Brace Yourselves for “The Dark Knight”

Brace Yourselves for “The Dark Knight” July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight is my favorite superhero movie for adults. It’s every bit as good as you’ve heard, and probably better.

But it’s not for kids. Heath Ledger’s Joker is one of the greatest portrayals of the devil I’ve ever seen… perhaps the best.

I’ll have much more to say later this weekend, but I’m on my way to an island to work on the third strand of The Auralia Thread, so I’ll catch up with you all later. In the meantime, you know what to do… go see it, and post your impressions of the film here.

Oh, and if you want a full review, Steven Greydanus appears to love it as much as I do.

So deeply does The Dark Knight delve into the darkness that lurks in the hearts of men that it comes almost as a shock, bordering on euphoria, to find that it maintains a tenacious grip onto hope in the human potential for good.

There is nothing glib or pat about this. The vision of evil is too morbid, the losses too tragic, the moral choices too murky, the heroes too hard pressed, too compromised. Here is evil as incalculable and remorseless as Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, as capricious and Mephistopholean as Russell Crowe’s Ben Wade in 3:10 to Yuma. I have described those earlier films as nihilistic, and the same word has been used by a number of critics, both positively and negatively, to describe The Dark Knight. This is a mistake. Like many middle movies, The Dark Knight is darker than its predecessor — but something else is here, beyond the calculations of men like Chigurh and Wade. Nihilism gets a hearing, but it does not carry the day.

And here’s a post by my friend Wayne, who accompanied me to the IMAX screening Wayne concludes:

When you go, pay special attention to Gary Oldman. As my friend Jeff Overstreet and I were discussing the film afterward, we shared a great admiration for the actor’s performance as Jim Gordon, Batman’s ally with the Gotham City police. It is noteworthy as a fine turn by a consummate actor: he represents the heart of the film. Heath Ledger’s final performance as the Joker is a bravura piece of theater that deserves every bit of praise it garners, yet I found Oldman’s character the more affective because of his subtlety and warmth. Check it out and see for yourself.


Here’s what I posted at when I had a few moments to cheer:

Best serious superhero movie for grownups ever.

Oldman: He’s the heart of the series. Man I love this guy. He’s the most human, and the most appealing, admirable presence. He’s Nolan’s secret weapon.

Eckhart: Gives Harvey Dent more gravitas and heart than anyone had a right to expect.

Bale: For me, he’s the weak link in the film. His journey is the least interesting, and the other actors leave stronger impressions.

Freeman: Has a priceless, priceless moment of condescending glee.

Caine: Making this Alfred so much more vital and interesting. “How did you catch the thief in Birnam forest?” Great moment.

Gyllenhaal: Makes you wish they could digitally insert her in Batman Begins.

And Ledger. Sweet honey in the rock… he’s as good as the hype promised. He’s not just better than Nicholson’s Joker: his best scenes are better than any villain-scenes Nicholson’s ever done. And there’s a moment with a faulty detonator that I can’t wait to watch again. … I too won’t begrudge him an Oscar, although it would be a shame to have psycho killers win Best Supporting Actor two years in a row.

And speaking of Javier Bardem… isn’t it odd that another film exploring such similar questions as No Country would make such a big deal about death-by-coin-toss?

One obvious allusion to Apocalypse Now was well-deserved. And the comparisons to Michael Mann’s Heat are more than appropriate. The last 20 minutes that have earned so many complaints are absolutely necessary: Any other conclusion would have felt like a cheap set-up for a sequel, or would have cut short the story arcs of a two or three vital characters.

The subtle ways in which Batman and the Joker are compared/contrasted are fascinating, like the way both characters take champagne glasses and empty them before pretending to drink.

And the film contains the spectacular ruination of a line made famous in an earlier film by Tom Cruise. The line made me laugh out loud in surprise. (It was such a shock, I wondered if it was included as a cheap shot at Cruise. Did Cruise have anything to do with Katie Holmes not being in this film? If so, I wonder if this was a punishment. If not, it’s a very strange choice. Anybody else here know what I’m talking about?)

The film contains at least three exhilarating action scenes that had the crowd cheering. Batman’s motorcycle is wicked cool. And the term “Sky Hook” will no longer be associated with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

I couldn’t disagree more with [those who think it’s too long, or too complicated, or has too many main characters.]

Surely a comic book movie can handle three main characters and two supporting characters, and two of Batman’s helpers. And this takes Bruce, Harvey, Joker, Gordon, Rachel, Alfred, and Freeman and develops ALL of them impressively.

I was exhausted by the action, but not by the story. It’s an incredibly ambitious, thoughtful, complex exploration of the question “How do we responsibly deal with the problem of evil without becoming monsters ourselves?” It wrestles with the question every bit as thoughtfully as No Country for Old Men (although I’m not sure it offers any more hope). And while the allusions to how America has responded to national and international threats post-9/11 are painfully obvious, they are important parts of the story and never too preachy. They are timely and relevant, and pushed just hard enough.

In closing, I’ll add that I had that rare feeling watching this movie that I’m seeing something that I will end up watching many, many times in the future, to appreciate it more and more. It made me think of such landmark moviegoing experiences as Die Hard, Terminator 2, Heat, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather 1 & 2, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’m not saying it’s as great as those films, but it has that kind of seriousness and immediacy, and the action is utterly convincing, without a single moment that made me think “Aw, man… that was animated.” The effects and stunts seemed like real, live action spectacle, and that added to the film’s enthrallment. It will remain on the list of my favorite first-time viewings.

And I’m sorry, Andrew O’Heihr… you’re one of my favorite critics, but my enjoyment of this film is not some kind of denial or “arrested development.” This is American mythmaking of the richest kind. The Greeks had their gods. We’ve got The Dark Knight.

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15 responses to “Brace Yourselves for “The Dark Knight””

  1. cruv:

    Dark Knight in any case, offers worldy hope, empty and superficial, and which comes from someone who is not truly righteous and blameless. Trying to make the relation to Christ is in no way intended and but a valid stretch of the invidual’s mind that is beyond the accomplishments of the movie.

    I still hold the movie speaks of goodness too, but not in a very powerful way.

    I like the hope or the strong portrait of good and purity in No Country that outshines the portrait of a perverted lost world (and its characters) that seems prevalent in the movie as much as they are prevalent in the elements of an our accursed “world”. I like how the movie rescues what is not of this world and contrasts it to a tough environment that is a metaphor to this world and its forces.

    I just dont think there is any comparison between the impressive, exciting, ambitious but in the end business constrained and flawed Dark Knight to the power of a movie like No Country.

  2. I definitely would claim Dark Knight is the best superhero movie – ever; with one exception, I’d classify Batman as the anti-anti-hero. Ledger was stellar as the Joker (aka the Devil).

    I agree with almost everything except:

    “It wrestles with the question every bit as thoughtfully as No Country for Old Men (although I‚Äôm not sure it offers any more hope).”

    It offers hope; just not the hope we expected. The thought that came to me at the end was, “He became sin for us.” Batman became what the people of Gotham needed; not necessarily what they wanted. That establishes, to some degree, hope.

    He’s not just better than Nicholson’s Joker: his best scenes are better than any villain-scenes Nicholson’s ever done.

    As I was watching, I thought, “wow, he makes Nicholson look like just a mean Sunday School boy.”

    Why do we celebrate “evil” film characters so much?

    I don’t think we’re celebrating the evil character so much as the performance. There is a difference. Saying Ledger did such an excellent job as the Joker is not the same thing as saying, “the Joker is awesome!”

  3. Loved the movie, I personally do agree with many critics, yet I don’t think that makes it less of an impressive feat and one that is to be memorable through time. I don’t want to dwell on what I disagree with from your comments, except that you say that 1) it deals with the topic every bit as thoughtfully as No Country, 2) while implying that No Country offers little hope.

    About number one, I don’t think it would be too hard to accept that the dark knight is a little bit more entertained in making itself work than in dealing with these topics, even if it does to a certain degree decently for all that it does accomplish commercially speaking. At least I think this should be easily revealed after more viewings, but even if you never see it as such, it is not important.

    I want to post this more because I don’t want you to overlook the hope that is present–maybe in both–but at least in No Country (and if in both, it shows itself with more life in NCFOM).

    Batman explicitly states that goodness is still there, in the people, yet this goodness seems to be more stagnated in wordly matters, portraying this goodness to be at risk with the fate of Harvey Dent and the workings of the Joker.

    (SPOILERS AHEAD) No Country on the other hand, shows it as being a lot more transcendent from this world to the point that death doesn’t seem to matter that much by the end. Through subtle means, they make you end up feeling the optimism of the lady’s strength and determination on the existence of goodness regardless of the cynical worldview of the worldly anton (who is but like another bush in the dry landscape, that violent but limited world they so masterfully showcase) and even regardless of life and death on this earth. By the end of the movie, you care less that anton “wins” in the perverted muddle of the rotten world which he not only inhabits, but conforms and is limited to. The movie clearly offers the hope by making you feel there is more than anton’s dull limited worldview and that we can transcend it, even if anton and the evil of the world will remain as part of it (until its end). That goodness is regardless of the threat of death.

    I don’t want to elaborate too much or to at least try to better explain stuff, as I dont want to bore you and well, mostly, as it is pretty late for me already and I shouldnt spend more time writing this. But I did want to throw the main idea out there for your consideration and so that you can get to enjoy part of the accomplishment of that movie that you MIGHT have overlooked.

  4. What an intense, incredible moviegoing experience! I went to bed pondering Ledger’s Joker and woke up still thinking about the character. A number of the comments echo my thoughts from last night — that Ledger’s Joker is the most convincing depiction of Satan in film. Satan is often portrayed as a sort of suave man of the world (think Faust’s Mephistopheles or Pacino in Devil’s Advocate), but it is much more terrifying to think of him as a force of chaos that revels in evil for evil’s sake. In this sense, he’s closer to Shakespeare’s Iago, often cited as the greatest villain in literature. Likewise, the biblical Satan, who seems to need no reason to torment Job or tempt Eve than the “sport” of it, as Alfred might say. The terror is magnified by the fact that there’s no convincing back story; we never learn his true identity or the real story of where he got his scars. Like Satan, The Joker simply is.

    Good stuff.

  5. Ledger was stellar, yes, but…

    He’s not just better than Nicholson’s Joker: his best scenes are better than any villain-scenes Nicholson’s ever done.

    I’m not sure I’d go that far. Maybe. But Nicholson’s best villain moments in The Departed and The Shining are hard to beat. Time will tell if any of Ledger’s Joker moments have the iconic shelf life of a “Heeeeeerrrre’s Johnny”…

    In any case, I’m fascinated by how much people are responding to Ledger’s performance… which is as visceral an embodiment of pure evil as I can imagine. Why do we celebrate “evil” film characters so much? I’m posting something about that on Monday.

  6. DId anyone other than me think of “screwtape Letters” when watching Ledger on the screen. I thought he was really channeling that form of the devik

  7. Brilliant movie, though it could have been a half-hour shorter (the whole Hong Kong sequence, while very cool, was unecessary; they could have introduced the “sonar” another way). I haven’t felt so overwhelmed by a film since Memento.

    But the same thing happened at my showing as at chessncoffee’s–people laughing during the ferry scene in particular. I couldn’t tell who they were, but their reaction doesn’t surprise me too much, given the almost complete lack of comic relief in the final act (the Joker was just too horrific to be funny).

    Anyway, here’s my review.

  8. Loved the movie. My favorite “superhero film”. (If you can call it that. It’s not really a “superhero” film to me.)

    One thing that disturbed me: the crowd I watched the film with laughed at some of the most brutal scenes in the film. They didn’t just laugh at the Joker’s one liners, or occasionally funny antics, they were laughing (and clapping!) when he was shooting and killing people, blowing things up, etc. They laughed during the saddest scene in the film. It was like they thought the film was a comedy.

  9. I agree with you nearly 100% on absolutely everything – this film is a near-masterpiece (and the only reason I hesitate in calling it that is because only time can tell a true masterpiece). Here’s an interesting link I found – and it’s simply THE most thought out, well-balanced, even-handed look at the film that I have yet to read (and I’ve read at least ten or twenty reviews of this film in full). It’s by Manohla Dargis, from the New York Times, and in one fell swoop she’s easily become one of my favorite critics.

    I’ve seen the Dark Knight twice and cannot wait to see it again.

  10. I saw it again today. EVEN BETTER THAN THE FIRST TIME.

    Ledger is just as convincing and terrifying in a second viewing. In fact, the complexity of the character is even more amazing. Ledger’s final moments in the film are an absolutely stunning piece of acting.

    I was similarly struck by Oldman this second time around. And that Morgan Freeman…. loved it so much.

    I want to see it yet again. Soon.

  11. I think that is what makes Ledger’s Joker so interesting and unsettling in the film. He keeps giving random stories about his origin…much like the comics, which have given multiple origins…I think this is truest to the most interesting interpretations of the Joker in the comics. They were clearly channeling Arkham Asylum a bit in this-what with juxtaposition between the Batman and Joker.

  12. I watched Knight tonight, and the only other time I’ve been as viscerally unsettled by a movie is Eraserhead. I had to listen to Rosie Thomas songs for half an hour before I could go to bed. But there’s a crucial difference for me between Lynch’s nightmare and Nolan’s nightmarish vision.

    Jeffrey, you’re right when you call the Joker the devil; nothing else quite captures the character. Certainly there have been monstrous characters, like Anton Chigurh, before, but none of them acted with the gleefully nihilistic self-awareness of the Joker. While what he does is terrifying, the much more disturbing thing is that he doesn’t have any reasons or explanations for why’s become so grotesque. (The father scene is contradicted by a later speech he gives, and I don’t think either of them is genuine.)

    But Greydanus is right: Nolan isn’t looking into the darkness just to see what’s there. He’s looking for traces of humanity and purpose there.

    It’s an outstanding, powerful film, true and even beautiful in its own way, but I really can’t imagine wanting to watch it again.

  13. My review; an amazing, though draining, film . . . The Nolan brothers have the cerebral entertainment game all locked up, and they’re likely to ruin the superhero genre for me.

  14. Beautifully put by Greydanus, as usual.

    Since I first saw the film, the Joker’s “why so serious” has been echoing back and forth between my brain and my subconscious. I think that line is one of the key lines in the movie, and the scene where he tells the story of his father is one of the key scenes.

    To the Joker life is meaningless, a cheap commodity, even a toy. But to Bruce Wayne/Batman life is a serious thing and he is dedicated to protecting it and saving it. The Joker doesn’t even care much about his own life. One of the reasons I think the movie works so well on an emotional level is that pitted against one another are these two views of life. That Batman can’t save everyone (or worse, sometimes anyone) only adds to this drama. And pitted between them is Harvey Dent, a man dedicated more to Justice and Democaracy than to life.

    Yes, Ledger’s performance is harrowing. He plays the Joker like a child enjoying a game, though to everybody but him, this is no game to be taken lightly. To everyone else, the consequences of actions mean something: that the difference between life and death is meaningful.

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