Have you ever noticed how one measly letter separates "laughter" from "slaughter?"
I almost missed this off-the-cuff joke -- it's spray-painted on the side of a semi as the Joker (Heath Ledger
) descends on a police convoy hustling doomed district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart
) beneath the streets of Gotham. But it beautifully captures the balancing act director Christopher Nolan
attempts in The Dark Knight, an anticipated blockbuster that seems capable at any point of plunging headlong into hilarity or insanity, moral stability or absolute chaos.
Anticipation. It's safe to say it has been building at a steady clip ever since Gary Oldman's Lt. Jim Gordon handed Batman (Christian Bale
) a Joker card in the closing minutes of Nolan's masterful Batman Begins. The director's groundbreaking reboot thoroughly reinvented the Caped Crusader for a new generation, and the idea that Nolan would unleash the Joker for a sequel set geek pulses racing. Message-board chatter heated up with the casting of Ledger in the iconic role, then reached thermonuclear levels following the actor's untimely death in January. Article continues below
With growing anticipation comes overwhelming expectation, which can work to a film's advantage or set it up to stumble. When Nolan revived a dormant Batman franchise in 2005, he had only to contend with our hazy memories of Joel Schumacher's campy, tasteless sequels. This time out, he's measured against his own achievement. Batman Begins remains one of the finest comic book adaptations of all time. In aspiring to advance the franchise, Nolan overreaches. The Dark Knight sets numerous goals. Many are reached, but some are missed.
The sequel is massive in scope, sprawling with ideas, dizzying with its action, and challenging with its moral quandaries. But Nolan cuts noticeable corners to cover his expansive canvas. The film is unwieldy where Begins was focused. Double-crosses can disrupt the narrative flow, creating confusion in Nolanís elaborate screenplay. At best, The Dark Knight is flat-out exhilarating, a roller-coaster plunge into the heart of darkness. At worst -- primarily in its third act -- it's a tad exhausting.
It's also not a Joker story, despite all of the attention paid to Ledger's maniacal interpretation of Batman's soulless foe. The Joker is but one card in Nolan's very stacked deck.
Dark Knight chooses instead to focus on Harvey Dent, a champion of justice destined (in the comics and on screen) to become the villainous Two-Face. Months after the events of Begins, Batman and Gordon have stepped up efforts to reduce organized crime in Gotham. The city's do-gooders are making a dent in crime -- pun intended -- thanks to Dent's fearless approach to wiping out Gotham's corruption.
The Joker acts as the wrench in Dent's plan, the thorn in Batman's side. Nolan wisely omits the character's back story and paints him as a modern terrorist waging war on our home turf. Ledger plunges to unspeakable depths to embody the Joker's anarchistic spirit. His tongue lolls. His eyes dart. His voice rings with equal amounts of menace and glee. The Joker's consistently unpredictable, as well. How appropriate that Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's haunting score resembles an air-raid siren warning of impending doom, because the Joker always has something deadly up his sleeve. But he's mysterious to a fault. The Joker's grand schemes often had me wondering how he pulled certain things off, when he had time to kidnap certain characters, rig various structures with dynamite, or generate a proper bankroll for his endless stream of guns, bazookas, automatic weapons and explosives.
Dark Knight pushes the concept of escalation that was introduced in Begins and extends through the sequel. Yet while everything is bigger, not all of it is better. Nolan and company nail Harvey Dent's tragic character (Eckhart is fantastic as the pious civil servant), but mishandle Two-Face. Batman purists may be annoyed by changes Nolan makes to Dent's wicked transformation, and his status at the end of this film is a head-scratcher. Stylistically, Dark Knight is a departure for Nolan. An international mission to Hong Kong helps the film feel like a Mission: Impossible
sequel, while Wayne now possesses enough toys to make an unflappable 007 envious. Maggie Gyllenhaal
steps in for Katie Holmes
, and we feel the emotional weight attached to her character. Michael Caine
and Morgan Freeman
, however, get less to do this time around.
With so much going on, though, there's more to appreciate than nitpick in Dark Knight. And it's tough to fault a filmmaker who reaches beyond the stars with what could be dismissed as a comic book property.
It simply boils down to a matter of taste (for the theatrical). I preferred Batman Begins over The Dark Knight. Nolan's introductory film embraced explanations, took time with its mythology, accepted the character's limitations and established the boundaries of Batman's fictional world. Dark Knight builds on that foundation, for sure, but thrusts ever forward when all I really wanted it to do was stop for a second and soak in the glorious chaos.