In "Batman Begins" Christopher Nolan presented a version of Batman mythology that promised two things: gritty realism and a whole lot of darkness. Nolan reinforced that promise by naming the sequel "The Dark Knight," and then delivered on it with the finished product. The success of the second installment of this new series of films about a classic hero is well deserved and easy to understand when the subject matter and execution are considered. Though the movie falls into some of the same shortcomings as ts predecessor, it is one of the best movies to come along this year, and is certainly the savior of a lackluster summer.
The story begins in a bright place and descends from there. A new day has begun in Gotham, as we are actually shown daylight, something that rarely made an appearance in "Batman Begins." For anyone who has seen the first movie, and for me who watched it earlier in the day, this contrasting tone is clearly evident. Gotham sees light. The day is safe. The city's criminals once again know fear, well, all of the criminals except for one anyway: the Joker. The maniacal clown-make-up-wearing psychopath immediately dares to destroy the daylight by robbing a bank. But this scene isn't just any old bank robbery. Nolan and actor Heath Ledger's take on the Joker is quickly established. He is concerned about the "long con" first. The showmanship comes second, as a means of reaching the endgame of his plan. And in this robbery, the plan is for him alone to end up with the money. It is sickly entertaining to watch the Joker's henchmen off each other due to their bosses orders and admire the brilliance of such a plan. In that perverse genius is where the darkness of this film and the subtlety of Ledger's performance live.
About halfway through the movie, my friend turned to me and said, "I thought Heath Ledger was in this movie." I laughed, demonstrating my agreement. While Ledger steals the movie, Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, and Gary Oldman carry it. This story is not about the Joker, it is about the Joker messing up everyone else's story. Thus, he does not act as a traditional Hollywood character of recent years. He walks into a scene, achieves his purpose, and leaves. He is not multi-faceted, and unlike an onion, ogre, or parfait, he does not have later. No, the pontificating and soul searching are left to the other characters, except for Caine's Alfred anyway, who just always seems to know what's up and how to deal with it. The events the Joker sets into motion spark a healthy amount of philosophizing and monologuing by the inhabitants of Gotham. Don't try and convince yourself otherwise, this tale is a deeply intellectual, with a strikingly conservative perspective.
When approaching this sequel, I anticipated a sermon on the evil inside all of us, how we're all dark, with Batman being able to walk the line the best of all men (besides Johnny Cash). I never anticipated what I actually saw, a complex parable about the evil of some men, and our need to acknowledge it or put all we have in danger. The intricate details of the metaphor of "The Dark Knight" are too many to explicate here. What is important is the following: the Joker is the terrorist, Eckhart's Harvey Dent is the (in)corruptible hero, and Bale's Batman is the conflicted guardian. The Joker utilizes terror tactics that hit close to home. He makes viral videos of hostages. He threatens authority figures with death if his demands aren't met. Dent inspires the masses, using the law system that has been set up to protect them for its purpose. But, he also envies Batman and is tempted by the Joker. Batman pushes forward, doubting himself through the pressure of the people, and admiring Dent as the man who embodies the answers to that doubt. The skill of this story is how the Joker plays this odd and unique relationship between Dent, Batman, and the citizens of Gotham in the same way that terrorists play those same relationships in America. I won't spoil the ending, but it involves Batman endorsing the Patriot Act, and ultimately realizing that he is the hero Gotham deserves and Dent is the hero Gotham needs because as long as men like the Joker exist, men like Dent can't, and men like Batman will be oxymoronically called for and condemned by the callers.
"The Dark Knight" delivers and builds upon the promise of "Batman Begins." Buried underneath the action and drama is complex political and social commentary that is shockingly intelligent and informed. However, the movie does make a few missteps. As with the first installment, the run time feels a bit long, although it is much better paced. Dent's appearance as Two-Face is so ridiculous it's almost laughable. The replacement of Katie Holmes with the much less attractive, to put it politely, Maggie Gyllenhaal is curious, especially considering the resolution of her story. The Joker, though he is in control of the plot until the final act, isn't used as much as Ledger's performance warrants. What's important for us is to not let these shortcomings overshadow the immense successes of this movie. Doing so shouldn't be hard as it's not possible to overshadow darkness and, in regards to darkness, nothing eclipses "The Dark Knight."