Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
July 2008

'Knight' on Earth

Attention, comic-book filmmakers: 'The Dark Knight' is your new Everest

The Dark Knight
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 32 minutes
Opened July 18, 2008
(out of four)

Good and evil are not mutually exclusive. Not for the Batman, not for the Joker, and certainly not for the citizens of Gotham. Like all great crime epics, The Dark Knight - Christopher Nolan's stunning follow-up to 2005's Batman Begins - understands the complexities of that eternal struggle and explores them with breadth and profundity.

To say that this sets the new gold standard for comic-book movies is a vast understatement. What Nolan and Co. have done with this series - particularly TDK - is dig underneath the flashy, pop-art exterior of a comic-book universe to explore a superhero mythos with all the weight of a human struggle. The result is a grand psychological study and an epic tragedy, grounded in a real-world setting that makes the film's danger all the more palpable.

The Batman grapples with issues normally reserved for complex anti-heroes rather than superheroes. Supernatural elements are only vague suggestions. The Dark Knight has more in common with Michael Mann than Superman, is more in league with Scorsese's crime sagas than any other caped or masked hero.

To be sure, this is as viscerally enthralling as big-budget filmmaking gets, with performances and action sequences that are thrilling and scary and morbidly funny in equal measure. But the explosive setpieces are part of the greater picture, punctuating the story rather than killing time. The effect is that much more powerful.

More than anything, The Dark Knight is a meticulously crafted study of a corrupt society - and those within it - and the diametrically opposed forces that save it or tear it apart . . . if not both. The stakes are so much higher than usual because this Gotham is so real, so viable. The fears of the people, the flaws of our heroes, the delicate thread by which the balance of powers exists - none of that is set decoration here. This is not a three-act drill; it's the real thing.

With Batman Begins, Nolan took us to the origins of Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), from vengeful youth to criminal to masked vigilante, intent on enforcing justice on a city that had long since sacrificed itself to the influence of gangsters and corruption. Despite the "good guy" coming out on top at the end of the first film, the struggle continues in The Dark Knight. As Alfred (Michael Caine) explains, things will have to get a whole lot worse before they get better. And so they have.

The film studies human nature and society at large through three key characters, all foils for one another, all foils for Gotham City as a whole. And Nolan is intent on looking beyond just who they are, but what they all represent.

The film's script is flawless in the construction of its thematic and character issues, particularly in the parallels and contrasts drawn between the Joker (Heath Ledger) and Batman, between Batman and Bruce Wayne, and between Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the hotshot District Attorney and so-called "white knight" of Gotham.

Far from being mere adversaries who have to face off at the end, the three characters all represent a different facet of the struggle between good and evil, light and dark. Harvey is the city's last clean hope of overcoming injustice. The Joker is doom incarnate. And the Batman is right in between, slowly becoming more of an outlaw as the only way of serving the greater good.

The Joker's role as a facilitator of chaos and destruction is part of what makes the film's conflict so fascinating - "evil" in an absolute form, without any ulterior motives. He is not out for money, nor revenge. Anarchy is his only motive; the film smartly never attempts to try and explain him away. He diabolically explains how he got the scars on his face (while threatening the same fate on others) . . . and then in another scene, gives an entirely different explanation.

Why he is who he is doesn't matter; all that matters is that he is. Ledger's performance, which has become practically mythical at this point, is sadistic and macabre, his ticks and speech patterns suggesting complete psychosis, his logic and intelligence suggesting otherwise.

His one-sidedness, of course, lies in stark contrast to every other aspect of the film. The Joker is the one enigma, which is part of what makes the character so threatening. Everything else is in the film is an internal struggle - more important than the whats are the whys and the hows.

Consider how Nolan sets up the pieces of the film and lets them fall - sometimes shockingly, sometimes tragically - into place.

The Dark Knight is a completely fearless film. It doesn't hang by the thread of action scenes or convenient eventualities within the plot; this is a movie where characters (which is to say, Nolan and his screenwriter, brother Jonathan) are faced with crippling moral and ethical dilemmas and have to make difficult decisions - even with tragic or unfortunate consequences, even for the wrong reasons - that will drastically change the face of the city, and themselves, forever.

That the film has the guts to follow through once the wheels are set in motion - instead of opting for more clear-cut answers that no doubt would have been easy enough to write in - is a testament to just how much this film sets itself apart from the rest of the genre.

Weightier issues are on Nolan's mind than who gets who in the end. Needless to say, the film is spectacular entertainment - the character interactions and action sequences are even stronger than in the first - but it transcends the plot twists and the explosions and the action climaxes. The Dark Knight is not about good vs. evil; it is a dance between the two.

Make no mistake: This is not a popcorn movie; it's a crime drama, and one of the best of its kind. Christopher Nolan has taken graphic-novel material and created a modern masterpiece.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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