‘The Dark Knight,” the latest “Batman” epic, is spectacular and sad, as explosive as it is mordantly philosophical. It is, to be sure, a significant improvement over the last Batman film, also directed by Christopher Nolan, working from his own screenplay co-authored by his brother Jonathan.
Both frenzied and apoplectically energetic, it attacks us with wild rides into the night of urban chaos. Think John Milton dealing with the battle between heaven and hell in “Paradise Lost,” and you have some idea of the tensions the Nolans’ movie is trying to create, not to mention the epic scope of a film clearly trying to evoke the specter of 9/11 terrorism and the reality of the fear it instills in our hearts and bones.
That is the spectacular, but every time the late Heath Ledger appears on screen, you want to cry as you admire his diabolical creation of The Joker. Stand aside Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero; compared to Ledger’s tenacious portrayal of pure evil, their work is mere child’s play, the efforts of common clowns out for a campy ride.
‘The Dark Knight’
DIRECTED BY Christopher Nolan
SCREENPLAY BY Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, based on the characters from the DC Comic Book series by Bob Kane
STARRING Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman
RUNNING TIME: 152 minutes
Ledger, a victim of an accidental overdose, is an actor through and through, and you may find yourself gasping in a regretful awe, wondering all along whether the energy expended in honing his character hastened his demise or affected his spirit. Like Milton’s Satan, Ledger’s is by far the epic’s most interesting character. “This town deserves a better class of criminals,” he proclaims, as he takes on organized crime and the ego of Bruce Wayne. (Reportedly, Ledger based some of his character on Sid Vicious, the punk rocker who died of a reported heroin overdose in 1979.)
The Joker is not into mayhem and chaos for profit or for traditional trappings of power. A bona fide psychopath, he views pure evil as an end in itself, a thing of almost maniacal beauty. His crowning achievement is weaving evil from good, and in doing so, he does his diabolical best to escort the righteous into his hell. He knows Bruce Wayne perhaps better than the caped hero knows himself.
Making Batman wriggle
The Joker knows Wayne is vulnerable when it comes to his unattainable love, Rachel, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal with more polished finesse than Katie Holmes revealed in the last installment. Even more important, he senses Wayne’s absolute need to protect his identity. So why not carry out his threats to slay others until Batman reveals himself?
It’s a moral dilemma, for if countless citizens die because Wayne protects his identity, does not that make our hero a raging egoist and public villain? Compounding this notion of human depravity is Joker’s attempt to play with the body and soul of Harvey Dent, the new D.A., portrayed by Aaron Eckhart. As righteous and as noble as Batman, he has captured Rachel’s heart, thus exacerbating tension and envy from a hero about to be tested.
Oh, what a victory for the Joker if he can confound and decimate what he sees as the illusion of human goodness. He is the arch-terrorist fuming with bin Laden rage.
It’s a philosophical dimension that may strike some as ponderously indulgent, especially for a work based on comic book characters. There is something to this objection; you can all but feel the Nolans’ intense, overwrought desire to enhance the drama with literary respectability. Yet, as dark and ominous as it may be, “Dark Knight” packs manic action. All but gone is the humor of the originals. This movie takes itself seriously.
“You complete me,” shouts the Joker. “I am like a dog chasing cars,” as he explains his dark, morbid fascination with bringing down the hero. As for Batman himself, he loses his cool, reflecting in one scene: “This is not exactly what I had in mind when I said I wanted to inspire people.” A dapper billionaire who assumes a gravelly voice in costume, the guy’s an urban Hamlet, brooding over his pains that come with romance and dubious rescue. In what seems to be a scene paralleling one in which Wayne loses his own parents, he saves a child from certain death, hence a kind of emotional full circle.
A bona fide PG-13 that flirts with R-rated violence, “Dark Knight” is not designed for kids, even if the action is almost nonstop. The new contraption is a monster cycle, the effects are loud, furious and at times ludicrous. Michael Caine shows up as his protector, father figure, and a complement to Q in the Bond movies. As usual, he is a welcome presence as is Morgan Freeman, who plays Lucius Fox. Eckhart is excellent as Harvey Dent, who will undoubtedly show up in the next movie issue.
For now and perhaps forever, “The Dark Knight” is all Ledger’s. That it would be his even if he were still with us only serves to underscore his prodigious talent as well as to ensure his stature as a movie legend.