Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Dark Knight: Cure or Symptom?

Until recently, beginning with the original Superman starring Christopher Reeve, and continuing through the Spider-Man franchise and this summer’s Iron Man and Hulk movies, superhero film adaptations focused on serving up to audiences—and comic-book fans— faithful live-action recreations of their favorite comic-book characters. The franchises and their concepts usually drove these films, and getting it “right” was the primary goal. After several mis-fires and re-boots (reaching a new nadir with the ‘90s series of Batman films), Hollywood has finally shown it has both the technology and respect for the material to make superhero adaptations that are entertaining and faithful to the source material.

The Dark Knight takes this natural progression to a new level. Moreso than any with previous superhero film adaptation, in the Dark Knight, director and co-writer Christopher takes his audience to a new place by taking an existing superhero character to explore complex themes and ideas that go beyond the franchise.

Though Nolan has been rather oblique about the message of the Dark Knight (he has acknowledged it can partly be seen as a commentary on the blowback the U.S. has experienced in recent years due to its foreign policy escapades), one of the issues the film addresses—which the characters in the film explicitly raise themselves—is whether the Batman (Christian Bale) is a cure or a symptom.

While the Batman’s intentions to serve as his city’s guardian are honorable, in the film his presence and methods seemingly make things worse by ratcheting up the violence, inspiring copycats who get in the line of fire, and attracting new levels of villainy, as embodied by the Joker. As a result there are plenty of casualties in the film, many of them innocent victims. And at various points, the Batman’s faithful lieutenants—his valet Alfred (Michael Caine) and his technology guru Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman)—openly question the Batman’s tactics and whether he may be partly to blame for what has occurred.

Without giving too much away, regardless of whether he’s to blame or not, or indeed making a different (the film ultimately doesn’t answer this question), it’s telling that, at the end of the film, the Batman literally and symbolically assumes full responsibility for what has transpired. And like the archetypal Western, after having cleanses the city, he leaves town a hunted man, alone.

Like Batman Begins, this re-boot’s first installment, the Batman and his story arc are central to the Dark Knight. And although the secondary cast and, particularly, the villains are strong and colorful, unlike the previous Batman series, they never threaten to overshadow the film, and they always serve to advance the film’s main story and central themes.

Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker has justifiably received universal acclaim (and is nicely analyzed here), so there’s no need for me to add to to the praise. But it needs to be noted that Ledger (and Nolan) have done an extraordinary job in successfully re-imagining such an iconic figure. The Joker in this film is faithful to the very chilling first appearances of the character in the 1930s and his more recent re-inventions in graphic novels like Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s “The Killing Joke,” while also being completely new and fresh. It will be interesting to see how Ledger’s interpretation filters down to the comic book series.

Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman (Jim Gordon), and especially Maggie Gyllenhall (Rachel Dawes) and Aaron Eckhard (Harvey Dent/Two Face) all are given meaty roles even if they have limited screentime. And one should not overlook the fine performance of Christian Bale in the lead role, who inhabits the character with great respect, conviction and vulnerability.

It’s probably too early to call the Dark Knight the “best comic book movie ever”—certainly not with Watchmen on the horizon in 2009— but it’s among the most ambitious, mature and sophisticated. Plus, the increasing sophistication and varied textures of superhero films—ranging from summer popcorn flicks like the Spider-Man films and Iron Man to now darker fare like Dark Knight and Watchmen—doesn’t easily lend itself anymore to judging these movies with the same broad measure. Regardless, with the Dark Knight’s complex storyline and multiple rich character arcs, and the reviews that have acknowledged the film’s ambition, the superhero film has truly grown up.

One final comment: I had the fortune to see it in Imax format. Six scenes were filmed in the oversize, crystal-clear Imax filmstock. When the Imax sequences initiate, the film takes up the entire Imax screen, then reverts back afterwards. It is quite impressive, without being distracting or taking you out of the movie.

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