Release Date: July 18
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Cinematographer: Wally Pfister
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Studio/Run Time: Warner Bros. Pictures, 142 mins.
Of the recent attempts to reset a moribund Hollywood franchise, Batman Begins (2005) stands as one of two unqualified successes. The series had run out of steam when Christopher Nolan’s injection of gritty realism—not to mention complete disregard for any prior film in the series—jerked it back to life. This new Batman was no polished smirker, but rather, a brooding Christian Bale, a loner with a hero complex and too much money. This Gotham City was no expressionistic Oz on a black sound stage, but a clone of Chicago, shown in broad daylight just before it sank into darkness.
This year, both Batman and James Bond (Casino Royale (2006) being the other recent “reset” success) are back to see if they can sustain a second film along the new trajectory. The first to appear is The Dark Knight, in which Nolan not only raises the bar for superhero movies, again, but also presses a summer full of comic-book films under the heel of an impressive bat boot.
In 2008, Gotham’s crime syndicate is floundering, but a new villain has arrived, a sadistic clown played by Heath Ledger in his final performance, a transformation so complete that Ennis from Brokeback Mountain would be stunned to see this man in the mirror. His cracking, sloppily applied face paint, his slack but jerking mannerisms, and certainly the lines written for him all present this Joker as a disturbed, articulate terrorist who’s hell-bent on creating chaos. His pinched voice sounds like Tom Waits with a dash of Al Franken: not the growling or screeching Waits, but the quiet, poetry-reciting one, the guy whom the ocean doesn’t want, the guy who wonders, “What’s he building in there.”
Nolan manages his large cast in a way that makes each character full and important, and to do that, he’s tapped some excellent actors. He doesn’t ask them to ham it up, doesn’t want them to emerge from the shadows like Harry Lime, but instead has them flesh out the Gotham elite as if they’re making The Godfather. I love the way they refer to the caped crusader as “the batman,” subtly knocking him down from superhero to city novelty, like “the naked cowboy.”
The exhilarating script, which Nolan wrote with his brother Jonathan, draws momentum from the idea that principles are at stake. Unlike the usual egocentric superheroes, this one puts his faith in a district attorney (Aaron Eckhart) who’s making a difference in Gotham, and Batman admires the way he gets results without resorting to costumes and violence.
But when Gotham falls to pieces, a future of clean justice begins to look like a pipe dream. It takes a tense and breathless couple of hours to arrive, and another 20 minutes to unspool, but the film’s climax doesn’t really peak until the movie’s last minute. In the final stretch, Nolan probably has a few too many plates in the air, and I’m not sure what all the shots of clocks are supposed to tell us if we don’t have a good sense of the deadline. But other comic-book films turn into CGI shoot-em-ups at this point, while the Nolans have built their action climax around Bruce Wayne’s interlocking complexes, testing them like clinical psychologists running a behavioral experiment the size of Chicago.
Maybe a bit too clinical, in fact. When their subject rationalizes his violent actions by discarding the “hero” title, are the Nolans criticizing “enhanced interrogation techniques” or cheering them on? It’s an ethical muddle wrapped up in a weapon fetish, but to the Nolans’ credit, this is the sort of question that the film’s main character ponders aloud, sometimes at the prodding of his enablers. That’s unusual—nearly unthinkable—for an action movie of this scale, even Iron Man, which was this summer’s best comic-book film until The Dark Knight opened a significant gap.