Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight entered theaters last Thursday at midnight. By Sunday night, its projected weekend total was $155,340,000. Yes, that hands The Dark Knight the accolade for most successful opening in the history of movies. It also boasts a 94 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (190 good reviews, 12 negative ones).
So is The Dark Knight good? Yes. Is it as good as the hype and the box office indicate? Except for Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, no, it isn’t. It’s too long. The non-Joker scenes are too dull by comparison. And frankly, from a purely personal standpoint, the whole thing is such a downer that I really doubt I’ll ever have a desire to see it again. Were it not for the ferryboat sequence, the whole film would be such an exercise in nihilism that they might as well give out razor blades with every ticket.
It’s interesting to consider the film in connection with Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. When Burton’s sequel to his phenomenally successful Batman (1989) came out in 1992, it was the cause of a major uproar. It was considered too dark, too scary and just altogether too much. Parents were up in arms because it terrified their children. Warner Bros. was aghast at the response—and presumably at Burton’s film—and took steps (paging Joel Schumacher!) that this wouldn’t happen with any future installment in the series.
Here we are, 16 summers later, with a film of such dark ferocity that Burton’s neon nightmare is about as threatening as a Sunday-school picnic by comparison. Yet this time, instead of horrified outcries, The Dark Knight is raking in the accolades and the dough. Someone with a sociological bent can have a go at figuring out whether this says more about us as a people or about the respective merits of the two films. Perhaps it’s the very fact that Nolan’s film is so unrelentingly dark—it rarely cracks a smile—that it’s simply taken as a more serious work than Burton’s more playful approach to the mayhem.
Nolan’s film is very serious indeed. They almost might have called it Citizen Wayne. After all, its basic premise has a trust-fund boy—Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale)—who sets out to try to combat all the injustice and evil in the world, much in the manner of Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane. In both instances, the men find themselves despondent and alone and faced with becoming the very thing they hate most. The cinematic inheritances of The Dark Knight hardly end there—the ending owes more than a little to John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and the overriding theme is remarkably similar.
The Dark Knight is comparable to Burton’s original Batman in that its core is Batman vs. the Joker—only this Batman is even more troubled than Burton’s version and the Joker this round is a fitting adversary for such a Batman. True, the Batman/Joker dichotomy was explored in the Burton film (each being responsible in different ways for having created the other), but not to the degree it is here—and not to the same end. The new Joker has no backstory (he offers several conflicting versions of how he came to be over the course of the film). We don’t know his origins. He is simply a force of crazed evil in love with chaos for its own sake and determined to make Batman cross that line that separates them by trying to make him violate his code of ethics.
At its best—which is to say whenever Ledger’s on the screen—Nolan’s film is powerful stuff. Yet oddly, it suffers from the same sense of imbalance as Burton’s Batman because its villain is so much more the show than its hero. In fact, it worsens the situation by dragging in the whole Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart) character and story line. The Dent material is essential to the theme of the film, but it’s so much less compelling than the Joker material that it bogs things down, especially when it takes over at the end.
Of Ledger’s Joker, what is there to be said? It’s everything you may have heard and more. I don’t think it’s entirely without precedent—the tone of voice and delivery kept reminding me of Brad Dourif as the Gemini Killer in William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III (1990)—but that doesn’t keep it from being one of the most terrifying creations you’re ever likely to see. Ledger is quite simply electrifying. Not only does he tap into the character’s own darkest corners, but into our own. He makes us laugh at his insanity (disappearing pencil trick, anyone?) and then recoil in horror at our own laughter.
The movie would be a must-see for Ledger alone, but there’s more to it than that. If anything, the film is a grim portrait of our own paranoia, sense of hopelessness and selfishness—tempered only by one sequence and the sense that the madness of our age is only temporary, but it’s surely significant that the “bat signal’s” ultimate fate here is a direct comment on its status as a symbol of hope at the end of Burton’s Batman. In other words, it’s probably the perfect Batman picture for our era—for better or worse. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace.