The Promised "Dark Knight" Assessment
I have to start with a caveat that this is not a review of the movie. A review should get into, at some point, a description of the narrative flow of the movie and I don't think there's much need for that. If you need to read a traditional review, go the IMDB page for the movie and click on the "external reviews" link in the nav bar on the left.
So, what is it about the flick that makes it worthy of any special attention here at PoW which, as anyone with eyes to see can tell, is a general interest blog? I think it starts with a moment of consideration of the "reboot" of the Batman franchise with "Batman Begins." Despite the slightly cartoonish aspect of Liam Neeson's "Ra's al Ghul" character, there was a seriousness of purpose that was basically absent in all the highly stylistic but cotton-candyish previous incarnation of the movies since Tim Burton's dark and Gothic first booting up thereof. (Yes, I will wring the last drop of juice from a convenient metaphor.) Bruce Wayne went through a Campbellian (Joseph) "hero's journey" to emerge as the force for good that protects an entire city against forces that would ruin it for some distorted idea of redemptive emergence. Characters were introduced such as Morgan Freeman's "Q"-like Lucius Fox that, while secondary, were like pillars of the movie: brutally strong (i.e. well acted) and necessary to support the edifice.
Now to subvert that metaphor, "Batman Begins" becomes the foundation that supports the construction of an even grander edifice. The chosen villain is, arguably, the quintessential villain of the Batman series - The Joker. And he is given life by an absolute tour-de-force job of acting by the late Heath Ledger. Before I saw the movie, I tended to think that the Oscar buzz about the performance might have been overblown by his unfortunate demise. But I was wrong.
The Joker has gone through some incarnations on video: Ceasar Romero on the campy TV show, Jack Nicholson in the previous incarnation. Romero established a paradigm of sorts playing the grinning fiend with a high-pitched almost silly sort of laugh. Nicholson brought more grounded menace to the role with lines like (pre actual Joker) "Did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?" and the anger in the funny line "Where does he get those wonderful toys!?" But there was still a kind of camp silliness to the role. Ledger's Joker, unlike Nicholson's who had a long backstory, comes out of nowhere, fully formed as a demon from the moment we meet him. His conflicting stories of how he got his facial scars only serve to let us know that we are not being told his backstory, we have no idea of how this beast came to be. Only Alfred's explanation that there are some people who have no rationality, who only want to see the world burn give us an indication of what this thing really is. And Ledger does not play his part with the maniacal cackling of Romero. His voice is, if anything, lower and quieter throughout which only adds to the menace. Rather brilliantly done actually. I think he only used the line "Why so serious?" twice (three times?) but it absolutely crackles with insane menace. In point of fact, the only choice he made that I didn't care for was his wiggling of the "ripcord" on a coat full of grenades when he had his big meet with the Gotham mafia. A waste of movement from a villain who seems not to waste an atom of himself.
In short, were I voting for the Academy Awards, I would vote For Heath Ledger not only without hesitation but with brio. I hope his work is so recognized.
As for the movie itself, exceedingly good. My problems lie in certain areas that don't add up to much against the quality of the movie. Maggie Gyllenhaal (for whom I've had an unnatural affection since "Secretary") is a poor replacement for Katie Holmes as the assistant district attorney. Katie is not a great actress but she is a good one and she carried more gravitas and is a more conventional beauty. Maggie is the object of both Bruce Wayne and Aaron Eckhat's (DA Harvey Dent as if you didn't know) affections. Sorry. She's not believable in that role. Katie was. Who would I have cast? I keep thinking of Morena Baccarin. She's essentially the same age as Katie Holmes, proved her acting ability in "Serenity" and she's insanely gorgeous. Not a bad combination that.
My philosophical problem with the movie relates to the springing of The Joker fully formed on the movie. I don't object to its being done but I do have reservations. I call this "diabolus ex machina." Just as deus ex machina was used for magical resolution in Greek drama, here we have the "devil from the machine" appear on stage with all sorts of magical powers. (spoiler alert) From the very start the Joker organizes a very complex bank robbery which would have cost him a significant amount of money to pull off even if he does kill nearly all his accomplices. And the instances of massive diesel powered bombings in the movie would have required the mobilization of resources that would 911 "troothers" pause. We are supposed to believe the Gotham mafia is on his side but as "The Sopranos" demonstrated, there is no honor among thieves which make coöperation such a massive scale unlikely. Yet we accept the possibilities, and the Rube Goldberg-like series of events required for the diabolical plans to work because, well, we kind of have to. Which is a pity as the rest of the movie so well plotted, the actions are so well motivated, the dialogue so well written. We suspend disbelief in the instance because we are made to believe in the whole. At least that's the way it seems to me.
The bottom line on this movie has several parts. Christian Bale now owns the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne. Best Actor - Heath Ledger. Best Movie - "The Dark Knight." And let's throw in best screenplay too. But save best special effects for "Iron Man." What a year. We had the pleasure of two superb movies made from comic book characters. Every one's inner geek should be doing a little happy dance. Mine is.