The Dark Knight might be, minute for minute, the most depressing, unsettling film I own on home video, but I rarely notice unless I'm actively looking for it. Shocking for a film whose primary antagonist likes to express himself through wanton acts of violence and nihilism, and whose closing scene of child peril and emotional wreckage is some of the rawest footage I've seen in a major studio film intent on making money.
With all of the dark and moody trappings, why do I, heavy-handed purveyor of escapist feel-good cinema, enjoy The Dark Knight so much? Tonal balance, friend. For as bleak as it gets - and make no mistake, it becomes very dire in places - there are small splashes of comic relief, a tossed-off line or an unexpected bit of comic violence (one of the only times outside of a Tom and Jerry cartoon I praise comic violence), which lessens the tension and makes the rest of its bleakness much more palatable. Throw in several exciting setpieces, and it’s easy to forget how grim The Dark Knight becomes. Spoonful of sugar, and all that.
It’s hard to talk about The Dark Knight without making comparisons to Batman Begins (or vice versa, depending on the order you first saw them). I won’t labor heavily on them, but I do want to toss off a few reasons why I prefer The Dark Knight. Aside from its surer balance of tone, the action scenes feel bigger and more satisfying (the truck chase is one of my favorite bits of action in recent movies) and the more grounded Gotham City is easier for me to wrap my head around. The Dark Knight also functions as a stand-alone narrative, and though I like the bits in Batman Begins where Bruce Wayne iterates on the Batman persona, I’m always grateful in a super hero movie when I don’t have to sit through an origin story, especially one as well-known as Batman’s. Batman Begins also lacks a big bad, a problem The Dark Knight does not have by any stretch of imagination.
For all conversations about The Dark Knight eventually turn to the Joker. I’ve seen The Dark Knight around eight or so times since 2008, and each time Heath Ledger’s smacking, mincing, casually-psychotic performance as the Joker blows me right on my ass. Ledger disappears inside of the Joker, distorting his voice, hunching his shoulders, and acting like the most charismatic bastard ever capable of murdering civilians. His hair is mankey and his white makeup is frequently unkempt; he looks the part of a so-called “agent of chaos,” and his raggamuffin appearance makes it even more unsettling when he starts killing people. Alternately dangerous and horrifyingly funny (sometimes at once, like his magic trick), Joker is the biggest example of why The Dark Knight works as well as it does. Mark Hamill’s Joker is more fun as well as frequently threatening, but Ledger is one memorable mofo, and The Dark Knight would be a lesser film if he were absent.
Not that Christian Bale and co. have been slouching since the previous film. Granted, Bale doesn’t portray as many sides of Bruce Wayne as he does in Batman Begins, but his fake playboy persona is even funnier in his pushy, clueless mannerisms and his straight non-Batman Bruce feels more lived-in and natural. Oldman’s tension with Batman as Commissioner Gordon grows slowly over the course of The Dark Knight, and he’s given more to do and more chances to perform. Michael Caine’s Alfred and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox hold steady with typically great character work, and Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes in much bouncier, sassier tones. Nearing Heath Ledger’s level is Aaron Eckhart as fallen D.A. Harvey Dent, whose journey from Gotham’s white knight to the villain Two-Face is made more painful by Eckhart’s convincing turn as both a classy, nice guy and angry, vengeful killer with an Anton Chigurh-esque penchant for coin-tosses. If I had one minor complaint, it’s that Eric Roberts’ Sal Maroni fails to make me forget about Tom Wilkinson, but actors that are Tom Wilkinson are much rarer than those that aren’t, so I’m hardly bothered by the change-up.
Even more than Batman Begins, Hans Zimmer and James Howard Newton outdo themselves with the soundtrack for The Dark Knight. In addition to Batman's previous theme, which carries over from Batman Begins with no decrease in its heroic glory, the pair introduces Joker's... well, the word "theme" implies a piece of music that can be hummed, and there is no merrily whistling Zimmer's razorblade-on-piano wire motif from when The Joker is onscreen. Like the character himself, the low, scraping din is noncompliant with the rest of the surrounding score, and creates an unease that meshes perfectly with Joker's dangerous, unorthodox effect on Gotham City.
Added to cinematographer Wally Pfister's box of tools is the IMAX camera. Every establish shot and most of the important action setpieces appear with heightened clarity and a changed aspect ratio, and the result adds not only better picture quality, but also to the sense of scale and scope in The Dark Knight. The picture at times is HUGE, and give the movie a greater heft, especially during the scenes in Hong Kong and on the ending ferry when the aspect ratio keeps changing.
Editing keeps the kinetic, discontinuous style from Batman Begins, and now it, too, has new tricks. Ramping up the tension are three sequences that cross-cut between two or more separate, parallel conflicts, and watching each section tighten and build to a head gives The Dark Knight a more active, grander feel, though the emotional build-up watching so many conflicts causes The Dark Knight to feel every minute of its runtime, while Batman Begins flies on by. Still, the three-way conflicts all feel so active and busy with incident that The Dark Knight never overstays its welcome.
A quick word on the dialogue. I recognize that The Dark Knight contains more self-referential, self-consciously “profound” dialogue, and that I should, by merit of its own awareness of how “profound” it is, spit on every “He is the hero we deserve” turn of phrase it throws at me. Eff that. Like the editing and score, it adds to the heightened reality and grandiosity of The Dark Knight while never jumping ship of posturing. My favorite passage of dialogue, which took me more than a few viewings to first notice?
Dent: “You’ve known Rachel her whole life?”
Alfred: “Oh, not yet, sir.”
GUESS WHAT GUY YOU WILL HAVE BY THE END OF ACT II
The Dark Knight is the best film based on a comic book of all time, and one hell of an act for any summer tentpole to top (including, from what I’ve read so far, The Dark Knight Rises). Both exciting to the more lizard-like portions of my brain and imbued with heavy, thoughtful ideas, The Dark Knight operates as both blockbuster entertainment and art house reflection, and how many movies can claim that, ever?