REVIEW: The Dark Knight

The last Batman movie I saw in the theater was 1995’s Batman Forever, starring Val Kilmer. That was actually the first Batman movie I ever enjoyed (helped, no doubt, by the Superman-style opening credits, the mention of Metropolis, and Nicole Kidman, who has never looked better than she did as Dr. Chase Meridian).

I hated Michael Keaton’s two turns as the character, in 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns. I found Kilmer convincing as the Caped Crusader, and I was not thrilled with the casting of George Clooney in the role on the next film, so I skipped out on 1997’s Batman & Robin (apparently a lot of other people skipped that one, too).

When a new Batman movie hit theaters in 2005, with then-unknown Christian Bale in the title role, I was only barely aware of it. A reboot with a younger guy playing Batman, where they tell his origins yet again? Boring, I thought, so I did not bother to see Batman Begins in the theater.

Yes, I am an idiot. I have admitted that many times in this space. I finally saw Batman Begins in 2006 on DVD, sometime after seeing Superman Returns in the theater. I needed a DC superhero fix and Superman Returns had not yet hit DVD.

Batman Begins blew me away. Finally, a Batman movie I could really get behind. I watched Batman Forever again after that, but my former favorite did not hold a candle to Batman Begins.

Though Batman Begins and Superman Returns earned about the same figures at the box office, director Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins is often regarded as a “surprise hit” while some continue to call director Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns a “box office disappointment.”

For Nolan, this meant that he was able to proceed relatively quickly with a sequel, The Dark Knight, keeping most of his cast intact. I consider three years the perfect interval between entries in movie series, and The Dark Knight hits this advantage perfectly. The Superman Returns sequel, sadly, is still stuck in development.

Conventional wisdom for superhero movies has it that the first sequel is always better than the original. Most think that 1980’s Superman II is better than 1978’s Superman. Many believe that 2004’s Spider-Man 2 is better than 2002’s Spider-man. (I actually disagree on both counts, but we are not talking about me here. My wisdom is anything but conventional.)

At the beginning of this year, I was definitely psyched to see The Dark Knight – especially after watching its early preview trailers. I must admit, though, that the death of Heath Ledger, who plays the Joker in the film, dampened a lot of my enthusiasm. It is hard to get excited about a movie that features the final completed performance of a talented actor who died before his time.

Besides, Batman Begins is a tough act to follow. Could The Dark Knight even match its predecessor in quality, much less improve upon it? Walking into The Dark Knight this morning, I realized that I was two for two in summer movies so far. Both Indiana Jones and Get Smart failed to let me down. I wondered if I was due for a disappointment.

In The Dark Knight, Batman continues his loose alliance with Gotham police Lieutenant Gordan (Gary Oldman). The duo also brings Gotham district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) into the fold. As the trio seeks to rid Gotham of crime, the Joker similarly teams up with the city’s organized crime bosses, ostensibly to rid Gotham of Batman.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. Seriously, Gyllenhaal’s channeling of Holmes, who declined to reprise her Batman Begins role for the sequel, is uncanny. In fact, the transition is even more seamless than Dick Sargent taking over Dick York’s role of Darrin Stephens on Bewitched. If Holmes were not a former star, I would never have noticed the change.

So, how does The Dark Knight stack up against Batman Begins? Somehow, it is even better. Like Star Wars (1977), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Dark Knight is one of those extremely rare movies where every single piece falls together just right.

The story is intricate and captivating, without being too convoluted. Nolan establishes a dark mood, yet makes room for occasional humor to keep audiences from falling too far into the dreariness. Editing is tight and extremely well-paced. There are no “slow” parts that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Every actor gives a convincing, top-notch performance. Ledger takes the Joker farther into insanity than any previous performer, yet manages not to seem over the top.

All of the visual effects are impeccable. There are no effect guffaws to pull you out of the movie. While I am sure they made extensive use of CGI, there are none of those “Why did they use CGI here?” or “That looks really fake” moments that plague so many movies these days. Composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard are right up there with John Williams and James Horner in my book, and their score here is as perfect as the rest of the movie.

The only fault I can find with the entire movie is that Batman’s voice occasionally sounds like that of McGruff the Crime Dog. In at least two scenes, I thought for sure Batman was going to say, “Help me take a bite out of crime.” This is an admittedly minor quibble. He also had a McGruff scene in Batman Begins, so at least he is consistent.

The best thing about both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is that the two films are so grounded in reality. They do not repeat the critical mistakes of many comic book movies, that is making the entire world so unlike our own that we cannot relate. Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and the best Superman movies all work because they place our heroes and villains within an otherwise “normal” world.

I need to see The Dark Knight a few more times to see how it holds up on repeat viewings. Superman remains my favorite superhero, but can The Dark Knight edge out Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) as the best superhero movie of all time ? Maybe a superhero movie this incredible can only come along once every thirty years. I am glad I was there both times.

Story: 10 (out of 10)
Performances: 10
Visual Style: 10
Effects: 10
Music: 10
Overall: 10