Upon a single viewing of The Dark Knight, I will say this much: it is great and grand. Just how great and grand, I'm not quite sure yet. As big and powerful and expensive and stunt-laden as the film obviously is, it is still a brooding, interior experience; I am still chewing on it...still thinking it over. Make no mistake, this is massively effective picture. It is grandiose. It is beautiful. It is more ambitious than any film released this year (and it will likely be the highest-grossing film of the year as well). But it is a giant film with giant themes, one that is deliberately muddy in its storytelling and character portrayals. Stuff this complex just can't be fully digested in one viewing.
Not everything crystallized for me at last night's 10:00pm screening. Unlike the two other great films (and let's be clear: this is a great film) of summer 2008, WALL-E and Hancock, The Dark Knight is not as clear-cut in its screenplay. Whereas the former two films were perfect and near-perfect journeys into the heart, films that felt very complete and wholly satisfying in a single viewing, The Dark Knight is a relentlessly complex journey into the soul by way of the psyche, and it is not such a complete experience. While the wonders of WALL-E and Hancock invite subsequent viewings to get a fuller grasp of the films' subtleties and to bask in their greatness more and more, The Dark Knight is a film that outright demands to be seen at least twice before it can be fully processed. In the coming days I will return to the film, and perhaps bring more of my thoughts to the table once they form in greater detail. But for now, I have plenty to stew over...
The Dark Knight is, as K referenced in her review, the film that Spider-Man 3 wishes it could've come close to being. Both films attempted to be more serious, more intimate, and more expansive in themes, in action, and in storytelling than any previous cinematic incarnation of their respective comic book characters. But whereas Spidey was a bloated, increasingly-ridiculous, teary-eyed mess, The Dark Knight is like an addendum to the catalog of great American epic crime sagas. It is Heat. It is Scarface. It is The Godfather. This is no longer a comic book series...it is a 70s-inspired epic of moral ambiguity that happens to feature a guy in a batsuit.
The filmmakers' intentions are very clear, and the result of their vision is very dark, muddy, and very intentionally, very beautifully messy. Christopher Nolan, his brother and writing partner Jonathan, and co-writer David S. Goyer place The Dark Knight in a completely different filmmaking pantheon than a comic book adaptation has ever been placed before. There are no standard acts of heroism, no easily-solved conflicts, and not a single element of flash--this is not a film that comic lovers can go laugh, holler, and clap for. There are obviously clear-cut villains, but the notion of a 'hero' is the messiest, most complex theme in the film. The Dark Knight features no easy rooting interests. This is a long, sprawling ensemble piece, at the center of which are four men who inhabit very different, very contradictory molds of "hero" and "villain," "innocent" and "guilty."
The four men in question are Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham police Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman), and the scary, anarchic Joker (the late, great Heath Ledger). In a year of films featuring superheroes whose deeds are not viewed with prototypical hero worship by the public they serve (a la Hancock and Hellboy), Batman is perhaps the most feared and hated of them all. One of the film's most effective themes is the dual role of Batman: is he a hero or a villain? Bruce Wayne himself isn't so sure, and he's also not sure he cares. Moreso than ever before, this cinematic Batman is not one whose primary protocol is to defend the common good; it is, rather, to exorcise his psychological and emotional demons. The more public, more accepted, more traditional hero in Gotham City is Eckhart's Dent, who has not only become a more effective crime-fighter than the Caped Crusader, but has also wooed the affections of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over for Batman Begins' Katie Holmes), Bruce Wayne's eternal love interest. Dent reluctantly begins working with the Bat through Lieutenant Gordon, who has come to have as intimate a relationship as one can with the mysterious hero. Together they work to stop the stunningly indestructible Joker, who infiltrates the city's leading mafia clan to become the ruthless, soulless, archvillain of Gotham.
The Joker, as conceived and written by the Nolans and as played, in one of the great, otherwordly, already-legendary performances by Ledger, is not simply the most evil character in The Dark Knight, he's also the smartest and the most magnetic. He bursts onto the Gotham City crime scene without any introduction, any motive, or any identity; he is a being who, it seems, exists solely to enact cold-blooded evil. But he is also the most unfettered and unconflicted character in the film, which, as I'm sure Nolan and Co. intended, is what makes him so damn effective in the face of such brooding, conflicted "heroism." Bruce Wayne comes to respect Harvey Dent for his heroic dedication to the city but resent him for his perceived stealing of Rachel's affection. At the same time, Wayne starts to wonder if the role of "hero" is even one he should atempt to play anymore. Dent's noble passion plays directly against Wayne's/Batman's sheltered insecurity, leaving Oldman's Lieutenant Gordon in the middle of their personal and professional push-and-pull. It becomes Gordon's mission to provide the city with the hero it "needs" rather than the one it may "deserve," a theme which becomes more prominent as the film unfolds.
The Dark Knight is clearly the best of the seven big-budget Batman films, and it is also clearly the most realistic version ever put to screen--even moreso than this film's predecessor, 2005's Batman Begins. This Batman exists in a real world with real crime and real intrigue even among the "good guys." The screenplay harkens clearly to the work of 70s giants like Coppola, and the filmmaking, singular as it is, also comes from the work of Coppola, of Michael Mann, and as most crime sagas do, from the work of Scorsese. But even as it attempts to be one of the grand crime sagas of our time, this film is touched with the intimacy and the subtlety of Christopher Nolan's direction. Apart from the intrigue of the story and the deep psychology of the characters, it is the quiet, poetic, and powerful visual moments that truly revealed The Dark Knight's greatness to me. Moments that cannot be adequately described...Batman standing atop a skyscraper roof, contemplating his place in the world with the dark, brooding sky in the background; the Joker riding in a police car, his body handing out the window, basking the glee of his evil anarchy; Bruce Wayne standing in his underground lair, staring back at the iconic black suit that both defines him and tortures him. That kind of potency can be inspired--and surely it is--but it cannot be faked or imitated.
It has taken writing this review to help me grapple with my thoughts coming out of the theater late last night. And the verdict is, this is an immensely powerful piece of filmmaking on every level. But it is still one that lingers in my mind as a very intricate, very layered, very deliberately complicated experience, one that won't adequately settle until I see the film again. I do look forward to seeing it again. And once I do, maybe it will become a little clearer as to where this film stands among the great films of the summer, the great films of the year, and where it truly wants to be ranked, among the great crime epics of all time.