The Dark Knight
Like many across the country, I stayed up until the wee hours last night to see one of the very first showings of "The Dark Knight." My friends and I arrived at the theater a little before 11:00 for the 12:30 show. The theater was packed, many in full-on Joker garb. (there was one Two-Face, oddly no Batmen)
So how was the movie? In one word...wow.
This was an epic film on every level, taking the seeds planted in "Batman Begins" and expanding and improving on every possible level. The performances are better. The fight scenes and effects are better. The story is better. I literally felt giddy the entire two and a half hours we sat in that theater, leaving thinking the film could have easily gone on another half hour.
"The Dark Knight" presents a superhero movie that exists within our own world. Batman has limits, and it is established early on that being Batman is taking its toll on Bruce Wayne. The stunts he performs are only possible with the help of technology. Like in the comics, Batman is merely an ordinary man wearing a cape. He cannot swing across webs, he cannot absorb knives and gunfire without being wounded, he cannot leap from tall building and make miraculous landings without a scratch. This creates a tension not present in, really, any superhero movie, since one wrong step and Bruce Wayne/Batman is done for.
So let's run down what was great about this movie:
--Christian Bale owns this role, and is really the anchor of this movie. His Bruce Wayne is conflicted, weary, yet resourceful and persistent. Batman also begins to use his actual detective skills, complementing his brawn with brains. But more importantly, we know immediately that unlike other superheroes, Bruce Wayne is the character's alter-ego. The man's true self only emerges when donning the cowl.
--The story is as much a multi-layered crime drama as a superhero story. And it works, beautifully.
--The script is much, much tighter. It is "The Departed" in Gotham City. No less tense, often more thrilling, and much, much scarier.
--The supporting characters matter. Everyone has their piece in this puzzle, and every character plays a part in developing the story. Gary Oldman and Michael Caine have more to do. Even Eric Roberts (it wasn't so long ago he was eaten by cannibals on an episode of South Park) does a terrific job as Salvatore Moroni, heir to the vacated mafia throne.
--Maggie Gyllenhaal is light years better than Katie Holmes. Her Rachel Dawes is not merely a message from the casting director ("Make her cute but tough"), Gyllenhaal makes Rachel a real person we care about.
--I've always been unsure of Aaron Eckhart. He seems to me like an actor who's not gifted with enormous talent, but he's someone who feels like he's always giving a role his absolute all. Unlike many with similar gifts, Eckhart is more an actor than celebrity. This is a big compliment. As Harvey Dent, Eckhart gives the performance of his career, portraying Dent as a man who knows he's Gotham's potential savior, and isn't sure whether to embrace it, loathe it, or just go along for the ride. And what happens to the character (come on, you know) is all the more tragic because of what he represents.
--The characters in this movie act like us. They are as surprised by a man in clown makeup or a man in a batsuit as we would be. This is not a world in which supervillains are treated like common menaces (you could almost hear the citizens in Spider-Man 3 going, "Oh look, another radioactive mutant is here to wreak havoc.") When the Joker first enters a room, the reaction is exactly as ours would be: "Who the hell is this skinny freak wearing pancake makeup? Let's kick his ass!" (of course they soon learn)
--Christopher Nolan has improved as a director by leaps and bounds, and he was already damn good to start. The action is crisper (no more battle scenes that feel like you're watching the Tasmanian Devil fight from inside the whirlwind), the acting scenes more on the money, the emotion and stakes much, much higher. There are at least four or five scenes in this movie that gave me chills, and surprisingly only about half of them were action. This movie is firing on all cylinders, both on the superhero and human levels.
--The Joker. Ah, The Joker. Walking out of this movie makes Heath Ledger's death even more tragic, because he's truly created one of the iconic characters in film history. Ledger's Joker is completely sadistic, masochistic, unpredictable, hilarious, and brutal. When he dares Batman to kill him, they aren't just words; he's really daring Batman to kill him. He is an agent of chaos in every way, and that he exists on the other side of a very thin line from Batman makes his existence all the more poignant. He literally terrorizes this film like nothing I've seen. Every time we think the Joker is finally cornered, he shows just how ahead of the game he is and how he's been playing us for fools all along. He turns mayhem into poetry. The Joker would not exist without Batman (you almost get the feeling that he was waiting in the shadows for for Batman to appear, as the caped crusader gives his life meaning). Ledger gives a performance that works, like Johnny Depp's in the "Pirates of the Caribbean," because it's all about nuance. The way his body moves, the inflections of his voice, eye ticks and quirks. It's all in the little things, how he can go from amusement to rage in less time than it takes for him to grab a pencil and...you'll have to see the movie. If Javier Bardem can win an Oscar for a relatively one-note performance as a bad guy, Ledger's Joker should be given his own wing. Mainly so he could then melt the statue and laugh while the the wing burns down.
"The Dark Knight" is easily one of the two best films of the year so far, and if some washed-out, self-important period drama gets nominated over this film it'll just reinforce how out of touch Hollywood is. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to take such a massive canvas with so many working pieces, and have them all work in total precision. Two of the five Best Picture nominees have already been released: "The Dark Knight" and "Wall-E." If you see them back to back you might explode (like hot metal being exposed to freezing cold), but you'll also see the best popular entertainment produced in the last decade.