There’s a comic book called Watchmen. The story was about a group of superheroes who were forced into retirement by an ungrateful society but must become active again when they start getting killed off one by one. Its characters were complex, its morality also. The narrative weaved romance, family drama, conspiracy theories, cold war nuclear brinksmanship and apocalyptic megalomania in an effortless and remarkably authentic way. Ancient myths and legends were as prevalent as modern history; Alexander the Great shared equal significance with Richard Nixon. And the extraordinary ambition of this 12-issue comic book was fulfilled so completely that it not only became one of the most highly regarded comic books ever made, but routinely transcends its medium, with the likes of Time magazine including Watchmen in their ’100 Greatest English Language Novels from 1923 to the Present’.
The Dark Knight does for the comic book movie what Watchmen did for the comic book.
From the opening scene, The Dark Knight offers something new. Gone is the benign threat of the surreal, dark, and cavernous Gotham that we’ve come to expect. Brutal daylight now floods a real cityscape and within these familiar streets a bank robbery is going down. The anonymous perpetrators wear grimy clown masks but conduct themselves with disquieting professionalism as they steal and, once their roles are complete, efficiently slaughter each other. In the end one man remains and he escapes, disguised, amongst school buses, leaving us behind to languish, scared, bewildered and wondering why we’ve been denied the safety of a fantasy setting.
The Dark Knight starts as it means to go on. This bleak realism also defines the plot. Lt Gordon and Batman are continuing in their pact to bring down Gotham’s mobsters and seek an incorruptible prosecutor to secure convictions. District Attorney Harvey Dent seems to be their man. His popularity and transparent quest for justice could also make him the hero that makes Batman and his shadowy antics unnecessary. However, as established in Batman Begins, the idea of escalation takes hold and just as bullet-proof vests provoke armour-piercing bullets, the presence of a righteous, costumed crime-fighter invites theatrical villains to Gotham, as well as copycat vigilantes. The Joker soon eclipses the gangsters whose desire for profit and power was reassuringly understandable, and his unpredictable, anarchic schemes plunge the city into fear and panic. And with that, the best laid plans of bats and men go awry.
The Joker is formidable. His deeds are destructive and malicious but, worryingly, they have a certain logic to them. He doesn’t come with an origin story. Were we furnished with a back story, we could point to a trauma and explain his venom. As it is, he is pure and all the more terrifying for it. But though this void in his background could make the Joker into a two-dimensional proxy for evil, that’s not what happens. Thanks to the late Heath Ledger, the Joker becomes something much more tangible. His performance is offbeat, charismatic, twitchy, confident, think Richard Nixon without the brooding anger or dithering weasely mannerisms. Somehow Ledger manages to humanise the Joker. And it’s this feat that will, for many people, turn Ledger’s death from a peripheral regret into a real sense of loss.
As for the rest of the cast, there are no complaints. Christian Bale has less to work with this time round, but remains competent as Batman and charming as Bruce Wayne. Morgan Freeman humbly performs a small role but is greatly rewarded as he recaptures that knowing dignity that endeared us to him in The Shawshank Redemption and which he lost in recent bananas like The Bucket List and Evan Almighty. Similarly, Michael Caine exudes avuncular warmth and is the only dependable source of love, kindness and wisdom in this desolate film. Gary Oldman builds his role as Lt James Gordon and brings yet more quiet determination as the pure but pragmatic policeman. And Aaron Eckhart does good work as Harvey Dent, allowing his too-perfect looks to undercut his bombastic, righteous performance to give a suitable uneasiness about his character.
What makes The Dark Knight so special is its ambition. The characters are so convincingly rendered that the events that follow make perfect sense. The plot races ahead at a thrilling pace, unwilling to condescend to the audience or waste precious storytelling time. And all this culminates in what is essentially a spectacular morality tale. Questions of ethics pervade Batman’s vigilantism; Gordon must lie for the greater good; the Joker has his nihilistic philosophy; and Harvey Dent has trouble believing in moral absolutes when everyone else seems to be playing by different rules. Believe it or not, this comic book movie has a definite smartness to it that’s not been attempted before in the genre. And if the already acclaimed and hugely profitable The Dark Knight has a legacy, let it be more thought-provoking Hollywood blockbusters.