The Dark Knight ★★★★★

I popped this in because I was in the mood to see that opening heist, and then ended up getting sucked in and watching the whole thing...because great movies are like a great meal...you aren't satisfied with just a bite.

I love Burton's "Batman", as I should have made abundantly clear in the review I wrote after my revisit of it a couple of weeks ago. But I love Nolan's "The Dark Knight" too. But comparing them to determine which is the better film is pure folly, as far as I am concerned. Both of them are excellent, but for different reasons. They strike different tones, different moods. They both do an excellent job of establishing Gotham City as a place, a place of corruption where crime has been allowed to run rampant. Burton's city feels gritty but Gothic, grandiose. Burton's is the more operatic, abstract vision. Nolan dares to present Gotham as a real place, a city that you might be able to travel to. Burton's film owes a debt to Fritz Lang. Nolan's owes a debt to Michael Mann. From that brilliantly riveting opening sequence, this movie feels and moves like "Heat" more than anything else. (I purchased a Special Edition Blu-ray of "Heat" a couple years back that had a discussion with Mann, Pacino and Robert DeNiro...which was moderated by Nolan. When I saw Nolan there I was like "I knew it!", not that the Mann influence over this film ever felt like a secret.) We will probably never get a Michael Mann superhero movie, but we have Nolan's "Dark Knight" and that's just as good. With "Heat", Mann used cool tones and actual locations and moody, atmospheric lighting and production design to create a gangster epic bathed in cool and drenched in operatic pathos. Nolan does the exact same thing here, crafting a superhero epic that feels cool as hell yet grounded in a sort of authenticity and reality as well. It is epic but gritty, stylistic yet seething with realism, freighted with thematic depth yet lean and muscular and intense.

Just as Burton was abetted by glorious, stylized production design, so is Nolan. He uses real locations, and that reality grounds the film and makes it feel alive and relatable as, arguably, no other comic book adaptation ever has. But it would be a mistake not to recognize how wonderfully the production design team has tweaked those real locations and enhanced them to convey Nolan's atmosphere and mood. The city feels real, and also like a fully realized character. The atmosphere and mood and location all feel palpable, tangible, lived-in. Which makes the warring ideologies competing to win the soul of this city all that more compelling and vital. Each of the main characters has their own distinct ethos and world view, and each of them seeks to mold their surroundings to fit that world view. This is why the traditional gangsters and criminals that have long held domination over the city fade out and give way to The Joker. They don't want to establish a philosophical regime, they simply want to make money. The Joker manipulates those traditional criminals for his own ends: namely Chaos. It's not enough that he thrives on Chaos (and I love how fully realized he is despite the fact that we never learn his name or background, those things aren't character, after all, merely details...and if you establish a character this potently and fully, you don't necessarily NEED those sort of details), he wants everyone else to share that philosophy. It's not enough that he lives this way, he insists that everyone else does too and does everything he can to push the citizens of Gotham to share his madness. On the flip side, Batman wants to establish Law and Order. He wants a world that makes sense, a world of peace where no one has to experience the sort of Pain and Loss that he has, and he is doing everything he can to make that world a reality, though his world view has been tragically warped by his experiences and the world of Gotham is so corrupt that he must operate outside the traditional methods and laws to make that reality happen. Harvey Dent still believes that the Law can work. He wants, essentially, the same structured and peaceful city that Batman does, he just believes that the system can still work and, therefore,he can establish this world within that system...though he isn't above using Batman's vigilante methods to augment that belief, which makes him more fascinating than he might be in most films. Dent is Gotham's "White Knight", but early on we see that while he speaks of stamping out all forms of corruption and doing things by the book, he is willing almost immediately to compromise on that by getting help from Batman.

"The Dark Knight", ultimately, is about the compromises necessary to achieve noble ends. It is about what it takes to combat extremism and terrorism, and the moral gray areas one is forced to operate within in order to make that happen. Can we operate within those gray areas and still be essentially Good? Or do we fundamentally lose that Goodness in our pursuit of Peace and Justice? Is it possible to do a little wrong in order to do Right without succumbing to that wrongness and losing the Right we had in the first place? Hell, did we ever even HAVE that Rightness to begin with? These are the fascinating questions that Nolan and his collaborators grapple with. These themes, as much as the real locations, make this a more Real World sort of superhero film, and the production design, the character development, the atmosphere, the tense score by Hans Zimmer (completely different from Danny Elfman's soaring, operatic "Batman" score but, honestly, just as excellent in a totally different way) and the excellent performances at the film's core (Bale is great and so are Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart, but Heath Ledger's rightly lauded turn as The Joker is different from Nicholson's yet just as strong, just as wickedly funny and iconic and perfectly suited to the film around him, like Nicholson his performance is so exemplary that it has come to define the film itself) all add to the film's striking and stunning ambiance and mood and enhance that sense of gritty authenticity and riveting thematic examination of Morality in the face of Terror. There's a lot of exciting stuff in this movie, but very little of it is the sort of traditional "action" we see in these sort of films. The movie slides sideways into its unique action beats and throbs with an intense energy that makes every scene exciting in a really interesting way.

"The Dark Knight" rightly belongs atop lists of great comic book movies because it doesn't feel like the rest of them. It's a thoroughly unique vision that has been borrowed from and emulated to some degree ever since...though never quite duplicated. No one else has managed the same masterful balancing act of energy, tone, theme and gritty grandeur that Nolan does here. Hence, despite the rise of the MCU and everything that has come since, "The Dark Knight" still feels fresh and original, and it probably always will.

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