“This is what you call raising the bar. Christopher Nolan sprung from Batman Begins like a man possessed — possessed with the idea of showing exactly how a city crumbles, how hope vanishes, how evil can win even as it loses. I’ve heard Batman: The Dark Knight described lots of different ways — it’s either the Godfather or the Citizen Kane of comic films — but I prefer this: it’s like Seven, but with a cape. And, honestly, I can’t pay a higher compliment.” (Entertainment Weekly)
It’s fair to say I’m not a superhero fan. The Spiderman trilogy did nothing for me, the Fantastic Four gave me indigestion, the X-Men were embarrassing to watch, Superman should have never been made… and the less said about Joel Schumacher’s approach to Batman (Batman Forever, Batman & Robin), the better. On the other hand, I did like Ang Lee’s introspective Hulk movie, and Tim Burton’s surreal approach to Batman (Batman, Batman Returns). These were character films, tragic as much as comic — schizophrenic, artistic, with enough lurid ambiguity in the hero to please an elitist like me.
But nothing compares to the new Batman films (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) by Christopher Nolan, who has given the genre a complete overhaul and proven that superheroes can be about more than nerdy escapism. According to some critics, in fact, The Dark Knight isn’t even suitable for kids (I would have loved it as a kid, but don’t trust me: you’re looking at someone who saw The Exorcist when he was 11.) It’s not just the violence, but the kind of violence, even the sadomasochistic kind. More than this, there’s an inner crushing spiral of despair. The Dark Knight is almost an anti-hero film, showing how vigilantes escalate terror in the name of combating it. This was foreshadowed at the end of the first film, and now comes the payoff, as archetypes like the Joker and Two-Face are born out of perverse emulation for the “hero”. By the end it’s clear that Batman is more a problem than a solution, and that Gotham City hasn’t a whisper of hope.
The hype for The Dark Knight has centered around Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, a cold-blooded maniac who likes to put a smile on people with his knives, blow up hospitals and ferry boats, and burn mountains of money he goes to the trouble of robbing from Gotham’s banks. He’s a masochist too. The scene where Batman is beating the daylights out of him in a police interrogation room captures the essence of the film as good as any other. Here we have the hero giving in to self-righteous fury, torturing a prisoner, while the victim completely gets off on it. Forget Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the Tim Burton film (which was actually pretty good); Ledger takes the character to a new level entirely. Nicholson attacked Gotham’s residents through hairspray and makeup, laughing like a hyena all the way. Ledger is a real-life terrorist and serial killer — and his Joker-laughter much more disciplined — with no camp at all.
The films are entertaining, with all the action and showdowns we expect from superhero films, but also deep enough to warrant the various comparisons to The Godfather, Citizen Kane, and Seven. The sequel in particular breaks formula in so many ways. Batman Begins was about the politics of fear, while The Dark Knight is about the destruction of hope itself. In the first, Bruce Wayne overcame guilt and phobia to save Gotham City from being destroyed “for its own good” (by a centuries-old organization that sacked Rome and burned London when they reached similar pinnacles of crime and decadence). Now he struggles against worse monsters he’s called into existence, in the end hunted by Gotham’s police as the worst monster of all.
Rating: 5 stars out of 5.