The Dark Knight is the best film I’ve seen in years. Not just the best “superhero” film, but the best film of any type. It’s not perfect, not quite a masterpiece, but it’s flaws are, to me, tiny and overwhelmed by the time the film ends. While relatively bloodless, it is consistently brutal, not just in what it depicts but in the themes that drive it. TDK is a film for adults, please leave the kids at home.
Let’s deal with those “flaws” first, the largest being the character Rachel Dawes. In Batman Begins, I blamed Katie Holmes. Her acting was weak, to say the least, which is regrettable in that who she is and what she says and does are important to the film. Critics agreed and either for that or other reasons, Katie was replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is a better actress. Yet here she’s weak, real weak. Maybe it’s the character, not the actress, which is frustrating because Rachel is a pivotal character.
The film, at almost two and a half hours, might be a shade long. Having said that, I’m hard-pressed to think of where and what could be cut.
There, I’m done with my complaints. For TDK, Christopher Nolan has tossed aside his usual film gimmick, that of jumbling up time-lines and the like. Instead, he adopts a straight-forward narrative line and TDK, especially compared to what is essentially its prequel, is much the better for it. The film starts with a bang then slows a tad as it starts introducing our main characters and their respective plot-lines. From there, and with deceptive ease, the film begins to accelerate.
To call TDK dark is akin to saying that being burnt alive is painful. It’s an accurate statement but doesn’t really describe the sensation. Again and again matters within the film point toward an inevitable conclusion, but in a standard superhero film that conclusion is deftly (if improbably) avoided. Consider the Spider-Man films, where Peter Parker is often faced with either saving the love of his life or a lot of people. He always finds the third option and saves everyone.
That doesn’t happen in TDK. Things are messy in TDK, and the results aren’t always what we want or desire. Choices have to be made, hard choices. The film dances with Nietzsche’s notion that when you fight monsters, you must be careful not to become a monster yourself. There are deft comic moments to provide some relief, and there are also touches of humanity, one of the best being the answer to the question, “What are you doing?” Namely: “What you should have done ten minutes ago.”
In the end, though, in order to fight a monster you do have to become a monster. In TDK, Batman (once more played to perfection by Christian Bale) is confronted with the Joker – a character re-defined by the late and now undeniably great Heath Ledger in much the same way that Val Kilmer re-defined Doc Holliday; both actors have set the bars so high it’s doubtful anyone else will ever come close. The Joker is, as the ever-wise Alfred says, a man who just wants to watch the world burn. He cannot be bought. You cannot reason with him. You cannot negotiate terms. You can only confront him...or run.
TDK, with a sense of realism that’s missing in so many films – superhero or otherwise – conveys that with crystal clarity. There is no clean way to deal with him, good men are going to have to get dirty. Batman has one solid rule, a bright line he will not cross, and that is to kill only when it is unavoidably necessary. The Joker, time and again, brings Batman to that line, intent on making him – and the rest of society – cross it. “I’m not a monster,” he says. “I’m just ahead of the curve.”
By the end of TDK, I was drained and speechless. It seems strange to watch a film woven from fantasy that is so raw in its depiction of reality. There is much to analogize here, but the basic themes of the film are what drive it. There is evil in the world, and dealing with it is a messy affair. Any study of World War II, the “good” war, or any war for that matter, will illustrate both. Those who believe war is never justified, or that it can be fought in neat, precise, bloodless fashion, or that it can be avoided if we just talk enough, are the ones living in a fantasy world. The Dark Knight, a fantasy film, denies us that escape from reality.
TDK creates an absolute evil and puts it in opposition to an absolute good. If I may indulge in a tiny spoiler here, let me just say that Batman is not that absolute good. In defense of good, good men must often take on the ways of evil. In The Dark Knight, that’s Batman.
The agony of the film is summed up by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman): “Now he must run...because we must chase him.” The heart of the film, though, is summed up by another line from Gordon, and is the one that still haunts me, days later:
[H]e’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.
A Dark Knight indeed.