So I finally went to see THE DARK KNIGHT Friday evening, thus becoming the official last person on Earth to do so, I think. There have been about eleventy million reviews of it both in "legitimate" media as well as all over the comics blogosphere, most of which dissecting this film far better than I ever could, and reaching conclusions/drawing parallels that would have escaped me had I not read them beforehand.
So don't expect startling insights from me, that's all I'm saying. This is pretty much going to be a ramble, no Roger Ebert I.
Disclaimer aside, yeah- I had read much both positive and negative about this film, and it's been described as the best comic-book inspired film ever, as well as a completely bungled and ineffective sequel. Being aware of the consensus so far, and yes, I read spoilers, which did not spoil me all that much actually because I've been reading comics for a hundred goddamn years- I don't really agree with either stance; my reaction, typically, is in the middle somewhere. As I watched, I got caught up, and the film worked an effective disbelief suspension spell on me...so I guess that counts as a positive. I wasn't especially fired up for to see it, since frankly Batman Begins didn't exactly knock my socks off either. It had its strengths, and some good performances from its stellar cast (with one obvious exception), but it was big and ponderous and glum, and its jerry-rigged plot simply screamed out loud (in Ahnold voice) I AM A SERIOUS FILM! TAKE ME SERIOUSLY! I AM NOT LIKE BATMAN UND ROBIN! This is something that Dark Knight is guilty of as well, in spades. I don't want to see Bat-credit cards and Poison Ivy dancing in a pink gorilla suit, or corny jokes, but this fugging movie was oppressive. I didn't even care for the preview pics I saw; Batman was once again in that flat black Kevlar- looking almost like Dark Knight Iron Man. The Joker makeup was too radical; didn't care for the way it made Ledger look like a cadaver, plus the scars were (I thought) an unnecessary touch. Didn't help that every time I see scars like that on a fictional character, I think of a Sergio Aragones Mad or Plop! cartoon in which Tarzan jumps off a cliff into a river with a knife in his mouth, and emerges with his knife wedged halfway up his head next to his ears. Finding out that Two-Face was going to be shoehorned in there as well seemed to be creating a Spider-Man 3-style smorgasbord of super-villains. But as I said, most of my fears proved to be, if not ungrounded, at least not as bad as I had feared.
Yes, Ledger, who- appropriately enough, and contrary to the conventional wisdom that playing such an unhinged character must have scarred him mentally or something- plays the Joker with relish, using the cadaverous clown makeup to its full advantage, is stellar. He really should get an Oscar nom, and I'll be surprised if he doesn't. It would be a career-making performance, if only...well, you know. Based on what I'd seen from him in the past in films like Brothers Grimm and Knight's Tale, he was a good-not-great actor, likable enough but not especially memorable. He certainly seized the day this time, though. That scene with the Joker and Harvey Dent in the hospital towards the end was a bravura scene, one of several during the course of the film. Of course, that is in large part because the Joker was by far the most noticeable thing in the film. Aaron Eckhart (who impressed me a lot in Thank You For Smoking) was just as good in his role as Ledger, but it wasn't necessary for him to be as flamboyant until the end. Everybody else underplays- Christian Bale as the second banana whose name just happens to be in the title- or does it? Michael Caine, (especially) Gary Oldman, who can chew scenery with the best of them but remains curiously muted as James Gordon, Maggie Gyllenhal, who is less attractive than Katie Holmes but far more correct for the role than her miscast predecessor.
And yes, Bale's "Batman voice" is ludicrous. I think they should work on that in the sequel.
The story itself suffered from the compulsion to make each and every scene bigger better louder faster NOW, as so often is the case with today's modern summer blockbuster film. Fortunately, some thought seemed to go into many aspects of the story, not just how the Joker works, but the setpieces like the aforementioned hospital scene and its aftermath, and the haphazardly shot but no less exciting capture of the Joker. To its detriment, it piled on the hopelessness a bit too generously- not only could Batman not best the Joker except in abstract ways, the nonstop parade of misery and tension-filled situations such as the ferry boat scene towards the end just got oppressive. I know they were trying to be all down to earth and serious and shit, but whatever happened to adventure? The Pyrrhic victory Batman achieves at the end, while it certainly doesn't hamper the character, is very unsatisfying for the viewer. I know, I know, life isn't always satisfying. At least we were spared what I hate most of all, the pick-your-own-interpretation ambiguous ending. Actually, the closest thing to a thrilling adventure scene was the one which seemed most tacked-on: the far-fetched, but fast-paced and ultimately convincing forced extradition of the Chinese accountant/businessman/money launderer (it never was exactly clear how important this guy was supposed to be- at times he came across as like the head of the fricking Yakuza). If the film piled it on, at least the pile was consistently engaging. Despite my misgivings, my attention never wavered.
And I can certainly see the basis for all the post-9/11 symbolism many are trying to extrapolate from this picture; it seems to be obvious, and one has to stretch a little to not see parallels with Bush and the American response to terrorism and all that sort of thing. I honestly think that this stuff is a perhaps-intended byproduct of the script; I don't think the writers and director were trying to make it explicit but it doesn't hurt for publicity purposes if people see it in there. I have to take issue with the surveillance-by-Lucius Fox as Bush-wiretapping etc. interpretation; Fox isn't lingering on anyone in particular but is scanning a broad sweep- this doesn't seem like all that much of an invasion of privacy since no records were being kept. Maybe that is a political statement I don't want to make; I personally am opposed to wiretapping the public without proper channels being observed in any fashion or form.
Anyway, with these caveats, I can wholeheartedly recommend Dark Knight. It's not perfect, but it is a solidly crafted film (as far as I can tell) that is consistently entertaining, if you don't mind the gravely serious tone. It's definitely worth watching for Ledger's performance, and Eckhart's too for that matter. For every annoying thing, I found a good thing to balance it out and these days that's as good as one can hope for- even in a film that's as ultimately hopeless as this one. B+