The Dark Knight

Superhero Drama

  • Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan; based on a character created by Bob Crane
  • Directed by Christopher Nolan

What a great summer for Hollywood blockbusters! First Iron Man took the comic book superhero movie, if not to a new level, than at least within striking distance of the best that genre had so far offered. Then Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull proved there was still big fun in an old formula. When Pixar’s turn came, they offered the near-silent, courageous, environmental comedy WALL-E.

Now the brothers Nolan top them all off with their Batman sequel, The Dark Knight (although the first half of WALL-E tops even this film). I’m not sure this outing robs Spiderman II of its place in my heart as the greatest superhero movie ever made, but it might. The movies are very different, with The Dark Knight vastly scarier and more depressing. Spiderman’s Peter Parker tries to live a normal life despite his powers; for Bruce Wayne, normalcy is out of the question.

As far back as Memento, the Nolans have seen evil as an influence most likely to corrupt those dedicated to fighting it. The major The Dark Knightgood guys in their story–Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman), DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and Bruce Wayne/Batman himself (Christian Bale)–all do things they know are wrong. They cross moral lines, they make choices they know they shouldn’t make, and they pay a price. And they do it because the evil they’re fighting drives them to it.

That evil is personified in Heath Ledger’s final performance as the Joker. This guy is nuts. He’s not after power or money (although he steals quite a bit of it), but mayhem. He wants to terrorize, confuse, and force people into kill-or-be-killed situations. The actor’s dreamboat face hidden under a hideous makeup, Ledger plays the Joker as a dark force of nature, so unpredictably cruel even the mob doesn’t understand him.

Story and characters are one thing, but an action movie also requires great action. Christopher Nolan hadn’t quite mastered that in Batman Begins, where the over-edited fight scenes suffered from spatial incoherence–you couldn’t really tell what was going on. The problem crops up only occasionally in The Dark Knight. The action scenes, done with a minimum of CGA, work this time. They’re exciting and scary, although not fun in the Indiana Jones sense. This is not a happy movie, and Nolan gives you few chances to applaud.

I saw The Dark Knight in Imax, which certainly enhanced my enjoyment of the movie. But that’s a topic for another post. Expect it soon.

Few seem to have noticed it, but we’re living in a golden age of superhero movies. In the last decade, filmmakers like Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi, and the Nolans have pushed this once silly genre into directions of character depth and social commentary normally not expected from muscle men in spandex. Enjoy it while you can.