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The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)


     Critics often complain that moral confrontations in films have been reduced to comic book terms. In Christopher Nolanís extraordinary The Dark Knight, thatís still the case, yet itís not a reason for complaint. Moral conflict in comic book terms, it turns out, can make for fascinating viewing. The Dark Knight is equal parts debate and popcorn flick. It positions its heroes and villains on opposite sides of a philosophical line, and lets them battle it out in a series of gripping monologues and grappling assaults.  Itís an entirely appropriate, yet uncommonly ambitious, approach to making a Batman movie, and it results in an unremittingly bleak, yet intoxicating, vision of a world tempered with ambivalence and insecurity.


     I was no fan of Batman Begins, Nolanís tired, quasi-realistic do-over for the Batman franchise, but this new entry strikes me as a triumph of commercial filmmaking. Batman Begins was overstuffed with exposition, but this sequel takes off running, providing background while it delivers excitement. With a tone thatís in step with the darkest of the Dark Knight comic books, Nolan has crafted a film that would surely alienate viewers were it not so absorbing. He directs this less like an action movie than a horror film, sustaining both menace and intensity throughout the run time. Baleís Batman admittedly seems underdeveloped here, but thatís partially because his position in all of this mayhem is scarcely privileged. This Batman is merely one more force vying for power in a dystopian Gotham City.


     The pessimism that defines The Dark Knight makes it feel very much like a film that addresses the real worldís sociopolitical zeitgeist. One of the better scenes in Batman Begins featured Bruce Wayne explaining how he designed the Batman motif specifically to inspire fear. In this film, that fear has run amok, and the consequences of using it as a weapon must be confronted. Batman here becomes a symbolic embodiment of evil (note how heís referred to with a dehumanizing ďthe BatmanĒ) thatís easier for the public to latch onto than the ugly, unspeakable evil thatís looming. Heís an agent of disinformation and still the cityís brightest hope. Itís a bold conception of the hero, and it snatches the film from the frivolous triumphs that usually define the superhero genre. Through Batmanís pyrrhic, compromised victory, weíre made aware of the complications of heroism in a world thatís morally askew.


     Despite its thematic ambitions, though, The Dark Knight is above all else a first-rate thriller. It proves that comic book movies donít need to be dumbed down to achieve popularity or cinematic success. Much talk has emerged over recent weeks about whether or not Heath Ledgerís consistently inventive performance warrants an Academy Award nomination (it does, but that in no way downplays the equally admirable supporting work by Aaron Eckhart and Gary Oldman). Perhaps the dialogue should move forward and begin to suggest similarly awarding the film itself this winter. I doubt weíll see five supposed awards contenders this fall that challenge and excite us more. The Dark Knight is everything that mainstream entertainment yearns, but rarely manages, to be.


     There are some minor complaints that could be levied at The Dark Knight, to be sure. Gotham City feels more like a real place here than in past Batman films, but at the same time itís decidedly less atmospheric. Nolanís direction of his action scenes is still sloppy, at best. He never establishes space before blowing it up. A few scenes end abruptly, with confusing edits. Often emotional effect is lost, either because Nolan seemed to be trying to tighten the run time or trying to secure a PG-13 rating for what is a very violent spectacle. Baleís throaty Bat-Voice verges on self-parody. Despite all this, The Dark Knight is a supreme achievement in its genre. It doesnít transcend its comic book origins, but rather faithfully represents them, wholly unembarrassed to deliver its story on its own terms.



Jeremy Heilman