The Dark Knight assuredly spoke to the adult. Blowing out of the water the elevated perception that fans have about the Spider-Man series (which went from good to outstanding to outright bad), Nolan is only two chapters in and heís already not just given us the greatest comic book series ever (with the two best films), he is only wetting our appetites for a finale to this presumed trilogy. Unlike Superman II and Spider-Man 2 (the now #3 and #4 of the cinema comics), the Nolan's leave a lot of room for an even greater psychological mind-screw about our own roles as masters of our society. The Dark Knight is bursting with so many ideas, so much tragedy, so much brilliance that its tempting to suggest that the filmmakers have thrown everything into it the way Spidey or Kal-El did in their second outings. As illustrated, tempting fate is never a good idea, but Iíd be willing to stake everything that by the time Christopher Nolan, his brother Jonathan and all the cast members deliver the final chapter, we will be looking at the definitive comic book series that is likely to endure for centuries. Nolan proves that the comic book movie does not have to be disposable junk food. It's about time.

Directed by:    Christopher Nolan
Written by:    Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, David Goyer
Starring:    Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart
Released:    07/18/08 (USA)
Length:    97 minutes
Rating:    PG-13 for  intense sequences of violence and
 some menace.

THE DARK KNIGHT © 2008 Warner Bros. Pictures
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