Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Dark Knight (2008) (Movie Review)

     In general, Batman has always been a pop cultural icon, but with the rise of Christopher Nolen’s Dark Knight trilogy, he was suddenly propelled into absolute greatness, and of course the middle chapter of this acclaimed trilogy is one of the most sacred movie sequels ever made. Now prior to 2008, my favorite Batman movie was always the theatrical 1993 animated movie “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm”, which in my view is about as perfect as Batman movies can get. However, the 2008 movie “The Dark Knight” is a completely different beast. This isn’t just a perfect Batman movie, it’s a great movie that just happens to have Batman in it. Upon release, this film was hailed as the greatest film in the franchise and has sense gained the reputation as arguably the greatest comic book movie ever made. Now I’m usually not one to jump on the band wagon, but I’d only be kidding myself if I didn’t agree that it’s the best installment of Batman’s film series, and personally one of my all-time favorite movies. Now I’ve heard plenty people state that while the film is good, maybe it’s given just a little too much praise, and I genuinely respect that opinion. In fact, I actually think it’s healthy for people to voice their opinion against films that are unanimously loved. However, to counter that point, I wasn’t initially a crazed fan that gave himself into the hype when this film first premiered. Truthfully, I originally had no interest in seeing this film in the theater. Then one night I was invited to go see it with some pals, I sat down, just assumed I’d have a derivative time with some friends but I was also open to whatever the film had to offer, and now 10 years later, I still remember the impact this film left on me that night. That was one of those special game changing movie experiences I’ll be taking with me for life.  

    Set some time after the events of “Batman Begins”, our hero has become integrated into the city and is making short work of criminals. Now he aims to bring down the entire mob, but in order to do so, our costumed hero forms an alliance with two other men of justice. The first is his friend, police commissioner Gordon and the other is a new district Attorney named Harvey Dent. Together, these three men aim to not only bring down the mob, but are also fighting to make a better, safer Gotham city then ever before. Harvey Dent in particular is dead set on cleaning the streets of all crime and has proven quiet officiant at doing so. It even gets to a point where Batman begins questioning his own relevance as a crime-fighter. In fact, maybe he can fulfill his dream by hanging up his cape and begin a new life with his lover Rachel. Unfortunately, into their mists walks a deadly new wild card … the Joker. Gradually he begins targeting our three heroes, and his further plans to corrupt the natural order send the city into a state of panic and cause! The situation only gets more intense with each day as all of our hero’s loose something precious. The worst victim of all being Harvey Dent, who’s tragic losses begin to reshape and transform him into a monster. Now Batman faces his greatest challenge yet, which is rescuing the soul of his city from the corruption of a relentless evil. For me, this is what elevates “The Dark Knight” above other comic book movies, as it’s not just a typical super hero story, this is a very rich crime dram that’s laced with relevant themes and subjects regarding anarchy, peace, terrorism, morality and so forth. It’s a story about enduring evil, and resisting corruption in the face of escalation.

    Figuratively, this is the tail of a war between two symbols and what they stand for, what Batman stands for versus what the Joker stands for. Basically, it’s the very soul of the city that’s at stake, and not just the city itself. During the present-day course of the film, we actually see the figurative soldiers fighting this war. We see the criminals dressed like clowns who represent corruption, and we see the citizens dressing up like Batman fighting for peace. Caught in-between is Harvey Dent who will represent both sides of the conflict, as he starts as the humble district attorney, but then falls from grace and becomes a soulless criminal himself. It’s interesting how “The Dark Knight” is almost a reverse of Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman”. That film told a story that revolved around Batman, but the focus was all on the Joker as the main character. This time the focus is on Batman as the main character, but the story revolves around Harvey Dent and his descent into becoming the villain Two-Face. Still, Batman is at the center of attention and we get to see all his best trademarks in full glory. We see Batman as a crime fighter, a hero, a symbol for hope and we effectively see him as a detective, which is a trait we barely see of the character in other live action films. Christian Bale returns to the role and still delivers a satisfying performance. However, while his grouchy voice has always been something to make fun of, it becomes a real problem when he’s the guy who’s conveying some of the film’s most important statements, and half the time I can’t understand what he’s even saying.  

     Before I talk about the films iconic lead antagonist, I first want to talk about my favorite character. Two-Face played masterfully by Aaron Eckhart is personally my favorite villain from any of the theatrical Batman movies. In general, as a long time Batman fan, I’ve always liked Two-Face a little more than the Joker, mostly because I prefer villains that are born from tragedy. Two-Face is perhaps the most tragic of Batman’s enemies, as well as a dark reminder of Batman’s failures. The first thing this film got right is that we don't even see him as Two-Face until the last half hour of the movie. This gave us the chance to know his better half, the District Attorney Harvey Dent, and how he pushed himself to create a better Gotham. This was a man that symbolized hope and lighting a city’s darkest hour. Then without warning, tragedy struck and he became a vengeful monster who was convinced that the only morality in the world is chance. It’s such a frightening concept, to think that any great world leader with noble intentions can fall without warning. The digital makeup-design is outstanding, in fact it’s downright uncanny how good it looks. It also makes him a perfect fusion of what both Batman and the Joker stand for, one side righteous and the other side unjust. In short, I was beyond pleased with this films portrayal of the character, and it’s the kind of villain I’d like to see more of. He isn't an evil mastermind that's after the city, instead he's a broken human who has been transformed by the loss of a loved one, and I always find that more engaging. In all honesty, while this is still an all-around excellent film, it probably wouldn’t be my personal favorite Batman movie if it wasn’t for Two-Face and his story.

     Now with all my praise given to Two-Face, I certainly don’t want to undermine the Joker, and his iconic, Oscar winning portrayal by the late Heath Ledger. Without a doubt this is one of the generations defining performances, and one of the most iconic villain portrayals in film history. Also, it’s probably the first and only time an actor will ever win an Oscar for playing a comic-book character, as that’s something that never happens. While Heath Ledger had his share of fans over the years, no-one would have expected him to not-only excel as the Joker, but also be a legitimately terrifying screen presence. While other versions of the character had their menacing highlights, they were never this frightening or intimidating. Just the way he looks at someone while liking his lips was intense. Aside from the performance, the Jokers motivations were equally intense. His goal isn’t to destroy either the hero or the city, but to corrupt them. He’s not after power or wealth, he just wants to prove a point, that anyone, no matter how good they are can be just as crazy and evil as him. 

I love that Alfred of all people is the first to understand this villain for what he really is, and his eerie story in which he compares the Joker to a diamond bandit adds so many frightening layers to the character. It’s a tail that conveys something of a dark reality and it makes the Joker feel less like your typical comic-book bad guy. He’s like an unstoppable force of nature that can’t be reasoned with. He was also a smart mastermind who keeps a city in a state of panic, he intimidates mobs, breaks himself out of prison and no matter how hard the hero’s try to stop him, the Joker is always one step ahead. He also has a dark sense of hummer that makes him consistently fun to watch, and his gallery of quotable lines are easily some of the best ever spoken by the character. My favorite aspect of the Joker is that his backstory changes every time he interrogates someone. This made his mystique all the more frightening as we just have no grasp on who this guy is. Was he born this way, did something happen, dose the Joker himself even know his own origins? All this mystery just adds to the dark and complex fascination of his character. 

    With both the Joker and Two-Face shinning on screen, “The Dark Knight” easily has my favorite ensemble cast of villains from any Batman movie. With that said, I should also highlight the little guys. I love that for once the Mob played an integral part in the story, and by seeing the vast crime ring, it actually helped Gotham city feel more like a character. I also liked that the Mob boss Sal Maroni played his part in the film without chewing the scenery the same way Max Shreck did in “Batman Returns”. The film was even kind enough to give Scarecrow a little cameo, who’s played once again by Cillian Murphy from “Batman Begins”. Despite only being on screen for five minutes, this was a satisfying way to bring closure to his character as the Scarecrows demise were left unresolved in the last film. While I think their fight scene could have been a pinch longer, it was still cool to see Scarecrow at all, and I like that one of Batman’s rouges could just make a quick and satisfying appearance without detracting from the main story.

     Garry Oldman once again is outstanding as Commissioner Gordon, and personally, I never saw him as a supporting character. I’ve always viewed Gordon as a main lead right along with Batman and our two villains. More to the point, Garry Oldman just brings him to life on so many intense and emotional levels, to the point where this is honestly my favorite performance in his multilayered acting career. All the other terrific supporting players from the last film are back and are even brought up a notch. I look forwarded to seeing more of Morgan Freedmen as Lucius Fox in further installments, and I just love the friendship between he and Bruce Wayne. It’s just cool that someone in Wayne’s enterprise knows his secret identity and can secretly supply him with weapons. Michael Caine gives another terrific performance as Alfred and proves that he’s more involved with aiding our hero than any other version of the character. The only cast change is for Batman’s girlfriend Rachel. Originally, she was played by Katie Holmes in “Batman Begins”, but now she’s played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Thankfully, she looks just like an older version of Katie Holmes, and she even delivers a more dignified performance then her predecessor. Having said that, I truthfully felt a little more chemistry between Katie Holmes and Christion Bale, in fact, for all her faults, I actually found Katie Holmes to be a pinch more memorable. That’s not to put down Maggie Gyllenhaal, as she’s definitely a bright spot in regards to her performance, but she just didn’t leave that big an impact on me either.

    Of course, one of the most important talents to acknowledge is the writer/ director himself Christopher Nolen. This was a man who didn’t set out to create just another fun comic book movie, as that really wouldn’t have been worthy of a man of his talents. When Christopher Nolen makes a movie, whether it be “Memento” or “Inception”, his films are always about grand, larger than life concepts, themes and ideas. For him, “The Dark Knight” was his chance to create a deeply compelling and multilayered crime drama that just happened to feature these iconic characters we all know and recognize. I also love that this was a movie made by adults and made for adults, with absolutely no marketing to children. It’s actually a great example of how an iconic superhero who’s entertained children for decades could finally appeal to an older, more mature audience. Another very important talent is Wally Pfister, who was the principle cinematographer, and the craft he brings on display is nothing short of inspiring. Like holly cow, the sweeping wide shots in this film are a thing of beauty, and there’s always subtle movement to the camera, even during simple conversation scenes. Some have complained about the now cliched 360 shot in which the camera orbits around the actors while talking, but personally I couldn’t imagine select moments like Joker threatening Rachal or the talk with Batman, Gordon and Harvey Dent on the roof being as effective without this particular film technique. Another credit to their talents is that the filming was set in Chicago, and despite being incredible shots of a real city, it surprisingly still has the same atmosphere and personality of Gotham.  

     Another great credit to Christopher Nolen's craft is that he doesn’t over rely on CGI, as all the effects, stunts, locations and action on display are very practical, very in-camera and it makes things feel all the more real and intense. The last two talents that I absolutely need to mention are Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, because the music score they composed for this film adds a whole extra layer of intensity, urgency and excitement to the film. Granted this score doesn’t compliment the character Batman quiet as well as the previous scores from talents like Shirly Walker or Danny Elfman, but still, I couldn’t imagine this film conveying the same level of excitement without those tense musical beats. 

Now, let’s talk action, because prior to “The Dark Knight”, the action sequences in the majority of the Batman movies have all been good but also very safe. This was the first time that the action really stepped up and got intense, with more hand to hand combat, more vehicles and more explosions. Without a doubt, the big action highlight and subsequently my favorite part of the film was the big car chase in which the Joker ambushes the police convoy, and Batman is caught in the middle. This chase sequence once again highlights Christopher Nolen’s film-making talents, as the intensity gradually builds on each moment, and the music score is completely silent, allowing for the tense sound design to take center stage. The new bat-pod was also really cool, and in my opinion was an improvement over his previous Bat-tank. The whole scene is just one big feast for the eyes as we got the bat-pod driving through the tight interiors of a building (all of which are again practical), the clowns taking out a helicopter with suspension wires, and of course the big finish with that whole truck being flipped over ... it’s all just a thing of beauty to behold. While on the topic of this chase scene, I want to take a moment to give respect to one Conway Wickliffe, who was a mobile cameraman on both "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight". It was during a stunt with the vehicles that Conway tragically died in a car accident. It's a horrible thing to occur on set, and while it's not uncommon, it dose make me respect the people behind the scenes, who do so much, just to deliver viewers an engaging experience. May Conway Wickliffe rest in peace, and from the bottom of my heart ... thank you for your contribution to one of the greatest action movies I've ever seen.    

      Now I rarely can proclaim a film as an instant classic, but there was one select scene that upon viewing for the first time had me saying, “oh yeah, this film is going to be remembered for a long time”, and it was the scene in which the Joker killed the one mob guy with his magical, disappearing pencil in the eye. Yet another memorable scene that set the tone for the film was the opening, in which the Joker sends those clowns to rob the bank, when he’s actually setting them up to kill one another, and leaving the Joker himself with all the money. This effectively showed just how savage and intelligent our main villain is. Perhaps the most shocking twist scene of all was the death of Rachal, because not only did it happen mid-way into the film, but Batman had never lost a love interest at the hands of a villain before this film. Another very engaging dynamic of this movie is that while both Batman and the Joker are mortal enemies, neither is trying to kill the other, and it makes for a fascination hero/villain relationship. Perhaps the most iconic scene of all, and the one that’s been ripped off the most in other films, is the big interrogation scene between Batman and the Joker. This without a doubt is my favorite scene that these two characters have ever shared together. Their back and forth conversation is electrifying, and it’s also really intense to have the Joker in this kind of position. He’s finally being held prisoner, he’s surrounded by cops and even Batman himself, yet the Joker still feels in-charge and very dangerous.      

     Now let’s look at the climax, which is a non-stop thrill ride, and in my opinion highlights our hero at his absolute best. Two boats, one with convicts and the other with civilians are trapped in Gotham harbor and thanks to the Joker, both ships are on the verge of blowing each other up. 

Now Batman has to get the detonator before Joker can force their hands, but to make matters worse, the Joker is also holding hostages dressed like his clown goons, which have become the target for a swat team. Now our hero has to use all his skills to prevent the troops from killing the wrong people, and stop the Joker all at once. Seeing Batman use his quick intellect, strategy, stealth and an awesome new sonar devise is simply the dark knight at his greatest, and it’s absolutely riveting to see him pull all this off without taking a single life. It’s like a big puzzle for him to solve, which is why this is my favorite portrayal of Batman in any climax. It’s highlighting him as both a superhero and a detective all at once. Also, I absolutely loved that new sonar device, as it’s very original and fits right in with our heroes Bat-themed persona. The final showdown between Batman and the Joker is short on fighting, but extremely satisfying, and their verbal confrontation is equally exciting. The real finale is Batman’s final confrontation with Two-Face, and once again, it’s not an over blown fight, but instead it's a nail biting situation with Commissioner Gordon’s family being held hostage. Again, it’s the verbal confrontation between our hero and villain that has me riveted. The movie then closes on a high-note as the hostages are freed, but Harvey Dent parishes, and to make sure the people of Gotham don’t loose hope, Batman throws himself upon the sword to protect what Harvey initially stood for. It might just be the greatest act of heroism he’s ever done and it’s a riveting set-up for the final installment. 

     In the closing shot of the film, we see Batman driving off into the sunrise, and while that may seem a little gimmicky, it’s actually very symbolic of how this dark, and complex person is going to be the hero that leads this broken city back into the light. Actually, the film as a whole is a perfect metaphor of Batman in general. Make no mistake, Batman takes some morally questionable actions in this movie, but all with the intent of a positive outcome, and that’s what makes this character so compelling. He’s a superhero who’s always walking a raisers edge between un-ethical and justice. Truthfully, had it not been for that experience of seeing “The Dark Knight”, I probably wouldn’t be as interested in reviewing movies as I am today. This was the experience that got me analyzing and observing what goes into a film production. It fascinated me on a technical level, it inspired me on a thematic level and it down right thrilled me as a tightly passed, action, crime, superhero, drama. Still to this day, it's one of my absolute favorite movies. Now, that’s not to say I can make a persuasive argument that “The Dark Knight” is one of the greatest movies ever made, but given the context of this franchise, and comic-book adaptions in general, this film right here is about as perfect as they get. In my opinion, “The Dark Knight” is “The Godfather” of all superhero movies, and one that has aged very well over the past ten years.  

I give "The Dark Knight" a perfect 5 stars out of 5. So, this concludes my series of theatrical Batman movie reviews, and I can’t wait to see what will come of my favorite superhero in the years ahead.

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