“We don’t want you doing anything with your hands other than holding on for dear life.” It’s a threat, it’s a joke, it’s barked by a masked hench-thug during The Joker’s daring opening bank heist. It’s also a mission statement from the makers of The Dark Knight. And you best buckle up: they mean it…
The title sets out the stall, both in theme and ambition. This isn’t Batman 2 (or 6 or 7 or however you tally it up), it’s a stand-alone picture with its own heart and integrity. Christopher Nolan isn’t interested in franchise; he’s fascinated by character, by story, by people. Of all the superheroes Batman is the only one who isn’t, in fact, super. No powers supernatural or extraterrestrial: he lives in a world only a sliver of reality away from our own. Muscle, training and technology are his allies; aches, breaks and faltering will are his foes. When Alfred (Michael Caine) tends to Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale)’s post-fight contusions, he warns his master to know his limits. “Batman has no limits” comes the flat reply. Only, of course, Batman is limited by his beliefs. He’d rather break his own neck than snap the rule that has steered his crim-bashing excursions away from blunt Death Wish morality. He will be the judge and the jury, but he will not be the executioner. He will not kill. But if Batman’s morality is a construct, The Joker (Heath Ledger) is a wrecking ball.
Just as Wayne is contemplating an end to his crime-fighting endeavour – seeing hope in the arrival of Gotham’s “White Knight”, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) – along comes this anarchic, mischievous terrorist daubed in “war paint”, outwitting and then uniting the underworld in one aim: kill the Batman. Desperate crimes call for desperate measures, but just how far will Gotham’s Caped Crusader go to save himself, his city and everyone he loves?
How far is too far is a pertinent question in the age of Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and 42 days’ detention without charge – but while the Nolans (Christopher and co-writer brother Jonathan) touch on everything from extreme interrogation to monitoring communications – in an actually quite bewildering tech-stretch sequence – they don’t draw glib parallels or let the War on Terror allusions overpower the entertainment. This isn’t Michael Moore’s Batman, though there’s a touch of Michael Mann in the visuals, with Gotham no longer a gloomy, gothic comic-book creation, more the corrupt conurbation of Heat. As for those The Godfather: Part II promises in the pre-release pieces?
Right there on the screen, in the hollowed out face of Bale, as he contemplates the consequences of his actions. His brilliance has become almost commonplace but shouldn’t be overlooked – he brings light and shade, depth and compassion to a character previous Bat-men have often made monochrome – though there’s no doubting the limelight will be on the late Ledger, burning brightly as he embodies an icon.
Dig out the thesaurus and run through the superlatives: chilling, gleeful, genius… It's a masterpiece of a performance. The 'meeja' Oscar talk is tasteless, in that the Academy usually ignores comic- book entertainment and the hyperbole is because he has died, but let it be said that it’s such a fearless, fierce, menacing turn that comparisons with Jack Nicholson don’t come into it. This is the definitive Joker.
If there are gongs going, hand another to the Nolans for their script, which fleshes out previous bit-parters – with Gary Oldman particularly benefiting as Gotham’s only honest rozzer – and gives Ledger lip-smacking sequences where he can mock the “Daddy didn’t love me!” motivations of lesser movie villains by spinning different yarns to different audiences about his damaged past. Not that the film isn’t interested in motivations – as evidenced by Harvey Dent’s journey to the dark side (though the less said about that the better; go discover it for yourself).
If The Dark Knight has a flaw, it’s that the attention to each character results in a crammed, tumultuous movie, even at two and a half hours. There’s so much going on, so much energy and ambition, that the through line becomes a little muddled. But just use that as an excuse for a repeat performance. That Mr Nolan: he has a taste for the theatrical.
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A minor second act shake can't undermine a dazzling, determined superhero classic and Ledger puts Nicholson in the shade. With Batman Begins Nolan set the bar; with TDK he's just raised it.