The Dark Knight will inevitably be compared to Tim Burton’s Batman, but while both movies share plot elements and a common villain, they are worlds apart in the fabric of their storytelling. Tim Burton’s Batman was the Batman as myth, as the battle within a comic book universe brought to life with larger than life heroes and villains in the stylized world that exists between the panels of a comic book and the imagination. Christopher Nolan’s Batman is something else entirely, Batman as he might exist in the real world, a world that is grimly real and ruthlessly relevant yet philosophically ponderous. Both movies exist in separate universes, they are two ways of looking at Batman, as myth and man.
The Dark Knight easily exceeds Nolan’s first effort Batman Begins, showing us a Batman who is still learning the tools of his trade while at the same realizing that the fight against evil will not be easily won and that if he wants to fight it, he will have to become something larger and darker than he has been until now. In Batman Begins, his enemies, Scarecrow, Ra’s Al Ghul were men with an agenda. In The Dark Knight he faces madmen. The rule of the mob, the battle between crime and law is about to give way to a war of myths and archetypes, a battle that will involve everyone in Gotham and that will carry a terrible cost. That is the slippery edge Batman has stepped into it, and it is the abyss that Michael Caine’s Alfred warns him about.
The Dark Knight is Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke transposed to a storyline that has more in common with 7even and its preoccupation with the tension between order and disorder and human limitations in the face of chaos. Like Tim Burton’s Batman and unlike Batman Begins where the villains were barely a presence, the villains rule over The Dark Knight, from Dent’s bright ascent and fall, to the Joker, who is always on screen, even when he is unseen. But in Christopher Nolan’s universe the villains themselves are demystified and the masks often don’t hold up. The Scarecrow emerges as a petty criminal making a deal in a parking complex, the Joker is a violent thug who on screen has more in common with a Tarantino character than the Clown Prince of Crime and though Aaron Eckhart does his best, his Two Face is never really more than an emotionally upset Harvey Dent. The flip side of Nolan’s realistic take on Batman is that there is no real room in it to make the monsters and freaks that populate Batman’s universe believable.
This realistic take on Batman has its strengths, from Lucius Fox’s casual dismissal of a blackmailing attempt by a lawyer who has found out the real identity of Batman to a visit to China and a skyhook extraction. It allows Nolan to fill the screen with a believable large scale Gotham that is not at all stylized and is completely plausible. Yet it makes the masks and capes that much harder to accept. Chaotic editing of the action scenes, which are surprisingly infrequent in a comic book movie this long, doesn’t help matters either. In the final take, The Dark Knight is more 7even than it is a comic book movie, a dystopian police thriller with a man who dresses in a cape and mask as a supporting character.
There is no question that the Nolans deliver on the script, The Dark Knight is more of a companion to their starting effort Memento, than to Batman Begins, a painstaking look at a city and at three men searching for themselves in the face of a brutal monster who has chosen to embody the forces of chaos. Nolan brings Chicago as Gotham to life long after the point where New York City could no longer plausibly reflect the grim urban center of an American crimetown. The twists and turns keep coming as the Joker pulls off one plot twist after another making him a nemesis not only for Batman but for all of Gotham and for humanity itself. In comic books and comic book movies the villain’s threats against the rest of the city or the world are often a sideline to the battle between superhero and supervillain. In The Dark Knight it is the threat against the people, the ordinary people without capes and masks, that counts. Batman is a sideline to the real drama, the human drama.
Many people will go to see The Dark Knight for Heath Ledger’s performance, but Ledger is easily overshadowed by the rest of the cast. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman sparkle with good humor and seasoned wit in their small parts. Maggie Gyllenhaal makes a good substitute for Katie Holmes’ more inexperienced and naive Rachel Dawes. Aaron Eckhart plays Harvey Dent as every inch the reckless but shining knight in a two piece suit that he should be and more. He can’t really sell him as Two Face, but it’s not clear that anyone could. Gary Oldman serves as the emotional and moral center of Batman, carrying the weight of everyone’s choices, and serving as the ordinary man who represents the human middle ground between the extremes of Dent, Batman and the Joker. Christian Bale continues to oversell his Batman, piling on the harsh vocals, but looks much more comfortable in the part than he did in Batman Begins. Heath Ledger though is the movie’s weak point, delivering an uneven and erratic performance that is painfully awkward in the beginning but grows increasingly confident and smoother toward the second half as he becomes more comfortable with the role. Had Ledger lived, reshoots would have likely improved the final product. As he did not, we’re stuck with what we have. Because of the timing of his death Ledger will no doubt get an Oscar nomination, he may even get the golden statue posthumously, whether he deserves it is another matter.
There is no question that The Dark Knight is a powerful cinematic event. I doubt that it will stand as the final interpretation of Batman and I suspect strongly that after Nolan, Batman will revert closer to his comic book roots. But at the same time the comics and the movies have been influenced in waves by each interpretation and reinterpretation as Nolan’s Batman will emerge in the comics and add to the accreted mass of snapshots whose whole is the iconic character of the Batman.