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Powerful Dark Knight a Solid Superhero Film

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated Dec 12, 2008
Powerful <i>Dark Knight</i> a Solid Superhero Film

DVD Release Date:  December 9, 2008
Theatrical Release Date: July 18, 2008
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and some menace)
Genre: Action, Crime, Sequel
Run Time: 152 min.
Director: Chris Nolan
Actors: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman

“Some men can’t be bullied or negotiated with,” Alfred the butler (Michael Caine) says to Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in the summer’s most anticipated movie, The Dark Knight. “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

It’s a troubling truth—one of many expressed in this newest film in the Batman franchise, which shows the impact such men have on Gotham City and the limited power of those who want to change things for the better.

For fans of the Batman franchise, this sequel to Batman Begins (which restarted the franchise in 2005) turns out to have been worth the wait. Grim and morally complex, The Dark Knight not only explores the dark side of human nature but draws potent parallels with the current war on terrorism, leaving viewers to wrestle with questions of how to respond to injustice.

Bruce Wayne wants to rid Gotham City of mob influence, but the mob has problems of its own. Not only is prosecutor Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) working hard to bring them down, but a villain named the Joker (Heath Ledger) has infiltrated the local crime ring and easily beaten back a collection of impotent Batman impersonators who see the caped crusader as a “symbol of good” and try to copy his behavior. His merciless methods belie the ever-present smile upon his face, and the local police, led by Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), can’t find a way to stop his deadly assault upon the city. The Joker’s demand, made through multiple televised torture tapes, is that Batman reveal his true identity.

The Joker’s demented visage—he has white makeup and permanent smile—provide all we need to know for the reasons behind his rage. Director Chris Nolan defies any audience demand for an official explanation of the Joker’s malevolence by giving Ledger a couple of contradictory speeches about why he is the way he is. The Joker’s murky motivations matter little—he must be confronted and stopped before “everything burns,” as he says late in the film. He spreads terror through the use of the media—the videos he makes to alarm the citizens of Gotham are uneasy reminders of the hostage videos seen on the nightly news, while his confidence in carrying out his plans is so great that he places obituaries in the newspaper before killing his victims. The tactics create helplessness and fear among the citizens, who turn on the authorities before turning on each other.

As the mayhem escalates, Batman recedes. Gotham needs a more visible hero, he believes, and prosecutor Harvey Dent is Gotham’s “white knight.” No matter that Dent is now taking up with Bruce Wayne’s old flame, Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over for Katie Holmes from Batman Begins), or that Dent has a fondness for the Roman tactic of suspending democracy when times got tough. Tough times call for tough action, and Dent is the man of the hour. Plus, Batman has acted on ever darker impulses in going after the criminal element, and the psychological toll has become too much. “I’ve seen what I have to become to stop men like [the Joker],” he tells Dent, in resignation.

The Joker ratchets up his attacks through the use of improvised explosive devices and car bombs—an effective insurgent campaign that paralyzes Gotham and leads its crime-fighters to resort to more forceful but less focused tactics, including widespread surveillance technology that lets Batman peer into the private lives of Gotham’s citizens. “This is wrong,” says Wayne’s ally, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), but given the perilous situation, he agrees to help Wayne “this one time” if it will save lives—the crux of the moral dilemma posed in the trade-off of certain rights and liberties in our current war.

That’s weighty fare for a summer blockbuster, and it’s the biggest risk to public acceptance of The Dark Knight. No one wants a lecture during their chosen popcorn flick, and if a film is going to push buttons related to the War on Terror, it’s guaranteed to divide audiences. It’s a tribute, then, to Nolan, who also co-wrote The Dark Knight, that this potentially heavy material balances strong moral condemnation of terrorism with a cold examination of motives and tactics that have unintended consequences. And all this in an entertaining package, albeit a relentlessly dark one.

Driven by a strong performance by Heath Ledger and excellent support from Gary Oldman, The Dark Knight strengthens the franchise’s reputation under Nolan, who took the Batman saga back to its origins in Batman Begins and now moves it forward with another solid effort, laying a strong foundation for future films in the series. The main drawback to the film is that, just as the public has entered into a period of “war fatigue,” The Dark Knight stretches and tests the patience of its audience. By the time the film reaches its final half-hour, viewers may begin to wonder if, to borrow a title from a well received documentary about the current war, there’s “no end in sight.”

It’s a trade-off worth making: a final half hour of sound and fury that don’t amount to much, against two full hours of absorbing drama and action that precede those 30 minutes. If nothing else—if the war parallels and social commentary aren’t your thing—Ledger’s final screen performance (he died soon after filming was completed) will stay with you. It’s the highlight of an all-around strong, if overlong, entry in the superhero genre.

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  • Drugs/Alcohol:  A judge takes out a bottle of liquor in response to a death threat.
  • Crime:  Gotham City is under the influence of the mob; attempted blackmail.
  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain; some foul language.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Brief kissing.
  • Violence/Other: A bank robbery involves multiple murders; a lawyer punches a defendant; a man is slammed into a desk; multiple shootings and stabbings; lives, including that of a child, are threatened, only to be spared; fisticuffs and brawls; a car bombing and massive explosion that takes down a building; a man is thrown off a building but survives; several long falls but few deaths or serious injuries; a woman slaps a man; a dog attack.