The Dark Knight (2008)

*. I have to begin these notes with an act of supreme critical heresy.
*. Like most people, I think The Dark Knight is dominated by the character of The Joker. This makes sense both because Batman’s enemies always upstage him and because this Joker is the best-written version of the character in the canon.
*. I mean, I’m so tired of these criminal masterminds who seem to have no real plan beyond having a plan. What was Ra’s al Ghul up to in Batman Begins? Something about bringing a sense of order back to the world by turning Gotham into a madhouse? Far better the committed anarchy of The Joker. As Alfred puts it, “some men just want to watch the world burn.” He’s a force of chaos but not just a force of chaos because chaos is a principle he really believes in. Look at how happy he is when Harvey Dent explains that a coin-flip will be used to determine his fate. That’s the way his world works.
*. The Joker also looks terrific here, with his cracked and streaky make-up and greasy greenish hair. When he insists that his purple suit is actually expensive (for being custom made, I’m guessing) it comes as a bit of a surprise. He looks like he sleeps in it.
*. But now here is the heresy: I don’t think Heath Ledger is all that good in the part. Especially after he went on to win a posthumous Academy Award it’s become customary to give him all the praise for making the movie what it is, but I actually think he lets the movie down a bit.
*. For one thing, he strikes me as more depressed than manic. Even blowing things up he doesn’t seem to be having a good time. Then his voice is odd as well, sounding pissy most of the time, at least to me. As for mannerisms, the way he keeps licking and smacking his lips as though he has a hair stuck in his mouth was annoying the first time he does it, and he continues to do it throughout the entire movie. Who told him that was a good idea?
*. I came prepared to cut this movie a lot of slack the first time I saw it. A bank robbery in broad daylight? A schoolbus backing through the front of a stone building without getting a dent or a scratch on it? Busty Russian ballerinas? Sure, why not. This is a comic book.
*. More damaging is the fact that, even given what I’ve said about Ledger’s turn as the Joker, The Dark Knight stalls when he isn’t on screen. This is mainly because it spends a lot of time developing its theme, which is all about The Joker’s attempt to corrupt Gotham, both in the figure of Harvey Dent and en masse by way of a deadly social-psychology experiment. Unfortunately, I found this angle both intellectually weak and overdrawn at the same time. You could argue that lines about how it’s always darkest before the dawn, and this town is full of good people, and Batman is the hero Gotham needs, are part of the whole comic book sensibility, but even comic books don’t sound like this in the twenty-first century.
*. I would have cut at least 30 minutes. Did we need to fly off to Hong Kong just for a ho-hum action sequence? I wondered all the more at this because I wasn’t sure what happened to Lau at the end anyway. He wasn’t that important. Nor, I might add, is Rachel Dawes. Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes from Batman Begins very nicely, but does anyone care?
*. Then again, what even happens to The Joker at the end? How disappointing to just be hustled off stage so we could end things with that routine hostage situation in the warehouse with Two-Face and Commissioner Gordon’s family.
*. At least they acknowledge how stiff Batman moves in his suit, which has led him to design something a little lighter and more flexible this time out. Not that I noticed much of a difference. I loved the featurette included with the DVD where costume designer Lindy Hemming says that the goal was to come up with something more subtle, like a suit of armour. Yeah, that’s subtle. But then Batman is a dark knight.

*. The politics are disturbingly simple-minded as well. The Joker as terrorist is an obvious association, and it’s hard not to think there was some conscious link to 9/11 with Batman’s posing in the smoldering ruins of buildings. But of course The Joker is not a political animal. He has no grievance or motivating purpose. Which is a dangerously dishonest way of understanding terrorism, which has a purpose, however deluded or evil that purpose it may be.
*. Is The Joker really an anarchist? I’m not sure we can trust him. We know he likes lying about how he got the scars on his face. But is he a guy who doesn’t play by the rules and makes no plans? Of course not. His plans are ridiculously elaborate, and he even has back-up plans for when things go wrong. He’s nothing if not scripted. So is he a paladin of anarchy, not anarchic himself? Or is he a methodical schemer? I think the answer goes back to what I said earlier about anarchism being something he believes in. He’s not without principles.
*. Then there’s Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) trying to be all principled himself when it comes to running a surveillance program that gathers up everyone in Gotham’s phone conversations. I’m not sure I understand his scruples here, seeing as the government, not to mention all of the Big Tech companies, are doing this anyway.
*. Christian Bale actually seems stiffer out of his Batman suit than he does in it this time. And his heavy Batman voice sounds even more laboured. It’s like watching a sort of rigor mortis setting in, a process that will only be complete at the end of The Dark Knight Rises when we see the hero finally turned into a stone monument.
*. It’s too long, and too full of itself, but it’s a good superhero movie. Apparently it’s considered by many people to be the greatest superhero movie ever made, and that may be true as well. I don’t think that makes it a great movie though.
*. In 2018 David Sims in The Atlantic looked back on its legacy and saw it, or more properly its critical and commercial success, as legitimating the genre of the superhero movie with studios: “the triumph of The Dark Knight transformed a non-prestige genre into a key part of every studio’s strategy moving forward.” More than that: “It did more than make money. It was such a phenomenon that it conferred instant validity on the comic-book movie and realigned studios’ business strategies — enough that, ironically, a movie like The Dark Knight could never be made again.”
*. The reason Sims says this is because he sees The Dark Knight (despite it being the middle part of a trilogy) as a “single-minded” one-off, and not part of the kind of massive franchising effort that would culminate in the industry dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m not so sure how much of this I’d go along with. I think such an analysis oversells how much of a gamechanger The Dark Knight was, as Marvel was about to triumph with its own formula regardless. And I think it also reads too much into The Dark Knight generally as a stepping stone for Christopher Nolan on his way to even greater things. Unless by “greater” you just mean more expensive. Personally, Inception and Interstellar strike me as mega-budget blockbusters that look stunning but show little advance in a more adult direction.
*. At the end of this film I think most people would have been hard pressed to see where the story had any kind of arc that needed to be completed. Given its success, however, there was a need (read: demand) for another instalment. But in terms of the larger story it is true, as Sims suggests, that The Dark Knight stands apart from the other films, as The Dark Knight Rises would play more like a sequel to Batman Begins, ignoring The Dark Knight almost entirely. Which is just another way this turned out to be The Joker’s movie after all.

5 thoughts on “The Dark Knight (2008)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    I’m a fan of this film, but feel that the third film diminished it; the last third of Dark Knight isn’t as strong as the opening two either. And yes, any criticism of this film is seen as heresy!

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I get the sense Nolan didn’t know when to leave well enough alone. This movie would have been better if it had been shorter and bothered less with Two-Face. And the next one should have stuck with Bane and left Talia out of it entirely. But it seems a thing for most comic-book movies to travel the path of excess.

  2. chandlerswainreviews

    I would normally say something like “you’ve outdone yourself in analyzing this film” except that your criticisms are always of the highest level; both in penetrating observation and excitingly constructive expression. Rather than heretical, your thoughts on Ledger’s acclaimed performance are sensibly on target. (Embrace the heresy!) I especially enjoyed your practical view of questioning a placement of meritorious status on a particular superhero film while remaining cognizant of the fact that the qualitative standards of the comic book movie has been consistently lower than what is expected of a serious, non-cape and spandex film. Good stuff.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Thanks Chandler! Yes, I think you have to keep perspective with a genre like this. I enjoy great trash, but there’s a point in some contemporary film criticism where the trash part is lost sight of. And that can become (or has become) dangerous.


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