Warner Bros. // 2008 // 153 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // December 9th, 2008
Welcome to a world without rules.
If you're a fan of The Dark Knight and looking to be floored by a DVD presentation to have and to hold...this ain't it.
In the wake of Ra's Al Ghul's attack on Gotham, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is spending more and more time in his Batgear, vigilantly defending the city he loves from a growing number of unstable criminals, by whatever means necessary. At the same time, Captain Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his Gotham Major Crimes Unit are fighting the good fight above board (or so he thinks), while rising District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) has become the city's beacon of hope in an ever darkening time. Enter the Joker (Heath Ledger), who wants nothing more than to introduce a bit of anarchy to the party, by turning this little tempest-in-a-teapot city upside down and shaking it until all the major players fall flat on their face. He has no agenda, no modus operandi, no coherent backstory, and no known associates. So, if you're the Batman, how do you take down a whack job who's begging to be taken down and has nothing to lose?
Let me preface this analysis by stating for the record that I am a Bat-fan. From growing up with afternoon reruns of the Adam West/Burt Ward series to devouring the printed works of Denny O'Neil, Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, and Norm Breyfogle throughout the '80s and '90s, I knew these characters and their world. Or so I thought. I was there for the midnight premiere of Tim Burton's big screen adaptation in June 1989 and amazed that Hollywood had finally done this hero justice. Despite my initial disappointment with Batman Returns in the summer of '92, just two months later my mind was blown, while watching rough cuts of "On Leather Wings" and "Heart of Ice" from Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski's forthcoming Batman: The Animated Series. What turned out to be three seasons of must see TV and a fantastic feature film in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, sadly gave way to Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, sending me back to the comics where creators like Jeff Loeb and Tim Sale were taking the Bat universe in bold new directions. Then along comes Chris Nolan, who dug deep and gave us a cinematic Bruce Wayne we'd never see before in Batman Begins, the first half of which could have been an entire movie unto itself. The film caught many people by surprise and a character most felt had seen his better big screen days was once again a hot property. When Nolan began pre-production on The Dark Knight, it ignited an viral fervor the likes of which superhero films had never seen. So much so that by the time the film opened, theatres were sold out days and weeks in advance, with IMAX tickets selling on eBay for ridiculous prices, thus blurring the line between rabid organic fandom and brilliantly manufactured needs that would make Abraham Maslow's head explode.
I say all that to tell you this: Despite shattering box office records, making grown adults weep, and being annointed by many as the greatest superhero film or comic book adaptation ever made, I wasn't all that impressed.
Nolan is at his best when it comes to laying out the foundation of a story, putting easily overlooked elements into play early on, while cultivating the main plot and patiently waiting for the smaller ones to bear fruit -- e.g. Rachel, Gordon's team. But what his setup ultimately lacks is the mind-fraking visual impact of an Alfred Hitchcock and the guttural human darkness of Marty Scorcese. Both are emulated but never fully realized here. This is a problem with modern, studio-budgeted Hollywood. We're so busy trying to recreate or one-up the best elements of past cinematic experiences that we forget the inherent genius of blazing our own trails. Nolan did that amazingly well with Memento, but fails to utilize those skills here. For example, when the story cries out for humor to balance the scales, we instead go deeper into the abyss, with action, car chases, gun play, and massive explosions. It's what today's audiences expect from summer blockbusters, but sadly not what they or the medium need to grow. Pixar took the classic Disney model and brought us to wondrous new places through exceptional stories that drive the visuals. Why can't we do the same with the action genre, without going faster, louder, and more in our face? As movie lovers, we prefer to be astounded by our time in the dark, not beaten to within an inch of our life. That's what nightmares, haunted houses, and Eli Roth films are for. Nolan would have been better served by heeding the advice of his own antagonist...
"Do you wanna know why I use a knife? Guns are too quick. You can't savor all the...little emotions."
In redefining the superhero film by overloading our senses, we lose the subtle nuances that make the cinematic experience so powerful. Harvey Dent's story is far more interesting than another action set piece, and yet his journey is short changed by a James Bond Hong Kong sojourn and a Ferry Boat mind game, both of which could have easily been set aside for another film. We witness Joker deliciously give birth to Two-Face, but like an insurance shortened convalescence, we don't get to fully enjoy the fruits of his twisted labors. I don't fault Chris for wanting to do something grander and more impressive with this film, but are you doing it for the sake of the spectacle or to tell a better story?
As a classically trained violinist, I loved to sink my teeth into great pieces -- Beethoven, Holst, Dvorak -- where the strings would cut loose and drive the full symphony orchestra right over the edge. But whenever the hive would lose control, my favorite conductor would chide us by saying, "Fast is good. Loud is better. Fast and Loud are best!" And that's exactly what happens here. Nolan and company become enamored of the fever pitch they've created. Sure, the audience is swept up in its wake, but the story ultimately suffers as a result. I've now seen The Dark Knight four times and the replayability of it has worn thin. Contrast that with Batman Returns, a film I walked out of the theatre hating. But as the years passed, I kept discovering layers of emotion and conflict within the characters and the tale. It's a quiet film with great intensity. The Dark Knight is a loud film whose broodingly intense hero but for just a moment or two gets the chance to elevate his game and battle a villain the likes of which he's never seen. And in the end, we're left with a hero who's even more broken and disillusioned than when we began the tale.
An interesting side note: The Batman cinematic mythos grows with the introduction of Gordon's son, a character with very limited play in the DC Universe (as a kidnapped infant in the climax of Frank Miller's Batman: Year One). Could this be the Nolans forshadowing the boy becoming Robin, who in at least two incarnations had family members murdered by Two-Face -- Dick's parents in Batman Forever, and Tim's father in the retooled third season of Batman: The Animated Series? Here, his apparent concern for and admiration of The Batman, combined with his helplessness at the hands of Harvey, would presumably drive him to emulate his hero and thus redeem Bruce from his years of living dangerously as Gotham's outlaw. Whether or not that actually happens, remains to be seen, but it may be an intriguing path to follow, even if the boy never dons the uniform.
For those of you who have already tuned out or whose ire has been raised by my assessment, I'm not declaring a hatred for The Dark Knight, only disappointment. There's still plenty to be impressed with. From the production design to the location shoots, Gotham has been given a very '70s Dog Day Afternoon feel. Much grittier and less stylized than Batman Begins, we're drawn into the grim reality of this world. Unlike the hyper-reality of Burton and Shumacher, we almost believe that these heroes and villains can exist. Of course, much of that is owed to the skill of the cast. Aaron Eckhart and Gary Oldman pull off exceptional performances, creating characters we can't seem to get enough of. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are solid contributors as well, extending their grounding presence as Bruce's surrogate parents, with Alfred filling the mother role and Lucius as the father. And then there's Heath. Walking that fine line between full embodiment and "actor out of control," I often found myself studying his infinite number of choices while ignoring everything else around him. From facial ticks to speech patterns, from physicality to the internal monologue that plays out behind the eyes, this performance is a master class for actors. Do I believe the Academy will honor him with an Oscar? Probably not, but they may well pay tribute with a nomination, and deservedly so. What Johnny Depp did for Captain Jack Sparrow, Heath Ledger has done for The Joker. Both are legendary characters who will live on and entertain generations to come. On a side note: Points deducted for Maggie Gyllenhaal's Non compos mentis turn in a role that holds little value, and for Christian Bale's choice to use that ridiculous voice in the Batsuit. Kevin Conroy will forever be the one true voice of Batman.
As for the presentation, the 2.40 anamorphic widescreen transfer appears darker than I remember in the theatre, one of the drawbacks of watching the film during daylight hours -- something I don't recommend. With more exterior day shots than Batman Begins, we get to absorb more of the film's color palate, revealing a filthy, unwashed cityscape, in desperate need of a makeover. Much like what Bruce and Eric did with Batman: The Animated Series, Nolan and his team have graced the franchise with more of a timeless feel. This Gotham is modern yet antiquated, without ever being dated. The CGI is almost completely seamless, except for when Harvey's bandages are removed and then all bets are off. But even up close on a smaller screen, the magic of the imagery is not lost. You will still feel overwhelmed by the action and drown in the characters despair. This of course is amped by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's wildly experimental score, which kicks your home theatre system into overdrive when the pace of the story accelerates. Yet when the action dies down, the sound is quite front heavy and the dialogue somewhat swallowed up at times. You'll want to keep the remote handy to adjust accordingly.
Here's the real travesty of this release. Warner Bros. appears to drop the ball on the bonus features, but it's all part of the master plan -- strike while the holidays are hot and wait to reveal your true hand until the time is right. Don't get suckered in. Here's all they're offering on this two-disc Special Edition:
Sound of Anarchy -- Chris and Hans talk about crafting a score for the Joker that people will hate -- razor blades on strings, infused with punk minimalism. It's a quiet, experimental descent into insanity and mayhem. (6:30)
Evolution of the Knight -- Chris and his production team talk about raising the bar. The suit's armor uses high tech sportswear as the model and the story to drive the changes. The Bat-accessories are all grounded in real science and applications. The Batpod (cycle) was crafted from the ground up, where design inspires hair-pulling engineering and real world development through testing. Much more practical locations than soundstage sets. Shooting in IMAX pushed every department beyond its limits. (17:30)
The IMAX Sequences -- All six IMAX scenes: The bank heist (Prologue); Retrieving Lau (Hong Kong); The armored car chase on Lower Wacker; Protecting Reese (Lamborghini Crash); The clowns are the hostages (The Prewitt Building); Batman the hunted (The Dark Knight) -- shown in their original aspect ratio. They're less impressive on your screen than in the IMAX theatre, obviously.
Gotham Tonight -- Six episodes of the fictional news mag Gotham Tonight, featuring Mike Engel (Anthony Michael Hall) and Lydia Filangeri. Yawn. No real value here. Just be glad we didn't have to sit through these in the theatre.
Poster Art and Product Stills
Three Theatrical Trailers
There you have it. Bland menus and EPK-style bonus features foretell the coming of an "Ultimate Collector's Edition" in the form of the recent 300 and I Am Legend double dips. If you absolutely have to have The Dark Knight for Christmas, get the single-disc release. Otherwise, enjoy a rental or on-demand and wait until early next year for the purchase. By then, you may even have a Blu-ray player, which is how this film deserves to be seen anyway.
Guilty of giving the masses want they want instead of what they need. It'll wow you, but you may not like yourself when the buzz finally wears off.
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 153 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* IMAX scenes
* Digital Copy
* Official Site