‘Batman’ flashback: ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008) (Movie review)

With “Gotham” returning for its final season this month, I’m looking back at past “Batman” projects from the perspective of someone who enjoyed “The Animated Series” as a kid and now enjoys “Gotham.” Next up is “The Dark Knight” (2008).

WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT

After the introductory “Batman Begins,” now we get into the meat of the “Batman” saga, with Batman representing hopes for a better Gotham (and, by extension, a better humanity), and the Joker representing perpetual chaos. It’s satisfying to get a robust Two-Face origin story to wash away our memories of his off-key portrayal in “Batman Forever.” More viscerally violent than “Batman Begins” (although achieving a lot of it through implication to avoid an R rating), “The Dark Knight” boasts a big and bold narrative, particularly when it kills off a beloved character. And Heath Ledger’s Joker proves you can stray from the source material while still honoring it, and even improving it.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD ABOUT IT

Keep in mind that these are nitpicks, but here goes. To me, “The Dark Knight” doesn’t earn the notion that a lot of people would be suspicious of Batman. His track record is nothing but heroic, and he’s not even framed for anything (until the end, when he chooses to frame himself for Harvey Dent’s cop killings, another thing I’m not thrilled with). We’re given the shaky idea that because crime has risen since Batman appeared on the scene that a lot of people would blame Batman and want him to be apprehended. (To the film’s credit, Batman also has his share of supporters.)

I also think the Joker manipulates people too easily. He says a button will blow up a bomb on the other ship, and everyone believes him. Why would you take the Joker at his word? This is a more jittery film than “Batman Begins,” as it cuts some plot corners — for example, skipping over the moment when the Joker gets the upper hand on the cop in his holding cell. (The positive interpretation is that there isn’t a wasted moment in this film, which is true.)

BATMAN

Christian Bale goes even deeper with his Batman voice (starting with “I’m not wearing hockey pads”). Somehow, it’s just right, rather than seeming silly. With Wayne Manor and the Batcave gone, he lives in a penthouse and operates out of the “closed down” R&D section of Wayne Enterprises. There’s no warm home base to return to, which informs the colder mood of “The Dark Knight.”

ALLIES

Alfred (Michael Caine) is Bruce’s staunch ally in “The Dark Knight.” Lucius (Morgan Freeman) begins to part ideological ways when Batman uses Lucius’ sonar invention to tap people’s phones. Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over for Katie Holmes) is distant from Bruce here, both because of the change of actress and because she is now the girlfriend of good lawyer Harvey Dent (square jawed Aaron Eckhardt). Dent, eventual-Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman form a triumvirate to clean up Gotham’s crime, something borrowed from “The Long Halloween.”

VILLAINS

Ledger plays the Joker with his insanity coming through his actions more so than an over-the-top, cackling performance (He rarely laughs in this movie). Granted, it’s certainly scary when he wields his knife in people’s faces, but he’s less of a showman than Jack Nicholson in “Batman” (1989). In a nod to “The Killing Joke,” where the Joker gives himself multiple origin stories, here the Joker tells multiple versions of how he got his facial scars.

The Joker is creepy-looking, but … holy crap, the makeup effects on Two-Face! Before half his face is melted off, Eckhardt gives a solid portrayal of a rare decent politician, and after the transformation, he flips his coin to determine outcomes, believing in random chance. This contrasts with the inaccurate “Batman Forever” Two-Face who always wants to do evil. In my review of “Batman Begins,” I wondered if Rachel was a replacement for Dent, but it turns out she’s not redundant: Her death is a believable catalyst for Dent’s turn to the dark side.

THAT’S FAMILIAR

  • It’s not precisely the same, but I’d be surprised if the makers of “The Dark Knight” didn’t have “Batman” (1989) in mind when devising the street chicken scene between Batman and the Joker (originally with the Batplane, here with the Batcycle), and when staging the final showdown atop a high structure and dangling the Joker off the side.
  • A villain putting a hero in position to save only one of two people he cares about – as Joker does with Batman in regard to Rachel and Harvey – is also used in an episode of “Gotham.” The Mad Hatter forces Jim Gordon to choose between Lee and Barbara.
  • Harvey Dent tells a press throng that he’s Batman, which calls to mind Tony Stark admitting he’s Iron Man, also in 2008.

THAT’S SURPRISING

  • Most “Batman” films are standalones, but “The Dark Knight” surprisingly opens with Batman cleaning up the mess from “Batman Begins” by apprehending the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). Indeed, the sequel takes place very shortly after the original, as Wayne Manor is still a burned-out husk and the Joker and other nutjobs are on the loose from their Arkham escape. Enough time has passed for the Joker to throw together a gang of reliable psychos, although he likely laid the groundwork in Arkham.
  • Killing off Rachel is surprising – and totally effective. And the fact that the Joker lives is even more surprising. Prior to Ledger’s death, I wonder if Nolan was keeping open the possibility of bringing the Joker back in a sequel.

THAT’S WEIRD

  • Many critics have praised the part where Batman uses Lucius’ sonar invention to tap into people’s cellphones as a smart commentary on U.S. federal government spying. I find it off-point, though. Batman is not the government; his track record is impeccable both before and after Lucius criticizes him. If the government’s track record was as pure as Batman’s, we’d have no problem with its mass spying. Lucius is caught up in the abstract notion that no one should have this much power, but the film’s events make a strong case that Batman has earned the right to have this much power. Yet I’m not sure if the filmmakers intend for Batman’s trustworthiness with spy tech to be the takeaway.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The most universally loved superhero movie ever made, “The Dark Knight” is hard to argue with. I have nitpicks, and I enjoy “Batman Begins” more because it’s to my taste — warmer and character-centered. I’m in the odd position of believing “The Dark Knight” is a great film but also being irked that it tops an inordinate amount of “best superhero movie” lists. But there’s no question this is bravura blockbuster filmmaking – entertaining, and with plenty of things to say.

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