Entry for July 22, 2008: The Dark Knight

Fellow genre film fans, I hope you had a good weekend. The summer of superhero movies continues! On Saturday, 19 July 2008, I met Beruk A. and Thomas K.Y. at the AMC Framingham multiplex for Dark Knight, the sequel to Batman Begins. Janice screened the musical Mamma Mia, which she liked.

Here are the usual disclaimers: I've been a Batman fan for many years. I have fond memories of reruns of the campy late-1960s television show and have met Adam West and other stars. I've read numerous DC Comics titles and graphic novels and have a shelf's worth of reference books. I own the excellent animated series of the 1990s and have dressed as the caped crusader for Halloween. Thus, I'm hardly an objective reviewer.

Last week, I watched the anime Gotham Knight and the History Channel's decent special about Batman/Bruce Wayne's psychology. Although I've seen numerous glowing reviews, I had tried to avoid "spoilers" and comparisons between Dark Knight and other recent comic book adaptations. Dark Knight is grim, operatic, and arguably one of the best superhero movies to date. Is it perfect, or is it my ideal live-action take on the cowled detective? No, but it comes pretty close.

The movie opens with billionaire philanthropist and troubled Bruce Wayne continuing his self-appointed war on crime, shortly after the events of director Chris Nolan's Batman Begins. Christian Bale is again solidly intense in three roles: the sincere Bruce known only to close friends, the public playboy Wayne, and the fearsome vigilante Batman.

He is again ably supported by Michael Caine as butler and counselor Alfred Pennyworth, Morgan Freeman as gadgeteer and business steward Lucius Fox, and Gary Oldman as James Gordon, the only noncorrupt policeman in Gotham City. Chicago was used for location shots, which aren't quite as gothic as in Tim Burton's 1989 flick or Batman Begins. A side trip to Hong Kong has even more impressive skyscrapers.

Newcomers include Maggie Gyllenhall as assistant district attorney Rachael Dawes, ably replacing Katie Holmes. Dawes is the love interest of both Wayne and crusading district attorney Harvey Dent, played by Aaron Eckhardt. Batman hopes that Dent will be able to openly and legally clean up Gotham's streets so that he can hang up his cowl forever.

However, Batman must deal with copycat vigilantes and the chaotic and explosive Joker. Much has been said about the late Heath Ledger's performance, and I have to agree that it's worthy of an Oscar. Ledger disappears under the makeup, scars, and nervous ticks of the homicidal maniac, and it's a shame that an accidental drug overdose took this talented performer so young (reminding me of The Crow's Brandon Lee).

As with Caesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, or Mark Hamill, the character is id to Batman's superego, and each performance sets the bar higher. Each time he offers an explanation for his ghastly appearance and objectives, the Joker offers a different one, echoing The Killing Joke. The Joker soon dominates the conflict between law enforcement and organized crime, bringing up the issue of domestic terrorism. Remiding us of the tragic events of 11 September 2001, he uses low-tech methods (timers, grenades, barrels of gasoline) to wreck the order so carefully protected and represented by Dent and Batman.

It's not too much of a spoiler to say that two other members of Batman's rogue's gallery make appearances in this movie, but the dance belongs to Batman, the conflicted Dent, and the Joker. The hero isn't overshadowed by the flashy villain, as Nolan continues to focus on Wayne's motivations and sacrifices for justice. Dark Knight feels more like a crime drama than a standard spandex-clad adventure.

For a PG-13 movie, Dark Knight is very violent. Younger members of the audience tended to find the Joker more amusing than horrifying, but the challenges Batman faces in overcoming his schemes is believable. New gadgets include a "Batpod" motorcycle, sonar lenses, and a cell-phone surveillance system seemingly ripped from recent news.

As in Batman Begins, the fight choreography could have been a bit clearer, and the ending could have been tighter. I'm not a huge fan of body armor on that world's greatest martial artist, but at least Bale can now turn his head, one of many improvements to previous live-action versions. The soundtrack is moody, if not as evocative or memorable as Danny Elfman's score. Wayne's decision to continue his extralegal efforts could have gone differently or been explained better, but the storyline is left open for another sequel.

Several people have asked me how Dark Knight compares with other superhero movies, especially this summer's Iron Man. While they're similar — both are about rich men who don suits of armor to fight crime — they're very different in tone. Iron Man is entertaining and light-hearted even as it considers the moral cost of the U.S.'s current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Along with Incredible Hulk, it begins building a cinematic version of the Marvel universe. Comic books may be struggling in print, but cinematic and direct-to-DVD adaptations are thriving.

Dark Knight is a brooding rumination on the human struggle between order and chaos, freedom and justice. I'd say that Iron Man is still one of the most fun movies so far this year, but in terms of strong acting, a high-quality script and production, and a decisive if dark tone, Dark Knight rules. I'd give it an 8 or 9 out of 10, or an A-.

After the movie, Thomas, Janice, and I had dinner at TGI Friday's. I'll try to blog later in the week about more genre entertainment.