‘The Dark Knight’ is big. Really big. Especially for a superhero movie. It’s like ‘Catch-22’ or ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ or ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ or ‘The Stand’: a narrative with a huge cast of well-drawn characters, a whole city full of people where the plot is simply the myriad interactions of these characters. What makes it brilliant as well as big is the nuance of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s script (a strange sentiment for a screenplay which features an 18-wheeler truck flipping end over end). The viewer doesn’t realise until the end that the story isn’t about a man dressed as a bat fighting crime or a psychotic clown terrorist: the story is the tragedy of Harvey Dent. And by the end it comes across beautifully: one man, his struggle for justice, and his tragic suffering at the machinations of a psychotic.
With all these characters, Batman does become something of a bit player in what is ostensibly his own film. Bruce Wayne’s struggle never really seemed to click with any emotional resonance; at least not to the degree that Dent’s struggle did. Still the film works as a great ensemble piece and every cast member does a stand out job. Except perhaps for Maggie Gyllenhaal who tries valiantly to salvage a boring character and to be fair she does a better job than Mrs.
A lot has been said about Heath Ledger’s performance, his final performance prior to his sad and untimely death. He gives a fantastic performance as the Joker: brilliantly complex with the illusion of complete spontaneity; unpredictable, insane, and sometimes terrifying. This is the Joker that Jack Nicholson never pulled off. This is the dark Joker, the epitome of chaos. The character is made all the better for not having an origin story: he emerges fully-formed as if manifested from nothing in antithesis to the rigid order of Dent and Batman. He is the sweeping force of anarchic destruction, free from rules, regulations and laws. This lack of back-story also makes him an absolute psychotic villain: as great as the psychological superhero phenomenon can be, it’s refreshing to have a villain who the audience isn’t expected to feel sympathy for. An inexcusable bastard. Someone to freely fear and revile. He’s certainly no Doctor Octopus and it’s a strange relief.
Does Ledger deserve a posthumous Oscar? No. It’s a masterful performance but it’s not Oscar-material. Academy Awards are not given to superhero, sci-fi or fantasy films (‘Lord of the Rings’ notably excluded). The Academy wouldn’t even consider Heath Ledger were he still alive and it would be hypocritical to give him an award for that role now. We shall see.
In short, ‘The Dark Knight’ is a brilliant and serious movie giving an interesting insight into the sacrifices and compromises it takes to fight crime, a short but meaningful exposition on what justice is, and some awesome action set-pieces mercifully free from the blight of CG. It is not, as IMDB proudly proclaims as of writing, the greatest film ever: it is however brilliant.
Where to go from here? Personally I think Nolan should call it a day as no-one ever manages to top their dark-bad-guys-win-‘Empire Strikes Back’ sequel. Unfortunately Hollywood loves a trilogy and so there probably will be another film. After making Two-Face realistic and sympathetic – successfully wiping Tommy Lee Jones’ dire exaggerated performance from our minds – they can probably make any Batman villain realistic. The sky is the limit. As for the Joker, I can see him in a kind of Hannibal Lecter capacity with some screen time: not too much but some, akin to the amount of Scarecrow in this movie. The scene with Batman and Joker in the interrogation room was easily one of the best in the film so it would be great to get a little more of that in a threequel. The only problem would be recasting after Heath Ledger. It would take serious cojones for the actor brought in to do it. My humble advice would be to try it but if it doesn’t work when it comes to filming, have the courage to stop filming and rewrite the script. The Joker now needs to be equal to Ledger’s performance or not at all. The next film would be need to be as big as this or not at all.