So, the question was going to be is DARK KNIGHT the best comic book movie ever made?
But it seems that the real question is whether or not it is the best MOVIE ever made. As I’m writing this, IMDB says it is with an average score of 9.5 vs. THE GODFATHER’s 9.1!
Well, it’s certainly the most ambitious comic book movie ever made. The movie runs two and a half hours and yet there are edits that seem jarring and transitions that are inelegant. Clearly Nolan was having a hard time putting all the movie he wanted into the film. The film never slows down. Many buildings blow up, there are a couple of car chases, numerous fights, daring rescues, and even a couple of shots of Batman standing on some architecturally improbable perch while brooding down at the city. But it’s not all action. No, far from it. In addition to the large supporting cast from the first movie, two major characters and a few minor ones are introduced, Gordon gets an enhanced role, there are several subplots all going at once and everyone gets a character arc. It’s been said that this isn’t just a good comic book movie, it’s a good movie PERIOD. That much is true. As a movie, it’s the best comic book movie ever made.
But that doesn’t really answer the question of whether it’s the best comic book movie.
Thematically, it’s certainly a very ambitious movie of any genre. Just as HEROES has introduced the mainstream television audience to some of the structural aspects of comic storytelling, here Nolan has introduced modern comic thematic sensibility to the mainstream movie audience. Thematically the film deals with chaos vs. order, the law of unintended consequences, the politics of affecting change even when it’s change for the better, and perhaps more than anything the idea that how you deal with adversity is the essence of your character. Ironically, heavy themes fit comic book movies. Since the characters are iconic and representational, they easily become avatars for larger ideas. Each character has had a disastrous event in his life, every character is deeply scarred, all have dealt with this in different ways.
The movie is about testing each the resolve of each way of dealing with tragedy. Each character is understood through his or her personal concept of morality and what rules they subscribe to. In this view, the Joker becomes both control group and experimenter, testing the rules of the other characters while apparently subscribing to no rules himself. Batman is his direct counterpart. There is no other character less likely to change or break his rules. Like the Joker, Batman’s rulebook has no respect for society’s mores but are instead completely internally derived. He cannot disobey them because they ARE him. Lucius Fox is almost as imperturbable, being willing to lose his job without regret for doing what he thinks is right. Gordon is a cop willing to break cop rules in order to avoid changing his ideas about right and wrong as well, but he has other concerns. Rachael thinks the legal system gets to make the rules for people. And Dent is the most labile both in that he is a believer in chance as a prime motivator and by being bi-polar himself, thus having two sets of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.
Where each of these people draw the line, and whether they will cross that line, is what this movie is all about. Nolan knows that this is the essence of drama; the human heart in conflict with itself. The movie is shot as a stylized police procedural. The motivations and conflicts take center stage. There just happens to be a guy in a flying rodent suit, and the ultimate scary clown running around in it.
The movie is long. And I mean LONG. I don’t think a comic book movie has ever gone over two hours before and this one’s a long-for-any-damn-movie two and a half hours. But even at that, it feels rushed in a couple areas. It also has an obvious second-act feel. (To paraphrase William Goldman, the second act is when you get your characters into as much trouble as you can.) You walk out of this movie with a feeling of melancholy the way you left THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. The movie was great but the ending was kind of a downer. There are more conflicts at the end of this movie than there are at the beginning and while both of the major antagonists are in custody they very much alive. This implies a third movie that would actually continue the story of the Joker and Harvey Dent. Unfortunately, the death of Heath Ledger precludes our ever seeing what he would have done with another go at the role. I wonder if this will derail the storyline or if they will recast? It’s going to be a hard act to follow, but they recast Rachael so it’s not unprecedented.
What is there left to say about Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker? There’s been talk about a posthumous Oscar nomination, which is very possible, but I don’t think he’ll win. Johnny Depp should have one for the first PIRATES movie and didn’t for the same reason. Hollywood just isn’t ready to hand out best actor to such an unconventional part. But just like Depp in PIRATES, Ledger is mesmerizing. When he’s on the screen you can’t look at anyone else. In latter day comic style, he takes a character and re-imagines him as something recognizable but unique. Here the Joker is the ultimate mad scientist, if you consider psychology a science. To him, everyone is just a lab rat. So he devises little tests- blow up one or the other, save one or the other, unmask or be responsible for countless deaths. At one point he makes a deal with organized crime in Gotham for half their assets, then burns the money in front of them just to see their reaction. But Ledger doesn’t play it clinically at all, Instead his Joker is true lunacy. You never know exactly what he is going to be. One instant menacing and the next almost pitiable. Ledger’s performance alone would make the movie worth seeing- astonishingly nuanced and frightening. And like no other Heath Ledger performance I’ve ever seen before.
Purists may fault the lack of an origin story for the Joker but that’s actually the way the Joker was introduced in the comics. The origin story came later. In fact it’s a nice inside running joke that the Joker tells everybody a different story about how he got his scars. And you have to admit that when Nolan recons something he puts some thought into it. Likewise, it seems far more likely that the Joker’s cheeks were cut to simulate a permanent smile than that being dropped in acid would freeze your face that way. The only other real retcons are small, Gordon’s promotion and bringing Dent closer into the supporting cast.
And that supporting cast is as excellent as we would expect. In addition to Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine, this movie adds Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent and Maggie Gyllenhall as the absent Kate Holmes as Rachael Dawes. Nothing to detract from the overall excellence here.
So is it the best movie or comic book movie or is it the reinvention of cinema? I don’t know if it’s any of those. But it is the most ambitious movie, comic or otherwise, of the year so far. And as soon as I post this I’m going to go see it again.