Review: The Dark Knight

Am I the last person to review The Dark Knight? Somehow, I doubt it but there probably will not be many more reviews after mine. The movie was released on July 18 and I did not see it until the Labor Day Weekend. Hey, I’ve been busy. Had I spent my teenage years reading Batman comic books, perhaps I would have been at its first midnight show.

My wife and I did manage to see it before it snuck out of theaters, but not before the movie grossed more than half a billion dollars. It seems likely to hold the record for highest grossing movie for at least several years, perhaps until the next Batman movie comes out. Are those kind of gross box office receipts warranted?

Maybe. The public has voted two thumbs way up. Every critic has noted the late Heath Ledger’s outstanding performance as the twisted Batman arch-nemesis, The Joker. Cesar Romero he is not. I will echo that he gives a fine performance and certainly makes the movie. I have not seen many of his movies so I cannot say whether it truly was his greatest performance, but given his short life it seems likely. Ledger makes The Joker a compelling character. It is hard not to find him far more interesting than Batman.

If you are going to make a Batman movie, you have to think big and have financiers with deep pockets. Suffice to say the producers literally blew a ton of money (up) in this movie. Even destroying the Batmobile was not enough; they had to destroy a hospital too. Clearly, the money was not wasted. I doubt though I am the only theatergoer that is becoming inured to special effects. They can be done so well these days that they have become trivialized. Special effects rarely elevate the story for me and the same is true here. The Dark Knight could have been just as good if they had spent half the money. The Joker’s wild criminal confluence is what is important. Within a week, he has turned Gotham City inside out and is close to unmasking Batman.

The story is fantasy of course, which is why it is easy to overlook minor plot points like how one master criminal could possibly whip up such calibrated mayhem in such a short period of time. But the whole Batman scenario is fantasy too. More than a few parts of this movie reminded me of V for Vendetta, which I reviewed and liked very much. Both V and The Joker clearly had their emerging psychos twisted and perturbed at an early age. At least V though has something of an altruistic motive. The Joker is more like a cat that enjoys toying with its prey before consuming it.

The movie succeeds at being fully engaging. Still, it has its flaws. One is its length. At two and a half hours, many people are not going to be able to sit through it without at least one dash to the rest room. For this movie, skip the soda and buy only the popcorn. Although an excellent movie, a half an hour could have been chopped from this movie. It would have been a better movie because it does tend to drag and feel muddled in places.

Most of the cast from Batman Begins is back and that includes cinematic luminaries like Michael Caine as Alfred and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. With its relentless focus on The Joker, Christian Bale as Batman seems almost ancillary. Katie Holmes, who first played prosecutor Rachel Dawes, must have been too busy raising babies and doing mysterious Scientology stuff with Tom Cruise to reenact her role. Maggie Gyllenhaal, who I admired very much for her performance as Lee Holloway in Secretary (2002) gets the honors this time. Here though she hardly comes across as the sort of glamorous gal prosecutor with brains that would attract a billionaire like Bruce Wayne; in fact, she seems rather plain. I really liked Gary Oldman as Lieutenant Gordon in the first movie. He improves on his performance in this reprise. Aaron Eckhart won the role of prosecutor Harvey Dent and plays the role convincingly and with lots of gusto.

It is Heath Ledger though who steals the show and carries us off with it. We are in his demonic control from its first minutes. What a tragedy to lose Ledger, not just because he had such a promising career ahead of him, but because this role is impossible to adequately reprise without him. Consequently, the short-term profits of the Batman franchise are likely to take a tumble in subsequent installments.

Overall though I preferred Batman Begins. It is marginally the better movie, in part because it was more tightly directed and the story of Batman’s beginning was more compelling than Batman’s descent into darkness, which this film chronicles almost as an afterthought near its end. It is likely that Batman Begins, with it relatively more modest box office receipts, will be seen as the best movie in this franchise when it finally retires.

This movie rates 3.3 on my 4.0 scale.

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