2008: A Cinematic Odyssey

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The Tragic Tale of The Dark Knight

Posted by Jesse on July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)
director: Christopher Nolan
starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman

-Before you read this review, know that there are many spoilers herein-

As you all have heard by now, this is the greatest film of the year. If you haven’t seen this movie, you’re behind and if you have seen this movie, you must understand that this is a great cinematic achievement. What The Dark Knight brings to the table is exactly what Batman Begins did, but with much more detail, gloom and realism. If you thought Batman Begins displayed a strong sense of realism, you’re right, but it doesn’t even come close to even compare with the unstoppable force called The Dark Knight. This film is epic, revolutionary and groundbreaking. Comic book films have never been known to be deep, dark or poignant. The Hulk, Fantastic Four and Daredevil, to name a few, were examples of what Marvel transformed into film versions in order to capitalize on the titles and make a decent dollar (which is exactly what happened). In 2004, Spider-Man 2 was released. This was the first comic book adaptation to actually delve deeper into social and political issues and tackle a much broader subject. Iron Man was the next comic book adaptation to have such success in both the box office and with the critics. However, no comic book film in history has ever amounted to the success of The Dark Knight. This second installment in the revitalized Batman franchise is perhaps one of the greatest crime dramas I have ever seen. It displays self-awareness in terms of genre, strong themes which aren’t usually associated with comic book films and corrupt characters which have such profound importance that you can’t help but find inspiration in Christopher Nolan’s filmmaking.

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)

This is the first Batman film that doesn’t actually have the word “Batman” in the title. This film’s title, The Dark Knight, is more suitable than any other title this film could have received and it’s better this way. If “Batman” was in the title, it would have made the film seem less mature than it is; this film is an exercise of societal understanding. Through it’s blatant corruption and downfall, this film automatically becomes one of the most dark crime dramas ever made and giving this film a title such as The Dark Knight allows not only Batman to battle his character, but gives us insight into the other characters’ battles as well. This quote that Harvey Dent says perfectly describes the outcome of the film: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Ultimately, what this film depicts in its finale is the destruction of society’s trust in a hero. After Harvey Dent is killed as Two-Face, Batman decides to protect society by posing as the villain and letting Dent be recognized as the hero. Even though Dent was corrupted by The Joker and went on a vicious killing spree, Batman and Detective Gordon both understood what needed to be done in order to preserve the stability of society in Gotham; Batman let Dent be seen as the hero for he believed that a hero should have a face and relate on a human level to the citizens (even though Dent later destroyed his “white knight” reputation). Batman knows he can no longer be acknowledged as a hero and finds it hard to relate to the public through his costumed self. Batman lacks human qualities and this adds to the study of his identity crisis, but in this film, the one thing that allowed us to see the humanity in his character was his love for Rachel. When that was destroyed, Batman hit a dead end and became corruptible again. The deep character analysis of Bruce Wayne/Batman is lengthy, but it is one that’s more philosophical than any other character out there.

The character relationships in this film are somewhat complex, but very understandable. The three main characters are Batman, The Joker and Harvey Dent. In a detailed triangle of conflicts, all three of these characters are foils to one another. The most evident foil being between Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent. Aside from the main Batman storyline, Harvey Dent’s storyline is probably the most important in the film. Dent is easily a character which we can sympathize with and feel his pain. Once Dent is transformed into Two-Face, he becomes an agent of vengeance and his character development deepens. Literally having two faces allows his character to openly battle his identity and dilemmas (good versus evil in most cases, which is why his coin is also an important symbol). He has incredible importance to this film in terms of exposing Batman’s corruptibility and the degradation of law and order in Gotham.

The Joker is also a vital character in the film. His origin and motives are unnamed, but this is for a reason. The Joker doesn’t need an origin for he illustrates mayhem and anarchy and isn’t really that significant other than for the sole purpose of wreaking havoc and being a catalyst for the battle between Batman and Two-Face. Comparing The Joker with previous film villains might reveal other integral facts about his limited importance. Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men and John Doe from Se7en are two characters which come very, very close to The Joker in terms of origin and motive. Having none allows this character to be completely chaotic. As I said in my review of Se7en, the villain character completely goes against the normal conventions of cinema and takes it to another level. The same goes for this film. The normal film conventions of the villain are completely diminished almost instantly in the first scene of the film in which The Joker (masked as a bank robber), murders all of his accomplices and keeps the money to himself. Having no morals, values or ethics brings The Joker that much further in the state of corruption and evil that is being placed upon Gotham.

Christian Bale as Batman in The Dark Knight (2008)

Christian Bale as Batman in The Dark Knight (2008)

As an ensemble, this cast is excellent and as singular performances the cast is even better. Assembling a cast of great actors like this and having them all play characters with such vital roles could not have been easy to do. Utmost congratulations to Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer for creating such terrific characters and a masterful screenplay. The Bruce Wayne/Batman character was written with much more depth than it was in the first film. Allowing Batman to have such a strong character foil that is Harvey Dent gave him a huge obstacle to overcome, which only lead to a tragic ending for everyone. Aaron Eckhart was also fantastic as Harvey Dent. Dent is a character that takes a great actor to play and that’s what we received with Aaron Eckhart. He takes his performance to higher levels each time we see him on the screen, especially when he is transformed into Two-Face and exudes a dying hope in humanity that makes it easy for him to be compared to one of Shakespeare’s tragic leading men. Supporting performances from Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are all fantastic and each of them have at least one part in which they steal the scenes. Maggie Gyllenhaal replaced Katie Holmes in the role of Rachel Dawes, the love interest of Bruce Wayne (and Harvey Dent in this installment). She is a vast improvement over the dull Holmes and gives an emotionally wrought performance that still sticks with me days after I’ve seen the film.

I’ve tried to leave the best for last and this is a better time than any to mention the powerhouse performance by Heath Ledger. The Joker is visibly an extremely tough role to play and Ledger not only played the role perfectly, he embodied the character and nailed every single intricacy. Talks of an Oscar nomination for his role are going around and I cannot help but support the campaign for a posthumous nomination. No one has ever played a villain with such commitment and Ledger’s performance ranks up there with Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter and Perkins’ Norman Bates. His portrayal blows Jack Nicholson right out of the water and makes him look like a fool for ever trying to play The Joker like he did. Not only is Ledger’s performance the best of this film, but easily one of the best performances I have seen by an actor. I will continue to praise Ledger and spread news of his performance and I hope he gets the recognition he deserves for this performance which is truly haunting. Rest in peace, Heath.

In general, this film exhibits such mastery in its way of dealing with such topical issues. Christopher Nolan’s direction is not only superior to that of his first installment, but superior to any other director that has attempted this kind of cinematic commentary before The Dark Knight. As Peter Travers stated, this film has come along way and breaks the barriers of being known as just a comic book film and delves into the depths of cinema and grounds itself with such masterpieces as Goodfellas, Heat and The Godfather. It’s a crime drama like no other that not only displays an acute sense of social and political emphasis, but much more interesting relationships like that of William Shakespeare’s tragedies. Many connections can be made between this film and Shakespearean plays such as Hamlet, Macbeth and even Romeo and Juliet. It would be ridiculous of me to even bother saying I highly recommend this, because that’s obvious. This film is an epic masterpiece and a vehicle for success. It will go down in history and be praised for a long, long time, guaranteed.

Theatrical trailer for the film:

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